The Parish Church of St George the Martyr, Waterlooville

Sir Robert Howard, born  1385 Died 1426

Sir John Howard (1st Duke), born 1420  Died 1483 at Bosworth Field

Thomas Howard (2nd Duke), born 1444 Died 1524

Thomas (3rd Duke), born 1473 Died  1554

Thomas (4th) Duke, born  1538   beheaded 1572

Thomas, 4th Duke of Norfolk, is the tragic hero of the Howard family and his death marked the end of an epoch in the history of England. The story of his fall and the events leading up to his execution are as improbable as a Verdi Opera! A devout Protestant all his life, Thomas was supposed to have been a leading conspirator in a Catholic plot to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots.

Thomas was weak and had a lack of foresight which left him at the mercy of his enemies who had superior political skills. Though it cannot be proved one way or the other, it is highly unlikely that Thomas was in any way involved in the plot. False evidence seems to have been manufactured to bring him to the block.

Almost every aspect of Thomas’ life  is documented with unusual precision which makes him the first Englishman other than Royalty for whom a full biography is possible. He was born at Kenninghall at 36 minutes and 7 seconds past 2 o’clock on the morning of 10th March 1538. As a child he lived at Kenninghall, his tutor being the internationally renowned scholar Hadrianus Juniuis. He was only eight when his father was executed and his grandfather imprisoned and Kenninghall was confiscated by the Crown. He and his brother were handed over to his aunt, the Duchess of Richmond, to bring up in her house at Reigate. It was her influence which moulded Thomas’ sincere and life long inclination to Protestantism.

On the accession of Mary and the restoration of his grandfather to power, he was restored as Earl of Surrey and created a Knight of the Bath. He was appointed one of the gentlemen of the bedchamber to Philip II (husband of  Mary).

He succeeded his grandfather as 4th Duke of Norfolk and Earl Marshall of England and became the greatest landowner in the kingdom, heir to 56 manors, 37 advowsons, and many other estates.

In the spring of 1556 he married Lady Mary Fitzalan, daughter of the Earl of Arundel. They had a son, Philip, in June 1557 but the Duchess never recovered and died 8 weeks later to the great grief of the Duke. Short though the marriage was it had the great effect of bringing Arundel Castle and the Fitzalan estates in Sussex to the Howard inventory.  

In common with the practice at the time Thomas soon remarried, this time to Margaret, Lady Dudley and their eldest son by the marriage, Thomas, inherited Audley End in Essex.

The accession of Elizabeth to the throne made Thomas a close relation of the monarch as the Queen’s mother, Anne Boleyn, had been a Howard. As Earl Marshall he organised the coronation and the ongoing feast in Westminster Hall, and as premier Peer he looked forward to a brilliant future. He was the kingdom's sole Duke and the richest man in the land. His total income was 4,500 per annum, but he still found it hard to live within his means due to the expenses of Court life. He had to borrow money from time to time and sought the advice of Sir Thomas Gresham a leading financial expert of the day. It was his need for money that linked him to the Florentine banker Roberto Ridolfi in 1569 which may have been the very start of his downfall.

He spent small fortunes updating the various Norfolk properties and investing in paintings and other art. He built a bowling alley and a covered tennis court. His estate was worth not much less than the whole realm of Scotland. He bought the Charterhouse in London from Lord North and renamed it Howard House. He took an army to the Border regions in 1560 to counter the French influence in Scotland and was successful in that it ended in the withdrawal of French troops from Scotland and broke the alliance between those two nations for ever.

He returned to Court and was admitted to the Privy Council in 1562 and found himself one of the three main contestants for power at court alongside ‘Mr Secretary’ Cecil, (Later Lord Burghley) and Robert Dudley (soon to be created Earl of Leicester),  Norfolk’s antipathy to Leicester began a struggle for supremacy at Court which began his slide from power.

Thomas’s second wife died giving birth to a third son, William, and this deeply affected him, even more so than his father’s execution or his first wife’s death. His third marriage was to Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Thomas Leyburne, one of the most powerful magnates of the North. Thomas arranged the marriage of his three stepdaughters to his own sons.  

Only 9 months later the Duke was again bereaved when Elizabeth died, again in childbirth on 4th September 1567. It was at this time that Mary Queen of Scots fled from her kingdom to England and Norfolk was appointed as Commissioner to investigate Mary’s complicity in her husband Darnley's murder. It was during this time that Norfolk developed a plan to marry Mary, restore her to her Kingdom and cement the Anglo-Scottish alliance. The idea developed rapidly in his mind and the more he thought about it the more he liked it. The work of the Commission had ended with no clear conclusion, but Thomas stayed in the North for some time presumably progressing these plans. However, by this time, Elizabeth was beginning to suspect Norfolk’s partiality to Mary. She asked him to his face but he vehemently denied that such a thought was in his mind.

In theory there was no reason why Norfolk could not marry Mary. He was the richest Peer in the land and a widower, and there should have been no obstacle to such a union. However the plan would need the goodwill of a great many people not least the Queen herself and Lord Burghley.  Unfortunately he had denied it to the Queen for fear she should think it a traitorous idea. Also he had fallen out with Burghley over relationships with the Spaniards which Norfolk backed but to which Burghley was fiercely opposed.

The Duke was a simple person and was unable to spot where a seemingly friendly exterior could hide personal hatred. This was the case between him and Burghley as Burghley believed him to be a threat to his own political power. The Duke almost by accident had drifted into a power struggle in which his limited intellect was little match for the wily Burghley. Burghley watched and waited and when the Duke continued with his marriage plans without telling the Queen his fate was sealed. His enemies pounced, and amid a lot of disquiet over the future with Mary’s adherents plotting to put her on the throne he was sent to the Tower under suspicion of treason. He remained there for 10 months. When he was released he remained under suspicion and was watched day and night by Burghley’s spies, headed up by the redoubtable Walsingham.


The Ridolfi plot to unseat Elizabeth and replace her with Mary began to unravel with the arrest of a young messenger, Charles Bailey, purportedly carrying letters from Ridolfi, and Norfolk became firmly trapped in its centre like a fly in a spider’s web. His involvement was the most obscure part of the whole Ridolfi conspiracy and a sub plot was invented to enmesh him. He was betrayed by servants who meddled with his correspondence to give a treasonable slant to otherwise innocent letters. A bag of gold was ‘discovered’ on its way to some dissidents in Scotland and this was apparently being carried by Norfolks’ servants. Norfolk was arrested and was tried in Westminster Hall on 16th January 1572.  The Peers judging the case were carefully chosen from Norfolk’s enemies. He denied any part in any rebellion or intrigue but he was nevertheless found guilty of treason and condemned to death.  

The Queen signed the death warrant on 6th February 1572 but she had qualms about letting the execution go ahead and it was delayed for several months. However on 2nd June 1572 the sentence was carried out. He was just 34.

The death and attainder of the 4th Duke was a blow to the Norfolk family fortunes which took half a century to begin to restore. This was the third confiscation of the Howard estates. Later James I restored the estates but this was not to the senior branch of the Howards. Instead he divided them between different members of the family to stop anyone becoming that powerful again. There were to be some half hearted attempts to retrieve the situation but today all that the Duke of Norfolk holds in East Anglia is a mere shadow of what once was, and  Arundel Castle became the principal seat of the Dukedom.

Tony Rice-Oxley





Summer Edition 2010

The Dukes of Norfolk - the fourth Duke