Thomas Howard, a minor East Anglian landowner’s son, survived the Wars of the Roses and the reigns of six kings to become Duke of Norfolk and, arguably, one of the most influential figures of the early Tudor period. Yet his achievements have been largely forgotten 500 years after his death. His biographer, Kirsten Claiden-Yardley, aims to change that, as she tells Historia.
Tudor England has been of perennial interest to writers and readers alike. The dramatic and transformational events of the period, combined with a cast of complex, ambitious, and often devious characters, have inspired numerous novels, documentaries, films and television series. Henry VIII and his wives, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, Elizabeth I and many others are familiar names. However, behind these renowned figures is a lesser-known man, Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk, without whom the course of Tudor history would have been quite different.
Ironically, given his later career and influence, he was originally neither a supporter of the Tudor regime or of the preceding Lancastrian faction. Nor was he born heir to a noble title. He was the eldest son of John Howard and Katherine Moleyns and, at the time of his birth in 1444, his father was a relatively minor East Anglian landowner.
However, he did have one family connection that would prove to be invaluable: through his paternal grandmother, Margaret Mowbray, he was a distant cousin to the 15th-century Dukes of Norfolk. This would help Thomas and his father establish their careers and reputations, and meant that the Howards had a claim on the Mowbray family lands when the line went extinct with the death of Anne Mowbray in 1481.
Throughout Thomas’s childhood, his father was a member of the Duke of Norfolk’s household, noted for his temper and frequent role as an ‘enforcer’ for his noble cousins in disputes with their neighbours. East Anglia was particularly prone to neighbourly conflict during the Wars of the Roses with the two leading noble families in the region – the Mowbrays and the de Veres – supporting opposing sides.
The Dukes of Norfolk were pledged to the Yorkist cause and the Howards followed their lead. John Howard became an increasingly senior member of Norfolk’s household and, at the same time, built up his wealth via shipping and trade. This provided a stepping stone into royal service under Edward IV first for himself and then for his son.
Whilst a number of Yorkist adherents defected to the exiled Henry Tudor when Richard III seized the throne, Thomas and his father remained loyal to the new king. It has even been suggested that they were complicit in both the arrest and execution of William, Lord Hastings, and the murder of the Princes in the Tower, although the evidence for this is highly circumstantial.
They were rewarded for their loyalty by Richard III who granted John Howard the title of Duke of Norfolk and Thomas the title of Earl of Surrey. Richard’s trust in them was justified as they remained faithful until the very end and led his vanguard at the Battle of Bosworth. For Thomas, loyalty came with a high price. His father was slain on the battlefield while he was seriously injured and thrown into the Tower of London.
Despite this extremely unpromising start to a new era in English history, Thomas successfully turned the situation around and emerged as a leading figure of the new regime.
His rehabilitation began in 1489 when he was released and sent to Yorkshire to deal with a tax rebellion that had escalated with the murder of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. He spent the next ten years in the north of England, relocating his family to live at Sheriff Hutton castle. In return he was restored as Earl of Surrey and gradually able to reclaim or purchase back the lands that he had lost.
During this period, he had the first of three encounters with James IV of Scotland, who invaded England in support of Perkin Warbeck. The incident culminated with James IV challenging Thomas to single combat; an offer that was respectfully declined by Thomas. When he was finally recalled south, Thomas was welcomed into the heart of the Tudor government and appointed Lord Treasurer.
He had already secured the marriage of his eldest son, Thomas, to one of the Queen’s sisters and was trusted with a number of duties close to the royal family – escorting Princess Margaret to her marriage to James IV of Scotland, and arranging the funerals of Prince Arthur and the Queen.
When Henry VII died in 1509, Thomas was one of the leading political figures after the king. That he did not emerge as the leading minister is largely down to the rapid rise of Thomas Wolsey. However, unlike some of his contemporaries, he tolerated the newly elevated status of the ‘butcher’s son’ and remained influential.
More troublesome for him was his age. As an elderly relict of the Wars of the Roses he did not easily fit into Henry VIII’s circle of glamorous, young companions who were keen to translate their jousting and hunting prowess into martial glory.
Henry VIII invaded France in 1513, leaving Catherine of Aragon to act as his Regent with Thomas and his sons supporting her. It was both a measure of Henry’s trust in him and a deliberate exclusion from the royal army. Fears of a Scottish invasion proved correct and, at seventy years of age, Thomas had his final encounter with James IV.
Outnumbered and in the strategically weaker position, his army secured an overwhelming victory in a battle that ended with the death of the Scottish king. His own achievements in France overshadowed by the fighting in England, Henry VIII was left with little choice but to reward Thomas with the title of Duke of Norfolk.
When Thomas died in May 1524, it was the end of a remarkable life which spanned 81 years, the Wars of the Roses, the rise of a new dynasty and the reigns of six kings.
He had married twice and had ten surviving children. His descendants would play a pivotal role in the political, social and cultural developments of the following decades. Among them, his grandson, Henry Howard, credited with introducing blank verse to England; his granddaughters, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard; and his great-granddaughter, Elizabeth I.
It is time to recognise his legacy and his role in the events of 15th- and 16th- century England.
Kirsten Claiden-Yardley is a freelance researcher and heritage consultant.
Her first book, The Man Behind the Tudors: Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, is published on 30 January 2020.