A Catholic recusant in the court of Elizabeth I
In the aftermath of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg (and yes, I know it isn’t entirely certain he did nail them, but it makes for a forceful image, doesn’t it? Much more forceful than politely handing them over to the bishop) the people in Europe were to live through decades—even centuries—of religious confusion. The Holy Church fell apart, with some adhering to the old ways, some embracing the new.
In England, Henry VIII chose to break with Rome and make himself head of the Church of England (this, as we all know, due to personal issues: he really, really wanted a divorce, and the Pope refused to give him one). At heart, Henry VIII was a Catholic, and the Church of England under him adopted some aspects of the Reformation but retained a lot of the colour, pageantry and rites of the Catholic Church. Things changed under Henry VIII’s son. Edward VI was VERY Protestant, and the Church of England developed accordingly, even if things were brought to a grinding halt when Mary I ascended the throne, determined to lead her subjects back into the welcoming fold of the Catholic Church. By then, things had gone too far. Too many of the English had embraced the reformed faith and had no desire whatsoever to return to the fold, no matter how welcoming.
In 1559, Elizabeth I ascended the throne. A Protestant Princess became a Protestant Queen, and no matter that she supposedly said she had no desire to open windows into men’s souls, Elizabeth ruled a country where Catholics were viewed with distrust. These recusants were potential papist spies, and then there was the infected matter of Elizabeth’s cousin and long-time prisoner, Mary Queen of Scots, who was a Catholic—with a claim on the English throne. No, it is safe to say that in the second half of the 16th century the smart thing was to be a Protestant. Especially if you were planning on a career at court—and a long life.
After this somewhat lengthy preamble, it is time to introduce today’s protagonist. Philip Howard was born 1557, straight into the upper echelons of English nobility. His father, Thomas Howard, was the 4th Duke of Norfolk, his mother the heiress to the Earl of Arundel. Not that Philip ever got the opportunity to develop a relationship with his mother, as she died at seventeen after having given birth to him. The Howard family was a powerful family, descended from Thomas of Brotherton, Edward I’s son, through his impressive daughter Margaret. Philip’s Catholic great-grandfather, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, had been instrumental in helping Mary I secure her throne, but Philip’s father had been educated by Protestants and had turned his back on the “old religion”.
Thomas was a busy up-and-coming man and needed a wife. Accordingly, he didn’t remain a widower for long. Philip was presented with a step-mother, and over the coming years, the Howard nursery expanded with four more children. And then wife number two died as well. Thomas Howard married Elizabeth Leyburne, widow to a Thomas Dacre and mother of three little girls (and a son who died young).
Elizabeth was a devout Catholic, something that didn’t exactly thrill her new husband. When she lay dying, a scant seven months or so after the wedding, she begged to be allowed to see a priest, but her husband refused. Maybe he was distraught—Elizabeth had gone into premature labour, and the baby died with her—maybe he considered it too much of a risk to allow a Catholic priest to visit his home. Or maybe he was just being pigheaded.Whatever the case, poor Elizabeth died uncomforted. This time, Thomas didn’t marry again. Instead, he married his three sons to his three step-daughters. A complicated “let’s keep it in the family” game.
Philip Howard was twelve when he married Anne Dacre. This was also the year when his father was accused of planning to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. The Duke wiggled out of that one, but some years later he was back kicking his heels in the Tower, now accused of participating in the Ridolfi plot, whereby the plotters intended to supplant Elizabeth with Mary, Queen of Scots. The evidence tying Howard to the plot are somewhat tenuous, but in June of 1572 he was executed for treason.
At the time, Philip Howard was fifteen. His father’s vast estates were attainted and fell to the crown, but fortunately for Philip, his maternal grandfather left an impressive inheritance, and so he became the Earl of Arundel – not quite as fancy as being a Duke, but definitely better than being an impoverished lordling.
The Philip – Anne marriage was not exactly a bed of roses, at least not initially. Anne was devout, and her upbringing had her leaning towards the Catholic faith. The Howard family had its own sizeable share of Catholic recusants, but Philip was not one of them, and he wasn’t thrilled to have a wife whose religion could cause him major problems at court. After all, Philip intended to spend a lot of time at court, where he very quickly had become one of Elizabeth’s favourites.
