280. “So cruel prison how could betide” by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, 1537.

 “The void walls eke that harbored us each night,

Wherewith, alas, revive within my breast

The sweet accord, such sleeps as yet delight,

The pleasant dreams, the quiet bed of rest”

So cruel prison how could betide, lines 35-36

These lines were penned by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and the last person to be executed by Henry VIII, who died himself the following day.

Source : A small selection of Howard’s poems are included in The Norton Anthology of English Literature (7th ed., volume 1). The rest are melancholic love poems, an ode to his friend Wyatt, and a veiled criticism of King Henry VIII. The one most interesting and different was “So cruel prison how could betide”

Thoughts : Howard, Earl of Surrey was a younger contemporary of Thomas Wyatt and together they share the credit for bringing new life to English poetry in the Italian style. Indeed, Howard is credited with the look and sound of the 14 line sonnet which came to dominate the next years.

Again it is the poet’s life that holds most attraction now; it was at Howard’s request that Catherine Howard (his cousin) intervened with Henry VIII to pardon and release Wyatt from the Tower, where he was being held on the charge of adultery with Anne Boleyn (another cousin of Howard’s).

But Howard seems to have been his own worst enemy. He was impulsive and proud, which led him into trouble more than once in a court of an unstable King. He was imprisoned in Windsor Castle in 1537 (the background of the poem I will discuss below) for striking a courtier, and eventually arrested and beheaded for being far too likely a contender for the throne, being descended on both his father’s and his mother’s side from kings (Edwards I and III respectively) and dared to put King Edward the Confessor’s crest on his own shield. This was too much for Henry to bear, and Howard also had made plenty of enemies in court, including Thomas Cromwell.

Howard grew up in Windsor Castle alongside Henry Fitzroy, an illegitimate son of Henry VIII, and they became the closest of friends, playing games, fighting and hunting, attending feasts and balls, and sharing secrets and teenage crushes on the ladies around them. Fitzroy married Howard’s sister, but died a few years later aged 17. Howard’s imprisonment in Windsor Castle a year later drove home to him the tragic loss of his friend as he was trapped in the familiar surroundings where they grew up, bringing sorrow to a place once joyful.

“Each stone, alas, that doth my sorrow rue,

Returns thereto a hollow sound of plaint.

Thus I alone, where all my freedom grew,

In prison pine with bondage and restraint”

So cruel prison how could betide, lines 49-52

Personal rating:  7/10

In the years 1531-1540:

  • Francisco Pizarro invades the Incan civilization in Peru, 1532.
  • Henry VIII divorces Catherine of Aragon, marries Anne Boleyn, and is excommunicated by Pope Clement VII, 1533.
  • The Act of Supremacy 1534 makes Henry head of the English Church, independent of Rome. Thomas Cromwell is made viceregent of English Church affairs; while Thomas More, refusing s to take an oath of supremacy, is beheaded, 1535.
  • Henry VIII has Anne Boleyn beheaded on charges of adultery, marries Jane Seymour, 1536. The dissolution of the monasteries provokes insurrections.
  • Jacques Cartier sails up the St Lawrence river and lays French claim to the region which will include the site of Montreal, 1536.
  • Cosimo de Medici becomes Duke of Florence, 1537.
  • Jane Seymour dies from post-natal complications, 1537. Henry on lookout for wife #4.
  • Hernando de Soto lands in Florida, 1539 and explores southeastern North America, discovering the Mississippi River, 1540.
  • Henry VIII marries Anne of Cleves, as arranged by Thomas Cromwell, in January 1540. The marriage is annulled 9th July 1540, and Henry marries Catherine Howard, on the 28th July, the same day he has Cromwell beheaded.

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978

 

 

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