Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond

Unfinished portrait by Hans Holbein of Lady Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond and Somerset

Mary Howard’s life is a particularly interesting case on many different levels. She appears to have inherited her mother’s determined personality. She married the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII. After being widowed, she risked provoking the anger of King Henry in claiming her rightful jointure and resisted several attempts by her family to make her marry again. And she played a role in the unfortunate downfall and execution of her brother.

Mary was born c. 1519 and was the younger daughter of Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk and his second wife, Elizabeth Stafford, eldest daughter of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. Her childhood was spent in the family homes of Tendring, Kenninghall and Hundson in Norfolk with a couple of years spent in Ireland from 1520 to early 1522. She received an education commensurate with her status as the daughter of the premier nobleman in England. She was allegedly a great beauty and exceptionally intelligent.

Mary and her elder brother Henry, Earl of Surrey had a stormy relationship. They were two years apart and had many of the same friends. Both being passionate, they clashed over various matters, especially religion. Although the Howards were Catholic, Mary would become a staunch advocate for church reform and a serious reader of the Bible. Surrey tried to dissuade her from reading too much scripture.

Mary’s parents were strict disciplinarians. While their marriage was stable early on, it began to crumble after the Duke of Norfolk openly flaunted his official mistress, Bess Holland, the daughter of his secretary and household treasurer. Mary’s mother did not take kindly to this state of affairs and was vocal in her dissatisfaction. The Duchess would later complain of physical abuse. She accused her husband of abusing her after she gave birth to Mary. This was highly unusual behavior at this time. Both Mary and her brother Henry would support their father in this marital struggle.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

Early in Mary’s life, a marriage was arranged for her with Lord Bulbeck, heir of the earl of Oxford. But this match was soon abandoned. In December of 1529, King Henry asked for the hand of one of the Duke of Norfolk’s daughters for his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond. Norfolk always maintained the king initiated the idea of the match but his wife later said it was first put forth by Anne Boleyn. Anne was the niece of the Duke of Norfolk and Mary’s cousin. The match between Mary and Richmond was heavily promoted by Anne. Many foreign brides had been mentioned for Richmond. Anne realized any future children from Richmond’s marriage would be a threat to her own children’s claims to the throne. By marrying Richmond into the Howard family, this threat would be defused.

There was no dowry payment expected from Mary’s parents for the marriage which was unusual. This may reflect how much influence Anne Boleyn had on the king at the time. Mary’s mother was totally against this marriage, mostly due to the control Anne had regarding the agreement. The Duchess clashed so strongly with Anne Boleyn over this that she was banished from court. The Duchess was scheduled to carry Anne’s train at the ceremony elevating her to the peerage as the Marquess of Pembroke in September of 1532. Because her mother had been banished from court, Mary took her place in the ceremony. She walked in the procession carrying a red velvet mantle and a gold coronet. It was about this time Mary participated in an anthology of poems along with other courtiers known as the “Devonshire Manuscript”. The poems were written by Mary, her brother Surrey, Lady Margaret Douglas, Mary Shelton and others.

In October 1532, King Henry and Anne Boleyn went to Calais for a meeting with King Francis I of France and they took Henry Fitzroy, the Earl of Surrey and Mary with them. Mary danced before the two kings with Lady Rochford, Lady Fitzwalter and others. As part of the negotiations during this meeting, it was agreed that Henry Fitzroy would live at the French court as a member of King Francis’ privy chamber. Fitzroy stayed in France until King Henry recalled him to England on August 25, 1533.

In April of 1533, Anne Boleyn appeared in public for the first time as Queen. Mary Howard was appointed as one of her ladies-in-waiting. Mary carried the chrism during the baptism of the Princess Elizabeth. On November 26, 1533, Mary was married to Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond at Hampton Court. The Duke was a good friend of Mary’s brother Henry. They were both fourteen years old, too young to consummate their marriage so they each went their separate ways until they became of age.

