Thomas was born into a well-established gentry family in East Anglia. His father and grandfather had built up significant influence in the area, partly through his grandfather’s marriage to the sister of John de Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, but also through clever and not always entirely scrupulous use of local power. The Paston letters refer to several instances of Howard involvement in local clashes, and the families were often at odds.
Through his connection with the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas’ father became one of the earliest members of the faction at court supporting Richard, Duke of York, initially as protector during the mental breakdown of Henry VI but then as a replacement king. Thomas followed his father, and, when Edward of March, York’s son, won a decisive battle at Towton to take the throne as Edward IV, Thomas, around 18 years old, was granted a place in his household.
During the period known as the first reign of Edward IV, 1461 to 1470, Thomas did not play a particularly prominent role. When Edward was deposed, Thomas probably retired to Colchester, and may have taken sanctuary there. The readeption of Henry VI was short and when Edward returned from exile Thomas immediately joined him, taking part in the Yorkist victory at Barnet in April 1471. He was wounded, but recuperated in time to marry the wealthy heiress Elizabeth Tilney, whose first husband had died at Barnet.
The couple had numerous children of whom 5 lived to adulthood, whilst Thomas’ career developed.
During the 1470s, he became more prominent at court, taking part in diplomatic embassies, and also accompanying the king on the French invasion that ended with the Treaty of Picquigny. Despite the loyalty of the Howards, Edward IV effectively deprived them of their due inheritance, when the lands of the dukedom of Norfolk, which should have been shared amongst the Mowbray heirs, were secured to Edward’s son, even though his Mowbray wife had died without the couple consummating the marriage.
This loss of their inheritance probably influenced the Howard family’s reaction to the death of Edward IV, and the accession of Edward V. Thomas’ father, John, had already been closely associated with the king’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, so when Gloucester deposed his nephew, to take the throne himself as Richard III, the Howards were amongst his warmest supporters. They were well rewarded with the grant of the dukedom of Norfolk and the grant of a share of the Mowbray lands. Thomas made his support clear by being one of the party of men sent to fetch William Lord Hastings to the famous council on which he was accused of treason and summarily beheaded.
Thomas was granted the title of Earl of Surrey and held the sword of state at the coronation of Richard and Anne Neville. He was active in suppressing the rebellion of the Duke of Buckingham in summer 1483, and in 1485 he brought men from his East Anglian estates to Bosworth, where he fought valiantly for Richard - to no avail, Richard’s support melted away and Henry, Earl of Richmond, of the Lancastrian branch of the royal family, took the throne.
Thomas was captured and spent the next three years as a prisoner, in the Tower of London.
He was allegedly offered an opportunity to escape at the time of the invasion of Lambert Simnel, but rejected it, either because he would not fight against Henry who had been recognised as king by Parliament, crowned, and married to the York Princess Elizabeth, or because he feared a trap.
Henry VII was pleased with this show of trustworthiness, and as part of his policy of reconciliation, freed Thomas, restored the title of Earl of Surrey, and appointed him to a senior military and judicial role in the north of England. For the following eight years, Surrey proved a capable and diligent commander, effectively fending off incursions by the Scots, and then agreeing the terms of a truce that was later translated into the Treaty of Perpetual Peace. During this period, Thomas was widowed, but swiftly remarried Agnes Tilney, a cousin of his first wife. They went on to have another dozen or so children, many of whom lived to adulthood.
By the turn of the sixteenth century, Surrey was one of Henry VII’s inner circle of advisers, with a place on the Council, and the prestigious office of Lord Treasurer. He conducted the Princess Margaret, Henry’s eldest daughter, to Scotland to marry James IV and improved diplomatic relations between the two countries. Thomas was also involved in the negotiations for the king’s second daughter, Mary, to marry the Archduke Charles, undertaking a mission to the Burgundian court at Mechelen to hammer out the details of the treaty.
By the end of Henry VII’s reign, Surrey was 66 and an elder statesman. Despite being trained for war, Surrey was considered as a member of the peace party in the early days of Henry VIIII’s reign, counselling the renewal of treaties with France and Scotland and a generally peaceful foreign policy.
Henry VIII however, had other ideas, and within three years was at war with France and engaging in a provocative rivalry with James IV. Surrey’s two eldest sons, Thomas and Edward, and his son-in-law, Thomas Knyvett, took part in naval campaigns against France in 1512, with Knyvett and Edward being killed.
A year later, Henry mounted a full invasion. Surrey, Thomas and his third son Edmund, were left to guard the border, as Henry anticipated that James would invade in support of his French allies. Surrey was deeply disgruntled at being left behind, seeing the opportunity to win glory on a French battlefield as his forebears had done, snatched away. But he need not have despaired. As anticipated, James IV invaded, and Surrey, using his superior skills as a general, routed the Scots in one of the most disastrous battles the northern kingdoms ever suffered.
Henry, not conspicuously grateful to those who threatened to outshine him, nevertheless rewarded Surrey by permitting him to resume the title of Duke of Norfolk, although he diluted the honour by creating another duke to rival him in east Anglia, his friend, Charles Brandon. The two men were to jostle for supremacy in the area for many years.
Despite his advancing age (he was 70 at the time of Flodden), the new duke continued his duties as Lord Treasurer, Earl Marshal and the king’s senior military man, although his eldest son, Thomas, now known as Earl of Surrey, began to take over some of his duties.
In 1521, Norfolk undertook one of the most unpleasant duties of his life. He was required to preside as Lord High steward at the trial of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham. Although Buckingham was thirty years younger, he was the father-in-law of Norfolk’s son, and was one of the few men whom Norfolk considered his social equal. The charges of treason were flimsy, but not entirely unfounded, and Buckingham was found guilty. Norfolk pronounced the sentence of execution, tears pouring down his face.
Two years later, Norfolk resigned his post of Lord Treasurer, and retired to his castle at Framingham, Suffolk, where he died in 1524. His numerous descendants peopled the Tudor court, and that of his great-granddaughter, Elizabeth I. Norfolk may be said to have done his duty to both his monarch and his family. Today, his direct descendant, the 18th Duke of Norfolk, still holds the title of Earl Marshal, and amongst the laity, is outranked only by the royal family.