THE EARL OF SURREY AND EUROPEAN COURT CULTURE
William Sessions on the connections of the charismatic courtier-poet who in a short and ill-fated life bridged the aristocratic Renaissance cultures of the Continent and the lifestyle of Henry VIII's court.
In the autumn of 1543 Charles V praised Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in language seldom, if ever, bestowed on Europe's highest political authority on any English nobleman, even one of the rank of Howard. Indeed, the particular terms of this praise point to the level of elegance the twenty-six year old heir to the seventy-year old Duke of Norfolk had already achieved in the eyes of Europe, at least in those of the Holy Roman Emperor. Surrey had just left the retinue of the emperor in northern France and returned to England, and so Charles V wrote (in his favourite language) to `nostre treschier et tresame bone Frere et Cousin' (our very dear and most beloved brother and cousin) Henry VIII, to explain how the young Howard would be a splendid translator and communicator of the events in the autumn campaign against the French, particularly regarding the decisions made by the recent council of the coalition Imperial Spanish, German, and English armies.
A more complete letter would follow the return of `nostre cousin, le Conte de Sorey pardela' (our cousin, the Earl of Surrey, from over there), but the young Howard himself will give `bon tesmoingnage' of these events because he is the true son who would not want to fail to follow his father and his ancestors. This latter reference was a gracious response to Henry VIII's initial letter on October 1st, 1543, from Woodstock, to the emperor commending `the Earl of Surrey, Knight of his Order, who desires to see the emperor's camp; and whose request in this Henry has readily granted, hoping that by experience of war he may succeed by the honourable qualities of his relatives'.
For Charles V, however, Surrey was more than the child of his ancestors. In fact, in a letter to Henry VIII the emperor wrote that `si gentil cueur et telle dexterite' (such gentle heart and dexterity) as the young Howard possessed ensured that there was nothing one need explain to him and that whatever one may ask of him, he will know how to carry it out.
It is this image of efficient nobility--gentle heart and dexterity (and all the Renaissance courtly connotations of both terms)--that Surrey had obviously projected to the ruler of most of Europe. It is hardly the image of Surrey endemic to most Tudor historians and biographers: the arrogant hysterical aristocrat who suicidally destroyed both himself and his family through absurd power-plays. This was an image developed, in the general Tudor iconoclasm, as early as August 1539 when John Barlow, the Dean of Westbury, said of Surrey `It ys the most folish prowd boye that ys in Englande'. Even then the attack was held to be too simple: Barlow's travelling companion, George Constantine, replied `What, man, he hath a wife and childe, and ye call hym boye?' and then defended the young Howard by recalling the responsibility and heavy burden of heritage he bore.
For Charles V it was not only the burden of nobility that Surrey bore well, an ancestry that intermingled, through the Howard family and Surrey's own Stafford grandfather, the resplendent Duke of Buckingham, with that of the Holy Roman Emperor himself. It was also a personal style of intelligence and honour that was neither arrogant, absurd, nor self-seeking. Charles V's two emphases, personal worth as well as ancestry, Chaucer himself had interpreted as the true marks of nobility in his short `moral balade' on `Gentilesse':
What man that claymeth gentile for to be
Surrey's ancestry or `trace' did, in fact, make him, through his direct descent from Edward I and Edward III, the cousin of Charles V, himself the direct descendant of John of Gaunt. At the same time, with the same force as Chaucer's energetic verbs, Surrey's brief life had been an incredibly concentrated drive for honour, an honour carried to the point of his own beheading. In fact, Surrey's death, little more than a month after his arrest, was for designing and displaying for himself an improper coat of arms, using new forms, that in Henry VIII's eyes, threatened his own forms and those of his son. The beheading, noted all over Europe, and found incredible in the French court where Surrey had been greatly admired, occurred on January 19th, 1547, the last execution of Henry VIII's reign.
