Tag Archives: Henry Howard

Of a Contented Mind


Thomas Vaux by Hans Holbein

Thomas Vaux was a Catholic nobleman in the nervy middle years of the 16th Century. Friends with Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, he was much more troubled than they by the religious developments of Henry VIII’s reign, and effectively withdrew from public life for the latter years of the Henrican era and the even harsher (if less bloody) reforms of Edward VI’s minority, only to re-enter public life at the accession of Queen Mary. His descendants lived through more troubled times still for England’s loyal Catholics, as Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth was anathemised by the Pope, and Catholicism became straightforwardly treasonous in the view of the queen’s ministers. As Jesse Childs’ details wonderfully in her great book God’s Traitors, the family would be caught up in the war of espionage, propaganda and legalistic harassment between the state and its agents on one side, and the Vatican, the Catholic exiles and occasionally the French and the Spanish on the other.

Poetically, Vaux is often classed with a group of mid-sixteenth poets often known as the ‘natives’ who resisted (or simply never paid attention to) the new Italian forms and Petrarchisms that had such an impact on poets from Spenser and Sidney to Shakespeare and eventually Milton. This group is typified by George Gascoigne, and includes such poets as Barnabe Googe and Sir Walter Raleigh, as well as Thomas Vaux. The writer and anthologist John Williams, who championed this group, explained that readers should read the poems as if ‘mortals listening to mortals’: ‘if we listen to the poem, we shall hear beneath the emphatic stresses, beneath the bare and essential speech, the human cadence of the human voice, speaking to us as if we were alive.’

‘The Mortals’ would perhaps be a better name for the group, contrasting them quite nicely with those poets who are so better remembered and were awfully (sometimes tediously) fond of that renaissance trope about poetry making its subject and writer immortal. And, as Williams suggests, there is a great deal of the fallibly human in their poetry. One of Gascoigne’s better known poems is ‘Gascoigne’s Woodsmanship’ which details the numerous mistakes and bad luck of his many failed careers. (I do intend to have a closer look at Gascoigne’s poem one day) That poem could be seen as archetypal of the natives’ style and their tone. It starts as so:

My worthy Lord, I pray you wonder not
To see your woodman shoot so oft awry,
Nor that he stands amazèd like a sot,
And lets the harmless deer unhurt go by.

One easily imagines Gascoigne sitting in a London tavern reflecting with some rue – and some mirth – on his life’s misses, as his audience chuckle and sympathise, now and again adding their own reflections and occasionally raising the tone with a classical or Biblical allusion, though nothing too clever.

And one imagines the Catholic nobleman and poet Thomas Lord Vaux (wearing his title lightly in Henry or Edward’s reign) in a similar mode. Not in London perhaps, but at his manor in the midlands, or that of a fellow recusant, explaining  -or justifying – his withdrawal from public life. His justification would perhaps run a long similar lines to this poem…


When all is done and said, in the end thus shall you find,

He most of all doth bathe in bliss that hath a quiet mind:

And, clear from worldly cares, to deem can be content

The sweetest time in all his life in thinking to be spent.


The body subject is to fickle fortune’s power,

And to a million of mishaps is casual every hour:

And death in time doth change it to a clod of clay;

Whenas the mind, which is divine, runs never to decay.


Companion none is like unto the mind alone

For many have been harmed by speech; through thinking, few or none.

Fear oftentimes restraineth words, but makes not thought to cease;

And he speaks best that hath the skill when for to hold his peace.


Our wealth leaves us at death; our kinsmen at the grave;

But virtues of the mind unto the heavens with us we have:

Wherefore, for virtue’s sake, I can be well content

The sweetest time of all my life to deem in thinking spent.


Thomas Vaux, From English Renaissance Poetry, Selected by John Williams, NYRB


I wonder whether, ‘when all is said and done’ (or done and said) had as hackneyed a ring to it in the sixteenth century as in the twenty-first; I suspect not quite as much so. Though the language is sometimes almost too plain, and the imagery hardly original, there are some nice lines of poetry in there, and the poet expresses his thoughts in balanced, precise lines; those thoughts are not as trite as they might first appear – they are, given the poet’s circumstances, deadly serious.


