Thomas Howard: Skilled Political Navigator or Lucky Remnant of the Past?
Thomas Howard, styled Earl of Surrey from 1514 and 3rd Duke of Norfolk from 1524, was one of the most influential figures of his time. Indeed, the actions of the Duke simply can’t be ignored when looking into the reign of Henry VIII (1509–47) in particular. In today’s pop culture, particularly online, references to the reign of King Henry VIII usually feature only a few key figures: Henry himself, his six wives, Thomas Wolsey, and Cromwell. The odd More, Fisher, Cranmer, and Foxe will often feature but the name ‘Howard’ (or ‘Norfolk’) is one which too often goes unnoticed. Upon deeper examination of Henry’s reign, however, it becomes very apparent that the actions of Thomas Howard play a crucial part in a myriad of Henry’s concerns, from his religious policy to his foreign affairs. Howard remains, however, a somewhat vague and ambiguous character of Henry’s court. A part of the ‘old nobility’, with centuries of noble blood in his veins, was Thomas Howard a cunning, powerful political figure or simply a vestige of a dying political class who was lucky to escape the executioner’s axe?
Howard was born in 1473, the son of Thomas Howard, 13th Earl of Surrey, (a supporter of Edward IV) and grandson of John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk (also a supporter of Edward IV and one of the most powerful men in the country). The Howard family would be part of what historians term the ‘old nobility’ of England. This means that they could trace their noble roots back hundreds of years. In the case of Thomas Howard, he could trace his ancestors back to Edward I and even further back, as his distant ancestor William de Mowbray was one of the 25 executors of the Magna Carter.
This is where the argument that Howard was part of a dying group emerges. Under Henry VII and Henry VIII, the old methods of cronyism, nepotism, and hereditary power-grabbing began to end. Make no mistake, this was not done out of any progressive aim to make the English government any fairer. Henry VII initiated the policy as a means of ending the conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster. By appointing people from both houses (and ones that were not strongly aligned with either) based on merit rather than pedigree, he was able to ensure that neither house felt threatened or could get too powerful and his administration could be as efficient as possible. His only surviving son and heir, Henry VIII, adopted a similar policy which is best exemplified through this key advisors Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, both of whom were men of mean origins. This in itself caused some unrest among members of the old aristocracy who began to take a back seat in domestic and foreign affairs, becoming ‘mere ornaments’ according to Dr. Wilhelm Busch. Indeed, Howard himself often quarrelled with Cromwell and Wolsey. Howard’s son, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was executed as a result of this generational conflict by adopting the arms of Edward the Confessor in his portrait — a reminder of the Howards’ link to royalty — and was quick to criticise the low origins of prominent men, branding Cromwell a “foul churl” and William Paget a “mean creature”. Howard fell alongside his son, on charges which accused him of failing to stop his son’s treasonous actions. In reality, Howard’s fall was a political action by progressive (Protestant) members of Henry’s late court aimed to reduce the power of the Catholic faction.
Howard would only escape the executioner’s deadly blade because the King died the night before his execution and although Howard would go on to live until 1554, he would never return to prominence. Upon Henry’s death, the Regency Council of Edward VI was full of these ‘New Men’, the only exception being Henry Fitzalan, 19th Earl of Arundel, and although the Howard family would retain the Dukedom of Norfolk until this day, its power pales in comparison with other historical figures. Clearly, then, a case can be made that Howard was nothing more than a symbol of the past, a dying way of life, who lost influence over time and who would go down as yet another of Henry VIII’s victims were it not for a bit of luck.
Certainly, this argument has some backing, as Howard would eventually fall to the political machinations he had bestowed upon his enemies. However, by that logic, the clearly influential Wolsey could be considered unimportant — he gradually fell towards the end of his life and was almost certainly going to be executed had he not died prematurely. No, we must also consider what Howard (often known simply as Norfolk) did during his life — and believe me, there’s a lot.
If we’re to use positions held as any gauge of significance, then Howard doesn’t leave us empty-handed. He was Lord High Admiral from 1513–25, following the death of his younger brother Edward, Lord High Treasurer from 1524–46, and Earl Marshal from 1524–47 and 1553–4. This isn’t including his status as an Earl and Duke. Perhaps positions alone aren’t enough, though. Importantly, Howard had received all of the aforementioned positions (excluding his second term as Earl Marshal) due to the death of a relative, rather than through purely meritocratic means. Looking more closely, however, makes his influence undeniable. Howard, being the Duke of Norfolk, was one of the most landed people in the country. As such, he held an enormous amount of wealth (which meant influence) and a sizable number of men were obliged to serve him through retainers. This meant two things. Firstly, Howard was a threat to the English crown and more importantly, Howard was a crucial tool of the monarch in putting down revolts. In 1525, Howard (along with the Duke of Suffolk) suppressed the 10,000 rebels who had converged on Lavenham as a result of Wolsey’s failed ‘Amicable Grant’. In 1537, Howard was sent to help put down the 40,000-strong Pilgrimage of Grace, led by Robert Aske, and succeeded. Even as his influence dwindled, Mary I called on him in 1554 to deal with the rebels under Thomas Wyatt the Younger, who were approaching London rapidly. The last example is less useful, as many of his troops defected to Wyatt’s side and the Duke was unsuccessful in defeating it. Whatever the case, it’s clear that just through sheer military might Howard was a powerful figure.
