On this day in history : 13th January 1547 – Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey – courtier, soldier and poet – is found guilty of treason and is sentenced to death….

Born around 1517 in Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, Surrey was the eldest son of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard….and was descended from Royalty on both sides of his family…. It was upon the death of his grandfather, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk in 1524, that he gained the title of Earl of Surrey….

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Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey – Artist : Hans Holbein the Younger

Surrey was a bright child; at the age of 12 he could translate Latin, Italian, French and Spanish – his father made sure he had the best education…. It was around this time he became companion to Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond – who was the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII…. The two boys spent their time at Windsor and became close friends….Surrey was even considered as a potential husband for the King’s daughter, Mary (later to become Queen Mary I) ~ a suggestion put forward by Surrey’s first cousin, Anne Boleyn….

In 1532 Surrey and Richmond accompanied King Henry to the court of King Francis I of France – and the pair of young men ended up staying in the French court for almost a year…. Here they gained cultural graces – and it is possible that it was when Surrey developed his passion for poetry….as he became acquainted with the work of Luigi Alamanni – Italian poet and statesman….

Surrey and Richmond returned to England in 1533 – and within a short time both were to be married – Richmond to Surrey’s sister, Mary – and Surrey himself to Lady Frances de Vere, daughter of the 15th Earl of Oxford…. However, Surrey and his new bride did not actually live together as man and wife until 1535 – on account of their young age…. They went on to have five children, two sons and three daughters….

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Frances de Vere by Hans Holbein the Younger C.1535 – public domain

1536 proved to be a turbulent year for Surrey; it was the year his first child was born, a son – but other events were not nearly as happy…. His cousin Anne Boleyn was executed – and his beloved friend Henry Fitzroy died, aged just 17…. In October 1536 Surrey served alongside his father to quash the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ – a rebellion protesting against King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries…. Surrey was a good soldier – and his family had a long history of loyalty to the Tudors….

By all accounts Surrey was an arrogant, vain, boorish, reckless, rash and ambitious man….with a contempt for the lower class of nobility – the ‘new men’ of the court – the likes of Thomas Cromwell and the Seymours, a family who were old rivals of the Howards’…. Surrey was a dashing and formidable character and although he had his enemies within the court, he also had plenty of friends….but his vanity and reckless ways were to eventually contribute to his downfall….

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Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey – 1546 Painting attributed to William Scrots

His troubles really began when Jane Seymour became King Henry’s Queen…. Surrey had always been popular with the King in the past – but his popularity declined as the Seymours rose is favour after the marriage…. The Seymour family began to scheme….in 1537 they accused the Howards of sympathising with the Pilgrimage of Grace…. An unwitting courtier happened to repeat the slander in court – Surrey reacted in his typical hot-headed way – by striking his fellow courtier….an action that landed him in imprisonment…. It was whilst confined in Windsor, by order of the privy council, that he penned one of his most well-known poems – ‘Prisoned in Windsor’ – in which he recounts his childhood days….

Surrey – (along with fellow poet and friend, Thomas Wyatt) – was responsible for the introduction of the sonnet to English poetry…. He has to be noted as one of the founders of English Renaissance Poetry and for his contribution to English literature…. Without his input the works of the likes of William Shakespeare would have undoubtedly been very different to how we know them – for it was Surrey who gave the rhyming meter and division into quatrains that gives us the Shakespearean sonnet…. Surrey was also the first poet to publish blank verse – regular metrical but un-rhyming lines…. Much of Surrey’s poetry would likely have been written during the two years he was held at Windsor….

By the 1540s he was back in favour at court….and was made a Knight of the Garter in May 1541 – and received the honour of Steward of the University of Cambridge…. But he was not to mellow – he still had his hot-headed moments and outbursts…. In 1542 he was imprisoned after quarrelling with another courtier….and again in 1543 after going on a drunken rampage – smashing windows in a London street…. It was during this particular stay in prison that he composed his ‘Satire against the Citizens of London:London, hast thou accused me’….

King Henry’s health was failing – and he began to view Surrey – with his powerful family connections – as a real threat, some would say to the point of paranoia…. He became convinced Surrey was going to attempt to usurp the crown from Prince Edward, his son and heir…. Things came to a head when Surrey foolishly incorporated Royal arms and insignia into his own heraldry – to prove a point as to his own Royal descent….

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The arms for which Surrey was attainted (Edward the Confessor’s arms are in the fifth quarter with a label of three points plain…. Silver&Gold CC BY SA 4.0

Surrey – and his father – were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, on the charge of treason…. On the 13th of January 1547 they were found guilty and sentenced to death…. Surrey put up a spirited defence at his trial (which lasted a day) – but to no avail…. Several other claims were brought against him, such as being a secret papist….there was no real evidence to any of the charges – but he was still condemned….

Surrey was beheaded on the 19th of January – on Tower Hill…. His father was more fortunate; King Henry VIII died before the scheduled execution and the Duke of Norfolk was pardoned and released by Queen Mary I….

Surrey was buried at All Hallows’ Church in Barking…. However, in 1614 his second son, Henry, Earl of Northampton had his father’s remains moved to St. Michael’s at Framlingham, Suffolk – the family church…. Surrey was laid to his final rest in a magnificent tomb….

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Image credit : Steve Parker via Flickr

His poetry, although circulated at court, only became really known 10 years after his death…. Printer Richard Tottel published ‘Songs and Sonnets written by the Right Honourable Lord Henry Howard late Earl of Surrey and other’ – (now generally known as ‘Tottel’s Miscellany’) – a collection of 271 poems – 40 of which are by Surrey and 96 by Thomas Wyatt….

Alas! so all things now do hold their peace,
Heaven and earth disturbed in no thing.
The beasts, the air, the birds their song do cease,
The nightes car the stars about doth bring.
Calm is the sea, the waves work less and less:
So am not I, whom love, alas, doth wring,
Bringing before my face the great increase
Of my desires, whereat I weep and sing
In joy and woe, as in a doubtful ease.
For my sweet thoughts sometime do pleasure bring,
But by and by the cause of my disease
Gives me a pang that inwardly doth sting,
When that I think what grief it is again
To live and lack the thing should rid my pain.
                               - Henry Howard
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Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey National Portrait Gallery

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