Thomas Howard was born at Kenninghall, the family home in Norfolk, on 10 March 1536, but his father was executed in 1547, after a paranoiac Henry VIII believed that he was trying to usurp the succession from Edward VI to maintain Catholicism. Thomas was brought up as a Protestant under the care of his aunt the Duchess of Richmond, but a vein of Catholicism was never far below the surface. On the accession of Mary I in 1553, he was appointed First Gentleman of the Bedchamber, aged seventeen and, in the following year, became 4th Duke of Norfolk on the death of his grandfather. As the senior peer of the Realm, he now became Earl Marshal. In 1556, he married Mary FitzAlan, heir of the Earl of Arundel, but she died in childbirth in the following year, although their son Philip, was named after Philip II of Spain, who became his godfather. Norfolk soon remarried Margaret Audley.
On he accession in 1558, Elizabeth was anxious to be reconciled with Norfolk and appointed him a Knight of the Garter. He strongly disapproved of the attention she was showing to Lord Robert Dudley (later Earl of Leicester) (whose father had been largely responsible for his father’s death) and he considered William Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, to be ‘low born’. In November 1559, he was appointed Lieutenant-General of the North, a post that he reluctantly accepted, seeing it, probably correctly, as a means of distancing him from Court. Although he was given titular command in English efforts to assist the Lords of the Congregation, he was surrounded by able lieutenants. In 1560, following the death of the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, Cecil came north to negotiate the Treaty of Edinburgh. French troops were at last removed from Scotland. Shortly after this, Francis II also died and it was clear that Mary Queen of Scots was likely to return to Scotland. William Maitland of Lethington suggested to Norfolk that he would make a suitable husband for Mary, but as he was already married to Margaret Audley, he politely turned down the suggestion.
In 1567, following Margaret Audley’s death, Norfolk married Elizabeth Leyburne, the widow of Thomas 4th Lord Dacre of Gillesland. Elizabeth lived only a few months, dying on 4 September 1567, and Norfolk found himself as the ward for her son George, now 5th Lord Dacre, and his three sisters. In 1569, George was killed falling from a vaulting horse and Norfolk saw this as an opportunity to claim the extensive Dacre estates for George’s three sisters arguing that the title passed through the female line. He immediately married them off to his three sons from his first two marriages. Yet the award made by Edward IV in 1473 had limited the title to heirs male and Thomas’s brother, Leonard found himself cheated of his inheritance. Leonard had already fallen out with Elizabeth Leyburne over the extent of her jointure on the Dacre estates following the death of her husband. He described it as greater ‘than ever anye wyves of the auncestors of the said Lorde Dacre had’. On her marriage to Norfolk, Elizabeth had taken the Dacre muniments, so that Leonard could not gain access to them to demonstrate the justice of his claim. Norfolk ensured that this was heard in the Earl Marshal’s Court (although he did not hear the claim himself) and, as Leonard failed to provide evidence, his claim was not withheld. Norfolk was then given charge of the investigation into the murder of Henry, Lord Darnley, which took place at the Conference of York. He was now aged thirty-two and recently widowed after Elizabeth Leyburne’s death. He headed a group of three Commissioners supported by Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, Norfolk’s cousin and President of the Council of the North, and Sir Ralph Sadler, the veteran diplomat with wide experience of Scottish affairs. Norfolk was not Cecil’s ideal choice. Although he outwardly conformed as a Protestant, he had strong Catholic sympathies. He was one of a group of patrician Conservatives at the opposite end of the political spectrum to the ‘low-born’ Cecil. He disapproved of his interference in Scottish domestic affairs and for supporting the Earl of Moray against Mary. He strongly supported Elizabeth for refusing to put religion ahead of dynastic right when considering the English succession. With his generally Catholic allies, he was suspicious of Moray and his fellow Scottish nobles and feared that an attack on Mary in Scotland would be a prelude to a similar attack on Elizabeth in England, prejudicing the divine right of monarchy in both countries.