For New Years in 1534, Mary received gifts from King Henry as his daughter-in-law. In early 1536, Richmond was given Baynard’s Castle in London and plans were being made for Mary to join him there and begin their married life together. But in an unfortunate turn of events, Richmond died on July 8 leaving Mary a widow at the age of seventeen. After the death of her husband, Mary spent time either at court or at the Howard home of Kenninghall. Her marriage agreement provided a jointure for her but King Henry was avoiding paying it. Mary believed her marriage was truly valid. But the king was using the excuse that the marriage was not valid because it hadn’t been consummated.

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset by Lucas Horenbout

Mary could not remarry until her jointure was settled and she needed the money to live on. She had to rely on her father for necessities and the money from the jointure would give her some independence. While she awaited her settlement, she was forced to sell her jewels and go into debt. Her father consulted lawyers and sent a steady stream of letters pressing her case. But he risked making Henry angry. Mary was not satisfied with his efforts and threatened to go to court in person.

The Duke of Norfolk complained of her weeping and wailing and begging for permission to go to London to work on her case. She asked to be allowed to appear in person at court but was denied. She then wrote to Thomas Cromwell herself, asking him to intercede. Cromwell asked Archbishop Cranmer for his opinion on the marriage. Cranmer confirmed the marriage was valid.

Anne Boleyn had suffered a spectacular fall in the spring of 1536 and was executed that May. The Duke of Norfolk was painfully aware his influence at court was greatly diminished after the fall of his niece and the lack of jointure for Mary may have been due as much to this as to the argument over the validity of her marriage. King Henry had married Jane Seymour just ten days after Anne Boleyn’s death.

Mary’s father scrambled to create ties with the Seymours whose influence was on the rise. A match between Mary and Thomas Seymour was arranged. Mary’s brother Surrey was furious about the match. Being of the old nobility of England, he didn’t like the new self-made men like the Seymours. Mary herself was against it. She didn’t fancy Thomas.

In the summer of 1536, Mary herself came to the notice of the king for her participation in the affair between the king’s niece Lady Margaret Douglas and the half-brother of Mary’s father, Thomas Howard. Secret trysts between Margaret and Thomas had been arranged with Mary always being present. The couple actually made a pre-contract to marry. The king found out about these meetings and imprisoned the couple in the Tower. The king suspected the Howard family were trying to get closer to the throne. Thomas would die of a fever in prison but Margaret was eventually released. Both Margaret and Thomas made it clear Mary knew nothing of the pre-contract to marry and therefore she was let off the hook.

Finally in March of 1539, King Henry granted Mary £12 per annum from Richmond’s estates. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, he gave her lands and estates which raised her income to £744 per annum. Attempts were made to place Mary in the court of King Henry’s new wife, Anne of Cleves but the new Queen had brought her own attendants and Mary received no place.

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk

King Henry’s next wife was a cousin of Mary’s, Catherine Howard. The Howard family was in the ascendant again. Mary was made a member of Catherine’s household when she became Queen, serving as a Lady of the Privy Chamber under the supervision of Lady Margaret Douglas. Mary attended Catherine when she and Henry made their progress to the north of England. After the disgrace of Catherine Howard, Mary and Margaret were sent away from court to Kenninghall for the next seventeen months.

In 1546, the Duke of Norfolk again brought up a marriage between Mary and Thomas Seymour along with other matches between Surrey’s and Edward Seymour’s children. The Seymours and the king were willing to consider it. Once again Mary was against the idea. She discussed the matter with her brother. Surrey suggested that when Mary went to the king to be congratulated on her betrothal, that she pretend to be indecisive over the marriage.

He urged her to discuss the matter with the king and use her feminine wiles to charm him and become his mistress and use her position to advance the interests of the family. He believed Mary could gain the same type of power that he witnessed King Francis I’s official mistresses enjoy at the French court. Mary was infuriated with her brother for suggesting this and said she would “cut her own throat” before giving “consent to such a villainy”. The relationship between Mary and her brother would never be the same after this incident and the Seymour marriages never materialized.

