A Very Short Biography of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

The life of the English Renaissance poet

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47) is not read or studied as much as his near-contemporary, Sir Thomas Wyatt, although his importance to the development of English literature was arguably greater. Certainly, in terms of technical innovation, the name of Henry Howard is worth knowing for two very important reasons, discussed below. In this post we offer a very brief introduction to the life and work of Howard, focusing on the most interesting and noteworthy aspects.

Many biographies of Renaissance writers are at best only partially complete, and although in Howard’s case we know some very intriguing details – for instance, that he counted among his cousins both Anne Boleyn, doomed second wife of King Henry VIII, and Catherine Howard, doomed fifth wife of King Henry VIII – other things remain uncertain. He was born in either 1516 or 1517 into a wealthy family: his father became the Duke of Norfolk in 1524, at which point Henry Howard assumed the title of the Earl of Surrey. Not only that, but young Henry Howard had royal blood on both sides: on his father’s side, he had blood ties to Edward I, and on his mother’s side, to Edward III.

As a poet, Henry Howard’s two greatest literary legacies are the invention of the English sonnet form (Howard, not Shakespeare, invented the ‘Shakespearean sonnet’) and the development of blank verse. Without the latter, the plays of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare would have been unthinkable. And without the Shakespearean sonnet, Shakespeare would have written very different sonnets, of course. Shakespeare would read very differently if Howard had never lived – assuming Shakespeare had still become a poet and the English theatre had taken off as it did in the closing decades of the sixteenth century.

It was in his work translating the second and fourth books of Virgil’s Aeneid that Surrey developed blank verse – unrhymed iambic pentameter. It’s arguably the greatest liberation in English poetry, and of English poetry, matched only by the arrival of French vers libre or ‘free verse’ in modernist poetry (such as in the early poems of T. E. Hulme) nearly four centuries later.

Surrey was suspected of conspiracy to usurp the throne from Henry VIII’s son Edward, whom the King had named as his successor. Surrey was beheaded in January 1547, shortly before Henry VIII died. Like Sir Thomas Wyatt, Surrey helped to introduce Italian poetic forms to England, especially the poetry of Petrarch. Howard’s poetry was circulated in manuscript during his lifetime and only published posthumously, in the 1557 anthology Tottel’s Miscellany: Songs and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Others (Penguin Classics), which also contained many of Wyatt’s poems. A good place to begin with Surrey’s poetry is this fine sonnet, ‘The Soote Season’ (i.e. ‘the sweet season’, summer) and, if that takes your fancy, ‘In Cyprus Springs‘.

We hope you found this short biography of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey useful; if you’d like to discover more about his life, we recommend this site.