If Surrey's death at the age of twenty-nine epitomised that inner honour greater than any external form, in Chaucer's revisionist terms, `Al were he mytre, croune, or diademe', in Surrey's life his inscriptions of honour determined the course of his existence. Arising from self and family, they were two-fold. They projected first the figure of the nobleman-warrior and secondly the maker of texts--both viewed in himself (literally in the portraits) as the embodiment of a renewed honour. This blending of his past and his present into himself as the future model of honour arose precisely, at least in Surrey's eyes, from his increasingly efficient control of the literary forms of humanism. Thus, as Charles V himself knew well, if Surrey were asserting, consciously or unconsciously, the value of the old nobility, the forms by 1543 demanded quite different responses because of the impact of Renaissance humanism in Europe.
As Charles V's own orator-preacher, de Guevara, had only recently made clear in his "Golden Boke of Marcus Aurelius" (that would take Europe by storm and that Lord Berners, the step-uncle of both Surrey and Anne Boleyn, had transplanted for the English court), ancient Rome provided an essential model. This was the idea of Rome found, for example, in the new readings (and translations) of Vergil's "Aeneid" in Italy and in Surrey's own personal response to the new humanism that had transformed his childhood and adolescence. What was needed, in Surrey's eyes, was a proper "translation" of Rome for England, or, in the larger sense that the humanists' beloved Cicero meant, a "renovatio" of the old model in the new, not a revolution that would deny history itself. It was to be a translation or recapitulation in the sense that Titian's portrait of Charles V on horseback renewed the Capitoline statue of Marcus Aurelius (thought originally to be the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine) in its modern and latest manifestation.
The European warrior-nobleman, a renewed type of Roman hero, exemplified itself, for example, in Surrey's actual military sorties in Scotland and in France, where he would soon handle supplies for most of the campaign, and, then in his defence of Boulogne, become at twenty-seven `Lieutenant General of the King on Land and Sea'. This model updated for Surrey that very burden of the past and its own models of honour, in which the example of the Burgundian court of Charles the Bold, had so strongly influenced Surrey's grandfather and great grandfather in the previous century.
Surrey's father, Thomas, the third Duke of Norfolk, had been Henry's standby not only in the naval and land campaigns of the first twenty years of the king's reign, but also his bulwark in the very different warfare of the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536. Surrey's grandfather, meanwhile, had defeated the Scots with another kind of daring and become (after years of patient waiting) a national hero, the `Flodden Duke'. And then, the first Howard Duke of Norfolk, John, had led the vanguard at Bosworth Field, dying for Richard III, in a heroic act that echoed Burgundian "gloire" as well as Anglo-Saxon "comitatus," an act ironically kept alive in Tudor ballads and legend, as Henry VIII's letter of October 1543 suggests.
At the same time, by 1543, Surrey was producing texts that would support Charles V's perception about his profound sense of an active living honour. These texts would be both visual and literary, and their models, European as well as English. They included Castiglione and Fontainebleau, as well as Chaucer's Knight's Tale and the old Burgundian forms that Edward IV and Richard II, the founder of the College of Arms, had brought into their courts from their brother-in-law, Charles the Bold's ceremonies of glory. The visual texts for this new model of honour centred on key portraits and drawings by Holbein, Scrots, and others that demanded, as Surrey constructed them for court interpretation, a special hermeneutics (with nothing in them by accident).
Surrey's literary texts were equally demanding and original. In his late teens and twenties Surrey's inventiveness with language appeared everywhere, and the permanent forms of English that emerged, blank verse, the English sonnet, the heroic quatrain, the English alexandrine, the special adaptations of Poulter's Measure and the Italian "capitolo," to name only a few, were designed by Surrey to act as bases for a new courtly language. They expressed new forms of honour for Surrey's dream of a humanist nobility. As such, they were imitations or creations developed in Surrey's `transtextuality' (to use Gerard Genette's current term), whether from Chaucer in the new 1532 Thynne edition and the earlier English traditions or, more frequently, from Renaissance Europe. Indeed, by 1543, after the death of Wyatt and the circulation of Surrey's poems in manuscript, Henry Howard was universally acknowledged at court and in the universities (at least to judge by Sir John Cheke's later encomium) as England's greatest living poet.