Norfolk’s role was to support the English Government’s objective for the Conference. There can be very little doubt that he was aware from the outset that the evidence against Mary, as embodied in the Casket letters, had been fabricated to provide a pretext to keep her, at least temporarily, off the Scottish throne. The English Commissioners realised that the outcome would be decided entirely on political grounds, and the quasi-legal investigation was a charade. They realised that the political objective was to avoid implying Mary’s guilt, an outcome that personally suited Norfolk. This left the door open for her restoration at some point in the future, if circumstances should change. Cecil made clear to Norfolk privately that they were looking for sufficient evidence to implicate her in her husband’s murder, which would justify retaining her in England, but they wanted it to be found too obscure to make her culpable. It became of paramount importance for Norfolk to have an advance view of the transcripts of the Casket letters, so that he could judge the strength of the evidence, before it was officially submitted and in the public domain.
As soon as Moray arrived in York and before the start of the Conference, he privately provided Norfolk with transcripts of the Casket letters in Scots. He had another reason for wanting Norfolk to see them in advance. He needed confirmation that Norfolk thought they provided sufficient evidence to find Mary guilty of the murder, and that the English Commissioners had authority to pronounce on her guilt. If she were found guilty, he wanted to know whether she would be returned to Scotland for punishment or be kept imprisoned in England. If he proved his case against her, he needed to be certain of protection from her return to a position of authority in Scotland. He asked for a written guarantee that, if Mary were found guilty, she would not be restored, and that Elizabeth would recognise him as Regent for King James. When Norfolk saw the transcripts, his principal concern was the highly incriminating nature of the evidence. If made public they threatened the rather cosy solution that was being sought. Either they revealed the truth, and it would be hard to avoid Mary being found guilty or they would be shown to be fraudulent and any justification for retaining Mary imprisoned would collapse. Norfolk now realised, even if he had not known earlier, that everyone he was dealing with was completely unscrupulous.
During the Conference at York, Moray avoided tabling the Casket letters. Concerned that their existence might become public knowledge, Norfolk sought advice from London on how to proceed. He reported that he had seen them unofficially ‘for our better instruction’. In the meantime, he adjourned the Conference, and took the opportunity of the break to go hawking at Cawood with William Maitland. It may seem surprising, in the middle of an investigation that he was supervising, that Norfolk should agree to meet one of the key witnesses, but it is a tribute to Maitland’s persuasiveness. Maitland lost no time in confirming to him privately, if he did not already know it, that the Casket letters were almost certainly forged, since many people could imitate Mary’s handwriting. Norfolk does not appear to have shown much surprise, and Maitland now came to his main point. He suggested that Norfolk should consider marrying Mary and even that his daughter Margaret Howard should marry Prince James. Mary’s problem was that no one trusted her, and she needed a husband on whom Moray and Elizabeth could rely. This was not a plan designed, initially at least, to restore Mary to the Scottish throne. She would be neutralised politically, and her power and authority would be vested in her husband. This was likely to lead to her or her heirs gaining the English Crown on the death of a childless Elizabeth. As Maitland no doubt insinuated to Norfolk, this could only lead to his long held dream of an Anglo-Scottish dynastic alliance, placing Norfolk at the head of a new Royal house governing both Scotland and England.
Perhaps surprisingly, the recently widowed Norfolk was receptive to this extraordinary suggestion, notwithstanding a clause in his contract as a Commissioner threatening treason to anyone contemplating marriage to her. The idea of his marriage to Mary struck a political chord with the Conservatives on the right of English politics, but they overlooked that it would be unacceptable to Moray. Norfolk did not give Maitland a clear answer, but told him that Elizabeth had no intention of restoring Mary or of finding her guilty, and her objective was to keep her imprisoned in England. This left the door open for her future restoration, if circumstances allowed. Maitland explained this to the Bishop of Ross, who privately approached Norfolk in York to establish at first hand if ‘he bore a certain goodwill’ towards her. Norfolk’s answer to the Bishop is not recorded, but he now had good reason for wanting Mary to be cleared. Mary was advised by her Commissioners of rumours that Norfolk might consider marrying her, and she told Sir Francis Knollys that she would ‘not greatly mislike’ the union. From now on, she saw marriage to Norfolk as the means of extricating herself from imprisonment.
