Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516/1517 – 19 January 1547), KG, (courtesy title), was an English nobleman, politician and poet. He was one of the founders of English Renaissance poetry and the last known execution by King Henry VIII. He was a first cousin of both Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Catherine Howard, second and fifth wives of King Henry VIII. His name is usually associated in literature with that of Wyatt, was the younger poet of the two. He was the son of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey and when his father became Duke of Norfolk (1524) the son adopted the courtesy title of Earl of Surrey. Owing largely to the powerful position of his father, Surrey took the prominent part in the Court life of the time, and served as a soldier both in France and Scotland. He was a man of reckless temper, which involved him in many quarrels, and finally brought upon him the wrath of aging and embittered Henry VIII. He was arrested, tried for treason and beheaded on Tower Hill.

Henry Howard
Earl of Surrey
A controversial painting of Surrey in 1546 with the arms of his royal ancestors Edward II (left) and Edward III (right)
Coat of arms
Arms of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, KG
Bornc. 1517
Hunsdon, Hertfordshire
Died19 January 1547 (aged 29–30)
Tower Hill, Tower of London, London
BuriedChurch of St Michael the Archangel, Framlingham, Suffolk
Noble familyHoward
Spouse(s)Frances de Vere
FatherThomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk
MotherLady Elizabeth Stafford


He was born in Hunsdon, Hertfordshire,[1] the eldest son of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk by his second wife Elizabeth Stafford, a daughter of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham. He was thus descended from King Edward I on his father's side and from King Edward III on his mother's side.


He was brought-up at Windsor Castle with Henry FitzRoy, 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset, the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII. He became a close friend, and later a brother-in-law, of Fitzroy following the marriage of his sister to him.[2] Like his father and grandfather, he was a brave and able soldier, serving in Henry VIII's French wars as Lieutenant General of the King on Sea and Land.

He was repeatedly imprisoned for rash behaviour, on one occasion for striking a courtier, on another for wandering through the streets of London breaking the windows of houses whose occupants were asleep.[2] He assumed the courtesy title Earl of Surrey in 1524 when his grandfather died and his father became Duke of Norfolk.[3]

In 1532 he accompanied Anne Boleyn (his first cousin), King Henry VIII, and the Duke of Richmond to France, staying there for more than a year as a member of the entourage of King Francis I of France. 1536 was a notable year for Surrey: his first son was born, namely Thomas Howard (later 4th Duke of Norfolk), Anne Boleyn was executed on charges of adultery and treason, and the Duke of Richmond died at the age of 17 and was buried at Thetford Abbey, one of the Howard seats. In 1536 Surrey also served with his father in the suppression of the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion against the Dissolution of the Monasteries.[3]

Marriage and progeny

He married Frances de Vere, a daughter of John de Vere, 15th Earl of Oxford,[1] (by his wife Elizabeth Trussell) by whom he had two sons and three daughters:


The Howards had little regard for the "new men" who had risen to power at court, such as Thomas Cromwell and the Seymours. Surrey was less circumspect than his father in concealing his disdain. The Howards had many enemies at court.[5] Surrey himself branded Cromwell a 'foul churl' and William Paget a 'mean creature' as well as arguing that 'These new erected men would by their wills leave no nobleman on life!'[6]

Henry VIII, consumed by paranoia and increasing illness, became convinced that Surrey had planned to usurp the crown from his son the future King Edward VI. Surrey suggested that his sister Mary FitzRoy, Duchess of Richmond and Somerset (a widow of Henry's son Henry Fitzroy) should seduce the aged King, her father-in-law, and become his mistress, to "wield as much influence on him as Madame d'Etampes doth about the French King". The Duchess, outraged, said she would "cut her own throat" rather than "consent to such villainy".[7] She and her brother fell out, and she later laid testimony against Surrey that helped lead to his trial and execution for treason. The matter came to a head when Surrey quartered the attributed arms of King Edward the Confessor. John Barlow had once called Surrey "the most foolish proud boy that is in England" and, although the arms of Surrey's ancestor Thomas Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk show that he was entitled to bear Edward the Confessor's arms, doing so was an act of pride. In consequence, the King ordered Surrey's imprisonment and that of his father, sentencing them to death on 13 January 1547. Surrey was beheaded on 19 January 1547 on a charge of treasonably quartering the royal arms. His father survived execution as the king died the day before that appointed for the beheading, but he remained imprisoned. Surrey's son Thomas Howard became heir to the Dukedom of Norfolk in place of his father, which title he inherited on the 3rd Duke's death in 1554.


He was buried in Framlingham Church in Suffolk, where survives his spectacular painted alabaster tomb.

Literary activity and legacy

He and his friend Sir Thomas Wyatt were the first English poets to write in the sonnet form that Shakespeare later used, and Surrey was the first English poet to publish blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) in his translation of the second and fourth books of Virgil's Aeneid. Together, Wyatt and Surrey, due to their excellent translations of Petrarch's sonnets, are known as "Fathers of the English Sonnet". While Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, it was Surrey who gave them the rhyming meter and the division into quatrains that now characterises the sonnets variously named English, Elizabethan, or Shakespearean sonnets.[8][9]

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was portrayed by actor David O'Hara in The Tudors, a television series which ran from 2007 to 2010.[10]



  1. "Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey", Poetry Foundation
  2. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Sixteenth/Early Seventeenth Century, Volume B, 2012, pg. 661
  3. Chisholm 1911.
  4. Jessie Childs, Henry VIII's Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007), plate 35.
  5. Jessie Childs, Henry VIII's Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007).
  6. Jessie Childs, Henry VIII's Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), p. 1.
  7. Hart, Kelly (1 June 2009). The Mistresses of Henry VIII (First ed.). The History Press. pp. 194–197. ISBN 0-7524-4835-8.
  8. The Shakespearean Sonnet
  9. Sonnets
  10. "Cast: Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey". The Tudors. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2 January 2015.

Further reading

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