Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey is perhaps not one of Henry VIII’s most likeable victims although perhaps one of the most gifted as a poet. His father was Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk and his mother was Elizabeth Stafford, daughter of the Duke of Buckingham. This meant he was doubly descended from Edward III. Now whilst some folk wear their aristocracy lightly Henry looked down his nose at virtually everyone as being inferior to him. He couldn’t abide Cromwell and wasn’t terribly keen on the Seymour brothers regarding their bloodline as inferior to his own. Understandably this outlook didn’t win him many friends and ultimately it would cost him his life, in between times it landed him in rather a lot of debt as he certainly believed in living in style.
Howard born in 1517 was bought up at Windsor with Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII’s illegitimate son with Bessie Blount. His sister Mary Howard would marry Fitzroy. His cousin, Anne Boleyn, would marry the aforementioned monarch. In short in Henry Howard’s youth his fortune looked assured.
In 1536 it all changed for the Howards. Anne Boleyn was executed for treason, Henry Fitzroy died and Henry Howard, who took part in the suppression of the Pilgrimage of Grace, was accused of having sympathy for it by Thomas Darcy at his trial. This accusation was to haunt Surrey. The Seymours who, although related to the Howards, formed a rival faction used Surrey’s supposed sympathy with the pilgrims as a slur against the Howard family. The earl of Surrey was a tad on the touchy side so thought nothing of striking a courtier who repeated the gossip. It probably didn’t help that Thomas Cromwell was also using the information as a means of keeping the Howards in line. The combined effects of breaking court rules and getting on the wrong side of Cromwell resulted in him spending time in prison – although it was Windsor- whilst there he developed a deep-seated dislike for Cromwell and low born advisers in general. He came to regard new men who’d gained their places by virtue of their intellect and ability rather than their family trees as the lowest of the low.
He was released in time to mourn Jane Seymour’s demise but the “most foolish proud boy” was back in trouble in 1542 for fighting a duel. At about the same time he was accused of eating meat during Lent which was more dangerous than fighting the duel because it smacked of Protestantism. Henry’s reformation was a very mild one – in that he was head of the Church and everything else stayed more or less the same. Surrey was also accused of vandalism and shooting arrows at Southwark’s prostitutes by way of light entertainment (what a delightful chap).
By 1546 it was becoming ever clearer that Henry, who was in his thirty-seventh year as king, was reaching the end of his life. Young Prince Edward would require a regency council. The factions circled one another warily vying for power. In one corner were the reformers headed up by Jane Seymour’s brothers – the royal uncles. In the other corner were the conservative Catholic faction headed up by Stephen Gardener, Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk.
Norfolk came up with a marriage plan that would have united the two opposing families. He suggested that Henry Fitzroy’s widow Mary could marry Thomas Seymour. He also wanted two of Surrey’s sons to marry two of Edward Seymour’s daughters. Surrey was against the idea because he thought that Seymour was beneath him. Henry VIII thought it was an excellent idea but Seymour wasn’t particularly keen – he didn’t want to share power with the wily duke of Norfolk.
Surrey taking a leaf from his father’s book considered the options that were available and told his sister Mary that she ought to make herself available to the king – mistress would be good but wife number seven would be better. Mary was not amused. The siblings had a very public argument.
And that might have been that apart from the fact that when Surrey had been busy breaking windows and terrifying ladies of the night a maid called Alice Flaner who worked at an inn near St Lawrence Lane had been questioned and she’d revealed that Surrey regarded himself as something of a prince and that he’d said that if anything should happen to the king then the Howards would have a jolly good claim. For an intelligent man who wrote some of the greatest poetry of the period it was a pretty stupid thing to have thought, let alone said in the hearing of others.
In December 1546 Surrey’s chickens came home to roost. He was arrested on the 2nd. The duke of Norfolk was also rounded up. Father and son were sent to the Tower. Their home at Kenninghall was searched and their belongings confiscated. Everyone who had a grudge against the Howards emerged from the woodwork to offer their two penneth – mostly recounting Surrey’s dislike of the low born and his own inflated view of himself.
Mary Howard was also called as a witness. She told the tale of Norfolk’s plans to forge an alliance with the Seymours and of Surrey’s objections. She along with Bessie Holland (Norfolk’s mistress) also mentioned Surrey’s new heraldic device – they noted that they didn’t like it and neither did the Duke of Norfolk. Very very foolishly in a realm where being Plantagenet could result in an appointment with the axeman Surrey had started using his grandfather Buckingham’s coat of arms along with other Plantagenet emblems. In resurrecting the defunct coat of arms it was claimed that Surrey was repudiating the attainder that Richard III had served against Buckingham and was also stating his claim to the throne. It was a very complicated coat of arms because Surrey had also managed to dredge up his link to Edward the Confessor and include that on the arms as well. Lord Chancellor Wriothesley knew that not only did he have Surrey “bang to rights” but that Henry VIII would regard it as a direct threat to the Tudor succession.
Now whilst Henry didn’t necessarily wish for the balance of power to shift too far in the direction of the Seymours he couldn’t risk Surrey’s claim to the crown – at least not once Wriothesley had carefully explained it to him. Whether he’d meant to or not Surrey had managed to fall foul of the Succession Act of 1536. He was tried at the Guildhall where he called his accusers low born and wretched. He was outraged that one of the witnesses was a woman…never mind the fact that it was his sister who’d revealed Surrey’s plan to make her Henry’s mistress.
Henry Howard, earl of Surrey was executed on 19th January 1547. Henry VIII would die just nine days later – a fact which saved the duke of Norfolk from suffering the same fate as his son.
Hutchinson, Robert. (2009) House of Treason: Rise and Fall of a Tudor Dynasty. London: Pheonix