Henry Howard: A Life Cut Short

Henry Howard was born c. 1517, the oldest son of Lady Elizabeth Stafford and Thomas Howard. Both of his parents were of noble blood. His mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, and his father, Thomas, was — at the time — the Earl of Surrey and the son of the Duke of Norfolk. At the time, both of these families were still in good standing with King Henry VIII and were two of the most powerful families in the country.

It is no doubt this wealthy upbringing which shaped some of Henry’s attitudes towards the “New Men” of Henry VIII’s court. These men had powerful positions but had come from humble beginnings, often the sons (and for as much as Henry VIII and his father had done to promote meritocracy they were all men) of the middling sort. Howard had little regard for these men. He branded Thomas Cromwell a ‘foul churl’ and William Paget ‘a mean creature’ and although neither is immune to criticism, his emphasis on their class shows both his disdain for the “New Men” and hints at a more general inter-class friction which was developing at a time of unprecedented social mobility. Although it was ultimately this same pride which would cause his downfall, Howard was much more than the ‘foolish proud boy’ described by John Barlow.

Most notably, he was an Earl from 1524. That was the year his grandfather, the Duke of Norfolk, died and so his father assumed the title and left the earldom to his oldest son, which was Henry (from now on referred to as Surrey). Surrey was a larger-than-life character in Henry VIII’s court, often quarreling and engaging himself in eccentric, sometimes illegal, activities such as pelting stones at London prostitutes with his mates. However, Surrey was also a soldier in France and Scotland, even seeing himself appointed Lieutenant General in September 1545 during the third major Anglo-French War of Henry VIII’s reign. Military superiority over France was still a key aim of Henry VIII’s foreign policy and so success under his command could see Surrey become favourable in Henry’s eyes. Surrey had a chance that few man ever would but many wished for and if only there were no major catastrophes he could see his influence over the King increase massively.

On 7 January 1546, there was a major catastrophe. Under Surrey’s command, English soldiers had engaged the French army in a bad position, with less than desirable numbers, and against the advice of experienced military commanders such as Sir Ralph Ellerker. The outcome was disastrous with some 700–800 men killed and hundreds more taken prisoner. Surrey’s military career was over and with it ended any chance Henry VIII had at making significant gains in France. The Mary Rose — Henry VIII’s flagship and a vessel of personal importance to the King — had been lost in July the previous year and although Boulogne had been captured, it was difficult and expensive to hold. Any favour Surrey had hoped to gain with the King was gone.

Perhaps not a skilled military leader, Surrey was certainly not unintelligent. On the contrary, he was a very clever man who associated with educated members of society, was well tutored in his childhood, and is an important figure in English poetry. After all, it was his very close friend Thomas Wyatt (the Elder) who introduced the sonnet to England and Surrey himself had given it its rhyming meter and its division into quatrains.

Ultimately, however, no amount of intelligence can save you from the axe if your use to the monarch (especially in the case of Henry VIII). Surrey’s downfall ultimately arose from his pride when he chose to incorporate the arms of Edward the Confessor into his own coat of arms. Although Howard was a distant relative of the 11th century King, through the House of Mowbray, this was seen by an increasingly paranoid Henry VIII as Surrey pressing his claim to the throne. Henry VIII’s fear that Surrey desired to commit an act of treason was supported by allegations from Mary FitzRoy (his sister, who he’d suggested try to marry Henry — despite being the widow of the King’s illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy) and Richard Southwell (an influential courtier). Eventually, Surrey’s downfall came to a head and on 13 January 1547 he was sentenced to death. He was executed on 19 January 1547 after having to perform a forced march through London, aimed to humiliate the disgraced earl. Surrey was no older than 30 years old. His father, Thomas (the Duke of Norfolk) was also sentenced to death but was saved by Henry VIII’s death on the 28 January 1547 — had the old King lived but a day longer, Howard would have certainly lost his head.

The case of Surrey is a fascinating one. It shows us the risk of failure under a King who expected victory. However, above all else, the spectacular fall of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, shows the risk of arrogance and pride under a paranoid and consistently suspicious King.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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