Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, was the third stepmother Elizabeth had known. Catherine and Elizabeth shared another connection, they were first cousins once removed; Catherine’s father, Edmund Howard was the brother of Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Howard, later Boleyn.
Historians have long highlighted the close relationship between Catherine and Elizabeth; but what has led to this view?
The most trustworthy source of information about their relationship is the records preserved in ‘Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII’ (hereafter ‘Letters & Papers’). This immense, 21 volume collection of the official records and letters relating to Henry VIII’s reign is one of the main sources for all our information about this period of history.
Records for the 5th May, 1541, show that Catherine arranged for Elizabeth to travel to Chelsea Palace, and she met her young cousin and stepdaughter there the next day. It is unclear how long they spent together, or how they spent their time, but it is touching to think that Catherine, then at least 16 years old – Catherine’s age is still a matter of debate amongst historians – and queen of England, went to such lengths to spend time with her 7 year old cousin.
Catherine’s affection for Elizabeth can also be seen in the gifts she gave her. In November of that year, after Catherine’s arrest, an inventory was taken of all the jewellery she had received from Henry upon their marriage. Records show that she gave a jewel ‘to lady Elizabeth, the King’s daughter, being …of little thing worth.’ Catherine also had ‘23 pairs of beads minutely described, with crosses, pillars, and tassels attached. One is marked as given by the Queen to lady Elizabeth, the King’s daughter.’
These are the indisputable sources. We also have some later accounts which are generally considered to be fairly reliable. The main one is 17th century Italian historian Gregorio Leti. Though Leti did somewhat romanticise his history, particularly the life story of Anne Boleyn, he did seem to have access to English documents no longer extant. In his history of Elizabeth I, the first to be written, he emphasised the relationship between the two.
Leti emphasised the importance Catherine placed on their blood connection; he wrote that upon her presentation to the court as Henry’s queen, she ‘directed that the princess Elizabeth should be placed opposite to her at table, because she was of her own blood and lineage.’ If true, this was quite a bold move, reminding Henry of her connection with the reviled Anne Boleyn! Leti further writes that throughout the times Elizabeth was at court, Catherine ‘gave the lady Elizabeth the place of honour nearest to her own person.’
These stories might be embellishments, but at the very least they build upon a connection that already comes through in the records in ‘Letters & Papers.’
There is one other account which may speak to their relationship. Whilst we have no contemporary evidence about Elizabeth’s reaction to Catherine’s shocking arrest and execution, there is a hint of it from later in her life. In 1566, the French ambassador wrote that Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s favourite and childhood friend, recalled that she had said since she was 8 years old that she would never marry. Elizabeth was 8 when Catherine was arrested and executed, and it is difficult to believe that Elizabeth could have been thinking of anything other than her cousin’s fate when making this declaration. Of course, this story might be false; Dudley certainly had an interest in scaring off any French suitors. Nevertheless, it would make sense that the death of Catherine, her cousin, friend, and stepmother, would have a profound impact upon Elizabeth, and perhaps influenced her decision to remain the Virgin Queen.