Wolf Hall Explained – Why did the Duke of Norfolk try his own niece?

One of the striking points of the trials of Anne and George Boleyn was the presence of the uncle, Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, on his raised seat presiding over them. Surely it could be construed as a conflict of interest? And did Norfolk want to be trying his relatives?

So, why was Norfolk presiding over the trial?

To understand this we can go back to 1215 and Magna Carta which stated the right for freemen to be tried by their peers (or equals). This right was repeated in subsequent statues and, in the case of noblemen, their peers literally meant the other members of the English peerage. In Anne’s case, 28 noblemen tried her. Noblemen/women would be tried either in the House of Lords (if parliament was in session) or the Court of the Lord High Steward with trials being presided over by the Lord High Steward.

The Lord High Steward was the highest ranked of the great officers of state but the post wasn’t permanently filled in the sixteenth century – instead a nobleman was appointed to the position for coronations and trials of peers. Appointing the Duke of Norfolk must have made sense, after all, they were trying a Queen, the highest ranking female in the country, and Norfolk was the premier English nobleman, Lord High Treasurer and Earl Marshal.

And how would Norfolk have felt trying his niece and nephew?

We can’t know exactly what was going through Norfolk’s mind but two things have to be borne in mind. Firstly, it was believed to be the order of the world that noblemen were a King’s natural advisers and loyal servants. Not to fill that role was to risk falling from favour, or worse, finding yourself accused of treason. Secondly, he was not that close to his niece. Her rise had benefited her brother, father and a number of her other paternal relative but Norfolk had not felt the same benefit – he was being overshadowed by Thomas Cromwell who was filling the position of chief advisor that Norfolk thought should be his. It also appears that he and Anne did not get on. Given this it is unlikely he would have risked his own position, career and life by getting entangled in Anne’s fall. Presiding over trial was a visible statement of his loyalty and of his having distanced himself from his treacherous relatives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s