Saturday, June 2, 2012

On This Day in Elizabethan History: The Execution of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk in 1572.

On This Day in Elizabethan History, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk was executed for treason in 1572. Howard was a victim of his own pride, a trait characteristic of many members of the noble Howard family. While Norfolk's fall from power and subsequent beheading was entirely his own fault, he was not always treacherous. Today, I look back at the events and personal actions that led the man Queen Elizabeth called "her cousin" to wind up without his head.

A portrait of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (b.1536-ex. 1572). Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
As the Earl of Surrey and as the Duke of Norfolk, (as of August 1554 when his grandfather the 3rd Duke of Norfolk died) Thomas Howard enjoyed great favor during the reign of Queen Mary I, starting with the prominent role he played at her coronation. Howard was particularly close to Queen Mary's husband, King Philip, serving as his first gentleman of the chamber upon his arrival in England. King Philip became the godfather to Howard's son, named Philip in his honor (DONB).

The 16th century marriage portrait of Queen Mary I of England and King Philip II of Spain (and their dogs!). They married in 1554. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
1558 was a year of personal and political change for Howard, in that he married his second wife, Margaret Audley the same year that Elizabeth Tudor succeeded to the throne of England. Elizabeth recognized Norfolk as a man of great importance personally and politically, as he was her maternal relative and the most powerful man in England. In April of 1559 she made him a knight of the Garter and promptly ordered Norfolk to Scotland to drive out the French troops stationed there under their regent, Mary of Guise (Palmer, 38); however Norfolk boldly refused since he championed the idea that Elizabeth could better protect her kingdom from France by marrying Charles, the Archduke of Austria. By November 1559 Norfolk had resigned himself to be obedient, and accepted his post to provide supplies for the defense of Berwick and negotiate with the locals. Still, despite Norfolk's lofty pedigree, few deferred to him, and documents show that it was Sir James Croft and Sir Ralph Sadler who were in charge of negotiations and correspondence with the Privy Council (DONB). This bred resentment in Norfolk who felt it was his right to be in charge.

A 16th century portrait of Margaret Audley, the daughter and heiress of Thomas, Lord Audley, whom Norfolk married in 1558. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Common. Image public domain.
During the siege of Leith, which ultimately failed, causing the queen to do her best to correct the situation, (Palmer, 39) Norfolk remained outside of the action, instead taking charge of the reserves. When William Cecil arrived to negotiate the terms of the Treaty of Edinburgh in August, Norfolk skulked home to England, disgruntled from what he considered to be his ill-use.

But things improved for Norfolk when the 1560's brought him many accolades, including becoming a member of Gray's Inn, being sworn in as a member of the Privy Council, and traveling with Queen Elizabeth on one of her visits to Cambridge University. Still, all these honors paled in comparison to the favors and appointments the queen gave to Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Norfolk made no secret of his intense dislike for Leicester, which of course did not make him popular with Elizabeth. In 1565 the two even had a particularly intense exchange in the presence of Her Majesty, for which she reprimanded them and ordered them to find some common ground and reconcile (DONB). This truce could not have come at a better time, because in January 1566 the French king selected Leicester and Norfolk as the two most powerful men in the English kingdom to become knights of the Order of St. Michael, an esteemed position which would cause them to spend a lot more time together. Queen Elizabeth's Secretary-of-State William Cecil kept a watchful eye on Norfolk, suspicious that his pride would one day get him into trouble. Cecil's premonition, as usual, would prove to be correct.

A portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester painted in the 1560's. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
The following year saw Norfolk embroiled in a domestic and legal suit, which was righted just in time for another upheaval.  In 1568 Queen Mary Stuart of Scotland was deposed by her own people following the suspicious death of her second husband, Lord Darnley; she fled to England against the express wishes of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, that she not do so in haste. Elizabeth was apprehensive as to how to deal with the impulsive, disobedient Stuart cousin who had landed on her doorstep, so she set up a commission in York to look into the matter (DONB). As the only Duke left in England, Thomas Howard was appointed as one of the three commissioners. Norfolk dangerously urged the Queen to recognize Mary's claim as successor to the English throne; this was his solution to the ever-present succession crisis. On October 11th the now infamous Casket Letters were passed on to the panel of commissioners; the Casket Letters were a series of correspondences that heavily implied the Stuart Queen's suggestion and support of the murder of her second husband at Kirk o'Field. Norfolk, at least in the beginning, was convinced of the Scottish Queen's guilt (Anderson, iv.76).

