Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton


Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, whom Francis Bacon hailed as ‘the Learnedst Counsellor in this kingdom’, was undoubtedly one of the major scholarly intellects, as well as as one of the most prolific writers, of the Elizabethan-Jacobean period. His life, however, was somewhat chequered, in point of both his political career and of his personal reputation, given the years in which he unsuccessfully tried to gain Queen Elizabeth's patronage and even suffered occasional imprisonment and having his papers repeatedly searched, the consequences of his political intrigues and changing loyalties, followed by his bitterness and desire to settle old scores which affected the later years of his life when he did finally achieve political power, high office and elevation to the nobility, under James I.

Howard's Writings

His principal writings, on a wide range of political, antiquarian, philosophical and religious subjects, are in no small measure related to his political ambitions, as he sought to gain the favour not only of the monarch but of every nobleman or courtier whom he thought might advance his interests. The result is, first and foremost, a series of remarkable manuscripts produced by himself and his professional amanuenses, calligraphically written and decorated, for presentation to particular persons, each manuscript including the recipient's coats of arms emblazoned in their proper colours. The various ponderous treatises embodied in these volumes have obvious historical value, although, from a modern literary perspective, they seem extremely lengthy and voluble, written in a highly mannered style, excessively pedantic, and fundamentally tedious. He himself self-deprecatingly referred to one of his offerings to Lord Burghley as ‘this tediouse discourse’ (British Library Cotton MS Titus C. VI, f. 55r-v). It may be symptomatic that in the 438-page folio manuscript of Howard's longest work, A dutiful defence of the lawful regiment of women, that he presented to Burghley (*HoH 80) — who in fact had encouraged him to write it thirteen years earlier — only the dedicatory epistle to Queen Elizabeth bears Burghley's annotations, the huge treatise itself bearing no physical signs of readership whatsoever. It is also notable that this dedicatory epistle is one of the few works by Howard to achieve wider readership through commercial manuscript distribution (see HoH 70, HoH 73, HoH 75, HoH 77, HoH 78, HoH 82, HoH 83, HoH 85).

For presumably topical reasons, two other of his works were widely circulated in professional manuscript copies. One, surviving in at least 24 recorded copies (HoH 28-51), is his translation from Spanish of what was supposed to be ‘the last instructions which the Emperor Charles the Fifth gave to his son Philip before his death’, although the original of this (which may not even have been Spanish) is now known to be spurious. The other is his Duello Foiled (HoH 56-67), one of several tracts he wrote near the end of his life around 1613 when the subject of duelling was under official investigation by command of James I. Otherwise the only works by Howard consciously put out to the public in print were A Defense of the Ecclesiastical Regiment in Englande, defaced by T. C. in his Replie agaynst D. Whitgifte, published in London 1574; A defensative against the poyson of supposed prophesies, not hitherto confuted by the penne of any man, published in London 1583 (a second edition appeared posthumously in 1620); and, in his later official capacity as a Privy Councillor, his speech at the trial of Henry Garnet for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot, in A true ... Relation of the whole Proceedings against the late most barbarous Traitors (London, 1606), a book which especially pleased King James.

Other substantial works by Howard of a philosophical or religious nature were, again, restricted to purely private manuscript presentation:: notably, the early ‘Treatise on Natural Philosophy’ he prepared affectionately in 1569 for ‘hys very lovinge sister’ Lady Katherine Berkeley (*HoH 96) and his Latin treatise Regina Fortunata, the carefully prepared autograph manuscript of which, complete with decoration and an illuminated portrait of the recipient, he presented in 1576 to Queen Elizabeth (*HoH 93).

Howard's other surviving papers are voluminous. A notable series of autograph commonplace books by him, chiefly in Latin, have come to light, which, in so far as his spindly italic hand is legible, throw considerable light on his studies of history, politics, philosophy, religion, astrology and other subjects (*HoH 98-110). Other autograph drafts and working papers by him, recorded below, relate principally to his heraldic interests, to his fervent support of the privileges of the nobility, and to official commissions and other administrative business, including financial and naval matters, some of it shared with Sir Robert Cotton, during the reign of James I. Most of these papers are dispersed, somewhat haphazardly, among the Cotton and Lansdowne papers in the British Library, but it is likely that more will be identified in due course.


Not the least prolific of his manuscripts (which are not, however, given entries here) are Howard's letters, written chiefly to prominent public figures, during the reigns of both Queen Elizabeth and James I, a few of which (such as his notable riposte to Bacon) had considerable circulation in manuscript copies. Repositories of the numerous extant letters by Howard include the British Library (Cotton, Lansdowne and other collections); National Archives, Kew; Bodleian; Folger; Lambeth Palace; Inner Temple library; National Library of Scotland (Denmilne MSS etc.); Cambridge University Library; Northamptonshire Record Office; and University of Nottingham, among others. As a Privy Counsellor he also joint-signed innumerable official documents, now in most of the repositories above, as well as in the Free Library of Philadelphia; at Yale; and no doubt elsewhere. A facsimile page of the last letter he wrote on the day he died (National Library of Scotland, MS Adv. 33.1.7) appears in Mark Bland, A Guide to Early Printed Books and Manuscripts (Chichester, 2010), p. 92.

Howard's Library

Howard became a wealthy and extravagant connoisseur and collector, not least of books. Perhaps most of his library descended to his nephew, Thomas, Lord Howard (1586-1646), second Earl of Arundel, though many of his books are now widely dispersed. No comprehensive inventory of his extant identified books has yet been made, but notable contributions to it are to be found in Nicolas Barker, ‘The Books of Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton’, Bodleian Library Record, 13 (1990), 375-81; in Linda Levy Peck, ‘Uncovering the Arundel Library at the Royal Society: Changing Meanings of Science and the Fate of the Norfolk Donation’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, London, 52 (1998), 3-24, which includes (p. 17) a facsimile of a heavily annotated page (f. 193r) of Howard's exemplum of Alessandro Piccolomini, La sfera del mondo (Vinegia, 1579); and also in Linda Levy Peck, ‘The mentality of a Jacobean grandee’, in The Mental World of the Jacobean Court (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 148-68, 311-21 (esp. p. 314). To these books should perhaps be added the manuscripts of works dedicated to Howard by aspiring writers and therefore perhaps owned by him. Examples of these might include those in Folger MS V.a.157 (a ‘Brief discours of the causes of discord amongst the officers of arms of the great abuses committed by painters’ by William Smith); in the Warwickshire County Record Office, CR 1998 Large Carved Box No. 67 (an essay by St. Loe Knyveton on the offices of Constable and Steward of England); and in British Library, Harley MS 188 (‘A discourse touching the diminution of the Subsedie & how it may bee iustlie raised’ by William Tucker, Dean of Lichfield).


For illustrated documentation of Howard's grand house in the Strand, see Manolo Guerci, ‘The Construction of Northumberland House and the Patronage of its Original Builder, Lord Henry Howard, 1603-14’, The Antiquaries Journal, 90 (2010), 341-400.

Peter Beal