Earl of SurreyOn this day in history, the 19th January 1547, the poet, courtier and soldier Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and son of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was executed by beheading on Tower Hill. He was laid to rest at All Hallows-by-the-Tower (All Hallows Barking) but was moved in 1614 by his son Henry, Earl of Northampton, to a beautiful tomb in the family church, St Michael’s at Framlingham.

He had been found guilty of treason on the 13th January 1547 at a common inquest at Guildhall, where evidence was given “which concerned overt conspiracy as well as the usurpation of the royal arms”1. It was alleged that “he had on 7 October 1546 at Kenninghall displayed in his own heraldry the royal arms and insignia, with three labels silver, thereby threatening the king’s title to the throne and the prince’s inheritance”2, yet when he had been arrested in December the questions had focused on “his determination for the rule of the prince; his procuring his sister to be the royal mistress; his slandering of the royal council; and his plans to flee the realm”3, not his use of the royal arms and insignia. His trial lasted a day and he gave a spirited defence but it was no good, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Historian Susan Brigden writes of how Surrey spent his last days in the Tower writing, paraphrasing Psalms 55, 73 and 88, “the prayers of the psalmist abandoned and betrayed, thinking upon death and judgment”4. His work showed not only his sense of betrayal but also his evangelical religious beliefs.

He was executed on Tower Hill on the 19th January 1547 but his father, the Duke of Norfolk, who had also been setenced to death for treason, escaped execution because Henry VIII died before his scheduled execution. Norfolk was released and pardoned by Mary I in 1553 and died naturally on 25th August 1554.

Susan Brigden writes of how Surrey was “the first poet in English to explore what might be said without rhyme” and he is viewed as one of the founders of English Renaissance poetry and “Father of the English Sonnet”, along with Thomas Wyatt and, I believe, George Boleyn. You can find Surrey’s poetry and also his paraphrases of Psalms 55 and 88 at Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature5. I’ll leave you with one if his poems:-

Set me whereas the sun doth parch the green…

Set me whereas the sun doth parch the green
Or where his beams do not dissolve the ice,
In temperate heat where he is felt and seen;
In presence prest of people, mad or wise;
Set me in high or yet in low degree,
In longest night or in the shortest day,
In clearest sky or where clouds thickest be,
In lusty youth or when my hairs are gray.
Set me in heaven, in earth, or else in hell;
In hill, or dale, or in the foaming flood;
Thrall or at large, alive whereso I dwell,
Sick or in health, in evil fame or good:
Hers will I be, and only with this thought
Content myself although my chance be nought.

Notes and Sources

  1. Susan Brigden, ‘Howard, Henry, earl of Surrey (1516/17–1547)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature

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14 thoughts on “19 January 1547 – Execution of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey”
  1. I think the execution of Henry Howard was one of the most shameful acts of Henry VIII’s reign. It’s up there with the destruction of the Boleyns. Not even Cavendish, and his pious hypocrisy, could find anything negative to say about him, or that his death was in any way justified.

    1. I always thought that the most horrendous act of Henry VIII was executing Margaret de la Pole, the Countess Salisbury who was 70 years old at the time. Including members of her family because of hatred for her son Reginald, Cardinal Pole. A young grandson was supposedly one of the executed. Next comes his divorces with and beheadings of his wives, his infidelities and insecurities and pathological narcissism. Executing the Earl of Surrey was just many of the litany of nasty deeds done by the monarch.

