The execution of Thomas Howard, 4th duke of Norfolk

As the 450th anniversary of the execution of the Elizabethan duke of Norfolk approaches, Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of our Lords 1558-1603 section, considers both the background to his trial for treason and the queen’s reluctance to carry out the sentence of the court …

Shortly before seven in the morning on Monday, 2 June 1572, Thomas Howard, 4th duke of Norfolk, was led the short distance from the Tower of London to a specially erected scaffold on Tower Hill, accompanied by Alexander Nowell, dean of St Paul’s. After mounting the steps he addressed the crowd, which had assembled to witness his execution. Despite admitting that he deserved to die, he declared himself to be partly innocent, whereupon he was interrupted by an official, who warned him that he should not try to clear himself, having been ‘tried as honourably as any nobleman hath ever been in this land’. Urged to wind up quickly, as ‘the hour is passed’, Norfolk ended his speech by denying that he was a Catholic, as was commonly believed. After bidding a tearful farewell to Dean Nowell, and forgiving the public hangman, the duke removed his doublet and laid his head on the block. Before a silent crowd, which had been urged not to shout out to avoid ‘frighting’ his soul, Norfolk’s head was severed with a single stroke.

Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk,
unknown artist,
National Portrait Gallery, via ArtUK

Norfolk was the first nobleman to be executed under Elizabeth I. Indeed, he was the first member of the nobility to face the block since Henry Grey, duke of Suffolk – the father of Lady Jane Grey – was executed early in Mary I’s reign. Equally striking is that he was the premier nobleman of England, the queen’s second cousin and a leading member of the Privy Council. Until recently, he had also been much admired by Elizabeth and her chief minister, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Indeed, in 1565 Burghley had described Norfolk as ‘wise, just, modest, careful’ and, despite his youth – he was then aged just 27 – ‘a father and stay to this country’. In the immediate aftermath of his execution, Elizabeth was reportedly ‘somewhat sad’ at the duke’s death.

Mary of Scots (Mary Queen of Scots),
Richard Burchett,
Parliamentary Art Collection via ArtUK

What had led the queen to execute one of her most trusted servants? The answer lies ultimately in the plotting that surrounded Mary Stuart, the Catholic queen of Scotland who had been driven from her throne and was now a prisoner in England. Mary considered herself rightful queen of England. As Elizabeth had no direct heirs, having never married, Mary’s claim to the throne posed an existential threat to the Protestant state created following Elizabeth’s accession in 1558. Initially Norfolk expressed little sympathy for Mary, but his attitude changed in 1568, after it was suggested to him by William Maitland of Lethington, Mary’s chief ally at the Scottish court, that he might marry her. Norfolk saw in this proposal not only the means to solve the succession crisis which had plagued England ever since Elizabeth’s accession but also an opportunity for social aggrandizement. Politically, too, it would give him the upper hand at court, as he was by now the bitter rival of Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and an enemy of Burghley. This marriage scheme was widely supported by members of England’s Catholic nobility, some of whom assumed that Norfolk was willing to lead a revolt against Elizabeth. Indeed, in the autumn of 1569 the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland rose up after they misinterpreted Norfolk’s sudden withdrawal from court as a sign that they should rebel.

The key question is not why Norfolk was executed but rather why he was not executed sooner than he was. After all, in October 1569, following the news that the north had risen in revolt, Norfolk was arrested on suspicion of treason. However, in August 1570, the rebellion having by then been put down, Norfolk was released for lack of evidence, as his intention to marry Mary, though objectionable to Elizabeth, was not in itself treasonable. He was not re-arrested until September 1571, when it emerged that he was deeply implicated in the Ridolfi Plot, which took its name from Roberto di Ridolfi, a Florentine merchant who tried to persuade the Pope and Philip II, king of Spain, to invade England and replace Elizabeth with Mary. Although he met Ridolfi only once, Norfolk kept in touch with the Italian through his secretary, William Barker. He also continued to communicate with Mary by means of letters written in cipher. Before long, Lord Burghley had succeeded in placing Norfolk at the heart of a conspiracy that involved not only Ridolfi and Mary but also the king of Spain’s governor in the Low Countries, the duke of Alba, and several members of the English nobility, all of them Catholic, including the earls of Arundel and Southampton.

Thomas Howard, 4th duke of Norfolk,
Hans Eworth,
via Wikimedia Commons

The evidence against Norfolk was now far more compelling than it had been in 1569-70. It was clear that it remained his intention to marry Mary, despite Elizabeth’s objections. It was also apparent that he had engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow, and perhaps kill, Elizabeth. At his trial for treason on 16 January 1572, which lasted twelve hours, Norfolk naturally pleaded his innocence. However, a jury of twenty-six of his fellow nobles, including Burghley and Leicester, unanimously found him guilty, whereupon he was sentenced to death.

Norfolk having been condemned to death by a jury of his peers, it was reasonable to suppose that his execution would quickly follow. Indeed, it was rumoured that he was to be executed on the last day of January, whereupon crowds flocked to the Tower. In fact, Elizabeth, torn between the demands of justice on the one hand and Norfolk’s ‘nearness of blood [and] … his superiority of honour’ on the other, could not be brought to sign the death warrant until 9 February, and on the 10th she countermanded her instructions. She did the same thing a fortnight later, to the dismay of Burghley and the Privy Council. They insisted that Parliament be assembled to debate the urgent threat posed by Norfolk and Mary, though parliaments normally met only once every three or four years and the previous Parliament had been dissolved just ten months earlier.

This new Parliament, the fourth of Elizabeth’s reign, assembled on 8 May 1572. Over the course of the next three weeks, Burghley and the Council used their spokesmen in the Commons to press the case for executing Norfolk. In late May, two members of the lower House went so far as to observe that by failing to execute the duke, the queen was demonstrating that she believed the guilty verdict to be incorrect, which ‘dishonoureth the nobles that have condemned him’. Initially Elizabeth refused to relent. Indeed, as late as 21 May Leicester remarked that he could ‘see no likelihood’ that Norfolk would be executed. However, the queen’s mind was changed when she faced strong parliamentary pressure to execute Mary. As Stephen Alford has observed, Norfolk’s execution ‘was the political price Elizabeth had to pay to save the Scottish Queen’. Even so, Elizabeth was determined that the decision to execute the duke should be seen to be hers rather than Parliament’s. On Saturday 31 May the crown’s spokesmen in the Commons persuaded the lower House, with great difficulty, to postpone petitioning the queen to execute the duke until the following Monday (2 June), ‘in hope to hear news before that time’. That hint was well taken, as Norfolk finally went to the block less than one hour before the Commons reassembled.


Further reading:

S. Alford, Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I (Yale, 2008)

N. Williams, Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk (New York, 1965)

Biographies of Thomas Howard, 4th duke of Norfolk and the other Elizabethan peers mentioned in this blog will appear in the History of Parliament’s forthcoming volumes on the Elizabethan House of Lords.

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