Monday, 27 April 2015


4. Thomas Howard - The One That Got Away

It would be hard to disagree with G.R. Elton's  verdict that Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, was 'one of the most unpleasant characters in an age which abounded in them'. He was the last of the proud medieval grandees, an aristocrat who believed that his lineage should guarantee him a position of power in the councils of the state. He was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary who lacked the mental acuity to evaluate new ideas. Probably his most frequently quoted statement is, 'It was merry in England afore the New Learning came up; I would all things were as hath been in times past'. A creature of small-minded prejudice, if he were alive now and involved in 21st century politics he would probably have been a founder member of UKIP. His adherence to 'that old-time religion', indeed, 'that old-time everything', rested on the belief that resistance to change was essential to preserve power for himself and his noble ilk.

Howard inherited his father's title in 1524, when he was already over fifty years of age. If he expected to find himself at the king's side he reckoned without Thomas Wolsey who correctly assessed the duke's ambition, arrogance and lack of talent. Howard was sidelined for the better part of four years, skulking on his estate and  smouldering with hatred for the ill-bred cardinal. Then Anne Boleyn returned from France where she had learned courtly arts in the entourage of Francis I and his highly-cultured sister, Margaret. Henry's passion for the new arrival dovetailed neatly into his desire to solve his dynastic crisis and the Boleyn clan rose rapidly to prominence. Anne was Norfolk's niece and his fortunes also took a turn for the better. Thus began the marathon struggle for Henry's wife swap. When matters did not go according to the royal plan, Anne accused Wolsey of dragging his feet and there was some truth in her critique of the prolonged negotiations with Rome. Wolsey was certainly anxious to avoid Howard gaining permanent power at the top table. Norfolk grabbed the opportunity to go onto the offensive and his intrigues played a significant part in the cardinal's fall. 

But once again he was thwarted in his bid for power. The man who replaced as chief minister the butcher's son from Ipswich was the publican's son from Putney, Thomas Cromwell. Not only was Howard once more denied the position he considered his due; he had to watch Cromwell's radical attack on the fabric and theology of the medieval church. He opposed - albeit cautiously -  the new direction of government policy. When Queen Anne's turn came to become a victim of Henry's murderous megalomania Norfolk avoided implication in her fall by personally denouncing her 'treasons' and presiding over her trial.

The years 1536-1540 witnessed an escalating power struggle between the forces of reform and reaction. Existing documents suggest a relationship of respectful co-operation between Norfolk and Cromwell but beneath the flowery conventions of official correspondence perceptive foreign diplomats detected an impending crisis between irreconcilable forces. When Cromwell was promoted to the peerage as Earl of Essex and was granted the important court office of Great Chamberlain, elbowing his way brusquely into the closed ranks of the hereditary blue-bloods, Howard snapped. He poured lies in the king's ear and found perjured witnesses to back up his accusations. With relish he personally stripped Cromwell of his Garter insignia and ordered him to the Tower.

Now the path was clear for him to achieve his ambition. It was probably mere chance that Henry took a shine to another of Norfolk's nieces, Catherine Howard, but Norfolk and his accomplices did everything necessary to further the liaison. With the king's marriage to wife number five Howard was once again Henry's brother-in-law. And once again the sweet wine of success turned to vinegar in his mouth. Another Howard queen was found guilty of adultery (quite rightly this time). The queen was executed and several members of her family went to prison.

But Uncle Thomas survived - again. Why did Henry not add Howard to the list of servants disposed of when they had outlived their usefulness? The answer lies in the hereditary principle. Henry, for all his faults, was a very good judge of character. He placed trust in men of talent - Wolsey, More, Cromwell, Cranmer - irrespective of rank. Such gifted but lowly-born men had another important advantage: they were expendable. The same was not true of the aristocracy, men whose families had, for generations, buttressed royal power. These were the leaders who controlled England's shires, the generals who led England's armies, the diplomats who represented England to foreign dignitaries. Henry needed them and he could not alienate men who had loyalties to class as well as Crown.

So Thomas Howard survived - and survived to continue his intrigues. In 1543 he was involved in a failed plot to destroy Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. In 1546 Henry's last queen, Catherine Parr was the victim of another reactionary plot. By this time traditionalists were really worried about the country's future. Henry was nearing his end and would be handing on the crown to his under age son, Edward. The threat to Norfolk and his associates was that during the impending regency real power might lie with the boy king's uncle, Edward Seymour, and his friends. And they were committed to further reforms. Norfolk, as England's premier peer, believed that 'ruin' could only be averted if he had control of the ruling council but he was circumspect. Not so his son, the Earl of Surrey. For boasting of the Howards' royal connections and displaying those connections in the family's coat of arms he was arrested, tried for treason and executed. His father was detained for complicity and he, too, was sentenced to death. The beheading was planned for 28 January 1547. During the preceding night Henry VIII breathed his last. The new regime chose to leave the old duke in the Tower to die of natural causes. By surviving into his eighties in the reign of Catholic reactionary, Mary Tudor, he became the only one of the Six Thomases to die peacefully in his bed. He died believing that the dangerous years of Henry VIII were long passed and the 'good old ways' restored. He was spared the final disillusionment.
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Further reading:

D.M. Head, The Ebbs and Flows of Fortune: The Life of Thomas Howard,  Third Duke of Norfolk, Athens, Georgia, 1995

G.W. Bernard, The King's Reformation, New Haven, 2005

J. Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, London, 2008,

D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court, London, 2001

Next Week: 5. Thomas Wriothesley - A Man of Pliable Conscience

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