    1. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was the son of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, so a member of the powerful Howard famly. He was friends with the poet Thomas Wyatt and he, Wyatt and George Boleyn were famous court poets in Henry VIII’s reign. He was also a soldier and was involved, with his father, in squashing the rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace. He also fought in the North and Scotland in the early 1540s and was sent to fight in France in October 1543. He was in France again in 1544 and witnessed the fall of Boulogne. Susan Brigden writes “In mid-July 1545 the earl was in attendance upon the king as he inspected his navy in the Solent for its readiness against a French invasion. On 21 July Surrey went as emissary to Lord Admiral Dudley aboard the Harry Grace à Dieu to learn his thinking concerning an attack upon the French fleet. That summer he was sent to command the vanguard of the army to defend Boulogne. By 9 August 1545 he had marshalled 5000 men, and on 15 August he sailed to Calais to gather a further 3000. In early September he was appointed lieutenant-general of the king on sea and land for all England’s continental possessions”, so his military skills and know-how were obviously recognised by the King. Unfortunately, Surrey and his men suffered a terrible defeat in France in January 1546 and he ended his life in disgrace.

    2. Hi Magdalena,

      There are a few biographies of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey:

      Jessie Childs, Henry VIII’s Last Victim (2007)
      Hester Chapman, Two Tudor Portraits: Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and Lady Katherine Grey (1960)
      W. A. Sessions, Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey: A Life (2003)

      I’ve read the firs two (which are good) but not the third as for some reason it’s ridiculously expensive. There is also quite a bit about Surrey in Nicola Shulman’s recent biography of Thomas Wyatt. You could also try Robert Hutchinson’s book House of Treason, which came out a few years ago. I can’t remember much about it, but it’s about the Howard dynasty under the Tudors.

      Surrey was also a grandson (through his mother) of the Duke of Buckingham who was executed in 1521. They were disturbingly similar in character: they boasted about their royal blood, acted as if they were a threat to the Tudor dynasty, didn’t know when to stop and were ultimately destroyed for appearing to be a danger to the government.

  2. He was a wild piece of work, this one, sometimes completely ‘off the wall’! Try to get hold of the recent excellent biography ‘Henry VIII’s Last Victim’ by Jessie Childs. She starts with him and his mates getting drunk and rowing over the Thames in the pitch dark after curfew to pelt the local south bank prostitutes with stones – not that he has anything against them, it’s just for a bit of a laugh. Then they go on to break a few VIP’s windows. It’s a good read.
    Since his Mowbray ancestors are my life’s work, I’m interested in the charges against him, especially of using the arms of Edward the Confessor. He was within his rights to do this as his ancestor Thomas Mowbray, the first Duke of Norfolk and great-grandson of Edward I, had been granted the right by Richard II in 1397. His mistake, against advice from those in the know, was suddenly to revive the use after many decades and to make alterations to his coats of arms at a time when the ailing Henry VIII was paranoid about the succession. The portrait you show, the last one of him, was controversial in its grandeur, symbolism and the general attitude and magnificent appearance of the sitter.
    All-in-all, the Howards were not at the peak of their popularity following the Katherine tragedy etc, and any old thing would be used as ammunition against them. He really should have had more sense.

  3. There is a good book I would recommend that focuses on Mary Howard, the Earl of Surrey’s sister, which mentions his excecution as well, it’s called Secrets of the Tudor Court by Darcy Bonette, and it also features his father, the Duke of Norfolk, in his death as well. RIP the Earl of Surrey

  4. That Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was an accomplished and seasoned battle commander and soldier is surely a fact. That he was a wild rip with a streak of rebelliousness and mischief is another. Add to this that he was a tender and insightful poet and you have a multi-faceted renaissance man for sure. With more royal blood on both sides of his family than the upstart Tudors but with a hard-headed pragmatism, I seriously doubt that at that particular stage of the game, with King Harry as paranoid as one can get and the recent fiasco of his niece Katherine in mind, that he would’ve openly reminded Harry of his impeccable bloodlines. Especially with Buckingham’s death within recent memory. Surrey is a fascinating man. I am especially grateful for the books suggested in previous posts.

  5. I am really curious to know why there is a golden crown placed to the side of tomb of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey? Can anybody help?

    1. Hi Lyla,
      Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, is crowned in his effigy at Warwick so I assume these types of crowns are earls’ coronets.

  6. Thank you for this wonderful site. Henry was my 1st Cousin 15x removed on my mother’s side. I enjoyed reading your page.

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