The first stanza is straightforward Platonism, though Platonism expressed with the charming bumptiousness of a lord of the manor. Plato decreed that thinking, particularly thinking of abstract thoughts, was the noblest of pastimes, as compared to the lower class, plebian business of dealing with particulars and actually – ugh! – doing stuff. For Plato and his compadres, contemplation actually was a near-religious act, as it brought us away from the shadowy corrupt world of our senses and closer to the real world of ideal objects. That is why Vaux uses a phrase like ‘bathe in bliss’ (also for its alliteration of course).


After the elevated imagery of the previous stanza, the second brings us down to earth – that is, down to the image of our death, and our bodies turning to mud in the grave. There is again a strong flavour of Platonism, what with that philosopher’s separation of soul and body; but there is also something very medieval about the imagery too. Fickle fortune makes an appearance, and death is something ever-present, waiting to waylay the unsuspecting person. The point is to drive home the importance of our immortal souls, or minds, as opposed to our all too vulnerable, corruptible bodies.


The third stanza is, I think, the most revealing about the times Vaux lived in, and about his own attitude towards the temper of those times. ‘[M]any have been harmed by speech’ he tells us, ‘Through thinking few or none’. He is not exaggerating! Henry Howard, Vaux’s friend and fellow poet, met a nasty end after crossing the king, and did not help himself with a couple of thinly veiled and sharply observed criticisms of the monarch in his verse. But those were actually thought through verses – if not at all wise to publish. A man who really may have been harmed by his own thoughtless speech, was Sir Nicholas Carew, who lost his temper with Henry at a game of bowls one day, and soon after lost his head. It didn’t help Carew that he was of royal blood himself – Henry didn’t like rival bloodlines hanging around; and his demise may also have been related to some natty properties of the noble’s that Henry had his eye on. And also to the fact that in his younger days, Henry may well have slept with his wife. No one likes a guilty reminder hanging around. Whatever the particulars of Carew’s demise, Vaux was certainly wise to refrain from speaking his mind too clearly in Mid-Tudor England.


What Vaux is advocating, ultimately, is a kind quietism. In one’s own mind, one can let one’s thoughts range freely, but in the perilous public sphere, one is better advised not to speak freely. In fact, one had better stay away from that sort of thing altogether. Of course, he dresses this up in Platonic philosophy and medieval wisdom – and, in the last stanza, he insists this is all done ‘for virtue’s sake.’ Self-preservation must have played on his mind somewhat too.



Filed under History, Poetry

On Sardanapalus’ Dishonourable life and Miserable Death

The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix.

The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix.

Just as last month we looked at a poem related to the Copts, and inspired by Coptic culture and legends, this week we’ll look at a poem based on a legend of another of the put upon peoples of the east Mediterranean, the Assyrians. The Assyrians, Christians with ancient pre-Christian roots, are currently being driven out of Northern Iraq as their heritage is quite literally destroyed by Islamist fanatics with sledgehammers. Assyria was once a great power in the Near East, whose power and wealth was the source of fear, awe and some great legends, not always scrupulously accurate, among neighbouring peoples. The legend that features in this week’s poem is hardly accurate at all, and yet was put to a rather interesting use by the sixteenth century soldier and poet Henry Howard.

The poem is based on the life the semi-mythical Assyrian King Sardanapalus, the supposed last king of the Assyrians, whose decadent life and eventual suicide was told by the 1st century BC Greek writer Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus’ Sardanapalus was a slothful, hedonistic transvestite, who, after losing several key battles, had himself burned alive in a great funeral pyre. The name probably derives from the historical 7th Century BC king Ashurbanipal, although he was not actually the last king of Assyria, and nor was he known for decadence. Nevertheless, the legend, for a very long time, was better known than the history; Sardanapalus was a byword for decadence, and Howard describes his life with relish:

TH’ ASSYRIAN king, in peace, with foul desire
And filthy lusts that stained his regal heart;
In war, that should set princely hearts on fire,
Did yield, vanquished for want of martial art.
The dint of swords from kisses seemèd strange,
And harder than his lady’s side his targe;
From glutton feasts to soldier’s fare a change;
His helmet far above a garland’s charge:
Who scarce the name of manhood did retain,
Drenchèd in sloth and womanish delight,
Feeble of spirit, impatient of pain,
When he had lost his honour and his right,
(Proud, time of wealth; in storms, appalled with dread,)
Murthered himself, to show some manful deed.

