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Portrait of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1536-1572). National Portrait Gallery.

Thomas Howard's (III) signature as Duke of Norfolk, from Doyle's 'Official Baronage'
Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1536-1572)

THOMAS HOWARD III, fourth Duke of Norfolk of the Howard house (1536-1572), statesman, born on 10 March 1536, was the son of Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, by Frances Vere, daughter of John, earl of Oxford. After the execution of his father in 1547, he was removed by order of the privy council from his mother, and was committed to the charge of his aunt, Mary Fitzroy, duchess of Richmond, probably with a view to his education in protestant principles. His tutor was John Foxe, afterwards known as the martyrologist, who lived with him and his brother and sisters at the castle of Reigate. It may be doubted if Foxe impressed much of his theology on his pupil's mind, but he certainly inspired him with a feeling of respect which he never lost, and he long regretted his separation from his tutor, when in 1553 the accession of Queen Mary released from prison his grandfather, the Duke of Norfolk, who dismissed Foxe from his office, and placed his grandson under the care of Bishop White of Lincoln. By his grandfather's restoration as Duke of Norfolk on 3 Aug. 1553, Howard received his father's title of Earl of Surrey, and in September was made knight of the Bath. He assisted at Mary's coronation, and on the arrival in England of Philip, was made his first gentleman of the chamber. On his grandfather's death on 25 Aug. 1554, he succeeded as Duke of Norfolk, and became earl marshal.

In 1556 Norfolk married Lady Mary Fitzalan, daughter and heiress of Henry Fitzalan, twelfth earl of Arundel. She died in childbed on 25 Aug. 1557, at the age of sixteen, leaving a son Philip, who succeeded in right of his mother as Earl of Arundel. Norfolk did not long remain a widower, and in 1558 married another heiress, Margaret, daughter of Thomas, lord Audley of Walden.

Norfolk was too young to take any part in affairs during Mary's reign, but he was in favour at court, and King Philip was godfather to his son. On Elizabeth's accession it was a matter of importance to attach definitely to her side a man of Norfolk's position. In April 1559 he was made knight of the Garter. Elizabeth styled him 'her cousin,' on the ground of the relationship between the Howards and the Boleyns, and chose him to take a leading part in the first great undertaking of her reign, the expulsion of the French troops from Scotland. At first Norfolk refused the offer of the post of lieutenant-general in the north, and probably expressed the views of the nobility in holding that the queen would better secure herself against France by marrying the Archduke Charles of Austria than by interfering in Scottish affairs. But his scruples were overcome, and in November 1559 he set out to Newcastle.

His duty was to provide for the defence of Berwick, to open up communications with the lords of the congregation, and cautiously aid them in their measures against the queen regent. By his side were placed men of experience, Sir Ralph Sadler and Sir James Croft, while the frequent communications which passed between him and the privy council show that not much was left to his discretion. On 27 Feb. 1560 he signed an agreement at Berwick with the representatives of James Hamilton, earl of Arran and duke of Chatelherault, as 'second person of the realm of Scotland,' and soon after the siege of Leith was begun. Norfolk did not take any part in the military operations, but remained behind at the head of the reserve, and organised supplies. When the time came for diplomacy Cecil was despatched for the purpose, and the treaty of Edinburgh released Norfolk in August from duties which he half-heartedly performed.

His public employment, however, served its purpose of turning him into a courtier. He lived principally in London, and in December 1561 was made a member of Gray's Inn. Soon after he was sworn of the privy council. In August 1564 he attended the queen on her visit to Cambridge, and received the degree of M.A. He was moved by the sight of the unfinished buildings of Magdalene College, which his father-in-law, Lord Audley, had founded, to give a considerable sum of money towards their completion. But Norfolk was not satisfied with dancing attendance on the queen, and his pride was hurt at the favours bestowed upon the Earl of Leicester, whom he regarded as a presumptuous upstart. He resented Leicester's pretensions to Elizabeth's hand, and in March 1565 they had an unseemly quarrel in the queen's presence. The queen ordered them to make peace. A reconciliation was patched up, and in January 1566 the two rivals were chosen by the French king, as the foremost of the English nobles, to receive the order of knights of St. Michael.

Norfolk's domestic life meanwhile was a rapid series of changes. In December 1563 he again became a widower. Early in 1567 he married for his third wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Francis Leybourne, of Cunswick Hall, Cumberland, and widow of Thomas, lord Dacre of Gillesland. She died in September 1567, leaving a son and three daughters by her first husband. Norfolk obtained a grant of wardship of these minors, and determined to absorb the great estates of the Dacres into his own family by intermarriages between his children and his step-children. The young Lord Dacre died in May 1569 from the fall of a wooden horse on which he was practising vaulting, and his death confirmed Norfolk in the project of dividing the Dacre lands amongst his sons by marrying them to the three coheiresses. Their title, however, was called in question by their father's brother, Leonard Dacre, who claimed as heir male. The cause would naturally have come for trial in the marshal's court, but as Norfolk held that office, commissioners were appointed for the trial. Great promptitude was shown, for on 19 July, scarcely a month after the young lord's death, it was decided that 'the barony cannot nor ought not to descend into the said Leonard Dacre so long as the said coheirs or any issue from their bodies shall continue.'1

