The Assassination of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

In the final years of Henry VIII, a bitter struggle was underway for the job of Protector. Henry’s son was far too young to rule, and would need someone to guide him until he was of age… so whoever became Protector would rule the realm, and most likely merge their family with the House of Tudor – or even replace it! In generations there had never been more at stake.

The leading contenders were Charles Brandon and Edward Seymour for those wanting Reform and no return to Rome – and the Earl of Surrey for those determined to undo everything Henry had done, and restore Catholicism. It was a life or death battle, and my protagonist, the innocent seeming court artist Willem Scrots, was one of the foremost players. ‘Scrots’ was an alias, though. He had infiltrated many European courts in the past, posing sometimes as Paris Bordone, other times as Joos van Cleve, others as Bernard van Orley… and now he was firmly ensconced in the English Court under this new name.

Having seen the horrors first hand, he was determined to unite every possible force to defeat the atrocities the Spanish were committing in the Americas, along with their intention to dominate all of Europe, and to transport millions of enslaved Africans to the New World. And that meant he had to assassinate Surrey – a Catholic Protector would be catastrophic.

The following excerpt tells the tale: it is based on actual events, but  the conversation – naturally – is fiction (except for some passages from the trial). History cannot be honestly told without the passions it aroused at the time, and so some such elaboration is vital for the storyteller to bring it to life. The passage is taken from the new book ‘Aly, Michelangelo’s Son’, and we begin as Aly contemplates how to bring Surrey to his knees…

“What if the assassin were someone powerful enough to take Surrey by force, someone so strong they need not fear the law or reprisals? Who could be that strong? Only the strongest in the land was that strong. I realized the term ‘blame’ contains with it the false presupposition that someone would have to be blamed. But what if the person who killed Surrey were so powerful they were above the law… what if they were the law? Such a person would need to answer to no one. It had been tried on me… I had been charged with heresy, and Margaret could have had me burned at the stake.

This was the missing stepping stone. Once I had it, I could cross the river. It was the missing stitch in Ariadne’s thread. The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, both were in sight, the four faces of Janus accounted for, and I elaborated a plan far more deadly and far more certain even than that of knife or poison. I knew how to get the most deadly assassin of all to do it for me.

Surrey fell in love with the idea of the portrait, placing his head within every noose that threaded my tale…

“If you approve, it will be done in Italian style,” I told him, “embellished with princely architecture, and boldly adorned with your family’s glorious coats of arms. If you feel it appropriate, I will place you in the centre, standing beneath a triumphal arch, resolute and dynamic, as if in dramatic movement towards the viewer, your cape asway.” I showed him a sketch, and saw his eyebrows rise, and a smile spread across his face.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey by Willem Scrots, 1546

“Either side I would display statues of your mother and father bearing the family arms, but I left spaces for these, my Lord, since I was unsure which to include. Which do you think would be the most illustrious and appropriate arms for me to display here? I understand you may be the future Protector of Edward when one day he becomes King, so they need to be chosen to match someone with the powers almost of a King… and I know you are descended from Kings, on both sides of your family, but I could not presume to make that choice for you, my Lord.”

I knew from this point his ambition and hubris would do the work I needed done.

“Indeed, Master Scrots, you are correct. On my father’s side I am descended from Edward I, and on my mother’s from Edward III.”

“And so these coats of arms have been in your family for generations.”

“Most certainly they have.”

“I can think of no better arms to include then, my Lord… There is just one thing, though.”

He looked at me, curious. “Master Scrots?”

“The first King Edward had many sons, and your line comes from his sixth, and noblest son Thomas, the one who acted through his entire life as the able and devoted supporter of his father’s successor, King Edward III. Indeed, he was the one who helped remove the unfortunate King Edward II from his much-abused throne. As the equally devoted supporter of our King Henry’s son, the future King Edward VI, the arms of Thomas might be a possible choice also, do you think – as you have in your own coat of arms, and thus also proclaiming your family’s history of supporting the Crown?”

Surrey gazed long at me and then said, “I can see why you were appointed court painter, Master Scrots. Your thoroughness is exemplary.”

“Thank you my Lord,” I replied, “but I am here only to suggest alternatives for the portrait, it is for you to command how it should be done.”

And so the die was cast, and Surrey couldn’t wait for me to begin…

Secretly as always, though, the painting told far more than immediately met the eye. Between his legs I began with text declaring the location and date that Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s undoing commenced: ‘Hampton Court, 3 August 1545’… and then I proceeded to undo him.

