Frances de Vere, Countess of Surrey

The marriage between Frances de Vere, the daughter of the Earl of Oxford, and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, son of the Duke of Norfolk, was destined to be ill-fated. The two families had a long and complicated history. And Henry Howard was to be the last person executed in the reign of King Henry VIII.

Frances was born c. 1516, the second daughter and third child of John de Vere, 15th Earl of Oxford and his second wife Elizabeth Trussell. We know nothing of her childhood but it can be assumed she received an education commensurate with her rank. Based on Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Frances, she was an attractive young lady. Her father had solid landed interests and had much influence at court, holding the hereditary title of Lord Great Chamberlain of England.

The Howard and de Vere families were intertwined with mixed results. They had fought on different sides during the Wars of the Roses, with the de Vere family supporting the Lancastrians and the Howards backing the Yorkists. The 13th Earl of Oxford had killed the Earl of Surrey’s great-grandfather at the Battle of Bosworth. The Earl of Oxford was an advocate of the New Religion whereas the Duke of Norfolk was the premier Catholic nobleman of England.

The Duke of Norfolk’s half-sister Anne had married the 14th Earl of Oxford who had proceeded to treat her very shabbily. When the 15th Earl of Oxford inherited his title, he stopped paying Anne’s jointure and sent a mob to rampage through her lands. They ended up killing many of her deer, a valuable commodity at the time as the deer provided food. Anne was expelled from her lands and ended her days in isolation at Tendring Hall.

In 1524, Thomas Howard became the Duke of Norfolk upon the death of his father. His son Henry was known by the courtesy title of Earl of Surrey. Henry was born about the same time as Frances and lived with his family at Kenninghall and was highly educated. In 1526, the Duke purchased the wardship of Elizabeth, daughter of John, second lord of Marney with the intention of marrying her to Henry. But in 1529, Anne Boleyn, who was related to the Howards and had considerable influence over King Henry VIII, was promoting a marriage between the Princess Mary and her cousin Henry. The Duke was enthusiastic about the match as it would give him greater political influence and put his family closer to the throne of England.

Anne Boleyn may have considered the match as a way to neutralize the threat Mary posed to her and any children she would have by the king. But she soon changed her mind when she realized her crafty uncle the Duke would use the match to support Mary’s claim to the throne and support Catherine of Aragon in the frustrating divorce proceedings. By October 1530, Anne Boleyn had changed her mind and she persuaded the reluctant Duke to arrange for Henry to marry Frances de Vere.

The contract for their betrothal was signed on February 13, 1532. Frances was endowed with a settlement of four thousand marks, two hundred of which were payable upon the marriage and the rest to be paid in installments. Frances would keep this money in the event of her husband’s death. The Duke also promised to give the couple lands that would produce a yearly rent of £300. Frances and Henry may have had some slight contact with each other before they were married as their families frequently crossed paths.

The wedding ceremony took place on May 23, 1532 and was attended by various nobility. The couple was separated after the wedding as they were considered too young to consummate the marriage. Frances’ name appears in the list of maids of honour for the king’s daughter the Lady Mary. Sometime in 1535, the Duke of Norfolk separated from his wife Elizabeth Stafford and set up his mistress Bess Holland with a household in Kenninghall. It was about this time Frances moved in and started conjugal relations with Henry.

Frances would have five children with Henry Howard, two sons and three daughters. The first child Jane was born between the spring of 1536 and the summer of 1537. The second child was a son Thomas who was born on March 10, 1538. Katherine was born in 1539, Henry in February 1540 and Margaret at the beginning of 1543 or after her father’s death, depending on what source you read. Surrey guaranteed his children were given a fine humanist education as they were tutored at Kenninghall by the Dutch humanist Hadrianus Junius.

In January of 1536, Queen Catherine of Aragon died. Frances served as one of the chief mourners at the funeral at Peterborough Cathedral. When her husband’s great and good friend, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII, died in July of 1536, Surrey was very depressed. Surrey, who was a brilliant poet and respectable soldier, gained a reputation for riotous conduct. He was quarrelsome and hot-headed and was detained more than once for some minor crimes and infractions.

The Duke of Norfolk and Surrey were instrumental in suppressing the Pilgrimage of Grace in late 1536 and early 1537. After this, Surrey moved Frances and the children out of Kenninghall and into the old manor house of Fersfield and later to Shottisham Hall. Finally, he moved everyone to the family mansion in Norwich. While in Norwich, Surrey decided to begin building his own home on some land he obtained from his father.

Construction began on the house which was to be called Mount Surrey when Surrey asked to go to France and join the siege of Boulogne. Between 1544 and 1546, Surrey served the King Henry VIII of and on in France. In July 1545, Mount Surrey was nearly completed when he was offered a position in another English campaign in France. He was the captain-general of the English city of Boulogne where he had eight thousand men and did his best to maintain control against repeated attacks by the French. But eventually, his control and authority failed while his personal debts mounted. He was spending his own money conducting the campaign and knew it was unlikely he would be recompensed. The campaign was overwhelming and he missed his wife and children. He wrote asking the king’s council for permission to bring his family overseas but the council refused his request.

Because of the unsuccessful fight in France, Surrey was shunned by the king. By this time Henry VIII was very ill and there was a great deal of political maneuvering going on. Surrey resented the Seymour brothers whom he considered “new men” and not worthy of positions in the new king’s government when Henry died. He began to act alarmingly and treacherously, putting himself and his father at risk. Indeed they were both arrested and put in the Tower.

In the early morning of December 17, 1547, Kenninghall was raided by the king’s men looking for evidence of Surrey’s treason. The men found the Duke’s mistress Bess Holland, and his daughter Mary and a pregnant Frances alone in the home. Because of Frances’ condition, it was decided to send her and the children away. It is unknown where Frances went. Her children were taken from her and put in the care of relatives. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was found guilty at trial and executed on January 19, 1547. He was buried in the church of All Hallows Barking-by-the-Tower. Frances’ children were assigned to the Earl’s sister Mary Howard and she continued their education while they were in her care.

Frances lived a quiet life after Surrey’s death and she was remarried by 1553. Her new husband was a country squire named Thomas Steyning. They lived together in East Anglia and she attended court for the obligatory funerals and christenings. She had two children with Steyning, one of whom was a son named Henry. Frances died in June of 1577 and was buried in the Howard family church of St. Michael’s in Framlingham. In 1614, Frances and Surrey’s son Henry had his father’s remains transferred from the church of All Hallows and buried alongside Frances.

Further reading: “Henry VIII’s Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey” by Jessie Childs, entry on Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Susan Brigden, “The House of Howard, Volume 1 and 2” by Gerald Brenan and Edward Phillips Stratham

Mimi Matthews

Mimi Matthews

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