When Mary Howard was born in 1519, she was already a very well-connected lady. She was the daughter and granddaughter of the two highest nobles in England. At the time of her birth her father, Thomas Howard, was Earl of Surrey, but he was raised to his familial title of Duke of Norfolk when Mary was five years old. Her mother, Elizabeth Stafford, was the daughter of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. Though her maternal grandfather had fallen from grace, the Howard family was numerous and prominent. Mary had MANY aunts and uncles and her own father had at least five children. Her brother, Henry Howard, who became Earl of Surrey upon her father’s ascendancy to dukedom, was closest to her in age at only two years older, but they were far from close.
While we do not know the details of Mary’s childhood (as is often the case with women of the Tudor age), we do know that she had a thorough education, as befitted a young lady of her rank. She was renowned for her intellect and beauty, always a dangerous combination in the minds of men. Her own father described her as being “too wise for a woman”. It was during Mary’s formative years that her first cousin, Anne Boleyn, was engaged to the king. This brought the already powerful Howard family further up the social ladder. Her brother, Surrey, had been made a companion of the king’s illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, when she was ten years old. It was around this same time that marriage negotiations began for Mary and FitzRoy. Her mother, who disliked Anne Boleyn, claims it was Anne’s way of securing more power for herself, but Norfolk insisted the marriage was actually the idea of the king himself. When Mary was thirteen, she began appearing at court in Anne’s retinue as a maid-of-honor. When Anne was made Marquis of Pembroke, Mary was tasked with “carrying a red velvet mantle and a gold coronet” in the procession. She would also attend Anne’s coronation as queen and carry the chrism (the holy anointing oil) in Princess Elizabeth’s baptism procession.
After these events, in November 1533, Mary was married to Henry FitzRoy. Both were only fourteen years old at the time. Because of their age and the king’s concern for his son’s health, they did not live together or consummate the marriage. After the marriage, they each went back to their separate homes, though Mary was elevated to the status of Lady-in-Waiting to her cousin. While at court, she befriended the king’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, as well as a clique of other young courtiers. Mary began circulating a blank book among the group in which they all contributed poetry (including some pieces by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Mary’s own brother, who was nicknamed the “Poet Earl”), transcriptions, and compositions. This book became known as the Devonshire Manuscript. Mary’s education continued at her cousin’s court, though not just in poetry and other frivolities. Anne was a devout reformer and was known to keep a copy of an English bible in her rooms for her ladies to peruse at their leisure. Mary seems to have followed Anne’s lead, as both she and her brother Surrey became reformists, despite their family being rigidly Catholic.
The year 1536 began a period of troubles for Mary and the whole Howard clan. Anne Boleyn was executed for treason in May, leaving her relatives in disfavor with the king. In July of that same year, Mary became a widow at only seventeen years old, when FitzRoy died suddenly of a sudden illness. As a widow, Mary was entitled to a jointure, lands and money to be paid to her since her husband was no longer able to provide for her. However, Henry VIII claimed that since the marriage wasn’t consummated, the marriage was not valid and so he did not have to give her her jointure. Surprisingly for the time, Mary did not timidly back down in the face of the king, but actually fought for her rights as his daughter-in-law. She constantly berated her father to help her, but after their fall from grace, Norfolk was loath to make the king angry. He did write to Thomas Cromwell, the king’s right hand man, on Mary’s behalf, but it wasn’t until she wrote to Cromwell and threatened to come to court herself to sue the king that he finally interceded. Cromwell had Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, pronounce the marriage as valid. This forced Henry to eventually grant Mary her jointure, allowing her to live independently, rather than on her father’s charity. She received only £12 per annum until 1540 after the dissolution of the monasteries, which she was then granted £744 per annum.
While this legal battle was going on, many other scandals had been in the works. Before FitzRoy died, Mary had actually been assisting Margaret Douglas in her affair with Mary’s uncle, another Thomas Howard. The two actually pre-contracted themselves earlier that year, which was illegal. As a relative of the king’s and possible heir to the throne, Margaret could not marry without the king’s permission. The pre-contract was discovered around the time of FitzRoy’s death. Henry arrested the couple, sending Margaret to an abbey and Thomas to the Tower, where he eventually passed away. Mary was saved from Henry’s wrath due to a combination of recent widowhood and Margaret’s defense of her friend, insisting Mary had no idea of the pre-contract.
Since Mary was now unmarried and still a teenager, her father began looking into new matches for her. He suggested she marry Thomas Seymour, the younger brother of Henry’s new wife, Jane Seymour. Mary refused this match, partly because if she were to remarry, her jointure battle would be lost as any jointures go to the new husbands. Despite other matches being proposed by her father and the match with Seymour even being approved by the king, Mary never remarried, which was also quite unheard of for the time. She, instead, kept to her own and her family’s estates, only rejoining court when her other cousin, Catherine Howard, was elevated to queen of England in 1540. Mary served as Catherine’s Lady of the Privy Chamber, under the supervision of her friend, Margaret Douglas. This did not last long, as Catherine was tried for treason and executed in 1542. The Howards fell harder this time since they were blamed for not telling the king that Catherine had not been “pure” at the time of her marriage to the king. Mary was not one of the family to be arrested, but both she and Margaret were banished from court for seventeen months.
In 1546, after Mary had to again refuse her father’s attempts at marriage to Thomas Seymour, the star of the Howard family was falling again. Henry VIII was declining in health, which made everyone scramble to make plans for the next king’s minority. Surrey had suggested to his sister that she go to the king for assistance with her proposed marriage to Thomas Seymour and attempt to seduce the king to become his mistress. He thought that Mary could wield as much influence over Henry as the mistresses of the French king did. He though that this would give the Howard’s more influence than the Seymours, who had a leg up as relatives of the future king. Mary was greatly offended by this suggestion and said that she would rather “cut her own throat” than to go along with it. This was the final nail in the coffin for the sibling’s relationship. Surrey was arrested for treason that same year for topping his coat of arms with a crown (signifying royalty/kingship) rather than a coronet (signifying nobility). Mary was questioned and answered truthfully about her brother’s coat of arms as well as his disparaging remarks and complaints about “new-made men” such as the Seymours. While she may have given this evidence to spite her brother, it was more likely that she was trying to save her father, who had also been arrested. Surrey was executed for treason in January 1548 but her father escaped the executioner’s block, thanks to the death of Henry VIII.
While he no longer faced imminent death, he did remain imprisoned for the entirety of Edward VI reign, likely due to his Catholic views. Though Mary was also Protestant, she did not return to court. Instead, she was given guardianship over Surrey’s children. Edward gave her an annuity for their care and she hired John Foxe, famed Reformist and Martyologist, as their tutor. Mary patronized his and other reformists’ work. She even gave Foxe some information about Anne Boleyn, such as her habit of always taking coins when traveling to give out as alms for the poor. When Edward’s sister, Mary I, came to the throne, Mary retired from public life. Since Queen Mary was a staunch Catholic, who worked very hard to bring England back to the “true faith”, Mary likely thought it was best to lay low. The queen did release her father from prison, though. Mary died in 1555 at only thirty-six years old. She was reportedly buried next to her husband, Henry FitzRoy.