When Henry VIII broke with Rome and made himself supreme head of
the Church in England, he put his subjects in a terrible position: How could
they remain true to the Catholic faith and loyal to the king? It was a dilemma
that took some families generations to work out, among them the aristocratic
Howard family, whose head was then and still is today the Duke of Norfolk.
Throughout the Tudor period, the Howards adjusted their consciences to fit the
religious mood of the moment. No wonder Philip Howard grew up cynical and
indifferent to religion.
Philip was a man without a moral compass, and nowhere was this
sad fact more evident than in his marriage to Anne Dacre, daughter of another
powerful family. He was cold to Anne, spent almost no time with her, and used
to say openly that he was not certain if his was a true marriage or not.
"If it had pleased God to have granted me longer life, I doubt not but that you should have found me as good a husband … by his grace, as you have found me bad before."
Then in 1581, Philip Howard attended a spectacle at the Tower of
London that pitted a panel of Protestant theologians against a single Jesuit
priest, St. Edmund Campion. He was one of dozens of Catholic priests, who in
violation of the law, slipped into the country to bring the Mass and the
sacraments to the persecuted Catholics of England, and perhaps bring a few
Anglicans back to the ancient faith of their ancestors. After a little over a
year in England, Father Campion had been discovered, imprisoned in the Tower of
London, and tortured repeatedly on the rack. Now he was compelled to
participate in a public religious debate — without notes, books, or any type of
assistance. In spite of these disadvantages, Father Campion defended the
Catholic position so eloquently that the sympathies of the Protestant
spectators shifted to the Jesuit priest. More importantly, Father Campion had,
unbeknownst to him, awakened the conscience of Philip Howard.
First Philip reconciled with Anne, and they were received back
into the Catholic Church. Next, they planned to leave the country for Europe
where they could practice their newfound faith freely. But a rumor of the
Howards’ plans was leaked to the authorities. It was forbidden for any English
subject to leave the country without a passport from the government. By trying
to slip out of England, Philip and Anne had committed a serious crime. The
authorities left Anne alone, but Philip was imprisoned in the Tower where Queen
Elizabeth I was content to let him serve a life sentence.
In the Tower, Philip atoned for his sins and vices. He divided
each day into periods of study, exercise and prayer. He fasted three times a
week. Since he was forbidden a crucifix, so he scratched one into the wall.
In August 1595, Philip fell ill with a serious case of dysentery.
When it became obvious he was dying, he sent a message to Elizabeth, begging
her permission to see a priest. She refused. He begged Elizabeth to let him see
Anne and their son, or perhaps his brothers. All of these requests the queen
also rejected. When Philip died only his servants and his jailers were at his
Not long before his death, Philip had sent Anne a letter. “It is
no small grief unto me,” he wrote, “that I cannot make recompense in this world
for the wrongs I have done you; for if it had pleased God to have granted me
longer life, I doubt not but that you should have found me as good a husband …
by his grace, as you have found me bad before.”
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will
Change Your Life.