English School , Early Seventeenth Century
Northampton was remarkably successful in carving a career at court during the turbulent reigns of Henry VIII and his children, despite his father having been beheaded...
This recently discovered early Jacobean portrait depicts Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, one of James VI & I’s most senior statesman.
Howard was born during a turbulent period in English history – Henry VIII’s health was declining, the issue of succession was fiercely defended, and religious debates were dividing the nation. It was through these unfavourable conditions that Howard had to navigate, whilst being sorely reminded of the fate of his father, who in 1547, just before the death of the king, was accused of threatening the line of succession and executed. Howard was raised within a Catholic household following the accession of Mary I (1516-58) in 1553, and although he firmly denied his Catholicism throughout the subsequent reign of the Protestant Elizabeth I (1533-1603), both his will and his funeral procession reportedly did little to conceal his true beliefs. When Elizabeth I became Queen she saw to the funding of Howard’s education at King’s College, Cambridge, where he remained as a reader until about 1569. Two years later, however, Howard’s loyalty to the crown was once again questioned as a result of a wayward family member – this time his brother Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1536-72). Norfolk was accused of attempting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), the Catholic cousin of Elizabeth who she would later execute for treason, and he was executed in 1572. Howard was arrested on suspicion of involvement and although later cleared, his reputation suffered greatly and he was watched with suspicion for the next decade.
As the reign of Elizabeth I drew to a close with no obvious heir to the throne, the subject of succession once again came to the fore, and Howard, in support of his colleague Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612), supported the claim of James VI (1566-1625) of Scotland. The accession went smoothly and Howard was appointed to the Privy Council, and later in 1604 was made constable of Dover Castle and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. On 13th March 1604 Howard was created Earl of Northampton and Baron of Marnhull, Dorset. Eager to end conflict with Spain, James appointed Northumberland a commissioner with the aim of negotiating a peace treaty, which was finally agreed upon in 1604. The event was immortalised the same year by an unknown artist in the great painting known as ‘The Somerset House Conference’ [National Portrait Gallery, London]. The painting shows a long table, with six members of the Hispano- Flemish delegation on the left, and the five English delegates on the right – Northampton is second from the front.
In 1605 Northampton was made a Knight of the Garter, and the same year was appointed to the investigation committee following the exposure of the Gun Powder Plot. Any whispering concerns amongst the court that Northampton would sympathise with the Catholic rebel Guy Fawkes were brushed aside as Northampton pushed for the guilty conviction. Following the death of Salisbury in 1612, Northampton gained great influence in government and was soon appointed head of the treasury.
In 1612 Northampton learnt that court favourite Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset (1585/6-1645) had fallen in love with his great-niece Frances Howard (1590-1632), who was already married to Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex. Despite this, Northampton, who was all too aware of the advantage of a marriage connecting the Howard the Somerset families, greatly encouraged Somerset’s pursuit of Frances. The match was opposed, however, by Somerset’s old friend and ally Sir Thomas Overbury, and when matters later came to a head, Northampton ensured Overbury was sent to the tower, where in September 1613 he died.
It was only following the death of Northampton in 1614 that the events surrounding Overbury’s death began to attract attention, and it transpired that Frances has been involved in a plot to poison Overbury whilst imprisoned. In 1616 Frances and Carr were put on trial, found guilty, and sent to the Tower, although they were later pardoned in 1622 and released.
Given the shocking revelations following his death, it is hardly surprising that so little of Northampton’s iconography (which would have been displayed by his peers as a symbol support), has survived. Images of deceased or disgraced courtiers were frequently painted over and the panel or canvas support recycled and updated with more of-the-moment figure; this work however, was in the possession of the Howard family until 1938, and was thus preserved.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this portrait type of Northampton was attributed to the Italian painter Frederico Zuccari (c.1539-1609), however, this is no longer accepted given Zuccari is now thought to have returned to Italy by this point, and a more plausible attribution could be to the Anglo-Flemish court painter Marcus Gheeraerts the younger (1561/2-1636). The fact that Northampton is wearing insignia associated with the Knight of the Garter (ie. ‘The George’ medallion on the blue garter ribbon around his neck) tells us this portrait-type was probably painted soon after 1605 when was admitted to that chivalric order. Only a few versions of this portrait-type are recorded, perhaps the best example being that at Petworth House, West Sussex.