Post-classical history


Winter 1546–7: Henry VIII’s Final Phobia

‘I saw a royal throne whereas that Justice should have sit; Instead of whom I saw, with fierce and cruel mode, Where Wrong was set, that bloody beast, that drank the guiltless blood.’

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey: Poems1

Even before the White Rose families’ extermination, any threat they might have been to Henry VIII had ended for good when Emperor Charles V declined to give military support to Reginald Pole’s ‘missions’. No doubt the cardinal might still be alive in Italy, but he had ceased to be a danger. Even so, not content with having rooted out the very last remnants of the White Rose in England, the king tried to root it out abroad as well.

Two suspicious-looking Englishmen, who were arrested when Reginald was staying at Capranica in 1541, confessed that they had been sent to kill him. Luckily for them, he was the legate for Bologna (papal governor) and they came before him for trial, escaping with only a short spell on the galleys. There were other attempts on Reginald’s life, all of which were unsuccessful. Yet King Henry’s assassins did not always fail. In 1546 Cardinal Beaton was brutally murdered in his castle at St Andrews by a pair of Scotsmen in English pay, each rewarded with £50. Pole led a charmed life.

During the last years of Henry’s reign, two factions competed for his favour. One consisted of those who had followed the late Thomas Cromwell, including evangelicals such as Archbishop Cranmer and Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. Opposing them were the Catholics led by the Duke of Norfolk, although by now he was suffering from chronic ill health and very much feeling his age. For a time, however, the old duke appeared to be in the ascendant after the king married his niece.

She was the tiny, auburn-haired Katherine Howard, more than thirty years younger than Henry, who became besotted with her. But in November 1541 Archbishop Cranmer broke the news to him that she was ‘a whore’. Kind-hearted, empty-headed, oversexed and completely out of her depth, the poor girl was one of the most pitiful figures in Tudor history. She had taken at least one lover before her marriage and was now having a full-blooded romance with a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Thomas Culpeper. At first the king refused to believe Cranmer, but then, shedding tears of self-pity, he told the embarrassed council he had been betrayed. The charges were soon proved, the queen’s lovers being executed within a month. (In their indictment she was described as ‘a common harlot’.) Only seventeen, Katherine was beheaded in February 1542 after a Bill of Attainder avoided a trial that would have made the squalid details public. She was lucky to die beneath the axe instead of being burned alive for treason.

Abroad, despite vast expenditure, Henry’s foreign policy was ineffective on every front. Although English troops routed the Scots at Solway Moss in 1542, they were defeated at Ancrum Moor, and the following year the betrothal of Prince Edward to the little Queen Mary, on which Henry had set his heart – in what contemporaries called the ‘Rough Wooing’ – was broken off by the Scots. Three years of ruinously expensive war with France ended in 1546, having gained nothing.

As for religion, Henry continued to regard even the slightest disagreement with the ‘true doctine’ he had decreed as a blasphemous denial of his role as head of the Church. For, as he saw it, the law of God was in his personal care. This extraordinary assumption was evident in the Askew case.

In 1544 Mrs Anne Askew, a wealthy young Lincolnshire lady who had quarrelled with her husband over her ‘sacramen tarian’ views, came to live in London, seeking a divorce. The year after, having joined a group of evengelicals in the city, she was arrested and frightened into recanting. As she was a friend of the latest queen, Catherine Parr, of whose own religious opinions Henry was suspicious, he took a personal interest in the case. Rearrested in 1546, Anne was questioned by the council and, despite being a gentlewoman, so cruelly racked during her interrogations that she lost the use of her limbs and even of her eyesight. In July, unable to walk, she was taken to Smithfield in a litter to be burned at the stake with other evangelicals.

The perpetually suppurating ulcer on the king’s leg had turned into one among many, all giving him excruciating pain whenever the bandages were changed, which presumably happened several times a day. Sometimes he was in such agony that he could not speak. Because of his monstrous obesity (it was said that three men could have fitted inside his doublet) he needed a ramp if he wanted to mount a horse. He found walking difficult, having to lean on a stick, and in his palaces had to be carried about in a special chair. He suffered regularly from exhausting ‘fevers’ caused by the ulcers.

