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Surrey, Henry Howard, Earl of (1517–1547) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

surrey’s english wyatt fitzroy

Surrey’s short, spectacular life is the stuff of romantic legend. He was born Henry Howard in 1517, the eldest son and heir of Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey, and Elizabeth Stafford. His grandfather Thomas Howard, second duke of Norfolk, was England’s finest military commander and had just four years earlier destroyed an invading Scottish army at Flodden, killing the Scottish king. Upon his grandfather’s death in 1524, Surrey’s father succeeded as third duke of Norfolk, and Surrey succeeded to his father’s title as earl. The third duke was one of the most powerful councillors throughout the remainder of Henry VIII’s reign, and two of his nieces (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) sat on the throne. Surrey’s mother was daughter of the duke of Buckingham and a direct descendant of King Edward III.

Surrey received a nobleman’s education, that is, heavy on outdoor sports, music, dance, and religious forms that would make him a soldier, courtier, and councillor. He would have had a private tutor to teach him Latin grammar, literature, and history. We do not know who that tutor was, but by some stroke of luck he seems to have been a good one, and by age twelve Surrey was showing notable signs of learning. In the Renaissance patronage system, children of elite families were frequently brought up in the households of allied families, creating a crisscross system of godparentage. In 1530, at age fourteen, Surrey was placed at Windsor Castle as companion to the twelve-year-old Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII. Surrey and Fitzroy then spent the years 1532– 33 in the retinue of king François I er of France at his palace at Fontainebleau. There Surrey would have seen the spectacular styles of architecture, painting, and sculpture that François was importing from Renaissance Italy, under the influence of Leonardo and the Mannerists. Shortly after their return, Fitzroy was married to Surrey’s sister Mary Howard.

In 1536, when Surrey was nineteen, the charm that had been cast over his life was dispelled. His cousin Anne Boleyn was tried for treason and executed in May. Two months later, his friend Fitzroy died. It is impossible to probe Surrey’s psyche from a distance of over 450 years, but William Sessions is surely right to say that “Surrey’s grief marked a clear change in his social personality.” Had Anne survived, or had Fitzroy come to the throne—a possibility for which Henry VIII always kept his illegitimate son in reserve—Surrey would have been guaranteed a permanent place of honor. Instead, he found his and his family’s position imperiled and the closely woven threads of his social and emotional life ripped apart.

The remaining ten years of Surrey’s brief life are marked by sharp swings between reckless violence and politic calm. Three times he was imprisoned for brawling. With each occurrence, the Privy Council considered his behavior more threatening and less excusable as youthful indiscretion. In between, he lived ostentatiously, held positions of high command in Henry’s army, and took his place at court as the scion of one of the kingdom’s most powerful families. In 1541 he was created a knight of the Order of the Garter. In 1545 he was made governor of the English outpost at Boulogne, named “Lieutenant General of the King on Sea and Land,” and given an army to command against the French.

While Surrey seems to have had a genuine talent for battlefield command, he suffered losses in the French campaign and was recalled under a cloud. His father attempted to form an alliance with the Seymour family, the main enemies of the Howards and the in-laws of the heir-apparent, the future Edward VI. Surrey, who seems to have grown increasingly isolated from his own family as well as from the subtleties of court politics, objected violently to the proposed marriage of his sister to Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset. She was, after all, the widow of his friend Henry Fitzroy, and Surrey seems to have taken the proposed match as a betrayal of Fitzroy and of himself. He changed his coat of arms to emphasize his royal forebears—an insignificant matter to modern eyes, but one that threw the aging Henry VIII into a rage. In Henry’s eyes, it was clear evidence that Surrey intended to dominate the boy Edward when he came to the throne, or, indeed, to grab the throne for himself. In December 1546, Surrey was arrested and charged with treason for his use of royal arms. On 19 January 1547, still shy of his thirtieth birthday, he was beheaded. Eight days later, Henry VIII died.

