Gender, Family, and Politics: The Howard Women, 1485-1558 – Dr. Nicola Clark

In this fascinating post Dr. Clark tells us about her important new monograph: Gender, Family, and Politics: The Howard Women, 1485-1558 (OUP, 2018).

The Howard family, Dukes of Norfolk, were the family most entwined with the Tudor dynasty during the sixteenth century. The men were earl marshals, lord admirals, lord treasurers, privy councillors, the king’s jousting buddies; the women, queen consorts of England (Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard), ladies-in-waiting, the godmothers of royal children. Generally, people talk about families like the Howards exactly as I have just done – as collectives. In many ways this is logical. Political dynasties have long been a reality across the world – think about the Chinese emperors, the Medicis or the Borgias, or more recently the Kennedys, the Clintons, or the Bushes. There is something satisfying in imagining scenes of family counsel where the family patriarch planned the moves of individual family members like pawns on a chessboard, and where everybody there was in pursuit of shared goals. The idea that Anne Boleyn, aiming at the throne of England, would have her extended family ranged behind her pushing her in that direction, is one that makes sense to us.

It made sense to some contemporaries too. Among the depositions taken as part of Queen Katherine Howard’s fall in 1541 is the statement given by Mary Lascelles/Hall, the originator of the reports of Katherine’s pre-marital sexual liaisons. She claimed to have warned Henry Mannox, Katherine’s music tutor, to steer clear of Katherine, because ‘she do come of a noble house and if thou should marry her, some of her blood would kill thee.’ Mary clearly saw the Howard dynasty in this context as a large, cohesive entity primed to enact vengeance against those who wronged its members, and understood that women were among a dynasty’s chief assets. Mannox coarsely replied, ‘hold thy peace, woman, I know her well enough, for I have had her by the cunt and know it amongst a hundred, and she loves me and I love her.’ He seemed to think that Katherine’s own individual feelings mattered more than what her family might think. These few sentences lay bare the inherent complexity of the early modern dynasty, and the importance of understanding the position of women within it.

The exploits of Katherine’s cousin Mary Howard/Fitzroy, Duchess of Richmond, show that for women, being a courtier involved more than simply supporting your family’s interests. For Mary, this is partly because – as must have been the case for many individuals – ‘family interests’ could be many, and varied, and were not necessarily collective. What one individual thought was good for the family might not enjoy a general consensus. In July 1536, a month after the execution of Anne Boleyn, a juicy bit of court gossip emerged. It was discovered that Mary’s cousin, Lord Thomas Howard, and her friend, Lady Margaret Douglas, the King’s niece, had been having an affair, and had secretly married. This was a problem, because royals weren’t allowed to get married without the King’s permission, and Howard, a younger son, was not a suitable match for Lady Margaret.

The King was not happy. An investigation was ordered to discover how this had happened, and whether it could be undone. It transpired that the couple had been involved for over a year, had secretly married at Easter, and that the aforementioned Mary, Duchess of Richmond, had known about the whole thing since it began. Thomas Smyth, a servant of Lord Thomas Howard’s, stated that Howard would wait outside Lady Margaret’s chamber until everybody except Mary had left. Mary had therefore acted as the couple’s accomplice and chaperone. Nor was she the only Howard woman involved. When asked how many people had known, Lord Thomas stated that Lady Margaret had also told ‘my lord William’s wife that now is’. Lord William Howard was Lord Thomas’s older brother. A family network had been hiding this affair and helping it to progress.

Was this a good thing, or a bad thing? On the one hand, these individuals were helping a member of their family to marry a princess: surely a useful dynastic goal. On the other hand, the fact that they were keeping this hidden shows that they knew that the King, and perhaps other members of the family, would not be pleased: it was never sensible to court royal displeasure. The issue here was the definition of ‘family interests’. The Howards were a very large family even by the standards of the day; different family members might easily have different ideas about what was or was not a good idea for the entire dynasty. So while we do quite often talk about families like the Howards, the Boleyns, the Tudors, as nice neat collectives, this picture evaporates once women are added to it, and it becomes clear that they do not simply follow male orders. I argue that we need to nuance our understanding of women’s agency, dynastic identity, and politics to take account of this.

Dr. Nicola Clark is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Chichester. Her research focuses primarily on women’s dynastic and political roles across the late medieval and early modern period. She interrogates the ways in which elite women’s different family, religious, and ‘career’ identities intersected, and the effects this could have on the people and institutions around them.

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