Things, however, happened. Philip began developing an affection for his wife – and for her religious preferences. He witnessed a debate at the Tower between Jesuits and Protestants in the early 1580’s that definitely swung him in matters of religion but for some years more he sat on the fence. Not so his wife, who converted in 1582. When the queen found out, Anne was placed under house arrest, a whole year of solitude during which she gave birth to a daughter whom she promptly named Elizabeth. (For her mother, not her queen, I imagine)
The queen relented, Anne was released and rushed into her husband’s arms. No longer the foppish courtier of his early youth, Philip had developed a serious—and devout—side. The queen’s treatment of his wife had not served to deter him from conversion, instead it made him all that more determined to become a Catholic, just like Anne. Philip probably never had the intention of going public with his conversion, but he lived in an age where every major household had a bevy of servants, and quite a few of those servants also acted as informers on their masters, which was how Queen Elizabeth found out that her erstwhile favourite and second cousin had decided to become a recusant.
Queen Elizabeth ordered Philip to be placed under house arrest. Unlike his wife, Philip chose to flee. One wonders why: did he have reason to suspect the house arrest would be permanent? That the queen would never release him? That he would be assassinated? The present mood at court was very anti-Catholic, so maybe his fears were warranted.
Whatever the case, Philip decided to flee to France, but was betrayed and captured at sea. He was brought back to England where he was thrown into the Tower in 1585, sentenced to pay a fine of 10 000 pounds and to remain imprisoned at the queen’s pleasure. His wife was ordered to leave London and retire to the country, and no matter how much Philip begged, the queen refused permission for his wife and newborn son to visit him. Not one of Queen Elizabeth’s better moments…
Things might have ended differently for Philip had it not been for his Spanish namesake. In 1588, Philip II of Spain ordered the Great Armada to invade England under the auspices of restoring the True Religion, thereby doing every Catholic in England a huge disfavour – including Philip Howard.
As we all know, the threat of invasion came to nothing, and the English people rejoiced. Not so Philip Howard, who was now tried for treason, for having prayed for the Armada’s success and for having been party to a plan to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth. (As an aside, it is somewhat interesting that the excommunication threat be brought up: as a Protestant Monarch, why should Elizabeth care about a papal bull excommunicating her? Shows just how ingrained the Old Religion still was…)
Of course, Philip was found guilty and was attainted. For the coming years, he lived in constant fear that this would be the day he was dragged out to be beheaded, but in actual fact Queen Elizabeth never signed his execution order – even if no one had the charity to tell him so. Philip spent his days in relatively comfortable captivity in the Beauchamp Tower, accompanied by a dog that he used as a go-between to other prisoners. But he worried constantly for his family, knowing full well the future of his children now depended on the fortitude of his wife. (Fortunately, Anne Dacre was one tough cookie, so she rose to the challenge admirably.)
Some of his despair shines through in the inscription he carved on the stone above the chimney in Beauchamp Tower. In a spidery handwriting it reads “quanto plus afflictions pro Christo in hoc saeculo, tanto plus gloriae cum Christo in future” which translates as the more affliction we suffer in the name of Christ in this world, the greater the glory at Christ’s side in the next. Not sure just how much comfort he could draw from that.
Interestingly enough, Philip Howard always had a “Get out of jail” card at his disposal. All he had to do was recant, embrace the Protestant faith, and he would be forgiven, his estates restored to him. But he never did. Not even when he lay dying and yet again begged the queen to allow his wife and children to visit him, did he ever consider denying his faith. It must have been a terrible temptation for the ailing man. All he had to do, as per the queen, was to attend a Protestant Service and he would have the joy of his family at his side and be restored to all his honours – and her favour. An hour or so of lip service, and he would be allowed to hold his wife’s hand one last time, lay eyes on his son and daughter. One measly service and he would buy his children an easier life, himself a respectable death.
Some people are an unknown quantity until life throws them into the fires of fate. Some emerge strengthened by the experience, some crumble to ashes. Philip Howard belonged to the former, which is why he refused to give in. In a last burst of inspiration, he had the following message conveyed to the queen: “Tell Her majesty if my religion be the cause for which I suffer, sorry I am that I have but one life to lose.” And so Philip Howard died, alone in his tower on a cold October day of 1595. He had spent more than ten years behind the walls of the Tower for the single sin of being a Catholic. I wonder if Elizabeth ever felt a sting of shame – she should, IMO.
After Philip’s death, the queen withheld the possessions that should rightfully go to his widow. But Anne was no milksop and she fought for her rights, for the rights of her otherwise impoverished children. So successful was she, that ultimately her son, yet another Thomas Howard, was restored to his title as Earl of Arundel. And in the fullness of time, this Thomas Howard’s descendants would yet again become the Dukes of Norfolk – which they remain until today – but that would have to wait another hundred years or so.
As to Philip, his body was first buried together with that of his father, executed twenty-three years earlier. But in 1624, his widow (who, as you can work out, lived a long, long life) had his remains transferred to Arundel, where they still lie.
Philip Howard was canonised by the pope in 1970.