The deaths of Dereham and Culpepper

Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper were executed on 10 December 1541 for treason; one for the treason of sleeping with with King Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katheryn Howard, before she was married and the other for flirting with her with the intent to canoodle.

I am always bothered when I think of the death of Dereham. He was the only man other than Henry VIII that Katheryn Howard had sex with and he died horribly in retaliation for his teenage nookie. Dereham  and Katheryn were a serious item back when she lived at  Agnes Howard, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s estate, and he and repeatedly begged her to marry him. Katheryn  didn’t feel as intensely for him. She liked him well enough and seems to have liked having sex with him, but she didn’t think she wanted to get married yet.

She wasn’t doing anything that usual, either. Many of the young women and girls who shared the dormitory at Agnes Howard’s home with her also had serious boyfriends. The ladies bribed the dowager’s maid to bring them the key to their door and at night, when they were supposed to be sleeping, they opened their door and allowed their suitors to come inside and woo them. The various boyfriends would bring alcoholic beverages and treats and there was lots of clandestine sex in the dark.

Clearly the abstinence only method of sex education to prevent teens having sex worked as poorly then as it does now.

Katheryn and Dereham were eventually busted, and he was sent away to Ireland. Katheryn, rather than pining for he former lover, jumped at the chance of going to Henry’s court when it was offered to her. There she attracted the eye of the king, who married her in the summer of 1540. He was a good 30 years older than her, morbidly obese, and had put-oozing ulcers on his legs. I am guessing she married him for the money, security, high status, and to benefit the who Howard family, rather than because she was madly in love with a smelly old man.

She still liked to flirt, even as a married queen. She struck up a romance with Thomas Culpepper and would meet him secretly. Later they would both swear they never consummated their attraction.

Henry found out about her “past” with Dereham and her present with Culpepper. He threw a fit over the fact she 1) had not been a virgin when he married her and 2) liked Culpepper better. All of them were condemned to die for treason.

Dereham executed was a traitor, with all the macabre tortures that entailed. Dereham was hauled off to Tyburn on a cart, hanged until he was semi-conscious, revived until he was aware of what was happening to him, then disemboweled, beheaded, and his corpse was cut into four pieces. His only crime was the fact he had sex with Katheryn when she was still living with her step-grandmother, long before she met the king. He was tortured to death simply because Henry had not married a virgin. Dereham had ‘gotten’ the Queen’s maidenhead, ‘depriving’ her elderly and decrepit husband of that ‘prize’. The idea rankled in the king’s heart until he could only be comforted by Dereham’s ghastly death. It was, like much of what Henry did in the last few years of his life, grossly unfair.

I’m less sorry for Culpepper. I am positively glad he died. Why? Because he was probably the same Thomas Culpepper who had raped a woman and killed one of her would-be rescuers, only 6to be pardoned by the king. Henry may have been willing to pardon him for rape and murder, but not for the crime of a flirtation with the king’s wife. Culpepper was, irrationally, given an easier death. Thanks to his high status in society and Henry’s strangely enduring favor he was merely beheaded. It was a quick and easy death for the only man to have wooed Katheryn who had actually committed treason against the king. I admit that there is some satisfaction in the fact that, at last, Culpepper was being punished. In light of the fact he was a rapist and murderer his execution seems almost justified. Was the woman that he had raped and the family of his murder victim in the crowd gathered to watch his execution? I hope so, and I hope it brought them some measure of solace.

Katheryn herself would remain in the Tower until her own execution in February of 1542.

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