On 2 December 1546 Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and his son, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, were both thrown into the Tower for the shadiest of reasons and for the weakest of excuses. Only the duke would survive. Henry Howard, one of the great poets of the Tudor age, would be executed for trumped up charges a few weeks later, on 19 January 1547.
The elderly duke had served Henry with fawning obsequiousness for years, while Surrey was one of the most renowned poets in Europe and one of the closest friends of the king’s dead son, Henry Fitzroy, therefore their attainment and Surrey’s subsequent execution were yet another scandal regarding Henry VIII’s brutality. Surrey’s death would be better remembered and more of a reason to decry the king if it weren’t just the last in a long line of atrocities. But why did Henry VIII turn so suddenly, and so violently, against his loyal retainers?
Or was it not really Henry VIII’s work at all?
In her book on the life and death of Henry Howard, historian Jessie Childs made a very cogent and persuasive argument that Henry VIII was merely the secondary actor in the beheading of Surrey. The main culprit behind the death of a poet who rivalled Shakespeare, — the Iago to the king’s Othello, so to speak — was the Seymour family, spearheaded by the ruthless quest for power on the part of Edward Seymour.
This is not a far-fetched accusation by any means. Edward Seymour would later kill his own brother in order to hold the regency of King Edward VI unchallenged so the man clearly had no scruples when it came to a “final solution” for those who might dislodge him from power.
Obvious to anyone but himself, King Henry VIII was going to be leaving on a long journey with the Grim Reaper in the not too distant future by the winter of 1546. Two major political factions were thus vying for power, hoping that when Henry’s young son became King Edward VI they would be able to control English policy through the boy until he was old enough to rule for himself. Whoever held the reins when the king died would have regency over Edward, even if a will needed to be ‘discovered’ backing up their claims. For simplicity’s sake, the warring factions can be thought of as the Seymours and the Howards.
The Seymours worked diligently to gain the upper hand in the political struggle. They were Prince Edward’s maternal uncles and their late sister, Queen Jane Seymour, retained a strong sentimental hold on Henry’s affections. Henry seemed to trust them as much as he was capable of trusting anyone. The king felt more secure of them because they were a family of relatively humble origins who had been brought to distinction only by his notice. They were no threat to his crown and it was in their self-interest to make sure Edward’s ascent to the throne after Henry’s death was unchallenged.
The Howards, in spite of the Duke of Norfolk’s never-ending apple polishing for the king, carried a threat to Henry’s dynasty in their veins. They were one of the oldest and most powerful families in England, and the Earl of Surrey was a particular problem for Henry. Surrey’s maternal grandfather, Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, was also a direct male descendant of King Edward III through John of Gaunt and that gave Surrey arguably as much of a right to wear the English crown as any Tudor monarch. The king had executed Buckingham for treason more than twenty-five years before, on May 17, 1521, because the Duke was too outspoken about his potentially better claim to rule England.
Like his grandfather, Surrey was well aware of his lineage and made it clear he found the Seymours and their allies to be plebeian upstarts of inferior birth. This was extremely insulting to the Seymours, mainly because of its truth. Few people in the Tudor era admired a ‘self-made man’. It was widely believed one’s birth was determined by God’s will and those who were meant to be superior to their fellows were born to superior families. Those who tried to climb beyond their natal social class too quickly were regarded with suspicion. The Seymours, who were trying to establish themselves as one of the premier families in the court, wouldn’t have liked any reminders that they had only become even modest country gentry just a few generations before. They would also have doubtlessly preferred to emphasise their maternal connections, given that their mother was distantly related to the Plantagenets.
