I bought House of Treason in a small bookshop in North Wales. I was drawn to it by the gorgeous cover, which was designed by David Wardle – who has since designed many beautiful covers for both fiction and non-fiction books.
(I was also tempted by the reduced price sticker.)
It tells the story of the Howards, a powerful aristocratic family, and their attempts to hold onto their power and influence through the turbulent years of the Tudor dynasty.
It opens with a well-written account of the Battle of Bosworth, where Henry Tudor fought King Richard, the last Plantagenet – and the last English king to die in battle. Unfortunately, The patriarch of the Howard family, John Howard, First Duke of Norfolk, fought on the losing side. He perished on the battlefield.
As enemies of the new king, the Howards were ostracised, their lands and titles stripped away. It was only three decades later, after another battle under a new king, that the family finally regained its position.
The book covers the history of the Howards from 1485 to the early 1600s, from the reign of Henry VII to Elizabeth I. Along the way, at least two Howards languished in the Tower of London, while another was beheaded. Several times they looked close to ruin, but each time they regained royal favour and the titles they’d traditionally held. It ends with them once again being restored to their holdings, facing a world of industrialisation and modernity in which they thrived.
As is perhaps a testament to the family’s endurance, they have retained the Duchy of Norfolk to this day.
At just over 300 pages, Hutchinson’s account is a pacey read, jumping from one family crisis to the next. It hones in on the Howards by extensive study of their personal letters and offers an over-the-shoulder account, showing us the crises and key players of Henry VIII’s reign from a unique perspective. I particularly enjoyed the chapter ‘A Woman Scorned,’ which dealt with the fraught relationship between Thomas Howard, Third Duke of Norfolk, and his wife Elizabeth. Constant fighting and a marriage of political convenience rather than love led to the couple eventually living separately, after Thomas banished her from his home and sent her to one of his distant manors. She continued to send letters to the royal court, shaming and insulting him. In the end, Thomas Cromwell – who had a shaky relationship with Howard, to say the least – took on the unlikely role of marriage counselor.
Much of the book deals with the family’s attempts to navigate the problems that haunted Henry VIII’s reign while desperately trying to stay on the king’s good side – his mood could change in seconds and his temper was infamous. More than once, we see a noble Howard drafting letters and rewriting his will at midnight after receiving a letter from an angry king. Frequently, the family was forced to resort to military glory to regain their status – as was the case when the 71-year-old Thomas Howard defeated the Scots at the Battle of Flodden, killing the Scottish king and earning 40 manors as a reward from a jubilant Henry.
The Howards were an interesting family with a great story, and Hutchinson presented it well, doing meticulous source work and quoting from dozens of personal letters, many held in the archives at Arundel castle, which is still the seat of the Howard family. It is a fast and relatively easy read, though it’s easy to be tripped up by the author’s use of people’s titles as their names (for example, many of the Howards are referred to simply as ‘Surrey’ or ‘Norfolk.’) This is common convention, but for readers who are unused to reading accounts of British nobility, it might take some getting used to.
All together, a fab read that I would highly recommend!