Thomas Culpeper

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Thomas Culpeper (c. 1514 – 10 December 1541) was an English courtier and close friend of Henry VIII, and was related to two of his queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. He is known to have had many private meetings with Catherine during her marriage, though these may have involved political intrigue rather than sex. A letter to him was found, written by Queen Catherine and signed, "Yours as long as life endures." Accused of adultery with Henry's young consort, Culpeper denied it and blamed the Queen for the situation, saying that he had tried to end his friendship with her, but that she was "dying of love for him". Eventually, Culpeper admitted that he intended to sleep with the queen, though he never admitted to having actually done so.

Early life[edit]

Thomas Culpeper was the second of the three sons of Alexander Culpeper (d. 1541) of Bedgebury in Kent, and his second wife, Constance Harper. His elder brother, also named Thomas, was a client of Thomas Cromwell.[1] The brothers were known for collecting valuable items for the royal family during their time at court.[2] He was distantly related to the Howard family, who were immensely powerful at the time, being a distant cousin[3] of Joyce Culpeper, Catherine Howard's mother.

Royal service[edit]

Having bought the Higham Park estate at Bridge in Kent in 1534,[4] by 1535 Culpeper was acting for Viscount Lisle and his wife, Honor, during which time he collected a number of items for them. In 1538, Honor presented Culpeper with a hawk and during that same year, Culpeper worked with Richard Cromwell to obtain a hawk for King Henry VIII.[1]

Culpeper was described as "a beautiful youth" and he was a great favourite of Henry. Culpeper had major influence with the King and was often bribed to use his influence on others' behalf.[5] In 1539, a Thomas Culpeper was accused of raping a park-keeper's wife and then murdering a villager. However, there is a possibility that the rapist was Culpeper's elder brother, also called Thomas.[6] Due to similar names, some confusion between the brothers is possible. However, his elder brother Thomas (born around 1501), may have received a knighthood, as referenced on the Culpeper family tree. Whoever was the guilty party, through influence on the King, a pardon was given.[6] Culpeper was given the honour of being keeper of the armoury and Henry eventually made Culpeper a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, giving him intimate access to the King, as the role involved dressing and undressing Henry and often sleeping in his bedchamber. He was part of the group of privileged courtiers who greeted Henry's fourth wife Anne of Cleves when she arrived in England for her marriage.

From 1537–1541, Culpeper was given several gifts, including the office of keeper of the manor at Penshurst Palace and property in Kent, Essex, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.

Supposed affair with Catherine Howard[edit]

Catherine Howard's letter to Culpeper

In 1540, Culpeper caught the attention of Henry's young new bride, Catherine Howard, and by 1541 they were spending time together, often alone and late at night, aided and abetted by Catherine's lady-in-waiting, Lady Rochford, the widowed sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn. Culpeper had access to the Queen's apartments and often came into contact with the Queen and her attendants.[7] In March 1541 Henry went to Dover and left Catherine behind at Greenwich. At this time Culpeper began asking favours of Catherine. The private meetings between them are thought to have begun sometime around May of that same year. On these occasions only Lady Rochford and another lady-in-waiting, Katherine Tilney, were allowed entrance to the Queen's chamber.

On 30 June, Catherine and Henry travelled north on progress with the intention of meeting James V of Scotland at York. They arrived at Lincoln on 9 August, where Culpeper met Catherine for another secret meeting in her bedchamber. These meetings continued in Pontefract Castle, after the court arrived there on 23 August. It is believed that the letter Catherine sent to Culpeper was sent at this time.[1] In this letter she wished to know how he was, and is troubled that he is ill. Catherine also wrote: "I never longed so muche for [a] thynge as I do to se you and to speke wyth you, the wyche I trust shal be shortely now," and "my trust ys allway in you that you wolbe as you have promysed me..."[8]

These statements cause some to believe that their affair was not only one of passion, but also centred on Culpeper's political agenda. With Henry in poor health and only his young son Edward to succeed him; being Catherine's favourite would undoubtedly have put Culpeper in a very strong political position. As a well-liked member of the King's privy chamber he enjoyed a close relationship with Henry. If the promise Catherine mentioned was in reference to his possible knowledge about her previous sexual relationships, Culpeper could have used this as leverage to gain power and control over the Queen herself. In this specific letter Catherine states that she longs to talk with Culpeper but does not mention any desire to be intimate with him, although she does sign off with the dedication, "Yours as long as life endures".[1]

Accounts of the Queen's premarital indiscretions had meanwhile come to the attention of Thomas Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury. During Cranmer's investigations, he came across rumours of an affair between the Queen and Culpeper; Culpeper was soon arrested for questioning. Both he and the Queen denied the allegations, but the letter from Catherine to Culpeper, found during a search of Culpeper's rooms, provided the evidence for which Cranmer was looking. Whether the association between Culpeper and the Queen was ever consummated is still debated by historians, but the letter seems to give evidence of Catherine's feelings for Culpeper. Also in the letter was a reference to Lady Rochford.