The good fortune which had hitherto attended Norfolk's matrimonial enterprises may to some extent explain the blind belief in himself which he showed in his scheme of marrying Mary Queen of Scots. In 1568, when Mary fled to England, Norfolk was again a widower, the richest man in England, popular and courted, but chafing under the sense that he had little influence over affairs. He had vainly striven against Cecil, who watched him cautiously, and he was just the man to be ensnared by his own vanity. Elizabeth was embarrassed how to deal with Mary. Her first step was to appoint a commission representing all parties to sit at York in October, and inquire into the cause of the variance between Mary and her subjects. Elizabeth's commissioners were the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Sussex, and Sir Ralph Sadler. Norfolk was doubtless appointed through his high position, as the only duke in England, and as the representative of the nobility, who urged that, if Elizabeth would not marry, the recognition of Mary's claim to the succession was inevitable; he was further likely to be acceptable to Mary herself. On 11 Oct. Murray communicated privately to the English commissioners the Casket letters, and Norfolk at first wrote as one convinced of Mary's guilt. But Maitland of Lethington in a private talk suggested to him, as a solution of all the difficulties which beset the two kingdoms, that he should marry Mary, who might then with safety to Elizabeth be restored to the Scottish throne, and recognised as Elizabeth's successor.

We cannot say with certainty whether or no this scheme had been already present to Norfolk's mind, but he left York with a settled determination to carry it out. For a tune he acted cautiously, and when the investigation was transferred to Westminster before the great council of peers, he still seemed to believe in Mary's guilt. But he had a secret interview with Murray, who professed his agreement with the plan, and encouraged a hope that after his return to Scotland Maitland should be sent to Elizabeth as envoy of the estates of Scotland, with a proposal for Mary's marriage with Norfolk. On this understanding Norfolk sent a message to the northern lords, begging them to lay aside a project which they had formed for taking Murray prisoner on his return from London. The opening months of 1569 seemed to be disastrous for Elizabeth in foreign affairs, and Cecil's forward policy awakened increasing alarm among the English nobles. Leicester tried to oust Cecil from the queen's confidence; when he failed he joined with Arundel and Pembroke in striving to promote Mary's marriage with Norfolk. They communicated with Mary at Tutbury in June, and received her consent.

Norfolk was reconciled to Cecil, and hoped to gain his help in urging on Elizabeth the advantages to be derived from such a settlement. He still waited for Murray's promised message from Scotland, and wrote to him on 1 July that 'he had proceeded so far in the marriage that with conscience he could neither revoke what he had done, or with honour proceed further till such time as he should remove all stumbling-blocks to more apparent proceedings.'2 Norfolk's plan was still founded on loyalty to Elizabeth and maintenance of protestantism; but the protestant nobles looked on with suspicion, and doubted that Norfolk would become a tool in the hands of Spain, and the catholic lords of the north grew impatient of waiting; many of them were connected with Leonard Dacre, and were indignant at the issue of Norfolk's lawsuit; they formed a plan of their own for carrying off Mary from her prison.

Norfolk still trusted to the effects of pressure upon Elizabeth, but he had not the courage to apply it. He left others to plead his cause with the queen, and on 27 Aug. the council voted for the settlement of the succession by the marriage of Mary to some English nobleman. Still Norfolk was afraid to speak out, though one day the queen 'gave him a nip bidding him take heed to his pillow.' At last he grew alarmed, and on 15 Sept. hastily left the court. Still he trusted to persuasion rather than force, and wrote to Northumberland telling him that Mary was too securely guarded to be rescued, and bidding him defer a rising. Then on 24 Sept. he wrote to Elizabeth from Kenninghall that he 'never intended to deal otherwise than he might obtain her favour so to do.'3 He was ordered to return to court, but pleaded the excuse of illness, and, after thus giving Elizabeth every ground for suspicion, at last returned humbly on 2 Oct., to be met with the intimation that he must consider himself a prisoner at Paul Wentworth's house at Burnham.

Elizabeth at first thought of bringing him to trial for treason, but this was too hardy a measure in the uncertain state of public opinion. Norfolk was still confident in the power of his personal popularity, and was astonished when on 8 Oct. he was taken to the Tower. His friends in the council were straitly examined, and his party dwindled away. No decisive evidence was found against him, but the rising of the north in November showed Elizabeth how great had been her danger. Norfolk wrote from the Tower, assuring Elizabeth that he never dealt with any of the rebels, but he continued in communication with Mary, who after the collapse of the rising caught more eagerly at the prospect of escaping from her captivity by Norfolk's aid. She wrote to him that she would live and die with him, and signed herself 'yours faithful to death.' But Norfolk remained a prisoner till times were somewhat quieter, and was not released till 3 Aug. 1570, when he was ordered to reside in his own house at the Charterhouse, for fear of the plague. He had previously made submission to the queen, renouncing all purpose of marrying Mary, and promising entire fidelity.