It was a remarkable moment never before reached in either English or European history: a nobleman of the highest rank who had become not only an exalted poet and inventor of daring original linguistic forms but also the precursor of a new English--and even European--courtier. Surrey was a courtier from the highest nobility who had the highest level of intelligence and originality in language, the Renaissance humanist philosopher-ruler derived from the Greek ideal of both "aristos' and "arete" (natural nobility and inbred virtue). The English courtier held the potentiality, if not of Plato's philosopher-ruler that was haunting most of contemporary Europe (and especially Ralph Hythloday of Book One of More's "Utopia"), then certainly of the "cortegiano"-adviser to the prince that Castigilione had derived from ancient Rome. In that connection, a personally annotated 1541 Aldine edition of Castiglione may have been Surrey's own (or that of his son and namesake, the future Earl of Northampton: the book imaged a father beheaded for his own definition of courtliness).
In any case, the evidence of his last years shows that Surrey understood the moment and its historical inevitability. And the evidence of the Henrician court also shows this consciousness: on two major occasions (among several) the Earl of Surrey acted as the king's representative, as the highest type of continental English nobleman to welcome a European visitor. In the winter of 1544, Henry sent Surrey `to visit and offer compliments on his part to the Duke' (of Najera), whom he had met in France in the entourage of Charles V. In August of 1546, as his last official court act, in the middle of his general disfavour, Surrey was selected as one of four persons to provide horses, with footstools, for the French Admiral, who had come to conclude the peace treaty over Boulogne, the others being the king himself, the Archbishops of Canterbury, and the Duke of Norfolk. In the order of precedence, he was ranked, to the silent envy of Seymour, Dudley, and those of Catherine Parr's circle, along with the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth. In the line of peers, Seymour as the Lord High Chamberlain stood first of the earls, but Surrey as the eldest son of a duke, outranked him. This awareness of rank by Surrey and the court explains the conscious self-fashioning that Surrey adopted. He knew his audience, and they knew him. And although such seeming ostentation would make him at once offensive to certain disciples of the new Christian humanism and, at the same time, vulnerable to the manipulations of his enemies, still, if the time were out of joint, there was no question in the young Henry Howard's eyes, of who was born to set it right.
This moment of "renovatio" for English society was posited on what would become the extraordinary cult of the Earl of Surrey, which began to develop within ten years of his beheading. His position as the major poetic voice of the late Henrician court marked Surrey in the entire Renaissance: the precursor of works such as Shakespeare's sonnets and his "Hamlet." It also identified him in the literary anthologies for almost four hundred years. The 1557 publication of the first text of modern English lyric poetry, "Tottel's Miscellany," a crucial text in the evolution of the English language, originated this process. Tottel included poems by Wyatt, Grimald, and other new poets of the era, but all were subsumed by Tottel under the striking title: "SONGES AND SONETTES, written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other." Earlier, in 1554, the evangelical printer John Day had brought out one of the books of Vergil's "Aeneid" that Surrey had `translated into English, and drawn into a straunge metre,' as the title-page announced. In June 1557 Tottel had also brought out both of the Vergilian books Surrey had translated from the Augustan Latin into the meter that would be consistently, at least until the early twentieth century, the most pervasive of all poetic languages, blank verse. Indeed, as the product of his contacts in Europe and his wide reading in Italian and French modern verse, blank verse exemplified Surrey's search for the highest image of active nobility, his own text of `si gentil cuere and telle dexterite'. In Surrey's poetic explorations and experiments, blank verse would then be a language of renewed nobility that would spell out a basis for tragedy.
