Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Crests, Blood and Power – The Howards' Rise in Tudor Times

By Lizzy Drake

Photo 1: Framlingham Castle, the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk (Holly Stacey)

The Howard dynasty in Tudor times was a highly rich and powerful one, but there was a time when their precious heads were on the proverbial block before being given a chance to prove themselves loyal to the 'new' Tudor crown. Having been Yorkist and fought for Richard III where Henry Tudor took the crown at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the family was viewed with suspicion, not in part for the fact that they had a Plantagenet lineage and could, with the backing of loyal Howard and old Yorkist ties, easily have attempted to take the crown for themselves. Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, was stripped of his title and lands and sent to the tower for three years. The former Duke was, however, clever enough to know how to show his loyalties had changed, for when an opportunity for escape from the tower came, he refused to take it. Who knew that his family would land so close to the king in the form of two queens. Or, perhaps, Thomas Howard had a keen sense of destiny, for the years to come allowed him to show both his guile and servitude in rising back to his position and beyond.

While Thomas Howard was in prison, his family and heirs were still expected to serve the crown and country, providing from their own pocket to help defend and serve it. The Howard male children were educated in court and also taught to train in combat for any upcoming threat. Thomas Howard II was also betrothed to the queen's sister, Anne but because the alliance was so threatening to the current monarchy, their vows were postponed until 1495, though it was the Queen who had to provide her sister and husband 20 shillings a week (Denny, p.21). In 1503, Margaret Tudor was escorted by the Howards to her groom, King James IV and then later, both Thomas Howards travelled on an embassy to Flanders, an obvious show of trust and by the time the crown passed to Henry VIII, the Howards had managed to become an invaluable asset.

It proved a good move for Henry VII not to have executed Thomas Howard, as he proved to be a superb ally both in court politics and, in particular, in the battlefield. It was at the Battle of Flodden (during Henry VIII's reign, and where the Scottish king lost his life) Howard truly proved his worth, fighting so valiantly, he earned back his family title of Duke of Norfolk, while his son, also a Thomas Howard, took the title Earl of Surrey (soon to be passed down to his own son, as Thomas Howard the elder was an aged 70 years by this point and soon to be laid to rest).

Photo 2: portrait of Thomas Howard 2nd Duke of Norfolk

In fact, things were going so well for the Howards by late 1513 that they had fortune enough to make many repairs on their family estate at Framlingham Castle, rebuilding the gatehouse and adding the coat of arms above it, putting up highly decorative Tudor chimneys and the chambers adjoining the gatehouse to accommodate the castle porter and staff. The coat of arms, still visible today as visitors enter the castle, is highly chipped, but a beautiful reminder of the seat of power the Howards held with the Tudors from this upward turning point.

Photo 3: The Howard coat of arms on the new gatehouse built in 1513 (Holly Stacey)

The Howards adopted the motto, Sola virtus invictia, 'Virtue alone invincible'. Their coat of arms was 'red with a silver stripe between six silver crosses', with the crest of a lion 'on a chapeau (Denny, p 20).” Though a contemporary drawing of the Howard coat of arms for Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (beautifully shown in the Framlingham Castle Guidebook), included the cross with the three-pointed label in his arms which was Edward the Confessor's emblem, in which claimed the royal ancestry. Evidently, claiming to be royal blood was too dangerous to broadcast, especially to a king who wanted to eliminate all potential rivals in an increasingly dangerous court, although at the time, there was a power struggle between the Seymours and the Howards. While the very ill King Henry VIII was waning, the Seymours were concerned that the Howards would make a bid for the throne by putting the rightful heir, Edward, aside, and ascending though their Plantagenet bloodline; something they were supposedly able to do should the king have no heir, or as puts it:

'Returning to England in 1546, he found the king dying and his old enemies the Seymours incensed by his interference in the projected alliance between his sister Mary and Sir Thomas Seymour, Jane’s brother; he made matters worse by his assertion that the Howards were the obvious regents for Prince Edward, Henry VIII’s son by Jane Seymour. The Seymours, alarmed, accused Surrey and his father of treason and called his sister, the Duchess of Richmond, to witness against him. She made the disastrous admission that he was still a close adherent to the Roman Catholic faith. Because Surrey’s father, the Duke of Norfolk, had been considered heir apparent if Henry VIII had had no issue, the Seymours urged that the Howards were planning to set Prince Edward aside and assume the throne. Surrey defended himself unavailingly and at the age of 30 was executed on Tower Hill. His father was saved only because the king died before he could be executed ('

Photo 4: Henry Howard (wiki photos)

The Howards created an amazing dynasty for themselves and it was clear that they took family honour to the absolute limit and coupled it with unparalleled ambition for power cutting just shy of actually seizing the throne, though it does seem evident that Henry Howard had this intent. Historians often dwell on the two women who, through the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, found themselves as Henry VIII's queens, and the other, who produced some of his illegitimate children, but it may be said that without the cleverness, patience and political acumen of Thomas Howard the elder and the younger, neither would have worn their crown, nor indeed, would the family have risen from the ashes like a phoenix of lore.


deLisle, Leanda; Tudor, The Family Story; Vintage Press, London 2014
Denny, Joanna; Katherine Howard, A Tudor Conspiracy; Piatkus, 2005
Doran, Susan; The Tudor Chronicles 1485-1603; Metro Books, New York
Elton, G.R.; England Under the Tudors; Routledge, 1991
English Heritage; Framlingham Castle

Online references:


 A Corpse in Cipher amazon.comLizzy Drake has been studying Medieval and Tudor England for over 15 years and has an MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York, England. She has been writing for much longer but the Elspet Stafford Mysteries began her writing careen in the genre. The First Elspet Stafford book, A Corpse in Cipher - A Tudor Murder Mystery, is available now.

When not writing or researching, Lizzy can be found reading or gardening. She balances time between her two homes in Essex, UK and California.

You can follow her on Twitter (Lizzy Drake@wyvernwings)

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