Yet although he had been hated by large sections of the population only a few years earlier – and even now the North could never forgive him – this rotting, moribund hulk of a man had become idolized as a benevolent colossus by many of his subjects, who turned a blind eye to his selfishness, cruelty and tyranny. Part of their veneration came from his having reigned over them for so long, yet most of it was due to the overwhelming impact of his extraordinary personality, shallow as it may have been. Clearly, he knew how to assume a grave and kindly air when necessary. Describing the king’s last speech to Parliament, Richard Grafton (continuing Hall’s chronicle) said his address gave ‘his subjects there present such comfort that the like joy could not be unto them in this world’. There is no reason to doubt Grafton.2

Because of his ailments, Henry’s temper had grown more dangerous than ever. Aware that he might have only a very short time left to live, he worried even more about what was going to happen when his young son – still only nine in 1546 – succeeded him as a minor. Although he had ensured that no more Yorkist pretenders were left in England, he was afraid that some other magnate might try and seize the throne. Richard of Gloucester’s example can never have been very far from his mind.

In particular, he did not trust the aged Duke of Norfolk. A pleasant-spoken and sly little man, always blandly reassuring while lying through his teeth, Norfolk could never forget what Bosworth, fought when he was a boy of twelve, had meant for his family: his grandfather was killed and his father taken prisoner, while the Howards forfeited their duchy.3 It had taken them years to recover their position. In consequence, no one possessed a keener sense for survival or for the main chance than Thomas Howard, who was completely without principles. ‘It was merry in England afore the New Learning came up,’ he famously declared in 1540. ‘Yea, I would all things were as hath been in times past.’ Yet despite his Catholic instincts, he was the man who had put down the Pilgrimage of Grace so mercilessly. Loathing Cromwell as he did, he had treated him with oily subservience, and then played a major part in destroying him.

Having employed Norfolk so often, Henry had no illusions about his lack of scruples, while he blamed him for the disastrous marrage to his niece Katherine Howard. Nor could the king fail to have been aware that Norfolk filled the place once occupied by Buckingham as the last remaining duke and the richest man in England, with an income verging on £4,000. He lacked Plantagenet blood, but through marrying Buckingham’s daughter had acquired it for the Howards. Worse still, he possessed an alarmingly dangerously unstable son.4

What made the situation explosive was that the Howards stood in the way of a man who was secretly determined to rule England during the looming minority. Brother of the late Queen Jane and uncle to the Prince of Wales, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford knew how to make the most of his relationship to the king’s favourite wife. The duke tried to defuse the situation by offering Seymour’s brother the hand of his daughter Mary, the late Duke of Richmond’s widow. She declined, however, while her brother Lord Surrey proclaimed his contempt for so low a marriage. What made matters worse was that Surrey had made advances to Seymour’s wife. He began whispering into Henry’s ear that the Howards had designs on the throne; he understood exactly how to drop hints of disaffection that the king would interpret as clear proof of treason.

In his late twenties, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was a tall, horse-faced young man with a forked beard, very different from his father. A dazzling if troubled figure, he had spent a year at the French court with his friend the Duke of Richmond (the king’s short-lived son), where he learned not only French but Italian, and became a genuinely great poet – one of the first Englishmen to use the sonnet. Yet despite his brilliance and although basically honourable – unlike his father – there was something shallow about him. He could be childishly frivolous, as in January 1543 when he had led a group of gilded young com panions on a riot through London (shooting stone-firing crossbows at passers-by, smashing windows) that ended in the Fleet prison. Obsessed with display, he liked to ride through the city streets with an escort of fifty horsemen.

Arrogant, hot-tempered and quarrelsome, never hiding his contempt for fellow courtiers who were not nobly born, Henry Howard’s attitude is encapsulated by his comment on Cromwell’s fall: ‘Now is that foul churl dead, so ambitious of other blood, now is he stricken with his own staff.’ People like that would leave no noblemen alive, he added.5 There is also a persistent tradition that, when very young, he had been in trouble for striking in the face Queen Jane’s brother, the recently ennobled Edward Seymour, partly from disdain for his comparatively ignoble origins. Understandably, he had a talent for making enemies. At first, however, his youthful high spirits amused the king, who would have agreed with the verdict of a contemporary cleric, ‘the most foolish proud boy that is in England’.6

Henry would not have been so fond of Surrey, however, had he read Surrey’s sonnet Sardanapalus, which almost certainly had the king in mind, although it was probably written after the earl had lost favour.

The Assyrian king – in peace, with foul desire

And filthy lusts that stained his regal heart –

In war, that should set princely hearts on fire,

Did yield for want of martial art …

Who scarce the name of manhood did retain,

Drenchèd in sloth and womanish delight,

Feeble of sprite, unpatient of pain.7

One of those men for whom war offers the best hope of staying out of mischief, Surrey served in France from 1543 to 1546, at one stage as Lieutenant General of the King on Sea and Land – commander-in-chief in the field. He turned out to be a born soldier who quickly established his authority over both starving, ill-paid English troops and tough, mutinous mercenaries, besides displaying a flair for organization. He led from the front, so much so that Henry wrote to chide him for risking his life. To the king’s joy, Boulogne was taken, doubling English territory around Calais. Although the earl had to abandon the siege of Montreuil, he beat off a determined attempt by the French to recapture Boulogne. However, after his humiliating rout by the French during a skirmish near St Étienne in January 1546, when he lost a fifth of his army and several of his standards, the earl was demoted by Henry to Captain of Boulogne, and then recalled to England. He had forfeited royal favour for good.

Surrey went back to the Tudor court, which was more dangerous than any battlefield. After winning the king’s approval and having wealth and honours heaped upon him, a man could all too easily end up on the scaffold. Shortly after his return, the earl had a disastrous argument with an officer who had served under him at Boulogne. Losing his temper, Surrey insisted that a council could not possibly rule England for the future Edward VI, as Henry wanted; only one man was fit to do so and that was his father Norfolk. The outburst was reported to Seymour, giving him the ammunition he needed to confirm the king’s suspicions. Because the earl was descended from Edward III through his mother, Henry decided that he saw himself as the future King of England.

Surrey was arrested on 2 December 1546. He had just arrived at Whitehall when the Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, Sir Anthony Wingfield, asked him to come outside, saying he needed his help in persuading his father the duke to intercede in a lawsuit. When he left the room, Surrey was immediately grabbed by ‘halbardiers’ (Yeomen) who manhandled him on board a waiting boat that took him to the city. Here he was held at Ely Place and questioned by the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wriothesly. On 12 December, St Lucy’s Eve, he was marched from Ely Place through the city streets to the Tower.

Norfolk was sent to the Tower on the same day, stripped of his staff of office and his Garter badge. That evening, he wrote beseeching the king to remember all the good service he had done and not allow him to be destroyed by false accusations, insisting that he was at one with Henry in matters of religion and offering to surrender his estates. He also wrote to the council requesting permission to send for three books which he needed to help him sleep: St Augustine’s City of God, Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities and a work attacking papal pretensions. Learning of his arrest, the delighted folk of East Anglia rose and looted all the Howard houses in the area.

Summoned before the council Surrey’s sister, Mary Howard, told them he had urged her to ‘endear herself’ to the king and ‘rule him’, which was more or less what her family had tried to do through the late Queen Katherine Howard. The admission must have infuriated Henry, opening up a very sore wound. Yet there was no evidence of plots against the king’s life. The prosecution fell back on heraldry, arguing that Surrey had deliberately quartered royal arms as a discreet means of asserting his claim to the throne. Mary Howard helped to substantiate the accusation by her testimony that on the cap of maintenance bearing his crest her brother had set a coronet that looked like a closed (royal) crown, with the letters ‘HR’ which she thought must be the king’s cipher.

