Renaissance tomb in Suffolk for a Tudor Norfolk

Framlingham Castle
Framlingham Castle, Framlingham, Suffolk.
One of the residences of Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk.

As Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction novels ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ receive the much lauded BBC period drama conversion to a television series, a new portrayal of Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk (1473-1554) will appear on our screens. This time the Duke is played by Bernard Hill and as in Mantel’s books he is loud, angry and ferociously ambitious. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the Duke of Norfolk was one of England’s most powerful nobles whose first wife, Anne, was sister to Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York.

Despite the Duke of Norfolk being one of the most prominent courtiers, he remained a Catholic throughout the violence and upheavals of the Reformation during the latter part of Henry’s reign and the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI. However, towards the end of the Henry’s reign both Norfolk and his son, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, ended up in the Tower of London. The pair had been found guilty of treason and in January 1547 Henry Howard was beheaded at the Tower. His father’s execution date was set for 29 January 1547 but King Henry died the day before. Following the death of Henry VIII the old Duke of Norfolk was not executed, but instead spent the next six years in the Tower. As a Catholic he was finally released on the accession to the throne of Queen Mary. He died a year later aged 80 years old at his Kenninghall residence, but before his death he had commissioned England’s finest early Renaissance tomb.

duke of norfolk tomb
The tomb of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, Church of St Michael, Framlingham, Suffolk.
From the left St Andrew, St James the Less, St James the Great and St Matthew.
Alabaster. Mid 16th century.

The chest-tomb is exquisitely carved from alabaster depicting the twelve Apostles plus St Paul and Aaron carved round the four sides with effigies of the Duke and his first wife, Anne, lying along the top.

duchess of norfolk
Effigy of Anne, first wife of the third Duke of Norfolk, daughter of King Edward IV and sister to Elizabeth of York, Queen Consort.

The representation of the twelve Apostles was a traditional Catholic theme that was found in churches across the country often painted on the rood screen. However, the interpretation of this popular medieval choice is created here in an early Renaissance European idiom, possibly carved sometime in the mid-sixteenth century. The sculptor is unnamed, but the work is regarded as Italianate in style, but also displaying French influences.

North side of tomb showing from the left St Philip, St Simon, St Jude and St Matthias with St Peter facing west.
North side of tomb showing from the left St Philip, St Simon, St Jude and St Matthias with St Peter facing west.

The individual saints stand in shell-headed narrow niches, four along the north and south sides, and three at the east and west ends of the tomb. The design of the tomb suggests it was intended to be viewed from all four sides, but this is no longer possible.

Instead, the tomb-chest is positioned up close to the east wall of the chancel. The Duke of Norfolk had been overseeing the partial rebuilding of St Michael’s Church when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The rebuilt and enlarged chancel was to provide space to accommodate the tombs that were removed from Thetford Priory with the dissolution of the monasteries. Of course, this tomb may originally have been destined for Thetford Priory where traditionally the Norfolks had been interred.

effigy thomas howard
Effigy of Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk.

According to a visiting Venetian ambassador, the Duke of Norfolk was described as ‘small and spare in person’ and here he is displayed as stern, thin and angular. The effigy wears full armour, it has a long, pointed beard and around the collar the inscription reads ‘Gracia Dei sum quod sum’ – ‘By the Grace of God I am what I am’.

Early Renaissance representation of St James the Greater and St Matthew embellishing a grand tomb for a very ambitious mortal.
Early Renaissance representation of St James the Great and St Matthew embellishing a grand tomb for a very ambitious mortal.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

8 thoughts on “Renaissance tomb in Suffolk for a Tudor Norfolk”

  1. Fascinating – he is definitely one of the most memorable characters in Wolf Hall.
    Where is Framlingham exactly? Can you get there by public transport?

    1. Yes, Cromwell’s nemesis. I expect he’s going to feature heavily in Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’. Being a fan of the self-made Cromwell I found Norfolk’s showy, extravagant tomb display obnoxious despite the fine craftsmanship. Still it was definitely worth a visit and the castle is a 5 minute walk away up the hill.

      Thanks to the Beeching Cuts you can no longer get to Framlingham by train. It’s about 40 mins north-east from Ipswich. Buses run from Ipswich or you can get the train to Woodbridge and then the bus across to Framlingham. I used to live just outside Woodbridge and like most of rural Suffolk (or indeed Norfolk) you need a car!

      1. I’ve been to Woodbridge – it’s the site of Sutton Hoo, isn’t it? Ho hum. I might have to ask my brother to give me a lift there (he lives in Suffolk).

  2. Great photos! This is such showy self indulgence on the part of these rich families…but without it we wouldn’t have had these fascinating tombs as a glimpse into history. If it’s now being serialized I must take the Wolf Hall tome away on holiday with me and get immersed.

    1. Yes, it’s that old chestnut re the conspicuous consumption of rich patrons versus their very patronage that has bequeathed to all of us so much cultural treasure.

      I’m not normally a reader of historical fiction, but I was completely enthralled with ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ so much so when I finished the second I went straight back to the beginning and read both again!

    1. As a child I visited Framlingham Castle with my parents as you do, but we never went into the church even though it is almost next door. As an adult I used to live in a neighbouring village and still didn’t see the tombs. I moved up to Norwich and finally went to see them when our Art History tutor brought us back down for a visit!

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