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HENRY VIII died in the early hours of 28 January 1547, leaving the throne to his nine-year-old son Edward. Had Henry departed a few months earlier, it appears that England would have been governed during Edward's minority by a coalition composed of religious reformers and conservatives, the latter led by Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk; Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester; and Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley.(1) But Bishop Gardiner lost the King's favour in early December for reasons not fully understood, and he was to be excluded from the protectorate council by the King's will. At the same time, the destruction of the Duke of Norfolk and his son was set in motion by unknown agencies. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, poet and soldier, was secretly arrested on 2 December 1546 and held at the house of Lord Chancellor Wriothesley. On 12 December Surrey was paraded across London to the Tower, where he was joined by his father the Duke, both charged with high treason. Norfolk confessed his guilt on i2 January, while Surrey was tried and convicted the next day. Surrey was beheaded on Tower Hill on 19 January as a bill of attainder of treason against him and his father was being rushed through Parliament, to be signed with King Henry's signature stamp on the last day of his life.
A curious feature of the destruction of the two Howards is that the treason charge to which the Duke confessed and the written charge of which Surrey was convicted were heraldic. Both men were adjudged traitors for appropriating royal insignia, though in Surrey's case the coat of arms in question, that of St Edward the Confessor, was presented in court as an emblem of his designs on the throne itself, or at any rate of his intention to overthrow the King's right to arrange the protectorate.
The purpose of this article is to examine the heraldic charge that cost Surrey his life, as well as the charges against his father. The larger issue of Surrey's guilt or innocence will not be considered in detail, but the heraldic accusations are a tale of their own, one which has not been told, for the evidence has never been fully examined. Surrey's admiring biographers as well as his detractors have respectively asserted his innocence or guilt without systematic analysis of the full texts of the relevant documents.(1) The result has been highly unfavourable to Surrey, as recent historians of Henry VIII's reign catalogued the accusations and reached a guilty verdict -- with one notable holdout, G. R. Elton, who saw only `slender proof' behind the charges.(2)
Surrey was not arrested on 2 December for heraldic violations, but rather, on the accusation of Sir Richard Southwell, for threatening the life of someone who intended to reveal Surrey's disloyal words. Shortly after reaching the Tower, Surrey wrote to the Privy Council regretting that his father's loyalty should be brought in question because of his own dispute with Southwell, and asking to make a statement.(3) Norfolk also wrote to the Council after his initial interrogation, saying that he had been asked whether he had employed private cyphers, and whether he or Bishop Gardiner had sought to promote a reconciliation with Rome; he was left utterly bewildered as to the true cause of his detention.(4) The inchoate state of the case against the Howards is also apparent in the 15 December deposition of the Duke's business agent Richard Fulmerston, who had been questioned by the Council the day before. Fulmerston was merely asked if he knew anything touching on the loyalty of Norfolk or Surrey to the King, Prince, Council, or commonwealth, and whether Fulmerston had encouraged Surrey `in eny unlawfull doing'.(5)
And then, on 15 December, the Privy Council wrote to England's ambassadors abroad that Surrey and Norfolk intended to overthrow the King and Prince, and that Surrey had confessed the whole plot. On 16 December Lord Chancellor Wriothesley informed the Imperial ambassador that Norfolk and Surrey's `intention was to usurp authority by means of the murder of all the members of the Council, and the control of the prince by them alone. The Earl of Surrey, however, had not been under arrest in his [Wriothesley's] house for this plot, but in consequence of a letter of his, full of threats, written to a gentleman. Two other gentlemen of faith and honour subsequently came forward and charged them with this conspiracy'.(1)
But the eight accounts of Surreys trial mention neither a formal confession nor two witnesses to any sort of explicit treason, these two items being spread abroad,(2) but not in England. As for the matter of threats, if it was raised at the trial, nobody bothered to record the fact. Likewise no more is heard about Norfolk using private codes or plotting on behalf of Rome. The final charges of treason were entirely heraldic, but no mention of that subject is found in the documents concerning Surrey and Norfolk through mid December. Meanwhile the search for witnesses and evidence was widening, spreading from London to Norfolk.
A party of men rode from the Court on the afternoon of 12 December to seize the Duke's household at Kenninghall, Norfolk, about eighty miles from London, arriving before dawn on 14 December. A day or so later they sent back to London the Duke's daughter, Mary, dowager Duchess of Richmond, along with the Duke's mistress, Elizabeth Holland.(3) Probably the two women arrived around 18-20 December, and both made statements, apparently in answer to a set of questions, as they follow the same format.(4) At this point a new set of charges appears: that Surrey attempted to persuade his sister to use her charms to captivate the King, that he proposed his father as future Lord Protector, that he vilified the Privy Council, and that he and his father had incorporated royal heraldry into their coats of arms. Others who knew Surrey were summoned and, although their depositions are undated, they apparently coincide with or follow those of Fulmerston and the two women, as their statements address the new allegations, not the old. Moreover, the report on the seizure of Kenninghall stresses that the speedy dispatch and riding of the arresting party allowed the horsemen to take the place by surprise, `soo that the furst newes of the Duke of Norffolk and his Soon cam thether by us'. The emphasis on secrecy would have had little point if the authorities had been interrogating Surrey's friends, many of whom were also his sister's friends, from 2 December onward. Nor, in that case, could the Imperial and French ambassadors have been kept in the dark.
