Of all the characters that made up Henry VIII’s court, perhaps none are as famous as his second wife, Anne Boleyn, except the King himself. Equally as notorious was the family behind her – the Boleyns, yes, but also the immensely powerful Howards. At their head was Anne’s uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (her mother, Elizabeth, was his sister).
By the time Thomas ascended the dukedom in 1524, he was already a central figure in Tudor politics. Ten years later, when his niece was on the throne, he seemed unstoppable. Indeed, he was a force to be reckoned with, even up against the skills of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. Like a cat with nine lives, he managed to survive Anne’s downfall in 1536. He saw life again when another of his nieces, this one via his brother, Edmund, married Henry as his fifth wife – the ill-fated Katherine Howard. Once again, he made it through her divorce and execution in 1542.
It wouldn’t be until his eldest son and heir, Thomas, Earl of Surrey, began to eye the throne in preparation of Henry VIII’s death that father and son would be arrested in December 1546. Surrey would be executed on January 19, 1547, while Norfolk would be granted a reprieve by Henry VIII dying before his execution was carried out. His life spared, he spent Edward VI’s reign in the Tower of London, only to be released when Mary I ascended the throne in 1553 and he was duly restored to his offices and titles for the remainder of his life.
History has not been kind to him, but it has also rarely focused on him exclusively. He’s a bit player in the saga of his famous nieces, especially Anne. He shows up on our screens and in novels with regularity – as the scheming, ambitious uncle and courtier. The merciless old duke that didn’t bat an eye at the sacrifice of his family at the altar of politicking.
Frankly, there’s not a lot of evidence to rebut these characterizations of him. But what they often ignore, focused so closely on his familial relationship with Anne and Katherine, is that he was also King Henry’s uncle by marriage. This is, of course, not an unknown bit of history, but it’s worth acknowledging its significance all the same. Indeed, the Howards’ rise to power is as interesting as what they did once they had it.
This particular Norfolk’s story begins, as it often does, with a marriage – on February 4, 1495, during the reign of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, Thomas Howard married the Queen of England’s younger sister, Anne of York. The bride was 19, the bridegroom about 22. It was an advantageous marriage, one that the Howards were fortunate to make, for though they had money and prominence, this particular line had also only recently been titled, and their luck had been made during the changing tides of the so-called Wars of the Roses.
Thomas’s grandfather, John Howard, was descended from both King John and Edward I, but when John’s father died in 1436 he was a mere knight, known as Sir Robert Howard. The maternal side of his family was a bit more directly illustrious, his mother, Margaret de Mowbray, being the daughter of Thomas de Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk. During his youth he was educated in the household of his kinsman, John Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk.
At the age of 17, in 1442, John married Lady Katherine Moleyns and started his political career. He was elected to Parliament in 1449 and served intermittently through the 1450s. He was also loyal to the House of the York from the get-go as tensions rose between the royal court and Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. When York’s son assumed the throne as Edward IV in 1461 and secured his final devastating victory against the House of Lancaster at the Battle of Towton, the new king knighted John on the field.
John did well for himself under Edward IV. He was appointed to various positions of importance, and was even chosen to accompany Edward’s sister, Margaret, when she married the Duke of Burgundy in 1468. By the time Edward was deposed in 1470, he had amassed a fortune and was styled Lord Howard.
It was during this time that John’s wife, Katherine, died – in November 1465 – leaving behind six young adult and adolescent children. He swiftly married again, this time to Margaret Chedworth, daughter of Sir John Chedworth.
Luckily for John, Edward wouldn’t be deposed for long. He returned to the throne in the spring of 1471 after securing a final victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury, which saw the death of the Lancastrian heir, Prince Edward of Wales. Henry VI, who had been kept in the Tower of London since 1465, was executed shortly thereafter to help ensure there would be no further insurrections.
And John continued to prosper, being admitted to the Order of the Garter in 1472. It was this year, on April 30, 1472, that his eldest son, Thomas (our Thomas’s father, and so I will call him Tom for the rest of this post to avoid confusion), made an fortuitous match with the widowed Lady Elizabeth Bourchier (née Tilney). Elizabeth was a lady-in-waiting to King Edward’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville, and seemingly had a close relationship with the royal family.
However, everything changed in 1483 when Edward IV died and he was succeeded by his still-minor son, Edward V. Within two months, Edward IV’s younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, had gained custody of his nephews, stationed them in the Tower of London, and declared himself King Richard III. This was excellent news for the Howards, for John and Margaret were close friends with Richard and his wife, Anne Neville.
John and Tom were both active members of Richard III’s government and court – loyalty which was repaid handsomely when Richard made John the Duke of Norfolk on June 28, 1483. Tom, as his heir, became the Earl of Surrey.
Edward’s widow, Elizabeth Woodville, and her daughters fared less well. They were declared bastards by their uncle’s government and spent a little under a year in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. Anne of York, Thomas’s future wife, was among those princesses – she would have been seven and eight at the time.
