Mary Howard was born in 1519, to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and his wife Lady Elizabeth Stafford. Elizabeth Stafford was the daughter of the Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham. Mary’s father, the Duke of Norfolk was a very powerful man in England — at the time of her birth he was a very high-ranking noble, just behind the King.
Sometime in 1529, it was suggested that Henry Fitzroy should wed Mary Howard. The marriage would strengthen the Howard name and bring them even closer to the power of the throne. During this time Henry VIII was trying to end his marriage with Katherine of Aragon and wed Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn was niece to Thomas Howard – Mary’s father. Some have suggested that Anne Boleyn put into motion the idea of a union between the two teenagers to further strengthen the Howard name near the throne — she needed allies, and family was always the first to rise after a royal marriage.
Anne Boleyn supposedly convinced Henry VIII to wed his son to Mary Howard, without a dowry. It showed how strong of an influence Anne had on the King at the time.
In 1533, Mary Howard married the King’s illegitimate (but recognized) son, Henry Fitzroy. With the marriage she became Duchess of Richmond and Somerset. Unfortunately, the marriage was short-lived and on 23 July 1536, Henry Fitzroy died and Mary was left a widow.
There was some talk in July 1538, of a marriage between Thomas Seymour and Mary Howard. The Duke of Norfolk gladly offered up his daughter to wed Seymour. Apparently Henry VIII was looking to raise Seymour’s station and Norfolk was more than happy to use his daughter to be nearer the King.
The day the King removed from Westminster to Hampton Court, the duke of Norfolk made a suit to him touching the jointure of his daughter the duchess of Richmond, and spoke about her marriage, mentioning two persons, one being Sir Thos. Seymour. The King has spoken to Sir Thos. about it, and he, considering that Cromwell’s son has married his sister, prefers him to have “the mayning of the matter.” The King desires him to speak to the Duke at some time convenient, and soon, as the Duchess goes into the country tomorrow or next day. Chobham, 14 July.
Again in 1546, Norfolk discussed the marriage of his daughter to Thomas Seymour. Around this time he had also proposed a few marriages to further bind together the Howard and Seymour families. In addition to the proposed union of his daughter to Thomas Seymour he also negotiated some of his grandchildren as matches for three of Edward Seymour’s children. On 10 June 1546, Henry VIII gave his permission and approval to the proposal.
Twice, it was proposed Mary should wed Thomas Seymour, the brother of Queen Jane. The king approved the union and ordered Cromwell to make it happen. But – surprisingly – Mary refused. Her status as a widow gave her a bit more autonomy than a girl still living at home with her parents. Mary packed up and left court. Her brother, the Earl of Surrey, followed her to her home in Kenninghall, likely trying to badger her into it, but Mary wouldn’t bend.
In December 1546, the Duke of Norfolk and Earl of Surrey were arrested on charges of treason. Norfolk’s son and heir, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, had unrightfully assumed the royal arms of Edward the Confessor as part of his personal heraldry and it was assumed that Norfolk was aware.
On 13 December, the Duke of Norfolk wrote the Henry VIII:
Begs for grace. Some great enemy has informed the King untruly; for God knows, he never thought one untrue thought against the King or his succession, and can no more guess the charge against him than the child born this night. (fn. n3) Desires that his accusers and he may appear before the King, or else the Council. Knows not that lie has offended any man, or that any are offended with him, “unless it were such as are angry with me for being quick against such as have been accused for Sacramentaries.” As for religion I have told your Majesty and many others that knowing your virtue and knowledge I shall stick to whatsoever laws you make; and for this cause divers have borne me ill will, “as doth appear by casting libels abroad against me.” Begs that he may recover the King’s favour, the King taking all his lands and goods; and that he may know what is laid to his charge and have some word of comfort from his Majesty.
On 14 December, Sir Richard Southwell arrived at daybreak at the Duke of Norfolk’s home and broke the news of the arrest of Norfolk and Surrey to Mary Howard & Norfolk’s mistress:
As the steward was absent “taking musters,” we called the almoner, and, first taking order for the gates and back doors, desired to speak with the Duchess of Richmond and Elizabeth Holland; who were only just risen, but came to us without delay in the dining chamber. On hearing how the matter stood the Duchess was “sore perplexed, trembling and like to fall down”; but, recovering, she reverently upon her knees humbled herself to the King, saying that although constrained by nature to love her father, whom she ever thought a true subject, and her brother, “whom she noteth to be a rash man,” she would conceal nothing but declare in writing all she can remember. Advised her to use truth and frankness and not despair. Examined her coffers, and closet, but find nothing worth sending, all being very bare and her jewels sold to pay her debts, as her maidens and the almoner say.
“First I have heard by the report of the Duchess of Richmond that the Earl of Surrey should give her advice, upon consultation had for the marriage of Sir Thomas Seymour and the said Duchess of Richmond, that, although her fantasy would not serve to marry with him, yet, notwithstanding, she should dissemble the matter, and he would find the means, that the King’s Majesty should speak with her himself; but that she should in nowise utterly make refusal of him, but that she should leave the matter so diffusely that the King’s Majesty should take occasion to speak with her again; and thus by length of time it is possible that the King should take such a fantasy to you that ye shall be able to govern like unto Madame Distamps. Which should not only be a mean to help herself, but all her friends should receive a commodity by the same. Whereupon she defied her brother, and said that all they should perish and she would cut her own throat rather than she would consent to such a villainy.” The Earl of Surrey has said to me, place and time now out of my remembrance, “Note those men which are made by the King’s Majesty of vile birth hath been the distraction (sic) of all the nobility of this realm,” and again that the Cardinal and Lord Cromwell sought the death of his father. Mr. Edward Rogers has told me of the Earl’s saying “If God should call the King’s Majesty unto His mercy (whose life and health the Lord long preserve) that he thought no man so meet to have the governance of the Prince as my lord his father.”
To summarize the above statement: Surrey attempted to convince his sister Mary to become mistress to King Henry. By doing so it would benefit her and their entire family. She was insulted and said she would rather cut her own throat than go along with his plan. Surrey had such a distaste for men who were “made” and not of royal birth that it ended up destroying him.
On 12 January 1547 Norfolk admitted that he had known and concealed the fact that his son was using the arms of St. Edward the Confessor, which pertain only to king — in his admittance he offered his lands to the King Henry. Norfolk’s family, including his estranged wife, his mistress and his daughter Mary, gave evidence against him.
Mary Howard, from birth, was to be a pawn for her family — such was the case for any woman of noble birth. In the end she took down her own brother and father by telling her side of the story.
In the end the Duke of Norfolk did not lose his head like her brother Surrey did — King Henry VIII died shortly before the scheduled execution of Norfolk and so he was spared.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir