Your RDA of Irony

The Hazards of Dukes

March 10, 1536: Thomas Howard Manages to Be Born Without Committing Treason

Is decapitation hereditary?

If Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk, were here to celebrate his 474th birthday, I would ask that question. Surely he would have noticed that much of his family–Dad, Aunt Catherine, Cousin Anne, etc.– was dying in the Tower of London rather than Norfolk. Grandfather nearly went to the block but instead spent years watching the mold on his cell walls. At the very least, being a Duke of Norfolk seemed to have some risk. So, why was the fourth Duke writing fan letters–perhaps including vague marriage proposals– to Mary, Queen of Scots? Perhaps he couldn’t help himself if decapitation is a hereditary trait. He certainly discovered that Queen Elizabeth I had a hereditary trait too: Tudor vindictiveness.  She proved that in 1572, retiring the Fourth Duke to the family vault and demoting his heirs to mere earls.  (Charles II would restore the dukedom in 1660.)

Yet, the Howards were fairly adapt at surviving.   They had been on the wrong side at the Battle of Bosworth, but switched their loyalty from York to Tudor. They could be just as flexible in theology, oscillating their piety from Rome to Canterbury to Rome. The Howards were devoutly Anglican when it came to seizing monastery lands from the Catholic Church. Once they sated themselves upon the Church’s wealth, they could be Anglicans for Henry VIII and Edward VI; they could be Catholics for Mary. (Caught between Elizabeth and Mary Stuart, they tried being everything. That proved tricky.) Had the Ottoman fleet sailed up the Thames, the ingratiating Howards probably would have become the Emirs of Norfolk.

In the 17th century, when the reigning Stuarts were subconscious or covert Catholics, the Dukes of Norfolk felt safe to resume their Catholicism. For the last three centuries, they have avoided any unpleasant stays in the Tower. And yes, the Howards are still the Dukes of Norfolk.

  1. Mary Ann Jung says:

    If not hereditary, decapitation’s at least contagious. After thrice surviving beheadings as Anne Boleyn, I’ve played Mary Stuart and just played Madame Deficit-Marie Antoinette. Given a choice of ends, I’d take Anne’s-less public. Of course the Dudleys gave the Howards a run in the headless count. There’s a race to stay well out of!

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