The cape I quietly labelled ‘York’ (since both his grandfather and great grandfather had fought for Richard III against Henry Tudor); and I depicted a gold chain around his neck in which an interlocking ‘HH’ emblem (his name ‘Henry Howard’), alternated with the red rose of Lancaster. The background to the Rose I altered a little, though, to make it resemble a ‘P’ for ‘Plantagenet’. I had him rest his right arm on a broken column that I labelled ‘Tudor’, and I mounted the column itself on a plinth labelled with his family motto ‘Enough remains’. This imagery alone, I knew, could kill the man.

Most dangerous of all, either side of the central archway were his paternal and maternal ancestors, depicted as grey statues, and bearing the arms of his royal antecedents. Standing out in glorious and bold colour against the drab grey of the statues holding them, one’s eye was arrested by the heraldic devices of King Edward III, and the son of King Edward I emblazoned on the portrait as if they were Henry Howard’s very own.

As if this were not enough, the statues either side were daringly supported beneath by matching gargoyles looking left and right, gargoyles that anyone could see depicted King Henry. By one interpretation one could say Surrey had the King depicted as a fool, by another that the king was laughing at Surrey’s imprudence and pretension, his recklessness in displaying such exalted strength. Such display, after all, hid within its hubristic shadow Surrey’s most deadly weakness…

He was displaying arms that strictly speaking only King Henry was allowed to bear, and by seeing Surrey stress his ancestry in this audacious way, Henry would become alarmed, and with judicious words in the right ears, this alarm would be transformed into panic. Henry’s tyranny would then be brought into play, just as I had mobilised Surrey’s hubris before.

There was another player in this plot, too: Mary Howard. She was Surrey’s sister, and had been married to Henry’s bastard, Henry Fitzroy, until he had died in 1536. Ten years later, Bishop Gardiner was angling to remove the Reformist Queen Katherine Parre, and supplant her with this same Mary Howard. Surrey accordingly pressured her to seduce the aged Henry, her father-in-law, and become his mistress. In this way, he said, she could wield as much influence on him as ‘Madame Étampes did over the French King’. Mary was outraged, and said she would rather cut her throat than consent to such villainy.

Becoming the seventh wife of a most unhealthy tyrant who by then might have killed three of her predecessors did not appeal to her at all. She stood to lose her head whether Katherine Parre lost or won the battle, and she would never forgive Surrey for putting her life in such peril. All this fear and fury then needed was a hint that Surrey was about to be accused of treason for this ‘villainy’, and she would save herself by confirming all the King most feared.

With the portrait completed, I set it within an oblong gilded frame that emphasized its grandeur, and delivered it. Now all that remained to make the paths of the participants converge was to give the work a name. Its frame spoke eloquently of its importance, but I needed something else to reveal its significance: a rubric, a cognomen, a title. I could not name it myself, though, for I was posing as but a lowly painter, loyal to my client, and the name ‘Treason’ was best given it by someone more in the King’s esteem.

So, to launch the rumours into the wind, how better to do it than to mention the portrait to Suffolk? Far better to provide the cook with the ingredients and let him bake the cake himself, no? He would surely have no problem in calling it what it looked like. And so we met in Guildford in mid-August that year, and the Duke duly expressed the greatest of concern. Yes, he said, it looked like treason. Alas for him, though, before he got to take the matter to the King, Bishop Gardiner heard of his intentions, and Suffolk died of poison but days later, on the 22nd August. I laid low. Did Gardiner know of my involvement? Even if he did, I still had one more string to my bow.

Surrey’s fiercest opponent still lived: Edward Seymour, the only other surviving contender for the post of Protector. If he could not bring Surrey low, I knew not who would. The Seymours hated the Howard family even more than Suffolk had, and of all the Howards, they hated none more than Henry, Earl of Surrey. My painting was yet tastier bait for him… it offered the best opportunity of a lifetime to bring him low, and to decisively advance the Seymours over their bitter rivals. Edward Seymour, though, was across the Channel in Boulogne, and not easily accessible. I had to complete the dies for Henry’s new coinage before daring to absent myself from England.

So, some nine months later, when I was at last on the way to Fontainebleu, I met Seymour in Boulogne. Once pleasantries were complete, I encouraged him to sit for a portrait, talking glowingly of my work for Surrey. I spoke of the Italian architecture, the marble statues and the dramatic pose, but then I raised a red flag.

“I was rather concerned, though, my Lord,” I said, drawing him close and lowering my voice almost to a whisper, “about his using two royal coats of arms as if they were his own…”

Royal Coats of Arms!?” Seymour said, gasping.

“I was concerned for fear that this might be misinterpreted, but Surrey was adamant. He said the arms had been in his family for five hundred years, and that he and his father had always supported the king. He thought the idea that some might see it as treasonous was utterly preposterous. But my Lord Edward, do I see in your face a worry about that? Should I warn him?”

