Henry Howard: Poems, Sonnets & Execution

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You might know the sonnets and plays of William Shakespeare, but you've probably never heard of Henry Howard. Keep reading to learn more about this ill-fated poet and his work that paved the way for some of the best-known poetry in the English language!

Italian Job: Creating the First English Sonnet

When many of us think of sonnets, the first name that probably comes to mind is Shakespeare's. Most of our exposure to these poems most likely comes from pieces in 'The Bard's' vast collection; however, the so-called 'Shakespearean sonnet' wouldn't be what it is today if it weren't for one enterprising earl.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547) lived and died a few decades before Shakespeare, and his poetic innovations sparked a revolution in English verse writing. Among them was Howard's introduction of a truly 'English' sonnet form.

Adapting his version from the highly-developed Italian sonnet, Howard eventually synthesized an English sonnet containing 14 lines of iambic pentameter following the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. Although Howard originated this form, Shakespeare widely popularized it with his many famous sonnets, leading to the name it now most commonly goes by.

Untimely Demise: The Execution of Henry Howard

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey(1517-1547), English nobleman and revolutionary poet
Portrait of Henry Howard

Henry Howard lived fast and died young. Had he lived more of a life that we might associate with a poet than a rock-star, he might've lived long enough to produce enough sonnets for them to be called 'Howardian' instead of Shakespearean. As it stands, though, the Earl of Surrey is thought to have actually composed many of the ones he did while imprisoned at Windsor between 1537 and 1539.

His father - Lord Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk - was heir apparent, or next-in-line to the throne, should King Henry VIII have no surviving male successors. While this might sound like a pretty nice position to be in, it actually caused the Howard's quite a lot of trouble.

Caught in a long-standing rivalry with another prominent English family, Henry and Lord Thomas found themselves under constant scrutiny. Many times, their rivals lodged false accusations against them at the royal court, but they were usually able to get away with no more than a little jail time.

With Henry VIII's health failing in late 1546, though, his growing paranoia led to a final blow against the Howard's. Henry and his father were accused of harboring Catholic sympathies and beliefs and conspiring to eliminate Prince Edward, thereby giving them access to the throne.

Despite efforts to defend himself, Henry Howard was found guilty of treason and beheaded 19 January 1547 on Tower Hill in London. Had his sentence been delayed only nine more days, he - like his father - would've escaped execution, seeing as how Henry VIII wasn't around to give the order after his death on 28 January 1547.

Howard's Sonnets

Many readers found Howard's earlier versions of the English sonnet to be inferior to Shakespeare's, which debuted not too long after Henry's death and soon eclipsed their predecessors. We might not call many sonnets 'Howardian' today, but it certainly applies to these composed by Howard himself!

  • 'The Golden Gift that Nature did thee Give'

Most of the Earl's poetry never saw the light of day until collected with the works of other Renaissance poets and published ten years after Howard's death in Tottel's Miscellany (1557). Like most of his others, this sonnet is titled by its first line but also shares many thematic similarities to the rest. Poems like this one on subjects of love, beauty, and nature weren't just a favorite of Howard's but of many writers of the Renaissance, especially when claiming that feminine beauty is the ultimate gift of the natural world as he does here.

  • 'From Tuscan Came my Lady's Worthy Race'

Continuing his celebrations of beauty, Howard composed this sonnet not only to commemorate the loveliness of a lady but of the poetic form that he had so carefully adapted. The narrator's addressee is 'Geraldine,' who was actually Elizabeth Fitzgerald, daughter of the Earl of Kildare. Of course, Elizabeth is from nowhere near Italy ('Tuscan'), so why the association? In writing this particular sonnet, Howard blends Italian imagery into descriptions of an Irish lady, demonstrating how his sonnets are really Anglo-Italian hybrids.

Other Poems by Howard

In addition to the earliest sonnets in English, Howard helped revolutionize the language's poetry even further with other poems just like these!

  • 'Complaint of the Absence of Her Love Being Upon the Sea'

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