The Treacherous Duke of Norfolk

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Thomas Howard, the Fourth Duke of Norfolk, was a victim of his own grandeur. He believed himself to be at the summit of the social order, felt anyone beneath him undeserving of a say in government, had staggering confidence in his own superiority and was drawn to power like a moth to a flame. These personality traits, coupled with the dramatic events of his lifetime, led him into a bizarre sequence of alliances and schemes, only for his pride to precede his fall.

Thomas Howard was raised by his aunt, the Duchess of Richmond. Howard’s family had been some of the most powerful figures in England during the reign of Henry VIII; Thomas’ grandfather, the third Duke of Norfolk, had seen two of his nieces (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) marry Henry. However, the King had eventually grown suspicious of the Howard clan due to their insistence on clinging to Catholicism. He had executed the young Thomas Howard’s father, the Earl of Surrey, and had been on the verge of executing Howard’s grandfather on his own deathbed, but as the King slipped in and out of consciousness, he was unable to sign the death warrant. Thomas Howard, possibly learning the lessons of family history, was a firm Protestant, albeit a Protestant with strong associations, and some suspected sympathies, to the English Catholic community.

In 1554, Howard became the Duke of Norfolk upon the death of his grandfather. Four years later, the Elizabethan Age began. Norfolk rapidly became a favourite of the new Queen; the two were, after all, both Protestants, cousins and able to benefit from the other’s strength. Norfolk successfully organised the coronation, and soon became renowned as England’s premier peer, yet he powerful rivals. Robert Dudley, a close friend since childhood (and an alleged lover) of the Queen, held enormous sway at court and was almost perpetually at odds with Norfolk. Yet Norfolk reserved most of his bile for the third member of this tempestuous trinity, William Cecil. The blue-blooded Duke couldn’t comprehend why the Queen was heeding the advice of a man he saw as “low-born”. Accordingly, he treated Cecil with a condescending arrogance that only bred mutual hatred. 

Dudley and Cecil, who were themselves far from on friendly terms, collaborated to have Norfolk appointed Lieutenant General of the North. In theory, this was a prestigious role tasked with expelling French forces from Scotland. In reality, it involved being away from the centre of power for months and a winter march through Scotland. Just when Norfolk appeared to be making progress, William Cecil arrived in time to broker a peace agreement. Adding insult to injury, Cecil then demanded that Norfolk, commander of English forces in Scotland, stop interfering in Scottish affairs. Although the peace agreement broke the Franco-Scottish alliance and began diplomacy with France, Norfolk was far from pleased. When he returned to London, his feud with Dudley exploded. The two began violently insulting one another and, in the Queen’s presence, began physically assaulting each other. Elizabeth forced a reconciliation, but relations between the two remained extremely poor.

The main issue England faced was the appointment of Elizabeth’s heir. All in Court remembered how England had oscillated between Catholicism and Protestantism after every succession since Henry VIII’s death. If the Virgin Queen would not produce an heir, the Protestant nobility was determined that they would control her successor. The only serious candidate was Elizabeth’s (and Norfolk’s) cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Originally married to the Dauphine of France, Mary had returned to her homeland after her husband’s death. She was now seeking suitors. Though she was a Catholic and later presented herself as a religious zealot, Mary wished at this time to play down her religion in an effort to appease the vocal Protestant forces in Scotland. Elizabeth strongly urged her to marry Norfolk, trusting he would serve as a skilled consort who could protect English Protestants after her own passing.

At first, Mary refused Elizabeth’s offer and married Lord Darnley, a weak and vacillating Scottish noble. By 1568, however, events had taken a dramatic turn. Mary had fled Scotland, after she had (almost certainly) helped blow her husband up and then pardoned and married the chief culprit, James Hepburn. A coup in Scotland had forced her to flee south, where Elizabeth had placed her effectively under house arrest. Mary now began trumpeting herself as a Catholic crusader, and became a nexus for anti-Elizabethan plots. She began to seek an alliance with the most powerful man in the kingdom, Norfolk, and offered to marry him. Norfolk, perhaps naively assuming Elizabeth would still be supportive, began planning to gain Mary’s hand. 

However, Cecil fiercely opposed this union. He was concerned both for his safety and that of his monarch; Norfolk’s marriage would have ultimately doomed his political career, and it seemed that Norfolk had played some shadowy role in a 1569 uprising of northern earls. Elizabeth heeded Cecil’s council, and an incredulous Norfolk was led, bewildered, to the Tower of London. After nine long months in captivity, Norfolk eventually renounced all plans to wed Mary and left the Tower.

Yet Norfolk would renege on his promise. Robert di Ridolfi, an Italian banker based in London, began orchestrating an attempt to overthrow the Queen. Catholic agents would assasinate Elizabeth, while a Spanish army would simultaneously invade England to support Mary’s new regime. Norfolk was hardly enthusiastic about this plan, but reluctantly agreed to meet Ridolfi and eventually gave his support. 

By their very nature, intelligence services are secretive organisations. Accordingly, it is impossible to fully understand five centuries after the event why the Ridolfi plot failed. Some have argued Ridolfi was in fact a double-agent in Cecil’s employ, while others suggest Cecil personally tortured information from his rival’s Secretary. Regardless, Elizabeth immediately arrested Norfolk and imprisoned in the Tower once again. Relentlessly snobbish to the end, Norfolk completely believed he would be swiftly released on the grounds that the man bringing charges against him, Cecil, was so socially beneath him that he would be unable to mount a successful prosecution. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen. The Queen wished to make an example of the treacherous Duke, while both Dudley and Cecil were urging her to remove a rival of theirs.

Despite this, Elizabeth was still deeply reluctant to execute the man who had once been her closest confidante. Eventually, Cecil summoned a meeting of Parliament in May 1572 specifically to pressure Elizabeth’s hand, and Elizabeth relented, perhaps hoping that by executing Norfolk she would have no need to dispose with her other troublesome cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. The Fourth Duke of Norfolk was executed on 2 June 1572. He was the first man beheaded during Elizabeth’s reign, and the Queen allegedly wept with sadness upon hearing of his death. 

Robinson, J., 1995. The Dukes of Norfolk. Phillimore

Williams, N., 1964. Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk. Barrie and Rockliff