Seymour realized instantly that the grand portrait was the greatest of artistic treasures, and he could not wait to have the King see it for himself. Henry Tudor too could not wait, and had it brought before him. There, brazenly staring out at His Majesty, as the cover was removed and the grandly framed image was exposed, was Surrey, surrounded by the very arms that only King Henry himself thought he had a right to display. And to compound the treason, Surrey’s arm clearly rested on a broken pillar. I felt sure, I had informed Seymour, that Surrey would not have intended this pillar to refer to the Tudor dynasty, but to his own, since it had Surrey’s family motto ‘Enough remains’ written boldly around its base. Henry, though, was as unimpressed by this argument as I knew he would be.

“Whether the pillar is Plantagenet or Tudor, it has the same meaning,” the King shouted at Seymour, stamping his foot, and then groaning in pain. He had forgotten he had a bad infection in it… and then, hopping around for a moment huffing and puffing, his ranting resumed with added strength: “It’s right there staring at us, and he is the very one that ordered it to be included, look… around its base! Look, Seymour. Look! Look! Look!” and he jabbed repeatedly at the column with his fat, stubby finger. “Whether ‘Enough remains’ refers to ridding himself of my son and the Tudor dynasty, or to his repairing the Plantagenet one, it means the same thing! He wants to usurp the throne… ‘Enough remains’! ‘Enough remains indeed’! How did he have the cheek!! Enough remains of the Plantagenets to commit treason, I warrant him that!!!” It was all the proof Henry needed.

“That is not all, Majesty,” Seymour continued, “if you talk with Mary Howard, you will find that her brother, Surrey, plotted to have Gardiner bring charges of heresy against Queen Katherine, and have Mary try to seduce you and replace the Queen in your marriage bed. Had she not been a virtuous lady and had she not refused to have anything to do with this treachery, I fear he might have done just that and then had you poisoned…”

It had taken a year for the arrow to reach its target, but by late 1546 the effect of the poison was irrevocable. Surrey was arrested and interrogated… and his father too, ‘for having known of his plans, but having said nothing to the King’.

“If you did not, Surrey, seeing the king was old,” interrogator Catchpole demanded, “intend to plant Mary Howard in his bed to poison him, and then to take the throne from the intended heir, why did you have royal arms portrayed either side of yourself in your portrait?”

“The arms have been in my family for five hundred years,” Surrey replied, exactly as I had predicted. “I am the descendant on my father’s side of Edward I, and on my mother’s of Edward III. Given the service provided to the King by my father and myself, I was entitled to show my heritage, and so I will do until it is recognized.”

“Until it is recognized? Everyone who matters already knows of your ancestry, so it must surely be more than just your ‘ancestry’ that you want “recognized”? Indeed, on the arms of Edward I we can see the Three Pointed Bar of the Heir Apparent! Why add that if you did not intend treason? Is it not as ‘Heir Apparent’ that you want to be ‘recognized’?”

“Those were the arms of Thomas Brotherton, the 1st Earl of Norfolk, son of Edward I, from whom I am descended. After the abdication of Edward II, he became Heir Apparent.”

“Why not then show the arms of Edward I, without the Heir Apparent bar? Why draw attention to the idea of the Heir Apparent, if the first Edward was your ancestor too?”

Surrey was silent. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

“And, if you were so proud of it, why did you cover the painting when our men arrived to take you prisoner?” Catchpole barely paused before launching into the rest of his accusation, not wanting any reply from Surrey…

“And the broken column on which you rest your arm in the painting – is that not intended to denote the Tudor dynasty that you would overthrow, or is it what you say the Tudors did to the House of Plantagenet? Which is it, Surrey? And why is your motto written there audaciously for all to see: “Sat Super Est”: “Enough remains”. Enough remains… for a Plantagenet to become King again?”

“So long as the King appoints mean creatures like you to his Council,” Surrey snarled, “there will be no justice in this realm.”

The interrogators did not comment on the grotesque masks supporting the plinths, but I have no doubt Henry recognized himself. Nor did they notice the goats’ skulls next to them labelled ‘Cabral’, Surrey’s true father. Nor did they see, on the codpiece (even though the Earl was pointing directly at it), the letters spelling ‘Eyck’. I could not let the opportunity pass to say once again that back in March or April 1515, when Surrey’s ‘father’ the Duke of Norfolk was away, his wife, Lady Elizabeth Stafford was swept off her feet by the charming and powerful Duke of Alba, Pedro Alvares Cabral. In short, the arms of the heir apparent of Edward I had no place in the picture at all – they were a fiction, but a very convenient fiction, one that helped Surrey lose his head the very next day, one frosty morning back in January 1547.

The door to the throne had for years been locked, but now we had the key. It was at last safe to open it, and make young Prince Edward King…

There are more excerpts on Aly’s website: