Henry VIII’s Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
By Jessie Childs
St. Martin’s Press, 2007
They captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and so for the year 2008 Steve Donoghue will encompass their comings and goings, their makings and unmakings. Open Letters presents the third installment of Steve Donoghue’s Year with the Tudors.
|Biographers and armchair physicians for centuries have clambered over the wreckage of Henry VIII’s body and sought to know the cause of it. In his final years, the King had grown so fat he could scarcely move himself – he had to be trundled around his various residences by a series of winches and pulleys, aided by the heaving of many courtiers. Partly this was due to unchecked gluttony and lifelong carousing; Henry at 55 surrounded himself with many boisterous young men and foolishly tried to keep pace with them, both at the banqueting table and on the jousting field. He’d taken bad falls while at the hunt, and at age 44, while in full armor, he’d fallen from his tournament mount and the horse (also armored) fell on top of him. He’d lain unconscious for hours, the succession had been brought up in nervous whispers, but he’d recovered.|
There had been diseases, too, although far fewer than was usual in those plague-stalked years. A bout of smallpox, some surges of malaria, but in large part Henry’s remarkable vitality carried him along faithfully through a rough-lived life. There was one malady that hounded him and steadily worsened with the passage of time. It was an open wound on his right leg, and it has exercised the speculation of generations of scholars.
Professor Scarisbrick thinks it was “a varicose ulcer resulting from varicose veins”:
Inadequate and often savage treatment together with lack of sufficient rest, would have caused the veins to become thrombosed, the leg to swell, and an extremely painful chronic ulcer to develop on his thigh.
Sir Arthur MacNulty leans more toward osteomyelitis, which was, as Scarisbrick summarizes, “a chronic septic infection of the thigh bone (in Henry’s case) perhaps caused by an injury sustained while jousting, would have brought about a discharge of pus (as well as pieces of necrosed bone) and allowed the King those periods of remission which, we know, he enjoyed.”
Whatever the diagnosis, the result was the same: Henry spent most of his adult life – and especially his last years – in near-constant (and constantly worsening) pain, which would only have sharpened the barbs of a personality which was plenty actinoid to begin with. He retained his acuity of mind to the very end of his life, but those about him had to step warily indeed.
And none moreso than those in the precarious position of favorites. Virtually every English monarch indulged in this most personal of excesses – bestowing favor on someone in defiance of those more senior councilors who’d longer earned it, showering these individuals with gifts and titles and actual missions. The allure of the favorite is easy to trace: monarchs are often paradoxically the least free of those in their realms. Their tutoring, pastimes, marriages, and divorces are all closely-watched matters of state, and everyone around can, must be suspected of seeking ambitious advancement, not friendship. Kings and queens see a sliver of that elusive connection in choosing a favorite – and it’s certainly no accident that most favorites are young and attractive: for queens, that is the romance they might have had, if their choosing had been their own, and for kings, that is the youth they might have had, were it not for statecraft and council-chambers. Edward II’s dalliance with Gaveston caused his nobles to rise against him; Elizabeth I’s long reign was colored first by her favors to the Earl of Leicester and then by her infatuation with the Earl of Essex. Queen Victoria, in favoring John Brown, gave expression to a whimsy that never appeared in her official demeanor.
Even so bluff and self-satisfied a monarch as Henry VIII yielded occasionally to the favoriting impulse – particularly when the favorite in question inadvertently triggered Henry’s long-frustrated yearning for a son.
Of such young men, none shone so brightly as Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, who receives his latest full length biography in Henry VIII’s Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey by Jessie Childs. Surrey’s career was meteoric, but to be the favorite of such a choleric man as Henry was a tricky business, made even trickier by the fact that Henry was goaded almost every day by savage pain. His caprices grew more unpredictable, and once his malice was enflamed, he wasn’t always picky about its object. His later queens handled these vicissitudes with varying degrees of success, and by all rights Surrey should have been perfectly adept at doing so. His family, the Howards, were the most powerful in England. His father the Duke of Norfolk was the king’s foremost nobleman. Two of his cousins – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – had been queens to Henry. Surrey himself was the close friend of the young Duke of Richmond William Fitzroy, Henry’s bastard by Bessie Blount, and Surrey’s sister Mary became Richmond’s wife. Even by the time he was a teenager, Surrey should have been as adroit as any of his mighty sires at sensing the moods of the monarch.
Two things hampered this: the first, as mentioned, was the matter of the king’s traitorous leg, constantly draining pus and sometimes throwing blood clots that seized the King’s lungs or racked him with fevers for days on end.
The second was Surrey himself, once called a ‘foolish proud boy.’ He saw all the great events of the reign during his lifetime, was present at the trials of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, aided his father in dispersing an insurrection known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, and in his mid-twenties was a cup-bearer to the King and commander of his military forces. He was a dashing, formidable young man, and nobody was more aware of that fact than he. As Childs points out, no Tudor courtier had his portrait painted more often than Surrey did. This was vanity and pride of place, yes, and it’s ironic that for all that painterly effort, none of those portraits captures the peculiar fire of the young man (a pencil sketch by Holbein, done when Surrey was 18 and now in the Royal Collection, comes the closest: Holbein caught the danger in the eyes that so many found so compelling). Childs takes on the task of capturing that fire in words, and she succeeds admirably.
Surrey was probably born in 1517, in Hertfordshire, and was Norfolk’s oldest son and heir. While still only a teenager he accompanied Henry VIII to war in France, and in the next decade was to see military action in many theaters, including France and Scotland. He matched this martial activity with all the other requisite courtier indulgences, most famously the writing of poetry: even if Childs’ book is a runaway success, Surrey will likely always be found more readily in anthologies than in biographies. He married Frances de Vere, the Earl of Oxford’s daughter, and although his designation as the Earl of Surrey was a courtesy title (deriving from his father’s noble status), he quickly absorbed from Norfolk and his circle a dislike for the up-and-coming parvenu advisors gaining ascendancy in Henry’s court.
The contempt the Duke of Norfolk felt for the ‘new men’ at court (figures such as Thomas Cromwell and the Seymours) he carefully concealed and controlled; Surrey felt that same contempt and gave it free and exceedingly unwise voice. The Howards had many enemies at court, and an intemperate young firebrand like Surrey, prone to breaking things and striking people, was a godsend to anybody seeking to bring the Howards down. They were aided in this by the King’s griping pain, which blurred the discretion with which he usually manipulated his nobles and his creatures.
But it was Surrey alone who furnished most of the ammunition his family’s enemies needed. He had failed to achieve English victories at Boulogne and St. Etienne during Henry’s ill-fated wars against France and should have realized how precarious that made his standing with his ailing king, but rather than let these setbacks advise him, he ignored them and continued to rail against the ‘new men’ cropping up all over Henry’s court. Against these ‘new men’ his rancor grew so great that it may have prompted him to the act that guaranteed his downfall: he quartered the arms of Edward I with his own on new escutcheons, to underscore the ancient blood of his family. The object of this exercise (and the point of Surrey’s public comments that after the death of the King, his father Norfolk would be the most fitting man to rule the council) could only be to announce Howard designs on the minority of young Prince Edward. In light of Henry’s savage temper and dynastic paranoia, this was an act of almost inconceivable folly, and Surrey’s enemies pounced. He was arrested and marched to the Tower to await trial.
All of this is set before a new generation in Jessie Childs’ excellent new book, a painstakingly researched and energetically written work that should stand as the definitive biography of Surrey for a very long time. She has been into all the great manors of England, and she has sifted through all the great public libraries (the unique and oddly comforting nature of English noble aristocratic biography can be seen in the fact that Childs’ acknowledgments include the current Duke of Norfolk) in search of her quarry. She has of course read through Surrey’s voluminous poetry, but it should be said this is not a particularly literary biography; its author would, I think, be the first to admit as much. Surrey’s numerous poems are only spottily invoked, and then only in the service of fleshing out a biography. What literary genius her subject might possess Childs seems content to allow others to explicate; her readings of what poems she mentions are pretty much explicitly autobiographical. This can be helpful – Surrey very often wrote autobiographically – and what it leaves unexamined (he was, tragically, possessed of real poetic talent) bears little weight on the narrative Childs has in mind.
She takes a very agreeable relish in conducting that narrative – one might say an almost Tudor relish – in the privilege and perversity of it all. She is not so dazzled by the glitter of her period as to ever forget its seedier side. She’s as good with butchery –
Two-and-a-half years later, [expatriate Catholic Reginald] Pole’s sixty-eight-year-old mother was executed by an inexperienced headsman who resorted to hacking wildly at her writhing body
– as she is with visceral disgust:
Catherine [Howard] had initially reveled in her status as Queen. The gifts, the clothes, the jewels, the new respect, the demands that were actually met, the sycophants, the adoration, the adulation – this was heady stuff for a girl just out of her teens. But with the privileges had come the duties, not least the sharing of the King’s bed. Henry was fat, balding, and lecherous and his body was in a state of decay. Catherine had to lie beneath this wheezing, sweating hulk as the foetid bandages, saturated with pus from his suppurating ulcers, sponged her legs.
|That ‘sponged her legs’ is amply sufficient grounds for us all to love our present author, and the rest of the book amply repays such love. Childs has a great corker of a story to tell; Surrey the proud courtier-poet has fired the romantic imagination since the moment of his fall. Thomas Nashe lampooned him in The Unfortunate Traveller; Pope took up the story in Windsor Castle; Sir Walter Scott wrote of it The Lay of the Last Minstrel; W. Harrison Ainsworth (“Esq”) wrote his own historical romance, Windsor Castle, featuring a positively Byronic Surrey (Childs nowhere mentions this bottled historical bilge-water – it can only be hoped she was spared its breathless excesses). She keeps her distance from this heady stuff – for the most part. Her prose occasionally slips into jarring vernacular – Anne Boleyn’s adultery charges are “sexed up,” a campaign into Scotland is characterized as “shock and awe,” sumptuous banquets are described as “conspicuous consumption,” the King is rather Sex and the City-ishly described as “a flop in bed.” Sometimes her pursuit of a figure of speech stretches it into perhaps inadvertently comic dimensions:|
Anne [Boleyn, naturally] was queen bee no more and it became increasingly apparent that it might suit the King well if someone swatted her.
And alongside this tendency is one a bit more persistent and a bit more distracting, a penchant for breathless starstruck cataloging of a type better suited to Majesty Magazine than any sober history:
The nobility attempted to close ranks on 3 July 1536 with a stupendous triple wedding that reinforced the ties between some of England’s oldest families. Surrey’s brother-in-law Lord John de Vere married Surrey’s cousin Lady Dorothy Neville, the daughter of the Earl of Westmoreland, who had been Surrey’s mother’s childhood sweetheart and had subsequently married her sister. Another of Westmoreland’s daughters, Lady Margaret Neville, wed Lord Henry Manners, heir to the Earl of Rutland, who had strong links with the Howards, while Rutland’s daughter Lady Anne Manners married Westmorland’s heir Lord Henry Neville.
It doesn’t help any that she refers to this shin-dig as an “exclusive society event.”
(Also, at one point she describes a character who “spluttered” something in his own defense, which is arresting if only because the activity sounds more vascular than vocal)
But these are quibbles in the face of a book as mightily researched and pleasantly presented as this one. The straining implausibilities of some contemporary historians she wholesale avoids by hewing so close to her bounty of recondite primary sources that although she cites and sometimes uses contemporary works, she spends most of her time amidst dusty codicils squirreled away in humble repositories and grand marbled libraries. She scarcely ever grounds an observation or original insight in secondary material, and the result must at times have been difficult for her, since she’s clearly fond of her subject and he wasn’t always – or even often – an easy young man to be fond of. He was prone to bluster (perhaps he even spluttered, when the mood was on him), and he was often crass or hypocritical. He was also a jerk to his wife and especially to his children, although this was so common among Tudor nobility that the lengths to which Childs goes to acquit him of it seem excessive.