Of Vergil's "Aeneid," Surrey may have translated more than two books (all holographs of his work were lost in the December 1546 sacking of Kenninghall in East Anglia and Surrey House in Norwich), but these two books define tragedy clearly for the future of the English language and the makers of texts to come. In Book Two, Surrey translates, into his utterly new English form, Vergil's communal tragedy that had haunted the medieval English mind through texts like Lydgate's and that were being newly imitated all over Europe. Now it was Surrey's turn to tell the old story of the burning of Troy and the end of a civilisation:
The later day and fate of Troye is come,
In Book Four, Surrey translated a personal tragedy that reflected the communal, the breakdown and end of lovesick `infelix' Dido:
But Dido striveth to lift up againe
This tragic basis in blank verse moved, within three years after "Tottel's Miscellany," in the excitement for young poets of the new form, from epic into theatre. Surrey's enthusiastic young admirers, Thomas Sackville (the future Jacobean Privy Councillor) and Norton turned it into "Gorboduc" at the Inner Temple. Surrey's voice of renewed Rome thus entered the language as a permanence that would reach into all future languages: Marlowe and Shakespeare to Milton's epic reversion to Wordsworth's lyric epic, Tennyson and Browning to Wallace Stevens' `Sunday Morning' and Frost and Lowell, to name a few legacies of this most original achievement of the reign of Henry VIII. In fact, it was precisely the power of the Poet Earl, as the Howard family have always referred to their ancestor, as originating text-maker, that Sir Philip Sidney singled out in his "The Defence of Poesie." Naming Surrey's "Lyrics" of 1557 as one of the four seminal texts in English (along with Chaucer, Spenser, and Sackville), Sidney further finds in Surrey's language `many things tasting of a noble birth, and worthy of a noble mind'. The two aspects that Charles V perceived are here united, as with the Holy Roman Emperor's praise, into one embodiment, that of Henry Howard, the beheaded Earl of Surrey.
The portraits, a second mode of text-making, directly develop this embodiment of honour. As Roy Strong has noted, Surrey had himself drawn and painted more times than anyone else at the court of Henry VIII, except for the monarch himself. This form of self-fashioning and visual strategy had a source that directly rose from Surrey's only other sojourn in Europe. In fact, only three years before Surrey's meeting with Charles V, the new dauphin, Henry VIII's French godson, had confided to the English ambassador, Sir John Wallops, the admiration he held for Surrey as a result of his visit in 1532. Then Surrey and Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond, had first come over with Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to meet Francis I at Calais and Boulogne. What the dauphin, soon to become Henry II of France, recalled was the friendship he and his brothers had developed with Surrey. After Henry VIII and Surrey's first cousin, Anne Boleyn, had returned, the two young English noblemen, one fifteen and the other thirteen, had been invited to join the entourage of the earlier dauphin, Francois, and his two brothers, with whom the young Englishmen would remain for almost a year.
At Fontainebleau, Surrey came into contact with the Italian Renaisance world, not only Francis I's gallery being constructed in those same years and his famous collection of art, but especially with Italian artists and poets like Luigi Alamanni (who had published in 1532 in Paris a volume of pastoral poetry with the unrhymed hendecasyllabic line that Alamanni had learned from his older friend Trissino, the benefactor of Palladio). Fontainebleau centred the experience of Surrey's first sojourn in Europe, as Boulogne centred all his campaigns during his last sojourn, in the defence of which he could image himself as warring hero (and in which, it might be noted, one of his offensive sorties resulted in the scar on the Duc de Guise's face that gave him the name "Balafre"). Not only did the experience of Fontainebleau represent the more complete of the two contacts with Europe, with its intellectual and artistic blending of the latest Italian and French styles (and as the repository of old Burgundian "gloire" as Flanders became more Imperial and Spanish). It also epitomised a special time in the life of the adolescent Howard. To the very end of his life Surrey saw, as his "alter ego," his beloved friend Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond and Somerset. In 1532, Henry VIII's bastard son was a good bet to become the next king, and in the heat of that moment, the two young men came abroad.
The friendship was no accident, as a 1529 letter to Charles V from his Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, reveals. Chapuys reported a strange midnight conversation in London with the Duke of Norfolk, whose gregariousness had a political purpose, of course: namely, the introduction to the political powers of Europe the name and achievement of his own twelve-year old son, Henry, the Earl of Surrey. To the old Duke's surprise, with his utter incomprehension of new humanist forms, his son had become a whiz at languages. He had developed a power of linguistic expression and control that the old father saw at once could be of value at a court increasingly conscious of the right text and Erasmus' call `ad fontes'. In fact, confided the Earl Marshal of the kingdom, Surrey would be tutor and adviser--`incitatuer', in Chapuys' words--to the young Fitzroy. Shortly thereafter Surrey did join Fitzroy at Windsor, and the two Henrys entered into an intimate relationship, the depth of which is recorded in the first great elegy in modern English, for which Surrey invented a new meter, the heroic quatrain.