The prosecution’s case therefore rested entirely on showing that the Earl of Surrey’s intention of making himself King of England was proved by a coat of arms he had recently adopted. His father, to whom it must have seemed that Bosworth had come again, did not fail King Henry. On 12 January, the day before his son’s trial, he cravenly signed a totally untrue confession:

I have concealed high treason in keeping secret the false and traitorous act, most presumptuously committed by my son Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, against the King’s Majesty and his Laws in the putting and using of the arms of St Edward the Confessor, King of the realm of England before the Conquest, in his scutcheon or arms, which said arms of St Edward appertain only to the King of this realm and to none other person or persons, whereunto the said Earl by no means or way could make any claim or title, by me or any of mine or his ancestors.8

Meanwhile, the earl attempted to break out of the Tower. Having first arranged for a dagger to be smuggled into his cell, he tried to squeeze through the garderobe (privy), a short tunnel over the moat, which was not far below. A servant was waiting for him in a boat on the Thames nearby. He had already begun climbing down the noisesome shaft when, unexpectedly, guards came into the room on a random inspection. Seeing that he was not in his bed, they ran to the privy and managed to catch him by his arm, after which he was dragged out and shackled. It was generally thought that had Surrey still been above ground, with his arms free, he would certainly have tried to knife them.

In a bizarre indictment (the draft of which had been corrected and annotated by Henry personally), Surrey was accused of displaying at one of his houses a shield that bore the Howard arms quartered with those of King Edward the Confessor. On 13 January 1547 the earl was tried at the Guildhall before a jury of knights and squires from East Anglia as he was not a peer of Parliament, after being brought from the Tower by an escort of 300 yeomen. He defended himself magnificently, speaking from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon.

Unbowed, and as haughty as ever, he told a senior member of the council, Sir Richard Rich, that he was capable of condemning his own father in return for a piece of gold. He reminded another member, Lord Paget, that his father had been a ‘catchpole’ (a man whose job was arresting debtors), telling him England had never prospered ‘since the King put mean creatures like thee into government’. When rebuked for his attempt to escape, he replied that, however innocent a man might be, he was always condemned. Some of the jury were very unwilling to convict him, but in the end they yielded and he was found guilty of treason, the shield with Edward the Confessor’s arms being taken as conclusive proof of his designs on the throne. Six days later, wearing a black satin suit trimmed with black rabbit fur, Surrey was beheaded on Tower Hill.

An Act of Attainder introduced against Norfolk, condemning the duke to death and confiscating his estates, was passed by Parliament on 27 January, signed for the dying king with a ‘dry stamp’ or facsimile signature. He was saved at the last moment by Henry going to his own eternal reward shortly before dawn the next day, just a few hours before Norfolk was due to climb up the scaffold on Tower Hill. The execution was postponed, indefinitely. But he had to spend the next six years in prison, released only when Mary came to the throne and dying in his bed in 1554, aged eighty-one.

Shortly after the duke’s arrest, the imperial ambassador of the day, Francis van der Delft, reported a conversation with Lord Chancellor Wriothesley, who had told him smoothly ‘how pitiable it was that persons of such high and noble lineage should have undertaken so shameful a business as to plan the seizure of the government by sinister means’.9 Rumours circulated that Norfolk and Surrey had intended to murder both the king and the Prince of Wales. There was of course not a word of truth in the charge which, once again, existed only in the strange mind of Henry VIII.

The two Howards had been victims of an imagination that, as so many times before, had induced a mental condition verging on clinical paranoia; in the king’s diseased mind, father and son reincarnated Suffolks, Poles and Courtenays – and King Richard.

31. Winter 1546–7: Henry VIII’s Final Phobia

1. E. Jones (ed.), Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey: Poems, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1973, no. 45.

2. Hall, p. 866.

3. ‘devious, vengeful, foul-mouthed and essentially second rate’ is G.R. Elton’s verdict on the Duke of Norfolk, in Reform and Reformation, p. 117.

4. The latest studies of Surrey are: W.A. Sessions, Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999; and J. Childs, Henry VIII’s Last Victim, Jonathan Cape, London, 2006.

5. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XVI (i), 12.

6. G. Constantyne, ‘Transcript of an Original Manuscript Containing a Memorial from George Constantine to Thomas, Lord Cromwell’, ed. T. Amyot, Archaeologia 22, London 1831, p. 62.

7. Jones, Henry Howard.

8. LP Hen VIII, op. cit., vol. XXI (ii), 696.

9. CSP Spain, VIII, 364.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!