Henry Howard, earl of Surrey

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 678

Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (SUR-ee), was born about 1517 into one of the most powerful noble families of sixteenth century England. His father, Sir Thomas Howard, was made third duke of Norfolk in 1524 and served for many years as Henry VIII’s earl marshal. Surrey was given a fine early education in Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian by his tutor, John Clerke. At thirteen he went to Windsor Castle to be the companion of Henry, duke of Richmond, the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII. Surrey recalled the pleasures of their life in a poem written many years later, after he had been imprisoned at Windsor.{$S[A]Howard, Henry;Surrey, Henry Howard, earl of}

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The two young men accompanied King Henry to France in 1532, remaining at the court of Francis I for several months and traveling on the Continent with the sons of the French king. On their return Richmond married Surrey’s sister; Surrey had wed the young Frances de Vere, daughter of the earl of Oxford, before his trip to France, but they did not begin living together until 1535, when he was eighteen.

Surrey was given many public responsibilities once he reached manhood. He took part in the coronation ceremonies of his first cousin Anne Boleyn and later acted as earl marshal at her trial, substituting for his father, who was presiding. In 1536, Surrey accompanied Norfolk on his mission to put an end to the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion of men from the northern counties in opposition to the king’s separation from the Church of Rome.

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Surrey commanded forces against the French in 1539 and 1543; he was responsible for organizing the defense of Norfolk against invasion in 1539. Surrey’s family reached the height of their power that year with the overthrow of Thomas Cromwell and the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine Howard, and in 1541 the young earl was made knight of the garter and steward of Cambridge University. Catherine’s execution in 1542 had no immediate effect on her relatives, but it contributed to the rise of the Seymours, uncles of the prince of Wales, who ultimately destroyed both Norfolk and Surrey.

Surrey’s career had its less illustrious moments during this period: He was twice imprisoned for public quarrels, and he was arrested in 1543 with several other young men, among them the son of the poet Thomas Wyatt, for breaking windows and eating meat on the streets during Lent.

In spite of the fact that he was still in his twenties, Surrey served as marshal of the army at Montreuil in 1544 and as commander of Boulogne the following year. He was relieved of his command as lieutenant general of his foreign forces after losing a battle at St. Etienne, but his military failure was probably less the reason for his recall than political intriguing in London.

His fortunes changed swiftly during the last days of Henry VIII. Edward Seymour, who was to become regent for Edward VI, was jealous of the power of the Howards, his principal rivals for control of the young prince. He had Surrey arrested and charged with treason in 1546, accusing him of quartering the royal arms with his own in an attempt to claim the right of succession to the throne. Although the charges were clearly flimsy fabrications, Surrey was convicted and executed on Tower Hill in January, 1547, just eight days before Henry VIII’s death. The duke of Norfolk, arrested with his son, survived the king, and Seymour, fearful of public anger, kept him imprisoned for the rest of his life rather than arouse enmity by executing him.

At intervals during his brief and active life Surrey wrote a number of sonnets, verse epistles, and lyrics, and he translated two books of Vergil’s Aeneid into the first English blank verse. He was recognized as one of England’s outstanding poets from the time his lyrics appeared with Wyatt’s in Tottel’s Songes and Sonettes in 1557, and his works served as lyric models for the great Elizabethans. His innovations in poetic diction and prosody had lasting significance.

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