(I have taken the version from Bartleby, with modernised spelling and punctuation – the original, with no punctuation whatever – is quite difficult to follow, even when read aloud)

This is a very early example of a sonnet in English, and it was in fact Howard who first wrote what later became known as the English sonnet (three quatrains and a couplet), as distinct from the Italian sonnet (two quatrains – or an octave – and a sestet), although they are more strongly associated with Spenser and Shakespeare. The poem is remarkable for this alone, but the poem is also unique for its brazenness, though it will take a little explaining why…

The conceit is straightforward, but well executed. Sardanapalus, through his excessively pleasure-focused life, has become too soft for the rigours of warfare. Every aspect of war compares unfavourably with the life of the boudoir – and there is a distinct note of bitter sarcasm in Howard’s listing of these aspects: sword blows aren’t as nice as kisses, shields (‘targes’) harder than a lady’s side, ‘soldier’s fare’ not as nice as ‘glutton feasts’. Such sneering makes up the main body of the poem. But there is, as in many sonnets, a ‘turn’, a change in focus or direction at the end of the poem, in this case right at the end. Howard allows that Sardanapalus showed one ‘manful deed’ at least, in his eventual suicide.

In the context that the poem was written in, this turn, on top of the bilious verses before it, is very provocative indeed. For Howard was making a point not about a centuries gone Assyrian King, but about his very own king, Henry VIII. The point is, you’re a decadent, lust-filled old has-been and a failure as the great warrior you once fancied yourself to be, but you can always redeem yourself by committing suicide. As we know, Henry Tudor wasn’t the kind of king to take criticism with good humour.

What particularly inspired Howard to write this poem isn’t known, but it must have been part inspired by the King’s marriage and execution of two of Howard’s cousins, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Although those two were protestant (Anne sincerely, Catherine nominally) most of the Howards – though conformist – were Catholic in sympathy, and Howard may have come to view England’s reformation as a schism born of the King’s own moral dissolution. Certainly Henry and his father, Thomas Howard, latterly the Duke of Norfolk, spent much of the middle years of the sixteenth century trying to row back the reforms that Cromwell and Cranmer had effected in the wake of the King’s split with Rome over his first divorce.

Accusing the king of being effeminate and a poor warrior was certain to kindle his wrath – it is certainly a brave, perhaps foolish accusation; but it is one that the Howards, more than most, were well-qualified to make. Thomas Howard led the field at the decisive English victory over the Scottish at Flodden while the king was chasing the ghost of medieval glory in England’s remaining Continental possessions. Thomas and Henry Howard both held off the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace, northerners resisting the hated reforms of the King’s ‘evil counsellors’ (that the Howards were no great fans of). The rebels were undone by Henry’s deception, after their leader was offered a truce only to be executed when he accepted it, a ploy in which Howard may have been unwittingly complicit. The Howards’ credentials as soldiers, anyway, were unimpeachable, while the king’s were mildly embarrassing.

They were imprisoned at the end of Henry VIII’s reign on trumped up treason charges, to clear the way for the ascension of the very protestant Edward to the throne. Thomas Howard was spared execution because the King died before him, but his son was not so lucky. Henry Howard was executed – the poem can’t have helped his case in an age where it was considered treasonous even to imagine (to ‘encompass’)the King’s death. He was, I hope, consoled by having made poetic history on two counts: having invented the English sonnet, and having written perhaps the most brazen contemporary satire on one of English history’s angriest monarchs.

The image at the top of the post shows ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ by the 19th century French painter Delacroix, itself inspired by Byron’s play, Sardanapalus. The Assyrian king sits apathetic and merciless as his concubines are prepared for his funeral pyre – that is, murdered. Howard would surely have appreciated the painting, for it (albeit quite unintentionally) highlights one of the parallels between the Assyrian legend and the English monarch – the use and slaughter of young women in recompense for his own inadequacy. One imagines Delacroix had quite an enjoyable time painting it.


Filed under History, Poetry