Downfall and execution[edit]

Culpeper was arrested on orders from King Henry and, in December 1541, was tried for adultery alongside Francis Dereham, who was separately accused of adultery with the Queen before her marriage to Henry. Catherine had not hidden the affair with Culpeper from members of her household, who now testified against her to protect themselves.

The Queen was portrayed as having seduced Culpeper at Chenies Palace in Buckinghamshire. With testimony given of private meetings at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, and during the royal progress to the north of England, his fate was sealed.

Under interrogation, Culpeper admitted to intending to have sexual relations with Catherine and that she intended to sleep with him. Lady Rochford, however, stated in her interrogation that she believed that Culpeper had "known the Queen carnally."[9]

Both Culpeper and Dereham were found guilty and sentenced to death. They were both to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Both men pleaded for mercy; Culpeper, presumably because of his former closeness to the King, received a commuted sentence of simple beheading. Dereham did not.

Culpeper was executed along with Dereham at Tyburn on 10 December 1541,[7] and their heads were put on display on London Bridge. Culpeper was buried at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate church in London. Queen Catherine and Lady Rochford were both executed on 13 February 1542, and were buried in the Church of St Peter ad Vincula, within the Tower of London.


Culpeper is referenced in nearly all biographies of Henry VIII and Catherine Howard. He is less well-represented in popular fiction, where he is often unrepresented except for his relationship with Catherine.


In Ford Madox Ford's trilogy on Catherine Howard, entitled The Fifth Queen, Culpeper is portrayed as an intimate of Catherine's who, early on in the novel, arrives with her in tow on a mule as the wedding with Anne of Cleves is about to take place. In dragging the mule forward as a riot is starting outside the King's garden, he is described as "a man in green at the mule's head, [who] ... sprang like a wild cat under the beast's neck. His face blazed white, his teeth shone like a dog's, he screamed and struck his dagger through the butcher's throat [someone trying to block his and Catherine's way]. His motions were those of a wild beast".[10] His introduction to court is brought about through Catherine. He is sent to Calais to keep him from getting in trouble at Court for his brawling. He is often mentioned as having sold property to buy his impoverished cousin Catherine a proper dress and is not at all consistent with the historical record.

On-screen portrayals[edit]

In the 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII, Culpeper was played by Robert Donat. In the 1970 BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, he was played by Ralph Bates, although Robin Sachs assumed the role in the subsequent 1972 film, Henry VIII and His Six Wives. In the 2003 TV film Henry VIII, Thomas Culpeper is portrayed by Joseph Morgan. In the Showtime TV series The Tudors, Thomas Culpeper is portrayed by Torrance Coombs; in this series, he is characterised as a cruel, arrogant man whose interest in Catherine is purely sexual; his relationship with her is facilitated by a pre-existing affair with Lady Rochford, something that has no known historical basis.


  1. ^ a b c d Retha M. Warnicke, 'Katherine [Katherine Howard] (1518x24–1542)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004
  2. ^ Wagner, John A. Bosworth Field to Bloody Mary: An Encyclopedia of the Early Tudors. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003.
  3. ^ According to Culpepper Connections, The Culpepper Family History Site they were 7th cousins.
  4. ^ "57 rooms down, 30 more to go..." The Daily Telegraph. 28 August 2004. Archived from the original on 22 April 2014. Retrieved 5 March 2012.
  5. ^ Wagner
  6. ^ a b Robinson, Hastings (1847). Original Letters, I, letter 108 (Original Letters relative to the English Reformation, 2 volumes). Parker Society,Cambridge. pp. 226–7. ISBN 1-113-21117-2.
  7. ^ a b Smith, Lacey Baldwin. A Tudor Tragedy. New York: Pantheon Books, 1961.
  8. ^ Howard, Catherine. Letter to Thomas Culpeper. 1541. TS. The National Archives, U.K.
  9. ^ Russell, Gareth (4 April 2017). Young and damned and fair : the life of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII (First Simon & Schuster hardcover ed.). New York. ISBN 978-1-5011-0863-1. OCLC 944380442.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  10. ^ Ford, Ford Madox (1963). The Fifth Queen. New York: The Vanguard Press. p. 36 et al.