One of the enduring mysteries of Surrey’s biography is the origin of his friendship with Sir Thomas Wyatt.* Both had connections to Anne Boleyn, but Surrey was only nineteen when she died. Wyatt was fourteen years older than Surrey and a client of Sir Thomas Cromwell,* one of the most bitter enemies of the Howards. He acknowledged an inclination toward Lutheranism, while the Howards were staunchly Catholic (though Surrey’s own religious attitudes are hard to pin down). The link between them is usually ascribed to a natural affinity between poets. It is equally possible that they were brought together by Wyatt’s son, who was in Surrey’s service. All that is certain is that, by 1541, Wyatt wrote poetry addressed to the young earl and that after Wyatt’s death a year later Surrey wrote some of his best verse in Wyatt’s praise and imbibed elements of Wyatt’s style.


In the sixteenth century, Surrey was regarded as the finest poet in English after Chaucer and before Sidney. If his reputation stands not quite so high in the twentieth century, he nonetheless is clearly second only to Sir Thomas Wyatt among the poets of the age of Henry VIII. He published his work primarily through manuscript circulation rather than through the new technology of print, and most of his poems initially survived in a few manuscript collections assembled by his family and immediate friends. When Surrey’s poems were printed in 1557 by Richard Tottel in his famous Miscellany , they were retitled and frequently rewritten in order to explain their occasions (sometimes invented occasions) to help a wider audience, and their meaning was often titled away from the particular toward the general. Tottel’s reproduction of Surrey is best understood not as a piece of bad editing but as another “translation,” in which the poems are carried from the aristocratic milieu of the court to the milieu of the gentry and the commercial class of London.

Surrey was celebrated by the Elizabethans primarily as a lyricist and valued for the dignity that his social class gave to poetry itself. (Indeed, Surrey is the highest-ranking English aristocrat ever to be a significant literary figure.) In the Defence of Poesy (c. 1581), Sir Philip Sidney* praises “in the Earl of Surrey’s lyrics many things tasting of a noble birth, and worthy of a noble mind.” Thomas Nashe* creates a fictional account of a journey through Europe as Surrey’s servant in The Unfortunate Traveler (1594). Surrey is here an embodiment of courtly idealism in all its heroic extravagance and absurdity. He is too noble to actually seduce a willing lady and always “more in love with his curious-forming fancy,” for “truth it is, many become passionate lovers only to win praise to their wits.”

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Surrey’s lyrics have been given a minor but important place in the perfecting of modern English verse forms. In a sort of nationalist poetic relay race, Chaucer runs the first leg in his supposed primitive but creative fashion. Wyatt moves us from middle English to modern English, though still in a “rough,” natural form. Surrey smooths out modern language, making it fit the sophisticated and polished forms of the Continental Renaissance. Wyatt is thus the poet of feeling, and Surrey the poet of form. The anchor leg is run by one’s favorite Elizabethan: Shakespeare, Sidney, or Spenser, all of whom bring English lyric to perfection by creating a perfect balance of feeling and form. The poetic race is run on the same course where one can trace the development of the English language and the rise of the English nation-state to a position where they can bid for world domination.

Surrey’s Aeneid had a similar reception. The translation of the classics into the vernacular languages of Northern and Western Europe in many ways corresponds to the transfer of power, from Rome to the nation-states of early modern Europe and finally to the world powers of the twentieth century. By his happy choice of unrhymed iambic pentameter to render the Latin dactylic hexameters of the Aeneid , Surrey translates the high poetic form of the Roman Empire into the form that Shakespeare will use. Hence Surrey, with his resounding blank verse, is unwitting grandfather to the national poet.

These nationalistic appropriations of Surrey’s poetry have accounted for some of the features of his verse, but by no means all. Surrey’s reputation as a formalist caused him to be held in low esteem by the new critics, who preferred Wyatt. The class and nationalist dimensions of his verse, however, are readily compatible with the themes of new historicism. But the lyrics and translations have generally received less attention in recent years than have the epitaphs, especially those on Wyatt. Their psychological brooding and scarcely concealed bitterness stand in stark contrast to the usual image of Surrey as a superficial versifier—they are, in effect, more like the works of Wyatt himself.

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