That the heraldic accusations against Surrey and Norfolk were contrived following the collapse of more serious charges may be inferred from the absence of heraldic concerns in the earlier stages of the investigation. But positive evidence of improvisation is found in a report on the coats of arms displayed in the former Cluniac priory church at Thetford, the burial place of the Howard Dukes of Norfolk and their predecessors the Mowbray Dukes, which Norfolk had purchased after the monastaries were dissolved in 1539. Although undated and unsigned, the report was probably the work of the party that seized
Kenninghall, which lies ten miles beyond Thetford on the road from London. The inspectors possessed about as much heraldic knowledge as might be expected from gentlemen in that age, but there was clearly no herald among them, as is shown by lapses in their technical terminology. They described a shield bearing four water-bowgets (i.e. budgets), but they did not know the name or purpose of `these signs', so they drew a picture. They were also forced to sketch another standard heraldic device, a small rectangle standing on end, unaware that it is called a billet.(1)
The absence of a herald among the inspectors of the Thetford church suggests that they were not originally sent to look for coats of arms, but were responding to a decision made after their departure from Court on 12 December. However it came about, the mission of the Thetford visitors was to report all royal arms and, more particularly, to note one aspect of the display of the arms of Thomas of Brotherton, from whom the Dukedom of Norfolk derived. The visitors were collecting evidence to be used against the Duke of Norfolk, for he, and not Surrey, was to be accused of misuse of Brotherton's arms, the old three lions of England with a white label. Specifically, Norfolk was to be charged with two forms of wrongful use of those arms: placing them in the first quarter of his shield rather than the second quarter, and placing on them a label of three points instead of a label of five points (see Figure 1, infra, p. 582). The visitors carefully counted the points on the labels on the numerous examples of Brotherton's arms at Thetford, finding both three and five, but they showed no concern for the quarter of the shield bearing those arms. In short, as of the date of the visit to Thetford, the accusation regarding labels had been formulated, but not the accusation regarding quarters. The visitors also noted an example of `Saint Edwards fathers arms', but took no other interest in what became the sole written charge against Surrey.(2) However, the provenance of that charge, as well as of the matter of points and labels, lay not in Norfolk, but with the Lord Chancellor in London.
Thomas Wriothesley's grandfather was John Writhe, Garter King of Arms, the chief herald of England. John Writhe had two sons: Sir Thomas, who succeeded him as Garter, and William, York Herald and father of the Chancellor. Sir Thomas discovered a gentleman named Wriothesley in the reign of King John, and so Sir Thomas adopted him as an ancestor and changed the family name; he also upgraded the family motto from `Humble and Serviceable' to the grander `Ung par Tout, Tout par Ung'. Sir Thomas was following his father in these acts of genealogical improvement, for John Writhe had given himself a coat of arms remarkably like that of Edward the Confessor. The saint's blue shield bore a gold cross with flowery ends to its four arms, surrounded by five gold birds (Figure 1), while the new Writhe or Wriothesley shield was blue with a plain gold cross, surrounded by four silver birds.(1) But another heraldic act of John Writhe's also figures in the attack on the Howards, namely his proposal of a uniform system of marks of difference to distinguish the shield of the head of a house from his sons. `The system is said to have been invented by John Writhe, Garter, in about 1500. The ... system attributes a label of three points to the eldest son in the lifetime of his father and [a label] of five points to his eldest son, a crescent to the second son, a mullet to the third, a martlet to the fourth ...'.(2)
The marks of difference for younger sons (crescent, mullet, martlet, etc.) are still used today, as is the label for the eldest son. But Writhe's attempt to create a distinction between a label of three points (for an eldest son) and a label of five points (for his eldest son) never caught on, the choice of three or five points remaining simply a matter of artistic preference.(3) And yet that unratified distinction, proposed by Thomas Wriothesley's grandfather, became a key part of the charges against Norfolk.
Besides being a scion of the College of Arms, Thomas Wriothesley was a religious conservative, as well as a regular ally of the Duke of Norfolk.(1) Surrey's letter from the Tower asked that a private hearing regarding his dispute with Southwell be held before Wriothesley, Bishop Gardiner, and two other Councillors, thereby demonstrating Surrey's ignorance of Gardiner's eclipse, as well as of the fact that the Lord Chancellor had changed sides.(2)
Once Norfolk and Surrey were in the Tower, the search for evidence moved into high gear, with at least twenty-two depositions being taken from various witnesses concerning accusations and suspicions against the two Howards.(3) Of these, depositions survive from eleven people, the testimony of five of whom touched on heraldry. Surrey had been on bad terms with his sister, the Duchess of Richmond, who tried to save their father by testifying against her brother. She deposed that Surrey had reassumed the arms of their attainted and executed grandfather, the Duke of Buckingham: the royal lions and lilies with a white border, inherited from Thomas of Woodstock, a younger son of Edward III. …