It would have been well for Norfolk if he had kept his promise, and had recognised that he had failed. He resumed his old position, and was still looked up to with respect as the head of the English nobility. Many still thought that his marriage with Mary was possible, but Norfolk had learned that it would never be with Elizabeth's consent. The failure of previous endeavours had drawn Mary's partisans more closely together, and now they looked for help solely to the Spanish king. This was not what Norfolk had intended when first he conceived his marriage project; but he could not let it drop, and slowly drifted into a conspirator. He conferred with Ridolfi, and heard his plan for a Spanish invasion of England; he gave his sanction to Ridolfi's negotiations, and commissioned him to act as his representative with Philip II. He afterwards denied that he had done this in any formal way, but the evidence is strong against him.

The discovery of Ridolfi's plot was due to a series of accidents; but Norfolk's complicity was discovered by the indiscretion of his secretary, Higford, who entrusted to a Shrewsbury merchant a bag of gold containing a ciphered letter. Cecil was informed of this fact on 1 Sept., and extracted from Higford enough information to show that Norfolk was corresponding with Mary and her friends in Scotland. Norfolk's servants were imprisoned, threatened with torture, and told much that increased Cecil's suspicions. Norfolk was next examined, prevaricated, and cut a poor figure. He was committed to the Tower on 5 Sept., and the investigation was steadily pursued till the evidence of Norfolk's complicity with Ridolfi had become strong, and the whole history of Norfolk's proceedings was made clear. Elizabeth saw how little she could count on the English nobility, who were all anxious for the settlement of the succession, and were in some degree or other on Mary's side. It was resolved to read them a lesson by proceeding against Norfolk, who was brought to trial for high treason on 16 Jan. 1572.

The procedure, according to the custom of the time, was not adapted to give the accused much chance of pleading. He was not allowed to have counsel, or even a copy of the indictment, nor were the witnesses against him produced in court. Their evidence was read and commented upon by skilled lawyers; the accused was left to deal with it as best he could. His conviction was inevitable, and sentence of death was pronounced against him. From the Tower he wrote submissive letters to the queen, owning that he had grievously offended, but protesting his substantial loyalty. Elizabeth, always averse to bloodshed, for a long time refused to carry out the sentence; but her negotiations for a French treaty and a marriage with Alençon required that she should act with vigour. Parliament petitioned for the death of Mary and of Norfolk, and at last, on 2 June 1572, Norfolk was executed on Tower Hill. He spoke to the people, and maintained his innocence; he said 'that he was never a papist since he knew what religion meant.'

It is quite probable that he was sincere in his utterances; he called John Foxe, who had dedicated to him in 1559 the first version (in Latin) of his martyrology, to console him in his last days, and bequeathed him a legacy of £20 a year. But Norfolk was not a clear-headed man, and was not conscious of the bearing of his acts. He floated with the stream, trusting to his own good fortune and to his good intentions. He took up the project of marrying Mary, because he believed that his position in England was a sufficient guarantee against all risks. He trusted to his personal popularity, and to the exertions of others. His first failure did not teach him wisdom. He probably supposed that he had not committed himself to Ridolfi or the Spanish ambassador; he had only allowed them to count on him for the time being. The highest testimony to his personal character is to be found in his letter to his children, written just after his trial. Thomas Howard (1561-1626), first earl of Suffolk, and Lord William Howard (1583-1640), Norfolk's two sons by his second wife, are separately noticed. By his second wife he also had three daughters, the second of whom, Margaret (1562-1591), married Robert Sackville, earl of Dorset.

There are traces of Norfolk's taste to be found in the Charterhouse, which he bought in 1565, and adorned for his London residence, when it was known as Howard House. There are portraits of him as a young man in the royal collection and at Arundel; by Sir Antonio More at Worksop, engraved in Lodge's 'Portraits;' another engraving is by Houbraken. He was buried in the chapel of the Tower.


1. For an account of this interesting trial, see Sir Charles Young, Collectanea Topographica et Genealogica, vi. 322.
2. Haynes, Burghley Papers, i. 520
3. ib. p. 628.
4. Wright, Queen Elizabeth and her Times, i. 402. link



      Excerpted from:

      Creighton, Mandell. "Sir Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk."
      Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. X. Sidney Lee, ed.
      New York: The Macmillan Co., 1908. 67-71.




Other Local Resources:




Books for further study:

Brenan, Gerald and Edward Phillips Statham. The House of Howard. Vol I.
            Hutchinson & Co, 1907.

Robinson, John Martin. The Dukes of Norfolk: A Quincentennial History.
           Oxford University Press, 1983.




Sir Thomas Howard on the Web:


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