The Windsor elegy recounts Surrey's memory during a temporary banishment to Windsor a year after his friend's death in 1536. Surrey recalls an earlier Windsor `where I in lust and joye/With a kinges soon my childishe yere did passe,/In greater feast then Priams sonnes of Troye', a place with `frendshippe sworne, eche promyse kept so just,/Wherwith we past the winter nightes awaye'. Surrey also wrote a second text of sorrow, and for that he adapted the most pervasive of European lyric forms, now specially made his. In this poem, Surrey does come to the brink of suicide, leaning over the parapet of this same Windsor castle and thinking of his beloved friend. Ironically, as Derrida has remarked, such loss brought forth the birth of a new form. The poem is the first English sonnet, a Petrarchan adaptation of which Shakespeare makes equally paradoxical use.
In Fontainebleau these young men were at the peak of their happiness. If they wandered through the constant construction going on around them that, as Robert Knecht has noted, any visitor to Francis I's palace would have had to contend with, they still saw the splendours of the Gallery (then with windows on both sides) rising before them. Among the mythological recreations of ancient Rome in the Gallery they saw emblems of Francis I as a Roman emperor, as in the courtyard Michelangelo's nude statue of a Romanised Hercules as well as the Diana of Ephesus figure. Such art was a source light-years from the wind-swept East Anglican world of Framlingham Castle, the flat lands around Kenninghall palace, and the medieval streets and churches of Norwich. If the humanist Bude's library was also a resource the adolescent Surrey could use daily at Fontainebleau, underneath that library was a more startling treasure. The baths of Francis I contained his art collection, so that bathers, nude or semi-nude, could view the recently acquired Italian masterpieces through the mists of the hot baths.
Fontainebleau had taught the young Surrey then how a painting could be used for emblematic political purposes at court. Thus this French connection not only induced Surrey to adapt his own linguistic experiments to those of the Italian experiments in unrhymed epic verse and the new dazzling Petrarch imitations both in France and Italy, but also led to his portrait-making. On Surrey's return from France in 1533, the new English Apelles (as Nicholas Bourbon called Holbein) had drawn him for what are possibly his wedding pictures, and later Surrey saw Holbein's massive Whitehall mural for the Privy Chamber and the book-engravings that propagandised the position of Henry VIII as Supreme Head. In the new political context of representation, Surrey began to develop his own visual texts.
Not least of these is a drawing, now at the Morgan Library in New York, of Surrey in his mid twenties, in profile and his head uncovered (the only such image of him). The hair is combed forward, and the entire figure models itself on that of a bust of a Roman emperor. With the same bust design, but this time with face turned three-quarters, is the more defined image of Surrey by Holbein that David Starkey is probably correct in viewing as an image of Surrey as poet. This Holbein oil portrait gives Surrey's age as twenty-five. If this inscription is correct, the date of the picture would be 1542. In that year Surrey was writing his first Vergilian translations. It is also the year of his only published poem. This was Surrey's elegy on the death of Wyatt, his only other poem in the form of the heroic quatrain. In a real sense this elegy originates the idea of the modern poet, a figure of nobility in a pluralism of honour now determined by language. It is an historic transfer.
Surrey's half-body in this very late Holbein is dressed in black, except for white neck and wrist cuffs, his right arm raised mid-chest in Roman fashion, with a single ring on his index finger. The severity of dress matches his gaze: he stares with a serious realistic, but unfocused gaze as though meditating. It is the image of the Renaissance poet, especially the melancholy Petrarchan sonneteer but above all the serious epic poet inheriting the Vergilian mantle like the black cloak Surrey is wearing. If this Holbein is combined with the drawing of Surrey as a Roman emperor from this same period, the illusion of himself as the new model of honour that he wanted to project to the court of Henry VIII, was to carry an incipient political message: Henry Howard had power and ability to reshape the destiny of the realm.
