originally published August 25, 2014
When one is granted access to the inner circle of England’s royal family, allowed to mingle with the most upper of crusts and graced with the juiciest insider knowledge of the most important goings-on in the British Empire, rule number one would have to be: DON’T BANG THE QUEEN. You can miss a bow, accidentally utter a commoner’s curse-word or even blast a foul note on your five-foot-long horn whilst heralding the king’s grand entrance, but seriously… DON’T BANG THE QUEEN.
This sage piece of what should be unspoken advice never slithered past the cranium of Thomas Culpeper. Here was a man with more political power than practically anyone else in the nation, yet he couldn’t keep it in his pantaloons in the presence of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard.
What could possess a man to lay his life on the line in this way? He could have conceivably scored with any single woman in court – hell, even the other married women would have been less of a personal gamble – but it was Catherine who turned his proverbial crank. Perhaps it was a glinty-eyed lust for women in power (a fetish that would have been tricky to satisfy in those backward days). Maybe he was a masochist. Or it could be that Catherine was just that beautiful.
Thomas Culpeper was the second son of three. His older brother was also named Thomas, so clearly their parents suffered from a horrific drought of imagination. Thomas (and also, presumably, Thomas) never had to scrape his way into high society; the family was of noble stock and the boys were quick to land jobs as advisors (or courtiers) of various noble-folk around the country. He got along famously with Henry VIII, and wormed his way into the royal inner circle in his early 20’s.
When a park-keeper’s wife was raped and a villager murdered, Thomas was accused of the crime. Or maybe it was Thomas – in this instance, the brothers having identical names helped to confuse matters significantly, which could only have helped the case of whichever one actually perpetrated the misdeeds. A pardon was given, because as helpful as a little confusion may be, having a king in one’s pocket is a gold-plated Get Out Of Jail Free card.
Thomas was eventually promoted to keeper of the armory, and then to Gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber, meaning he’d dress and undress the king, and often sleep in the same room. This may have been the sweetest gig in the palace, as it meant having the king’s attention for more hours per week than even the queen. He received property and goodies for this gig, and earned a seat of political influence with Henry that no one else on the planet would possess, unless they had an army behind them.
It was in this role that Thomas first laid eyes upon Catherine Howard, who had arrived at the palace as part of the posse who tended to Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife. Catherine focused her womanly magic on the King – she wanted to land the big fish. The fish in question was practically available too; he’d never really been swept away with Anne, and after a few months the marriage (which had apparently never been consummated) was annulled. Catherine and Henry tied the knot in July of 1540. It took her about nine months before she gave Thomas the once-over.
In March of 1541, Henry took a trip down to Dover, leaving Catherine alone at Greenwich. Around this time, Thomas and Catherine began meeting in private. Sure, they were seventh cousins once-removed, but I doubt their chats had much to do with catching up on family business. Lady Rochford, Catherine’s lady-in-waiting, helped to arrange the clandestine conferences betwixt the two.
It should be noted that we have no definitive evidence that the two were soiling the royal sheets. We know they met, and we know the sessions were very much on the down-low. All we have to attest to the content of these get-togethers is a letter found in Thomas’s chamber, written by Catherine’s hand. While there is a tepid smolder to some of the prose (“I never longed so muche for [a] thynge as I do to se you and to speke wyth you” – hot stuff), historians aren’t totally certain the content wasn’t about Thomas’s political agenda. I don’t know. When I tell a woman I’m longing so muche for a thynge, it’s usually a prelude to foreplay.
This puckish little twit is Thomas Cranmer, then the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was he who began pulling at the thread of Catherine’s sex life. He was first digging into her pre-marital indiscretions, which included an extended romp with courtier Francis Dereham. Throughout the course of his snooping, someone tipped him off to the potentially scandalous rendezvous between the queen and Thomas Culpeper. Thomas was brought in for questioning, which is when they ransacked his room and found the letter. That damn letter.
That scrap of paper was the evidence that brought them both down. They both denied any wrongdoing, but this was an era in which not a lot of evidence was necessary to bring in a guilty verdict. King Henry was informed of Cranmer’s suspicions, and the stories linking Francis Dereham with Catherine in her days as a single lady caused the king to snap. He wanted Dereham found guilty. He wanted Culpeper found guilty. And he would most certainly not be made to look like a fool by a woman.
This was probably not going to end well for anyone.
The members of Catherine’s household all knew of the secret meetings between the two (maybe) lovers. Out of fear for their own lives, they quickly testified against the queen, claiming she seduced Thomas at Chenies Palace in Buckinghamshire, boinked him repeatedly at Hatfield House in Hetfordshire, and spent most of the summer of 1541 in Humping House at SexyTimeshire, if you catch my unforgivably clumsy meaning. The jig was up. Thomas Culpeper was not going to live to see 1542.
Neither was Francis Dereham – both were sentenced to being drawn and quartered and hanged. Both pled for mercy, but that was only granted to Thomas. And the “mercy” he received was the treat of not being drawn and quartered. Both men were hanged on December 10, with their heads plonked atop London Bridge as a warning to all of England’s citizenry: if you get the chance, even if you’re certain you’ll get away with it or slither out of trouble because of your status, your influence, or your brother’s identical name, DON’T BANG THE DAMN QUEEN!