As Henry drew closer to death, the plots around him grew in intensity. After all, he was leaving behind him a nine-year old boy who would need adults to act for him…and thus an enormous temptation for anyone who coveted power. Henry tried to avoid that by appointing a Council rather than a Regent/Lord Protector – but this system was deeply flawed. First, because people need a single voice to look to. More important, because the struggle for relative power would inevitably goad people to try to overturn the plan and seize control. And Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was said to want to do so (or to place his father the Duke of Norfolk, in that position). The Howard family was the most powerful in the land, also the richest….and therefore the most dangerous.
At the beginning of December 1546, information came to light that Norfolk’s son, Henry Howard Earl of Surrey, was using the arms of Edward the Confessor. That might not seem like a big deal today, but at the time it was a clear claim to royal status. While it is not clear how long he had been using those particular arms (he and his father had been using a variant for a good twenty years by then…), Henry’s imminent death made this a real issue.
After some inquiries, Surrey and Norfolk were arrested. The foreign ambassadors give us some pretty good details – they were scraping up every bit of gossip they could. The French Ambassador reported that one of the charges was based on Surrey’s saying “there were some who made no great account of him but he trusted one day to make them very small.” The Spanish Ambassador, writing a couple of days later, had additional information to share: “Some people assert confidently that it is because of a secret discourse between [Surrey and Norfolk] concerning the King’s illness six weeks ago, the object being to obtain the government of the Prince. Their hope of liberation is small, as Norfolk was deprived of his staff of office and Garter, and Surrey was led publicly through the streets to the Tower.”
Many people hate Edward Seymour and blame him for Surrey’s downfall. Um, yeah in the sense that they were the ultimate rivals and Edward clearly would have encouraged Henry hard on this point. But it is unquestioned that Surrey was proud and rash (there was some question whether he had already started to recruit people with offers in his new government). And Henry was obsessed with the matter as only Henry could be – he spent hours revising the questions to be put to Surrey at trial – almost all of the prosecution’s case was based on Henry’s notes and priorities. Henry really drove the process, even if Edward lit the initial flame. Henry even sent a message to the jury letting them know how serious he considered the charges and how confident he was that they would return the only verdict he would accept under the circumstances…. I blame Henry.
[Full disclosure: I have come to love Edward Seymour. The Path to Somerset – which chronicles his rise to power during Henry’s crazy years – is currently with my editor, and I just finished the first draft, NaNoWriMo style, of The Boy King, in which Seymour’s leftist policies caused his downfall (he was against enclosures because they just enriched the nobility at the peasants’ expense…). Whatever you think of him now, I hope you will keep an open mind. We are all of us complicated beings, and he really is the perfect lens through which to understand Henry’s later years.]
SOURCES: Letters and Papers