Why Did Catherine Howard Not Get Pregnant?

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A Brief History

In having his marriage Anne of Cleves annulled and immediately marrying Catherine Howard, Henry VIII committed his biggest marital blunder following his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.  By leaving Anne of Cleves, he left perhaps his most suitable wife after Catherine for the least suitable one of them all!

Digging Deeper

Nowadays Catherine Howard would be considered little more than a school girl, but she did not even have that going for her as reading and writing provided her great difficulty, her education having been sorely neglected.  In fact, despite being the granddaughter of a duke, not only was so little attention shown her upbringing as the daughter of a “lesser” son, but her birth was so insignificant that no one even bothered recording it, or at least bothered saving the record for posterity.  Thus, it is unknown if this “school girl” was just 15 or even as old as 20 when she married Henry in 1540.

Receiving no attention from her relatives, the pretty girl easily fell prey to young men who worked in her step-grandmother’s, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s, household where she roomed with all the other insignificant Howard girls (the family certainly knew how to proliferate), and so rather than having her intellect fostered, she honed in on her sexual attractiveness to the opposite sex.  And this “skill,” of course, benefitted her by helping her catch the eye of the King who was repulsed by his current wife’s lack of graces.  In other words, with little supervision, she developed into a little flirt or, harshly put, a harlot.

Hand selected among the Howard girls, her family must have been aware that she had sex appeal, and she was strategically placed in the Queen’s household as it was becoming apparent that Henry VIII was dissatisfied with his wife.  For everything else she might have lacked, she was carefully instructed, with the goal being to place a Howard on the throne.  The gamble paid off, and Henry married her. 

Henry, who could not bring himself to sleep with Anne of Cleves was so smitten with his new wife that he called her his “rose without a thorn” and despite being grossly overweight with an infected leg that oozed pus, he supposedly was able to make love to her.  If he, however, did in fact manage to perform sexually, he might have noticed that she was no longer a virgin.  There is no mention in any history books that he doubted her “integrity” before the rumors of her infidelity started, and he continued to praise her until her adulterous character was exposed less than 2 years later, so it may be possible that he truly was never able to do “it.”  If Catherine Howard was able to “revive” him in the short term, he probably eventually went limp in the long run.

Before becoming queen, there had been at least 2 young men in the Dowager Duchess’ household, music teacher Henry Mannox and secretary Francis Dereham, with whom Catherine had relations of some sort or another, and she famously had an affair with Thomas Culpeper, Gentleman to the King’s Privy Chamber, while married to Henry.  So, how did this young woman who came from a very fertile family (her grandfather, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, had roughly 20 children by 2 wives; she herself was one of at least 11 children), manage to avoid pregnancy?

In those days, highborn women did not have children out of wedlock.  It may have happened, but the women were usually sent away to religious orders to hide their fruitful transgressions (Many noble families sent their daughters away to be nuns, supposedly to not have to support them or provide a dowry upon marriage.  This is probably only partially correct…). 

To avoid being sent away or causing scandal for their families, noble women probably resorted to crude forms of contraception such as placing a rock in the vaginal cavity to block the opening to the cervix, something that might cause infection and scarring of the tissues.  Maybe by the time Catherine became Queen, it was not just Henry who was infertile.

At any rate, her family soon noticed after her marriage that she was not becoming pregnant, and some fictional depictions suggest that they advised her to take a lover to impregnate her and help secure her position, as their fortunes were riding on hers.  Maybe that is why Catherine allowed Thomas Culpeper into her bed.  With an ailing, obese cripple for a husband who was approximately 30 years older than her, she probably also longed for the young, virile men she had dallied with under her step-grandmother’s not so careful watchful eye.  Again the question might be asked, why did she not become pregnant?  Either she, herself, was indeed infertile, or she was keeping up with the contraceptives because she knew her husband was impotent and despite her lack of formal education, she was still smart enough to realize she would not be able to convince the King that he had fathered a child of hers, in other words, place a cuckoo in the nest.

As it was, the ghosts of her past were beginning to come out of the dark to haunt her.  One of her former lovers used extortion to receive a position at court, and rumors of her indiscretions began making the rounds and were received with much devilish joy by the Protestant faction that wished to bring down the Catholic Howards.  When word reached Henry that his “rose without a thorn” had in fact been poked many times and even by one of his favorite and most trusted courtiers, he broke down and allowed all those involved to be interrogated and subsequently executed.

In a last ditch effort to save her life, Catherine managed to escape from her house arrest and ran screaming down a corridor to speak to her husband and beg his forgiveness.  The guards caught up to her, however, and she was dragged away.  She was later beheaded in the Tower of London and buried next to her cousin, Anne Boleyn.  Her family, having now lost 2 daughters, one to the sword and one to the axe, fell from favor, with its leading members, a duke and an earl, eventually imprisoned.

Unlike Anne Boleyn who died in her 30s, Catherine Howard died probably still a teenager, a teenager who played out of her league against forces too powerful for her.

For all of her unsuitability as queen, one, however, still feels sorry for her, as she appears to have been a young, neglected, fun-seeking girl who was used by her family as a political pawn and whose only whose crime appears to be that she sought warmth and companionship through sex.  In the end, she is simply one of six women who had the misfortune of marrying Henry VIII.

Of course, there is no actual evidence that Catherine and Thomas Culpeper had committed adultery.  Both denied it, and Thomas only confessed under torture.  The real reason why Catherine never became pregnant might actually be quite simple – in an ironic twist, perhaps the alleged “Messalina of the Tudor Court” did not have enough sex!

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Historical Evidence

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About Author

Beth Michaels

Beth Michaels attended a private college in Northeast Ohio from which she earned a Bachelor’s degree in German with a minor in French. From there she moved to Germany where she attended the University of Heidelberg for two years. Additional schooling earned her certifications as a foreign language correspondent and state-certified translator. In her professional career, Beth worked for a leading German manufacturer of ophthalmological medical instruments and devices as a quality representative, regulatory affairs manager and internal auditor.