In May of 1546, Mary was present at the official reception of Claude d’Annebault, Admiral of France and the new French ambassador at Greenwich. By December, King Henry was obviously ill and would not last long. The Seymours were starting to consolidate their power and worked to destroy the Howards. The Duke was old and not much of a threat. But Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was. He made no secret of his ambitions to be regent for Edward, the heir of Henry VIII.

People spoke out against Surrey and he and his father were arrested in mid-December and imprisoned. When men were sent to search Surrey’s home at Kenninghall, Mary was there. The men searched her coffers and found them bare. Mary had been forced to sell or pawn her jewels to pay her debts as her father was neglectful of her well-being. Mary and her father’s mistress Bess Holland were taken to London and interviewed.

Mary gave the council evidence that her brother was rash and had said about the Seymours “these new men loved no nobility, and if God called away the King they should smart for it”. She also revealed that Surrey had replaced the coronet on his coat of arms with a crown and the initials H. and R. for Henricus Rex. When Surrey’s personal home was searched, they found armorial glass, paintings and plate with the arms of Edward the Confessor. Surrey was claiming he was descended from the Confessor even though the Garter King of Arms had determined he was not.

Mary gave all this information in her deposition about her brother. She also recounted her conversation with him regarding becoming the mistress of King Henry. Mary has been criticized for her part in the downfall of her brother and her damning testimony. But it appears Mary was doing everything she could to save her father. Based on her deposition and the testimony of others, Surrey was executed on January 17, 1548 after a trial. King Henry VIII died on January 28. The old Duke was also supposed to be executed but the new king’s council didn’t want to start the reign with bloodshed and he remained in the Tower as a prisoner for the entire reign of King Edward VI.

While her father was in the Tower, Mary and her mother were allowed to visit him. Mary petitioned for her father’s comfort and for his release from captivity. In 1548, two of her brother’s three daughters were put in her care. While they were in her household, she engaged the reformer John Foxe to tutor them. Mary applied to the king for funds to help raise her nieces and nephews and was given an annuity of £100.

On November 4, 1551, Mary was present when Marie de Guise, Regent of Scotland for her daughter Mary Queen of Scots visited the royal court of King Edward VI. She was part of the procession following Marie de Guise from the Bishop’s Palace at St. Paul’s Cathedral to Westminster where she was received by the Duke of Northumberland and she dined with King Edward. When Mary Tudor became Queen, Mary started out serving in the Queen’s Privy Chamber beside Margaret Douglas and Anne Stanhope, Duchess of Somerset.

But Mary didn’t remain at Queen Mary’s court for long. The Queen was not fond of Mary because she had been a servant of Anne Boleyn’s. Queen Mary had kept many of the estates of Mary’s father and had confiscated some of the estates of the Mary’s husband the Duke of Richmond. Mary was also a zealous promoter of the reformed religion which didn’t endear her to the new Queen. Mary returned to Kenninghall where she entertained and would only appear at court periodically. Mary’s father died in August of 1554. She greatly mourned her father’s death. In his will, he left her £500.

Mary remained faithful to the New Learning and reformed faith until her death. She was a patroness of evangelical writers and churchmen. She died sometime in December 1555 and was buried next to her husband in St. Michaels’ Church, Framlingham.

Further reading: “Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son” by Beverley A. Murphy, “Henry VIII: The King and His Court” by Alison Weir, “Henry VIII’s Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey” by Jessie Childs, “The Lost Tudor Princess: A Life of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox” by Alison Weir, entry on Mary Howard in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Beverley A. Murphy, “The House of Howard, Volume 1 and 2” by Gerald Brenan and Edward Phillips Stratham

4 thoughts on “Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond

  1. Considering how she was when she was widowed, she did not do badly for herself but it would have been better if had been satisfactorily rewed to a lord of considerable power.


  2. I’ve seen this portrait many times but knew nothing about her and I’m pleased that I do now. What a strong and interesting lady, thanks


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