At the distance of five hundred years, it is hard to form a view of a person’s character. Our ancestors, unlike us, seem to have been unconcerned about recording physical appearance, and there are few descriptions of anyone’s looks or even character.
The contemporary historian, Polydore Vergil, occasionally commented on Norfolk. He described him as ‘a man of consummate prudence, gravity, and steadiness’, and later as ‘a nobleman excellently endowed with virtue’. Despite these apparent virtues, Vergil wrote that Norfolk (or Surrey as he was at the time) had a ‘secret grudge’ against Bishop Fox of Winchester, but gave no reason for any enmity. He referred to both men as seeking to ‘deprive the other of his fortune’, and it was to this animosity that Vergil later ascribes Norfolk’s dislike of Wolsey, who was Fox’s protégé.
Whilst Norfolk’s conduct at the time of the Evil May Day riots in 1517, when the London apprentices broke out into mob violence, largely directed at foreigners, was completely straightforward, his personal views were perhaps more ambiguous. He had orders to control the City of London with troops, which he had no hesitation in doing, and presided over the consequent trials and sentences.
Since no-one had been killed, around 13 or 14 were selected for condign punishment – hanging, drawing and quartering. A few days later, however, Norfolk was one of the nobles who begged Henry VIII on bended knee to forgive the remaining accused. Whilst we might assume that this was part of the wider spectacle of the king, already planning to exercise mercy, being persuaded by his queen and others to be lenient, it appears that the Londoners themselves thought Norfolk’s gesture genuine – they sent a contingent to attend his funeral in Thetford, seven years later, in recognition of his efforts.
This, together with the information that Norfolk was so upset at the trial of the Duke of Buckingham that tears poured down his cheeks, give at least an indication that, although he was a soldier, and accustomed to death, Norfolk was not heartless.
With little comment to draw on, we can look at another document to form a view of Norfolk - his will, proved in 1524, a transcript of which may be found in Testamenta Vetusta Vol 2.
It should be noted that wills of this date generally do not refer to lands, which passed under feudal law, as described here. Wills relate to personal goods.
The first thing we can discover about Norfolk from his will, is that he had a high idea of his own rank. It is the only will we have seen, other than those of monarchs, written in the plural. It opens with the words ‘We, Thomas, Duke of Norfolk…’ etc. The other personal information we can glean, is that he was devoted to his wife.
Norfolk’s first concern was for his mortal remains. He directed burial at Thetford Priory, founded by the second duke of Norfolk, Hugh Bigod, whose father had been granted the title by William the Conqueror. The title had been recreated several times, but Thomas could trace ancestry to the Bigods, via Hugh’s sister, Maud. To emphasise this connection with the first dukes, Thomas had arranged for the burial of his own parents at Thetford, although not his first wife, Elizabeth. He had already commissioned a tomb for himself and his second wife, Agnes, at a cost of £132 6s 8d, to be set before the high altar, and have effigies of both.
He had ‘devised’ the tomb, along with Master Clerke, who was Master of the King’s Works at Cambridge – presumably, the resplendent King’s College. We can guess that Thomas wanted a tomb as beautiful as that masterpiece. It is interesting to note that only Agnes is mentioned – many monuments have several spouses in effigy.
Each of his daughters as yet unmarried was to have a dowry of £300. Elizabeth’s daughters were all long married, as was Anne, the eldest daughter of Agnes, and Elizabeth (not the elder Elizabeth, long married to Sir Thomas Boleyn). The two younger daughters were Dorothy, who married the Earl of Derby in 1530, and Catherine, who married Rhys ap Gruffydd shortly after her father’s death.
The next element of the will was the disposition of Thomas’ moveable goods, starting with those most valuable or important. The first item he mentions is his great bed. Beds were made to be dismantled and moved with their owners as they travelled to different properties. They were not left in situ until much later in the century. This bed would have travelled regularly between Thomas’ homes at Lambeth, Kenninghall, Castle Rising, and Framlingham.
The bed is described as having curtains of cloth-of-gold, white damask and black velvet, embroidered with the letters T and A for Thomas and Agnes. That he left the best bed to his son, not his wife, seems consistent with the famous will of Shakespeare, who left his wife the second-best bed. Perhaps the main bed where the heirs were conceived was considered an important family heirloom.
Also for his eldest son, Thomas names the great hanging with the story of Hercules, especially made for the great chamber at Framlingham. Hangings were amongst the most valuable of all items, and Thomas obviously felt that this one, designed for the main family seat, should remain in situ.
These key items dealt with, everything else is left to Agnes – jewels, both garnished and ungarnished; plate (usually silver, sometimes gold or silver gilt, and often kept as a store of value to be melted down if needed); his cash and his wine. She also received household ‘stuff’ – beddings, hangings, sheets, fustians, pillows, cushions, hanged beds whether of gold, silver or anything else and everything else pertaining to ‘bedding and apparelling of chambers’.
All of the chapel ornaments were designated for Agnes, together with kitchen items and the napery. We catch a glimpse later of some this napery in the inventory of Henry VIII, when a large quantity is listed as confiscated from Norfolk House, Lambeth when Agnes was arrested at the time of the fall of Norfolk’s granddaughter, Queen Katheryn Howard. The linen haul comprised eight tablecloths, twenty-three towels, five cupboard cloths (used on the sideboard to display the plate) four counterpanes and 245 napkins.
Agnes received Thomas’ clothes, and all his horses and geldings. Perhaps surprisingly, since Norfolk still had at least four sons living, Agnes also inherited his ‘harness (armour) and other abillaments of war, with long-bows, cross-bows and bendings’.
All debts owing to Thomas and the revenues of his estates were to be paid to Agnes, out of which she was to settle his estate and pay the funeral expenses.
Just to clarify the matter, Thomas added an additional sentence, confirming that Agnes was to have and enjoy all his bequests – there was not requirement for her to pass any on to his children. He requested that Cardinal Wolsey act as overseer of the will, and in token of thanks to the Cardinal for acting as ‘good and gracious Lord’ to Agnes, bequeathed him a pair of gilt pots ‘called our Scottish pots’.
The selection of Wolsey as overseer may seem surprising, as there was enmity between the two. It can perhaps be explained by noting that clerics were often selected as overseers, and that Wolsey was the most powerful man in the kingdom, after the king. By placing a moral obligation on the Cardinal to protect Agnes, Norfolk was giving her the best chance of enjoying her goods unmolested.
Agnes and Sir Thomas Blennerhasset were appointed as executors, and the witnesses were Norfolk’s step-son Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners, who was also married to Norfolk’s half-sister; Henry Eward, John Uvedale and William Ashby.