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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.


Edward VI, with his dying father Henry VIII in bed. An allegorical transfer of power

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.


Supposedly, Mary FitzAlan, Philip’s mother

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).


Thomas Howard, Philip’s father

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 young Philip.

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.


Elizabeth I, not only queen but also head of the Church of England

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.)


Philip languishing in captivity

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.

The jilted suitor


Jilted: PhilipII

Somewhere in the mid 16th century, an informal little club was formed. The members of this club were all male, all men of the world and of high status – and none of them really wanted to be a member, all of them hoping to have reaped success where the others had failed. Prominent members included Philip II of Spain, the Archduke Charles of Austria and two dukes of Anjou.

455px-Elizabeth_I_when_a_PrincessThe club orbited around a female – a queen bee – and as you may have guessed by now, I am referring to that exclusive gathering which we can lable “Good Queen Bess’ Jilted Suitors” – all of them eager to become the radiant Elizabeth Tudor’s husband.

One of these suitors was Swedish. As per the prevalent opinion, Erik Vasa was a handsome, well-educated young prince. Rarely was it mentioned that he was also considered borderline insane – seems to have run in the family as one of his brothers, Magnus, was insane.


Jilted: Erik XIV

Erik and Elizabeth had a lot in common; born in the same year, redheads, members of relatively young royal dynasties, bright, vivacious… the list is quite long. Both of them also had very forceful fathers, but by the time Erik proposed to Elizabeth’s, hers was long dead while Erik’s father, Gustav Vasa, was very much alive, and not at all in favour of an alliance with England, this rather unimportant peripheral nation.

Gustav_VasaGustav Vasa is an enigmatic character that people love to hate and hate to love. Brave and principled, ruthless and avaricious, he shares a number of traits with Henry Tudor, foremost among them the fact that he won his crown by conquest, not by undisputed blood-right. After having escaped with his life from the horrors of the Stockholm bloodbath, Gustav Vasa was essentially the only remaining Swedish noble capable of challenging the Danish king, and challenge him he did, until that propitious day in June of 1523 when Gustav rode into Stockholm to the loud acclaim of the people, there to claim his throne.

People who win their crowns tend to be a tad more defensive of them and their royal prerogatives – some sort of general insecurity, I’d guess. Gustav Vasa set about setting his house in order with fervour, and just like Henry Tudor, he made sure to marginalise those families that could potentially be a threat to his throne. One such family was the Sture family, and it became a constant bogeyman to the Vasa dynasty until our dear Erik, years later, took matters in his own hands and murdered them. (This was during one of his insane period, they say. Huh. I think the man was permanently ridding himself of the competition)

Execution_of_Mary,_Queen_of_Scots,_created_1613,_artist_unknownElizabeth had similar bogeymen – or bogeywomen – and used a similar solution, although she never lowered herself to sullying her own hands with blood. Case in point would be her treatment of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

Given all of the above, one would have thought the Erik and Elizabeth union was a match made in heaven. Well, Erik obviously thought so, sending off a portrait displaying just how handsome and martial he was to Elizabeth. She, however, was not as taken. But then, Elizabeth wasn’t really taken with any male who hoped to woo her and thereby get his hands on England. I guess her mother’s fate had also made Elizabeth rather wary of marriage in general – and it isn’t as if her father set any sort of example as to uxorious bliss.

Erik, however, grew up in a loud and boisterous family. Gustav Vasa always treated his wives (he ended up marrying three times, due to natural causes) with respect and devotion, and seems to have been genuinely fond of all of his children, even if some, such as the rebellious princess Cecilia, gave him plenty of grey hairs. Come to think of it, there were times when Gustav despaired at his eldest son’s doings, and if he’d had a choice, Gustav would have preferred to see his second son, Johan, as his heir.

220px-Erik_XIV_(1533-1577)_Domenicus_VerwildtIt is difficult to be the son of a successful man. Where Gustav Vasa had won himself a kingdom, Erik felt a need to expand on it, make his mark on the world, so to say, and the best way of doing so would be to marry a reigning queen. And once Erik had succeeded in knocking Elizabeth up, she’d gracefully retire to birth his babies while Erik assumed the role of king both in England and in Sweden, thereby reviving the ancient Scandinavian tradition as upheld by Swein forkbeard and Cnut. Erik obviously didn’t know Elizabeth very well…

Initially, it suited Elizabeth to keep Erik’s hopes up. The beleaguered English kingdom had need of allies, and a Protestant prince such as Erik would have found many supporters among certain parts of the English nobility. So they exchanged letters, one well-educated paragon to the other, with subtle flirtatious wordings and overcomplicated wordplay.

Ultimately, there was no wedding. After four years of having Elizabeth blow hot and cold, Erik decided to move on.   So there were no Swedish-English royal babies to carry the unfortunate gene of insanity that was to plague Erik throughout his life. Not that it helped the Tudor dynasty all that much, as it died out with Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. The Vasa family, however was to produce a further handfull of sovereigns, one of them a reigning queen.

And as to Erik, he ended his day imprisoned by his brothers, separated by force from his low-born illiterate wife, Karin Månsdotter, a woman he loved to distraction.  (Read more here)An imprisoned king is always a liability, which was probably why Erik was served poisoned pea-soup, dying on a cold February day, not yet 44 years old. His son by Karin never became king – he was sent into exile at the tender age of seven, entirely alone. Instead, Gustav Vasa’s ruthless and ambitious second son became king. I’m not sure Gustav Vasa would have been all that pleased by how Johan won his crown, but then I don’t think Johan would have much cared. Like father, like son as they say…

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