It is clear that Elizabeth and Cecil in London obtained wind of the behind the scenes discussions at York and decided to move the Conference to Westminster, where they could control of what was going on. Notwithstanding his secret negotiations with Mary, Norfolk protested furiously at Cecil’s interference it the proceedings at York. When Cecil ignored him, Norfolk tried unsuccessfully to have him removed from office. Cecil retaliated by sending Norfolk on an unnecessary mission to the northern frontiers until preparations for reopening the Conference in London had been completed. Norfolk took exception to being marginalised, but Elizabeth, who felt threatened by a marriage proposal that she was now well aware of, backed Cecil. She told Norfolk ‘to beware on which pillow he leaned his head’. Given that marriage to Mary would be treasonable, he had no option but to deny his suit, saying: ‘What! Should I seek to marry her, being so wicked a woman, such a notorious adulteress and murderer? I love to sleep upon a safe pillow’. He continued:
And if I should go about to marry her, knowing, as I do, that she pretendeth a title to the present possession of your Majesty’s crown, your Majesty shall justly charge me with seeking your own crown from your head.
Elizabeth still doubted him, but decided to warn him not to countenance marriage, while keeping an eye on him. Mary was warned by Elizabeth’s Scottish ambassadors ‘to bear herself quietly, lest she saw ere long those on whom she most leaned hop headless.
On 28 December, Mary’s Commissioners arrived at Westminster to meet again with their English counterparts, including Norfolk. They were disappointed to find that they had closed ranks behind Elizabeth. Almost to a man, they were convinced of the soundness of Moray’s case against Mary. Yet it cannot have been what Norfolk wanted. Mary was now to be held under house arrest in England, and this turned her into a Catholic icon at the heart of efforts to achieve an English counter-Reformation. Her main objective now was to marry Norfolk to gain the English throne.
As soon as the Conferences were over, Norfolk started secretly to correspond with Mary, and they were soon writing in affectionate terms. Mary wrote:
I will live and die with you. Neither prison the one way, nor liberty the other, nor all such accidents, good or bad, shall persuade me to depart from that faith and obedience I have promised to you.
She embroidered a pillow for him with the words virescit in vulnere vultus to denote that her courage was growing in adversity. She saw him as her knight in shining armour. Theirs may not have been a love match, but Norfolk was a dynast, attracted by a connection to an anointed Queen. They never met (and this was perhaps an advantage as he was physically puny), but he sent her a diamond, which he entrusted to Lord Boyd to deliver to her at Coventry. She undertook to wear it secretly round her bosom until both the diamond and she herself could belong to him. She in turn sent him a miniature of herself set in gold. He proposed, and they became secretly betrothed. She told him: ‘I pray you my good lord trust none that shall say that I ever mind to leave you . . . I remain yours till death.’ She confirmed her subordinate role in the marriage: ‘As you please command me, I will for all the world follow your commandment, so you be not in danger for me.’
The issue was to persuade Elizabeth of its advantages of the marriage. Cecil was horrified at the prospect, which threatened his position as Secretary of State and would undo all his efforts to avoid a Catholic heir to the English throne. Leicester supported it despite his disaffection for Norfolk, but he saw it as the means of bringing Cecil down. He assumed the lead for the Conservatives, approaching Elizabeth to tell her
that most, and they the best, of her subjects thought affairs so badly managed that either her State must run into danger or Cecil must answer with his head.
Norfolk was soon overheard making disparaging comments against Cecil and, in April, the Conservatives considered a coup to arrest him. Elizabeth was not going to be intimidated and remained loyal to her Secretary of State. When she berated Leicester, he lost his nerve and pulled back from promoting the marriage. As soon as Moray was back in Scotland, he too could only see that Mary’s return to Scotland as Norfolk’s wife as weakening his authority. His view may have been coloured by an attempt on his life made by one of Norfolk’s supporters, as he returned from London. On 13 May 1569, he again accused Mary of complicity in the King’s murder. He did not want her linked to such a powerful magnate, who would inevitably seek to usurp the Regency for himself. Norfolk and his Conservative English allies already had Philip II’s backing, in addition to support from Mary’s supporters in Scotland, and he personally visited Moray in an attempt to change his resolve. Yet Moray received backing from his Protestant allies in Scottish Government to turn him down.
Elizabeth gave Norfolk every opportunity to admit his intention to marry Mary, but he continued to deny it. She invited him to dine, and at the end told him to ‘take good heed of his pillow’. Three weeks later she again asked him if reports of his intended marriage were true, but he kept silent. He was dabbling with fire. He was planning a full scale rebellion with some of his Conservative allies. In September, Moray warned Elizabeth and she rounded on Leicester and Norfolk, telling Norfolk, who was at his London house, to return to court. He fled to his estates at Kenninghall and tried to contact the Duke of Alva, commanding the Spanish forces in the Low Countries, only to find that the ports had been closed. He did not apologise, but Leicester revealed everything he knew, and begged Elizabeth’s foregiveness. Norfolk hoped for support from English Catholics and the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland set out to support him in the Northern Rising, but support was not widespread and the dye was cast.
One of Norfolk’s initial supporters, although probably unsought, was Leonard Dacre. In August 1569, he gathered three thousand conspirators round him to free Mary from her ‘durance vile’ at Wingfield, principally in the hope that she would assist his claim to become Lord Dacre, but when it was clear that Norfolk would not agree, Leonard failed to give military support to the Northern Rising. There is evidence that both Norfolk and Mary vetoed his offer of help and he remained in the north. When rumours of his plans reached London, Elizabeth placed Norfolk in the Tower accusing him of treason, but Cecil had to advise her that Norfolk’s hope of marrying Mary did not amount to treason.
In June 1569, Norfolk wrote a submission to Elizabeth admitting that, without her consent, he had held discussions to marry Mary, and confessing he ‘did err very much in that I did not cause the same to be known to your majesty’ immediately, although he had always intended to ask for her approval. In August, after undertaking never to deal in the marriage again, he was freed from the Tower into a loose form of house arrest at his London home. This did nothing to stop him continuing to correspond and to exchange presents with Mary. When Elizabeth made noises, largely for consumption on the Continent, about restoring Mary to the Scottish throne, it was Norfolk, who advised Mary on how to respond. Cecil, who played a key part in what were spurious negotiations, had no intention of allowing Mary to return, and he managed to rake up evidence of another rebellion, led by Sir Thomas Gerard, to place Mary on the English throne, although neither Norfolk nor Mary appear to have been involved in it.
At this time Cecil was appointed Lord Treasurer as Lord Burghley, and his position as Secretary of State was taken by Sir Francis Walsingham, a man determined to eliminate the last vestiges of Catholic support in England. Mary and Norfolk were now using the services of an Italian banker, Roberto Ridolfi to pass messages between them, but Ridolfi was forced by Walsingham to became a double agent, allowing him to see all their correspondence, but nothing to incriminate them was found. In 1571, Ridolfi carried a request from Norfolk to Alva in the Low Countries seeking military support for a Catholic rebellion in England, but there was no evidence of Mary’s involvement. Alva did not trust Ridolfi, and would not reveal the Spanish plan, realising the consequence for Norfolk and Mary if it was to backfire. All this made Cecil very nervous. He issued a warrant for Norfolk’s arrest, charging him with treason. He also believed that there was a project afoot for Mary’s escape to Spain. Although he claimed to have a letter implicating Mary, it was never produced. On 4 August, Norfolk was arrested at his London home. On 7 September, he was returned to the Tower. Mary’s confidante, the Bishop of Ross, was also arrested and started to talk when threatened with torture. It was largely on Ross’s evidence that Norfolk was found guilty.
By the standards of the time, it is hard to argue that Norfolk was unfairly treated. He had indisputably plotted treasonably against the English Crown, and had lied when accused of planning to marry Mary. ‘He was a weak man, cursed by the dignity of England’s sole dukedom, lured on by ambition, and too infirm of purpose to withdraw before he was deep in treason.’ At his trial great efforts were made to incriminate Mary, but Elizabeth would not act against without clear evidence against her. To the last, Norfolk confirmed his adherence to the Protestant faith, admitting only that he had dealt with Ridolfi more than he previously admitted. Mary was extremely lucky to survive. She wept bitterly on hearing that he had been sentenced, and wrote vitriolic letters to Elizabeth, praying and fasting on alternate days for his deliverance. It was to no avail. Norfolk’s execution took place on 2 June 1572 at Tower Hill.