This miniature of Mary, Queen of Scot's was done during her captivity by Queen Elizabeth's premiere court painter, Nicholas Hillard. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Despite this, Norfolk got it into his head that the best solution for the reckless, possibly murderous Scottish queen's presence in England was to have her married to an English peer. Norfolk arrived at the conclusion that that peer could be none other than the most powerful man in England; himself. Norfolk became convinced that if he could only wed Mary Stuart, the English succession would be safe and he could guide the Stuart queen in matters of government and religion in the future. Of course, the silver lining for Norfolk in this arrangement was that he would become King of England.

A portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots in the Blairs Museum. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Common. Image public domain.
The verdict of the commission of York was that Mary was guilty of approving the murder of her husband; the council at Westminster arrived at the same conclusion. Even so, Norfolk arranged that Maitland of Lethington should go to Queen Elizabeth's court as an envoy of Scotland to propose Mary Stuart's marriage to Norfolk. Norfolk began his correspondence with the Scottish lords in preparation for the future that he was hoping to arrange for himself and Mary, his prospective fourth wife. 

In 1569 Queen Elizabeth became more aware than ever of her subjects fears about the future of the monarchy in England. Without a declared heir to the throne, and with the Queen masterfully juggling marriage proposal's to suit her own political needs, her subjects were worried. Even Leicester, along with the earls of Pembroke and Arundel supported the idea of the Norfolk/Stuart marriage. Mary Stuart had been contacted by the faction, and they received her support. On July 1st Norfolk wrote in a letter that, "he had proceeded so far in the marriage that with conscience he could neither revoke what he had done, or with honour proceed further till such time as he should remove all stumbling-blocks to more apparent proceedings" (Burghley Papers, i.520).

A 16th century portrait of Henry Herbert, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke. Herbert was one of the leading figures in Queen Elizabeth I's court that supported the idea of Norfolk marrying Mary Stuart. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Common. Image public domain.
Norfolk must have known inherently that the secretive negotiations he was involved in were bordering on treason; he surrounded himself with a cloud of intrigue and deceit, and rather than broach the subject of a prospective marriage between himself and Mary with Queen Elizabeth herself, he instructed others to introduce the idea before her for him. If Norfolk had been so sure that what he was doing was within the acceptable code of behavior, he would have confidently made his case with the queen himself.

Another brooding portrait of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Conveniently, on August 27th the English council declared that it was their opinion that Mary's presence in England could best be monitored and controlled if she were to marry an English nobleman. But even at this point, Norfolk failed to declare himself openly as a candidate. Elizabeth did not suffer fools gladly, nor was she a stranger to court intrigue, and if Norfolk thought the queen was unaware of his plotting, he had greatly underestimated her. Everything we know of Elizabeth I and her effective reign shows us that she knew a rat when she saw one; this was no exception. Norfolk began to feel the Queen's eyes watching him, and on Sept 15th he left court (DONB)

Still as duplicitous as ever, Norfolk fired off two letters of conflicting motive; one was to the Earl of Northumberland, instructing him not to support a Northern uprising to spring Mary Stuart from her house arrest, as he knew the Scottish queen to be heavily guarded. The other was to Elizabeth I herself, declaring his loyalty to the crown. Queen Elizabeth ordered Norfolk to return to court, but he feigned illness to avoid a confrontation. By October 2nd, Elizabeth's intelligence had more evidence than ever that Norfolk was up to something and he was put under house arrest at Burnham (DONB).

