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Dynastic Politics: Five Women of the Howard Family During the Reign of Henry VIII, 1509-1547

Dynastic Politics: Five Women of the Howard Family During the Reign of Henry VIII, 1509-1547

By Nicola Clark

PhD Dissertation, Royal Holloway College, 2013

Portrait study of Mary, Duchess of Richmond and Somerset.

Abstract: This thesis argues for the centrality of the Howard women to their family’s political fortunes by exploring key dynastic episodes, themes, and events of Henry VIII’s reign from a new female perspective. The Howards were England’s premier aristocratic dynasty during this period. However, existing narratives have prioritised the careers of the Howard men, notably the two Dukes of Norfolk and the Earl of Surrey. Here, the family’s women are foregrounded. They are not considered in isolation, but discussed alongside their male relations in order to create a fuller, more complex dynastic picture than currently exists. Themes of rebellion, dynastic identity, matriarchy, patronage, treason and religion are woven through events of familial and national importance, allowing new conclusions to be drawn regarding the Howard women and the Howard narrative itself; the way that aristocratic dynasties operated; the activities of women within the political sphere; and the relationship between this family and the Henrician state.

This thesis draws its conclusions from new archival research into the activities of five Howard women: Agnes Tylney (c. 1477-1545) and Elizabeth Stafford (c. 1497-1558), the wives of the 2nd and 3rd Dukes of Norfolk respectively; Agnes’ daughters Anne, Countess of Oxford (c. 1498-1558) and Katherine, Countess of Bridgwater (d. 1554); and Elizabeth’s daughter Mary, Duchess of Richmond (c. 1519-1557). These five women cover three generations and two concurrent branches of the Howard family across the entirety of Henry’s reign. The thesis differs from traditional gender studies by focusing on women all from one family rather than those of particular court status or geographical location, as this facilitates exploration of the relationship between kinship networks and politics. Thus it also builds on recent scholarship emphasising the role of the family in early modern politics, and reveals the Howard women as important actors on a public, political stage.

Introduction: The Howards were the most important noble dynasty of Henry VIII’s reign. Tudor political history cannot be written without them; they lived their lives at its core, in the shadow of the Crown. No other family saw two of its members ascend the throne of England during this period and no family suffered so many dramatic falls from grace. However, aside from the two Howard Queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, the existing narrative of Howard family fortunes has not prioritised the dynasty’s women. Yet scholarship over the past two decades, notably that of Barbara Harris, has shown that women as well as men could play an important political role. In her study of aristocratic women during the early Tudor period, Harris demonstrated the need for a wider definition of political activity, encompassing the private as well as the public and thus revealing the power women could wield as political patronesses. In this regard, historians have particularly noted the efforts made by women on behalf of their families, and have begun to recognise that familial networks were fundamental to local and national politics during this period. This thesis therefore explores key episodes, themes, and events of Henry VIII’s reign from the new female perspective of the Howard women, and in doing so, reveals their centrality to their family’s political fortunes, and those of the state.

Click here to read this thesis from Royal Holloway College

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