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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.