Norfolk thought everything would be resolved in due time. Ever a Duke and ever a Howard, he seems to have truly believed that he had the support of the people in his agenda. In due time, he was to be proven sorely mistaken. On October 8th he was taken to the Tower while his friends and household servants were questioned. Still, at this time the government was unable to obtain a definitive piece of evidence that proved Norfolk's actions were not merely shady, but purely sinister. 

Even languishing in the Tower, Norfolk still did not seem to understand the gravity of his situation. He wrote to Elizabeth and Mary simultaneously, and to both pledging his unquestionable devotion. Mary believed Norfolk, pledging to be "yours faithful to death"; Elizabeth, of course, did not.

The stunning full-length Hapden Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, painted 1563 by Steven van der Muelen. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Norfolk eventually had the good sense to admit that he had been wrong in his campaigning to marry Mary, and that he would henceforth be a faithful subject to his queen. On August 3rd, 1570 Queen Elizabeth had Norfolk commuted to his residence at the Charterhouse until she could figure out what to do with him (DONB). If Norfolk's newly-sworn allegiance had been genuine he likely would have been pardoned and returned to some form of public life. But instead, he carried on in his negotiations with Mary. Supporters of the deposed queen now appealed to Spain for help; they wanted King Philip to assistance in an uprising against Queen Elizabeth to place Mary on the throne. Norfolk's personal ties to King Philip and his own ambition led him to become a principal conspirator in what has become known as the Ridolfi plot, after the Italian banker whom Norfolk hired to act as a go-between between himself and the king of Spain. Norfolk's implicit instructions to Ridolfi that helped to prove his guilt in court can still be read today.

A 16th century portrait of King Philip II of Spain, by female court painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Providently, Norfolk's secretary entrusted a ciphered letter enclosed in a bag to a merchant from Shrewbury. Walsingham and Cecil's informants alerted them of this development, and Norfolk's secretary was arrested and examined. He revealed enough to give cause for Queen Elizabeth to have Norfolk arrested, interrogated and sent to the Tower again. Norfolk was unrepentant, passionately professing his innocence, saying:

"What! Should I seek to marry her, being so wicked a woman, such a notorious adulteress and murderer? I love to sleep upon a safe pillow. I count myself, by you Majesty's favor, as good a prince at home in my bowling-alley at Norwich, as she is, though she were in the midst of Scotland. And if I should go about to marry her, knowing as I do, that she pretendeth a title to the present possession of your Majesty's crown, your Majesty might justly charge me with seeking your own crown from your head." (quoted in Queen Elizabeth I, by J.E. Neale)

Once all of the pieces of the puzzle were assembled, including admission from the Earl of Northumberland to Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon of his and Norfolk's involvement in the plot, (Palmer, 26) it was decided on January 16th, 1572 that Norfolk would be put on trial for high treason. Norfolk was found guilty of conspiring to marry without his sovereign's permission, and instigating and arranging a plot to enlist Spain to invade England and place Mary Stuart on the throne. Despite this extreme betrayal by one of the leading figures in her court, the queen delayed the execution as long as possible. Unlike her predecessors, Queen Elizabeth was always reluctant to shed blood, even when there was just cause. On June 2nd, 1572 Thomas Howard, the 4rth Duke of Norfolk shared the same fate of his equally proud father, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey who was beheaded in 1547.

A 16th century portrait of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon by Steven van der Muelen. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
The Dictionary of National Biography sums up the personal faults that caused Thomas Howard to wind up on the chopping block, saying, "He took up the project of marrying Mary, because he believed that his position in England was a sufficient guarantee against all risks. He trusted to his personal popularity, and to the exertions of others. His first failure did not teach him wisdom."

There would be no more Duke's in England under Elizabeth I.

The Pelican Portrait of Elizabeth I, by Hillard c. 1575. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.


Palmer, Michael. Reputations: Queen Elizabeth I. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1988. Print.

"Howard, Thomas III (1536-1572)". The Dictionary of National Biography. Mandell Creighton.Vol. 28. 1885-1900. Print.