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January 13, 1547 – Trial of the Earl of Surrey

Henry Howard by Hans Holbein (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Okay, so there have been two posts leading up to this: December 12 – Surrey Arrested, and January 12 -Norfolk Throws Surrey Under the Bus. Those will give you all the context you need (Henry approaching death, increasing paranoia over what will happen to his son and who might challenge his throne…). Today was the big day, the day the Earl of Surrey was brought to Guildhall and tried. I had such a great time with this scene in The Path to Somerset – enough that I had to go back and add to the “screen time” I had given Surrey before that (big moments need to be built up to…). I wanted to do justice to the descriptions in Cobbett’s State Trials (one of the gems in my Favorite Primary Sources, which I give to people when they subscribe – if you lost your copy, feel free to use the contact form to ask me to send another). There are pages and pages, but here is the meat of the day:

Upon the 13th (the King being now dangerously sick), the Earl of Surrey was arraigned in Guildhall in London, before the lord chancellor, the lord mayor, and other commissioners. Where the Earl, as he was of a deep understanding, sharp wit, and deep courage, defended himself many ways: sometimes denying their accusations as false, and together weakening the credit of his adversaries; sometimes interpreting the words he said, in a far other sense than that in which they were represented. For the point of bearing his arms (among which those of Edmund the Confessor are related), alleging that he had the opinion of heralds therein. And finally, when a witness was brought against him viva voce, who pretended to repeat some high words of the Earl’s by way of discourse, which concerned him nearly, and that thereupon the said witness should return a braving answer; the Earl did not reply otherwise to the jury, but instead he left it to them to judge, whether it were probable that this man should speak thus to the Earl of Surrey, and he not strike him in response. In conclusion, he pleaded Not Guilty; but the jury (which was a common inquest, not of the peers, because the Earl was not a parliament lord) condemned him. Whereupon also judgment of death was given, and he beheaded at Tower Hill. And thus ended the Earl; a man learned, and of an excellent wit, as his compositions show.

How great is that paragraph? I’ve got another one, an outline of the deposition of Bess Holland, Norfolk’s long-term mistress, covering all the resentments – and just the general gossip – that Norfolk revealed to the one person he thought he could trust….

Mrs. Elizabeth Holland, bring deposed, confessed that the Duke had told her that none of the King’s Council loved him, because they were not noblemen born themselves; as also because he believed too truly in the sacrament of the altar. Moreover, that the King loved him not, because he was too much loved in his country; but that he would follow his father’s lesson, which was, that the less others set by him, the more he would set by himself. As also, that the Duke complained that he was not of the most secret (or, as it is there termed, privy) council, and that the King was much grown of his body, and that he could no go up and down the stairs, but was let up and down by a device. And that His Majesty was sickly, and could not long endure; and the realm is like to be in an ill case through diversity of opinions. And that if he were a young man, and the realm is quiet, he would ask leave to see the vernacle, which he said was the picture of Christ given to women by himself as he went to death.

Admittedly, I am not sure what he was referring to with that last sentence. I know the legend of Saint Veronica wiping Christ’s face as he was carrying the cross, leaving a lasting impression of his countenance…. But why here? Is it a political reference to one of the relics at a closed monastery? Is it that he is projecting himself into the same position as Christ vanquished by his enemies? Or is it just some random statement Norfolk made that Bessie is babbling about here to save herself? I’d love to have you weigh in on that in the comments….


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January 13, 1547 - Trial of the Earl of Surrey
Published inOn This Day


  1. Lil Lil

    “…he left it to them to judge, whether it were probable that this man should speak thus to the Earl of Surrey, and he not strike him in response.”
    I love that line! Great post.

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