A great and subtle poet, a haughty and defensive noble, an enigmatic but reckless youth, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, blazed a trail through the reign of Henry VIII only to be executed for treason when he was (probably) just twenty-nine. The King survived him by only nine days, saving at the eleventh hour the life of Surrey’s father, the Duke of Norfolk, who had also been charged with treason. Surrey was a privileged youth, born into a leading noble family, raised as the companion of the King’s much beloved, though illegitimate, son the Duke of Richmond, invested with the Order of the Garter, cousin to two Queens, and a military commander. As the Emperor Charles V wrote to Henry VIII, ‘All our men will respect him as he deserves, for the valour of his father and for his own noble heart.’ Yet both as his father’s son and because he heeded the impetuous biddings of that ‘noble heart’, Surrey was always on the brink of danger. Both his Queen cousins were beheaded for treasonable adultery, and Surrey’s life knew only precarious security. His parents were separated amidst shameful scandal, he was several times imprisoned for his own rash and angry behaviour, he failed – despite desperate efforts – to recapture the glory of his noble forerunners on the battlefield, and his poetry is full of alienation, regretful grief, bitter anger, and the torments of betrayal.
Surrey’s character continually eludes us. Contemporaries thought him arrogant, and even those who loved him knew him to be difficult, painfully conscious of his high birth, and angry and melancholic by turns at the proliferation in government of men of lowly birth. The ‘crime’ that led to his death, absurdly,