The Great Survivor: Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, 1540-1614

In today’s blog we hear from Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of our Lords 1558-1603 project, on the elusive career of Henry Howard, earl of Northampton. Howard’s shrewd political manoeuvres allowed him to evade attention from government officials throughout his career and often evade attention from historians- until now!

In medieval and early modern England, membership of the nobility could be a decidedly mixed blessing, at least for adult males. Many great noblemen ended their lives on the scaffold, and some only narrowly escaped this fate. The 3rd Duke of Norfolk was famously spared the axe only hours before he was due to be executed in January 1547 because Henry VIII had died that very morning, while the 11th Lord Cobham was reprieved in December 1603 just as he laid his head on the block. However, less well known are the noblemen who deserved execution for their crimes but who, for one reason or another, were never caught. Perhaps the most striking case is that of Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton.

Henry Howard; artist unknown

As a Howard, Lord Henry was born into one of the richest, most powerful families in England, his father being heir to the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, who held the offices of Earl Marshal and Lord Treasurer. However, in 1547, aged just seven, young Henry’s world came crashing down. His father was executed on a trumped up charge of treason, his grandfather was imprisoned in the Tower, and he was reduced to a state of relative poverty. A less capable boy might have been crushed by these misfortunes. However, thanks to the intercession of his older brother, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, Howard received a university education funded by Elizabeth I, who took pity on him. At Cambridge Howard proved to be a gifted scholar, being awarded an MA in 1566. He subsequently supplemented his meagre income with teaching, the only nobleman ever to do so during the early modern period.

Howard’s learning, and his skills as a writer, soon brought him to the attention of the Queen’s chief minister, Sir William Cecil, who recognized his potential as a propagandist. Over the next couple of decades, Howard penned several treatises for Cecil. In 1572, for instance, he refuted in print the arguments of the presbyterian Thomas Cartwright, who argued that ministers should be chosen by their congregations, by pointing out that the Church was not a democracy. However, his service as a propagandist disguised the fact that, under Elizabeth, Lord Henry dabbled in treason.

Unlike his older brother Norfolk, Howard remained a devoted Catholic, despite being exposed to Protestant teaching during his youth. Evidence that Howard was not to be trusted was first uncovered in 1574, when the Council discovered that he was in secret contact with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who claimed the English throne for herself. Under questioning, Howard admitted his guilt, but promised never again ‘to conceal suspicious speech or company’. However, doubts about Howard’s loyalty persisted, and in late 1579 orders were issued for his arrest, leading him to take temporary refuge in the Spanish embassy. A grateful Howard subsequently offered his services to the Spanish king. Over the next few years Howard furnished the Spanish ambassador, Don Bernardino Mendoza, with regular detailed reports of court news. At around the same time he also became one of Mary, Queen of Scots’ most important agents at court.

So skilled was Howard at covering his tracks that the Elizabethan regime never discovered the true extent of Howard’s treason. Had it done so he would undoubtedly have ended his days on the scaffold like his older brother Norfolk, who was executed in 1572 for allegedly plotting to put Mary on the throne. Even after being arrested in 1583 on suspicion of being secretly engaged to Mary, Howard evaded serious punishment, as the Council failed to uncover firm evidence against him.

Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton; c.1600; National Trust, Knole via Art UK

Following Mary’s execution in 1587, the Council’s concern for his loyalty abated, allowing Howard to recover Elizabeth’s favour. During the early 1590s he even became a close adviser to the royal favourite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, so demonstrating his continued remarkable capacity for survival. Ten years later, as it became clear that Essex was bent on self-destruction, Howard again saved his own skin by transferring his loyalty to Essex’s main rival, Sir Robert Cecil, who had succeeded his father Sir William as the Queen’s chief minister. Together Howard and Cecil secretly entered into correspondence with James VI of Scotland to ensure that when the aged Elizabeth died the crown would pass smoothly to James. This covert correspondence, which was not sanctioned by the Queen and was thus treasonable, was principally conducted by Howard who, thanks to his former association with Essex, was well known to James. Cecil could hardly have found a better man for this task than Howard, whose years of evading government detection stood him in good stead.

Far from sending him to the block, his excellent skills as a spy earned for Howard a place in the heart of government. On James’s accession to the English throne in 1603, he was admitted to membership of the Privy Council, and shortly thereafter became lord warden of the Cinque Ports and Earl of Northampton. However, Howard, or Northampton as he had now become, paid a heavy price for his advancement, as James required that he outwardly conform to the Church of England. Moreover, Northampton resented Cecil’s monopoly of power, for which reason in 1607 he helped to raise up a young Scot named Robert Carr, who quickly became the King’s favourite. As Viscount Rochester, and then Earl of Somerset, Carr became one of Northampton’s key allies at court. Protecting the favourite’s interests was thus of vital importance to Northampton.

During the final stages of Northampton’s life, Somerset’s continued pre-eminence was threatened by Sir Thomas Overbury, who disapproved of the favourite’s liaison with Northampton’s niece, the Countess of Essex, soon to become his wife. Although Overbury was Somerset’s close friend, he was hated by Northampton, who had once denounced him to his face as ‘base’, ‘a liar’ and ‘a rascal’. In order to remove him from the scene, Northampton suggested that Overbury be given a diplomatic posting. However, Overbury refused the appointment, for which offence he was imprisoned in the Tower. There he was fatally poisoned at the behest of Somerset and his wife, who feared Overbury’s ability to compromise their reputations.

There can be little doubt that Northampton was party to this crime. Shortly after Overbury’s imprisonment, Northampton had the lieutenant of the Tower replaced with his own nominee, Sir Gervase Elwes, who was later hanged for his involvement in the murder. In August 1613 Northampton wrote to Elwes suggesting that it might be better if Overbury, who was then gravely ill, never recovered. Moreover, following Overbury’s death, Northampton urged Elwes to bury the dead man with all speed, perhaps realizing that the longer Overbury remained unburied the greater the likelihood that the cause of death would be discovered. Unlike Somerset and his wife, however, Northampton was never punished for his part in Overbury’s murder. On the contrary, he died of natural causes in June 1614, more than a year before the crime was exposed, at the ripe old age of 74. It was, perhaps, a fitting escape for a man whose skilful avoidance of discovery had spared him the executioner’s axe for treason.


Further reading

Linda Levy Peck, Northampton: Patronage and Policy at the Court of James I (London, 1982)

Anne Somerset, Unnatural Murder: Poison at the Court of James I (London, 1997)

Follow the research of our Lords 1558-1603 section at our First Elizabethan Age blog page.

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