Surrey's final portrait, that by Scrots, and contained within the larger painting now at Arundel Castle, would climax all representations, the texts both visual and literal. It would press toward the highest political purpose. Here was the full body of renewed honour. This his great-grandson, Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel, recognised and, with his own political agenda at the Jacobean court, probably commissioned Inigo Jones to reshape the simpler original Scrots (probably similar to the sixteenth-century copies at Knole and Parham Park) and give an impressive Italian frame to the original pausing figure of the Poet Earl. The young Howard, his face shining with life in contrast to the purgatorial side figures lamenting "en grisaille," is standing almost impatiently under an arch bearing his age. The arch signifies (and freezes) the time that the young man beneath it leaning on a broken column seems to have survived. Indeed, the face at Arundel Castle that stares directly out at the audience looks almost with hauteur at being interrupted, but presents its own message of a broken column and a motto in the space on the base of the column: "SAT SUPER EST" (enough survives).
Vergil's Book Two may proclaim the burning of Troy and the death of a civilisation, but a human being (and his family) survive. That sole survivor looks toward a new community, and this survivor will build it with new texts of honour inscribed in a new language out of what Charles V saw as `si gentil cuere et telle dexterite'.
The resulting language of hope and dexterity allowed others to inscribe their own nobility. If Surrey's severed head marked the end of the dream of renewed nobility for him, the language that head had spoken and invented did not disappear. In fact, as in the Ovidian myth of the floating severed head of Orpheus that Surrey might have seen on tapestries or in masques at Fontainebleau, that head never ceased to sing of nobility.
R.J. Knecht, "Francis I" (Cambridge University Press, 1982); Catherine Macleod, `Guillim Scrots in England' unpublished thesis (Courtauld Institute, University of London, 1990); John Martin Robinson, "The Dukes of Norfolk: A Quincentennial History" (Oxford University Press, 1982); W.A. Sessions, "Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey" (G.K. Hall & Co., 1986); David Starkey, "The Reign of Henry VIII" (George Philip, 1985); Patricia Thomson, "Sir Thomas Wyatt and His Background" (Stanford University Press, 1964).
PHOTO: Their name liveth for evermore? Scrots' posthumous portrait of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (with its frame remodelled by Inigo Jones), emphasising the survival of the young nobleman's fame and family, with its Latin motto--"Sat Super Est" (enough survives) inscribed at the base.
PHOTO: Family firm; Holbein's portrait of Surrey's father, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (1473-1554).
PHOTOS: The classic look; recovery of the style of the Roman world was a key element in the court circles of Renaissance Europe through which Surrey passed-- whether in (right) the miniatures which linked Francis I with Julius Caesar in a 1519 French translation of the "Commentary on the War in Gaul,"* the terracotta medallion (above right) of Caesar by Giovanni da Maiamo, commissioned by Wolsey for Hampton Court in 1521, or (above left) the 1490s manuscript of Virgil's "Aeneid" by Bartolomeo Sanvito--a favourite Renaissance work which Surrey translated into innovative English blank verse.
PHOTO: Francis I's gallery at Fontainbleau--a setting not only magnificent in itself, but which impressed on Surrey, as a guest at the French court, the power of art as political statement.
PHOTO: The beloved friend; Henry Fitzroy, Earl of Richmond, whose death provoked Surry's Windsor elegy, the first sonnet in English.*
PHOTO: Fatal heraldry; the coats of arms produced by Surrey in 1546. His incorporation of the arms of Edward the confessor into his own provided the excuse for his arrest, attainder and execution for treason, though in reality he was a victim of court faction.
PHOTO: `Here will I be, and onely with this thought'--Surrey's immortality assured in this page from the 1557 edition of Tottel's "Miscellany of Songs and Sonettes."
PHOTOS: `My face is my fortune'? (Top) Wedding sketch by Holbein (wrongly inscribed `Thomas')*; (centre) Surrey the Emperor, in profile by an unknown artist; (bottom) Surrey the Poet, by Holbein.
All illustrations in this issue that are marked with a star are on show at the Greenwich exhibition, "Henry VIII, A European Court in England."
By William Sessions
William Sessions is Professor of English Literature at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He has written the only book-length study of the poetry of the Earl of Surrey (see above) and is currently completing a biography of Surrey.