She is likewise proud of her subject’s literary feats, however scanty her treatment of them might be. She is always willing to defend every last claim Surrey has to immortality:
This form [a sonnet with the rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg], so suited to English with its comparative scarcity of collective rhyming words, was subsequently adopted by Shakespeare and so masterful was his handling of it that it is often referred to as ‘the Shakespearean sonnet’. But it was the twenty-year-old Surrey’s creation.
But throughout her story stalks a dying king, and it’s one of the ironies of Henry VIII’s Last Victim that Childs keeps a sharper eye on that dangerously volatile figure than the book’s titular subject did. Henry had always been a dangerous ruler – the famous Tudor temper saw to that – and Childs leaves no illusions about how this situation had worsened toward its end:
Like the medlar fruit that he gorged upon at state banquets, Henry seemed only to ripen with his own corruption. As his physical health deteriorated, he evolved into the worst kind of tyrant: paranoid, vindictive, unpredictable and desperate to prove his ‘absolute power and independence of everyone.’
She keeps careful watch on this, and all Henry’s biographers need to keep it in mind, but there can be no doubt Surrey himself came to ignore it, with fatal consequences. Childs makes a fine lawyer’s argument asserting, correctly, that displaying the arms of Edward I alongside his own was not technically treason: the display was not a Crown prerogative, and the Howards had always had the right to it. But she’s no fool; she knows as well as anybody (except, alas, Surrey) that an act may be technically right and still disastrously wrong. Deliberately provoking Henry could only have one outcome, and the fact that Surrey did it can have only one possible explanation: he was looking ahead to the council that would govern until Edward came of age (his comments about his father leading that council underscore this), assuming his ailing monarch was no longer an active player in the drama.
This was an exceedingly stupid assumption to make about any king, much less this one, and from his sickbed Henry struck. Both Surrey and his father the Duke of Norfolk were arrested, ostensibly on the grounds that the former had committed sedition and that the latter had silently condoned it, but in reality because the Howards had signaled one too many times that they would make trouble for the young prince’s rule, once Henry was gone. That thought Henry could not abide, and we can see him through his handwriting on the list of accusations, crossing out phrases, sharpening others, personally, lethally attentive.
Childs’ account of Surrey’s trial is utterly fascinating (as is her reconstruction of what was likely an attempt on his part to escape from the Tower); even though the accused never really had a chance, he fought vigorously for his life, countering and debating every witness brought against him, including his own sister Mary, who was “too wise for a woman” in her father’s opinion and who gave evidence not only about the heraldry charge but also that Surrey suggested she attempt to seduce the king. Surrey protested that he was being accused by the words of a mere woman, but he might have said it – seducing Henry was, after all, an old Howard tactic. In the end he was condemned to death, as was his father the Duke.
Norfolk famously got his reprieve because Henry died the night before the axe was to fall. Surrey had no such luck; the King had held on long enough to let the headsman do his work. Surrey spoke for a long time from the platform, defending himself to the end and likewise condemning the new-made creatures he blamed for his downfall. Childs does what she can to defend her charge, essentially pleading that if he didn’t have much sense, he certainly had much style:
Had he only acquiesced to the dynastic union with the Seymours, things could have been very different. But Surrey’s defiant aristocratic singularity disqualified him from any kind of alliance. He envisaged no other way after the King’s death than a noble protectorate headed by the Howards. As far as Surrey was concerned, the ‘new erected men’ had no right to govern.
Whether or not they had any right to govern, these ‘new erected men’ had every ambition of doing so, and old blooded aristocracy like the Howards would adapt or share rash Surrey’s fate. There was danger in this adaptation, but in general it paled in comparison to the dangers these new men – and their families – were braving in order to inch their way closer to the perilous power-center that was the Tudor throne. Our next chapter will examine some of those dangers – and the fates of some who were crushed by them.
Steve Donoghue received a surprise inheritance as a young man that enabled him to spend much of his life travelling the world with packs of dogs and reading anything that could be read. These days he has been partially domesticated in South Boston and he hosts the literary blog Stevereads.