The Duke of Norfolk was a noxious excuse for a man but a canny political operator. He could see the writing on the wall, and faced with the reality of the Seymour ascension he made plans to unite the Howards with their parvenu rivals. Since the upper nobility couldn’t marry without royal permission, Norfolk petitioned the crown to allow a series of marriages to take place between the Howards and the Seymours. He had arranged that his daughter Lady Mary Howard, the widow of the King’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, would marry one of Jane Seymour’s younger brothers, Thomas, the third eldest Seymour brother to survive to adulthood. Thomas Seymour was the love-interest of Henry’s last queen, Kateryn Parr, before she was coerced into marriage to the king, and was still single. Norfolk also proposed unions between some of his grandsons and the elder daughters of Edward Seymour. Although this would have meant the Howards were marrying ‘beneath them’ it would have secured them powerful positions in any forthcoming regency controlled by the Seymours.
Notwithstanding the political wisdom of the matches, none of them took place because Norfolk’s son would not stand for it. Surrey would rather die than bear the humiliation of having his sons sink so low as to marry the granddaughters of a rural sheriff. Nor, despite his very strained relationship with his sister, did he want her to become the wife of a vulgar social climber. Instead, he suggested that she try to tickle the king’s fancy and rule over Henry the way successful mistresses had reigned in France. This did nothing to endear him to his sister, who in spite of being no stranger to scandal, insisted that she would “cut her own throat [rather] than consent to such a villainy.” Because the King had once been her father-in-law, seducing him would have been considered as incestuous as sleeping with her own father, and Mary was repulsed.
Surrey further alienated the Seymours by reportedly boasting aloud and in public that the Duke of Norfolk would be “meetest” to administer a regency government for Prince Edward upon the demise of the sovereign, rather than the Seymours, since the prince’s uncles were men of “vile birth” who had only recently been “made” by the king’s favour.
With these insults in mind, the Seymours had ample motive to arrange the judicial murder of Henry Howard, and his coat of arms was their means of beheading him. Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley, who had tortured the evangelical heroine Anne Askew and had conspired to attempt to destroy the Henry’s sixth queen Kateryn Parr, was willing (even happy) to do the dirty work for men in power. Wriothesley was able to procure testimony from a herald by the name of Christopher Barker stating that Surrey had knowingly and rebelliously used the insignia of the English king Saint Edward the Confessor on his coat of arms. Bearing the arms of Edward the Confessor without royal permission could easily be construed as treason, since it flaunted a connection to the throne equal to the king’s.
Nonetheless, there is good historical evidence that Surrey was never told he was forbidden to bear Edward the Confessor’s designs in his arms. The chief witness to Surrey’s crime, Christopher Barker, was suspiciously promoted to a Knight of the Bath as soon as the Seymours came to power. Barker was just one of the many men who testified against Henry Howard that were similarly rewarded. Edward Seymour was likewise criticised by his contemporaries, who could see how Seymour had manipulated the situation, for his role in Surrey’s death. In his Book of Martyrs (1563) John Foxe declared that Seymour, who would have otherwise been lauded as a Protestant hero, brought “God’s scourge and rod” upon himself because he had “distained his honour” and arranged the legal murder of the innocent Henry Howard.
The evidence the Seymours and their allies presented was enough to convince the king that Surrey was up to no good (or they said the king was convinced) and Henry Howard was forthwith beheaded on 19 January 1547. Unlike many of the king’s other victims, Surrey did not follow the social conventions for those who were condemned; he did not go quietly or request that people pray for their sovereign. Instead, the earl took the opportunity to chastise Henry and to reiterate his abhorrance of the Seymours by crying out, “Of what have you found me guilty? Surely you will find no law that justifies you; but I know that the king wants to get rid of the noble blood around him, and to employ none but low people”.
Henry Howard was only 30 years old when he died and in the prime of his creativity. The epitome of a Renaissance man, Surrey was renowned both as a warrior and one of the innovative forces behind the English sonnet form of poetry. Among modern literary scholars, he is remembered for his “extraordinary invention and influence” and his “position as the center of an English poetic tradition”. For his contemporaries Henry Howard was a luminary, gifted with both the pen and the sword. His execution was lamented and reviled throughout Europe, and caused such a stir that there is strong indications that the Seymours did not dare execute his father, the Duke of Norfolk, without Henry VIII to hide behind for fear of the international backlash.