In the first few months of 1484, Richard convinced Elizabeth to leave sanctuary and she tentatively joined the Ricardian court, her daughters in tow. The question of what to do with these girls was awkward – they were royalty, they had been raised as princesses, and their mother had been crowned queen, but legally they were bastards. Nevertheless, they were an intriguing match for England’s noble families and it was during this time that a marriage between Anne of York and Thomas was arranged.
Richard’s reign would be brief. He was deposed by the final Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22,1485. John, alongside his king, would be slain on the field.
This left his son and grandson in an unenviable position. During the first Parliament of the new Henry VII that autumn, Tom would be attainted as a traitor, stripped of his title and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Thomas and his siblings remained with their mother in London.
Life for Anne, on the other hand, was on the upswing. Henry Tudor’s ability to lay claim to the English throne was strengthened by his promise to marry the eldest of Edward IV’s daughters, Elizabeth of York. Henry and Elizabeth would be married in January 1486, while their eldest child would be born a mere eight months later in Winchester. The Tudor dynasty had been secured.
Betrothals arranged by Richard for the younger York princesses were broken, and Anne, along with her sisters, Cecily and Katherine, were raised in the new queen’s household.
Tom, meanwhile, had his work cut out for him in establishing loyalty to the new king. When given an opportunity to rise against Henry VII in 1487 he refused to leave the Tower in a nod of respect to the Tudor regime, a move that appeared to work. In 1489 Tom would be restored to the Earldom of Surrey and shortly thereafter he would be sent to Yorkshire on the King’s behalf, where he remained for the next 10 years. His wife, too, would be restored to the family’s good graces and allowed to serve Elizabeth as a lady-in-waiting.
It can be safely assumed that the Howards were familiar with the daughters of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. The Countess of Surrey, in particular, was likely exposed to and socialized with Anne of York on a regular basis throughout the girl’s childhood. It’s likely, too, that she was strongly in favor of a match between Anne and her son, if for no other reason than it would be hugely significant in re-establishing her family.
Once restored to their titles, Thomas’s parents wasted no time in petitioning to re-betroth him to Anne. And, luckily for them, Henry VII was uninterested in arranging matches with foreign princes for his sisters-in-law, likely fearing that providing any Yorkist with money and military aid was a good way to jeopardize his own grasp of the crown. Thus, a match between Anne and the Howard family worked well for Henry’s agenda.
The wedding took place in February 1495 in Westminster Abbey, attended by both families. Once married, Anne was styled, “Lady Howard,” with the expectation that she would eventually become the Countess of Surrey. It’s likely, too, that both the Howards and Anne expected that the family would eventually be restored to the dukedom of Norfolk, elevating Anne once more.
Unfortunately, from here on out we lose sight of the relationship, likely because Anne left court. Perhaps relieved to have an excuse to step away from an environment that had already cost her so many family members during her youth, Anne lived quietly. We know that within a year of their marriage, she gave birth to a son, christened Thomas after his father and grandfather. He would die at the age of 12 in 1508. We know, too, it is likely there were two more sons – William and Henry – who also died young, as well as at least one stillborn baby whose gender is unknown. Strangely, given the strong fertility on both sides of their families, the couple was not able to produce a child that lived into adulthood.
In 1503, Elizabeth of York died after giving birth to her last child. Six years later she would be followed by her husband, Henry VII. The new monarch was Anne’s nephew, Henry VIII.
By this point, the Howards were firmly back in favor. In 1499, Tom had been summoned back to court, made a member of the Council in 1501, and played a pivotal role in arranging the marriage of the Prince of Wales with the Infanta Katherine of Aragon. When Henry VII died, Tom even made a play for the new king’s first minister, a role that eventually went to Thomas Wolsey.
In 1513, when Henry and the rest of the court’s men departed for war in France, Tom was kept behind to protect England’s borders against Scotland with Queen Katherine acting as regent. The following year, Tom was rewarded for his service and finally allowed to inherit his father’s title as the 3rd Duke of Norfolk. They were back on top.
However, in the interim between Henry VIII ascending the throne and restoration of the dukedom, Anne of York died at the age of 36. Her place of death is unknown, but it’s dated at November 23, 1511. She was buried at the Thetford Priory in Norfolk alongside other members of the Howard family. During the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s and 1540s, led by her nephew, her body would be re-interred in the Church of St. Michael in Suffolk.
Since we know so little about the relationship between Thomas and Anne, it’s impossible to know to what extent he mourned her. Certainly she provided a direct link between the Howard family and the Tudors, one that he would later try unsuccessfully to re-create through his nieces.
In any event, before January 8, 1513 Thomas re-married Anne’s first cousin, Elizabeth Stafford (both their mothers were Woodvilles.) The marriage, while fertile, would be miserable and the couple unofficially separated in 1527. When Thomas died on August 25, 1554 he pointedly left his second wife out of his will altogether. He was buried at St. Michael’s alongside Anne and the rest of the Howard family.
For more, see From Normandy to Windsor