Howard was also, I believe, a cunning — if Machiavellian — political figure, whose plotting brought down powerful men. Wolsey is the prime example of this, as Howard used Anne Boleyn to orchestrate his downfall. In 1528, a new Abbess was needed at Wilton and Anne (likely pressured by Norfolk) asked for Eleanor Carey to be given the role, whereas Wolsey favoured Isabella Jordan and chose her instead. It was only after three angry letters from Henry VIII that Wolsey finally submitted. This had been enabled as Howard had been able to gain influence over Henry when Wolsey had been away agreeing to the Treaty of Amiens in 1527. A strong voice in Henry’s ear, Howard was eventually able to convince him to do away with Wolsey, who was stripped of his titles on the 17th of October 1529, a once-close friend now the victim of the ruthless Tudor court. A similar fate came upon Cromwell, Henry’s other key advisor, who Howard initiated a smear campaign against, accusing him of all kinds of terrible things, such as heresy. That two of Henry’s closest and most trusted advisors — both of whom he seemed to like up until the end (granting Cromwell the earldom of Essex but a few months before his execution) — is a testament to the political cunning of Howard, as well as his influence over the English Crown.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Howard was at his peak. However, the year of 1539 appears to be perhaps the most promising contender. It was in this year that the Catholic faction of Henry’s court, of which Howard was the leader, saw most success. Particularly, the Act of Six Articles was passed in the year. The brainchild of Howard, this Act — which was passed by Parliament in that year — saw Catholicism reasserted as the basis of English religious practice and reinforced various heresy laws. Admittedly, the power of the Pope was still much diminished, the dissolution of the monasteries an irreversible process, and the English Monarch still the head of the church in England, however this success was crucial in exposing the truth behind the reformation. Henry was a Catholic at heart and the reformation’s aim was mainly about English sovereignty and making Henry richer. Yes, Howard’s success was encouraged by circumstance — as France and Spain’s peace in 1538 had made Henry wary of how the two Catholic countries might respond to further Protestant changes — but Howard had nonetheless taken the reins of religious control out of Cromwell’s hands. Moreover, Howard also found himself with lots of control over foreign affairs. Although it would ultimately be Cromwell who (fatally) chose Anne of Cleves to be Henry’s wife, his lack of success up until 1540 and the fact that the French ambassador had accused him of favouring a Portuguese match, meant that Henry had criticized Cromwell’s ability and given much of his power to Howard, who claimed to be more competent. However, if 1539 was to be the peak of Howard’s political success, the coming years were to see a spectacular fall from grace in which Howard was to become a woodcock to his own springe.
Howard had, unsurprisingly, been given control of a large number of English forces in France and was placed in command of various English military operations during the French campaign (which began in 1543). However, Henry would quickly become very frustrated at the lack of success from Howard — even if it was rarely his fault. Due to a lack of supplies, miscommunication with Charles V, and an army which was not motivated to fight, Howard failed to siege Montreuil upon the approach of the Dauphin and rather than allocate his troops to the defence of the recently-captured Boulogne, Norfolk left only 4,000 men to defend the city, withdrawing the rest to Calais and as a result Boulogne was nearly captured.
Henry was furious. Howard had failed Henry in what was most close to him: military success. Howard’s downfall began shortly afterwards, as the progressive faction at Henry’s court (including figures such as Paget, Seymour, and Dudley) schemed against him and were quick to press charges against him when his son was a little too arrogant in one of his portraits, including a reference to the Howards’ claim to the English throne. Yes, Howard would go on to live until 1554, however he may as well have died in 1547 — his influence certainly did. His most proud accomplishment, the Act of Six Articles, was repealed under Edward VI in 1547 and the old Howard could do nothing but watch from the Tower of London as the Protestant Reformation, much to his horror, continued unabated. A once-powerful figure reduced to a political prisoner.
So, how important was Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk? Was he a remnant of the past, lucky to escape execution, who deserves no place alongside Wolsey and Cromwell in the textbooks of Tudor History, or was he a powerful figure who — despite being a member of a dying kind — had enormous influence over Henry VIII? I believe the truth is closest to the latter. Thomas Howard was a powerful, determined, and politically ruthless man. He was a man who not only tried but succeeded in bringing down both of Henry’s closest advisors. Yes, he fell from grace, but he was an influential warrior and statesman who was constantly in Henry’s ear, manipulating the often fickle King, who just so happened to fall on his own sword.