The Duke of Norfolk is an ancient title, considered the highest-ranking honorific among non-royal peers. The first nobles of the Howard family date to the thirteenth century, and by the fifteenth they had risen to the dukedom.
Their Catholic faith, along with the vagaries of Tudor politics, led to many reversals for the family in the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, including the attainder and beheading of several successive dukes. For the better part of a century thereafter, the title was in abeyance.
But these challenges failed to prevent the accumulation of extraordinary property and wealth by the Howard family as a whole. In deference to their support for his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, King James I appointed members of four branches of the family to prominent posts. As Catholic and Protestant monarchs succeeded one another, many Howards learned to suppress or abjure their Catholicism for the sake of power and position. A few members of minor branches of the family, however, chose to honour their faith and remained in private life.
Among these more obscure members was a Charles Howard who lived at The Deepdene, on the outskirts of Darking, where he was lord of the manor. He was an intelligent but rather eccentric and reclusive gentleman, a lover of antiquities, music, and gardening. He was the creator of the famous amphitheatre garden at The Deepdene, now under restoration, and nobody was more unpleasantly surprised than himself when several heirs to the Ninth Duke of Norfolk died shortly before the Duke himself (the last of the major line of the Howard family), leading to this quiet Howard’s succession as the tenth Duke at the age of fifty-seven. Until his death in 1786 he mostly avoided the limelight.
His son, the Eleventh Duke (also Charles Howard), could not have been a different character. Family tradition holds that when the Ninth Duke realised that the elder Charles Howard of The Deepdene was destined to succeed him, he invited his heir’s twenty-one-year-old son to meet him and his wife. The contrast between the younger Charles Howard and the nephew they had expected to inherit ‘was so depressing that the poor Duchess burst into tears halfway through dinner and had to leave the room’ (Robinson, The Dukes of Norfolk, p. 163). Even Gerald Brenan, the most obsequious historian of the Howard family, described the new duke as ‘self-asserting and aggressive, jealous of his dignities, but loud and coarse in manner and person; bon-vivant and given to over-indulgence in liquor; little conversant with literature, but . . . a man who with all his coarseness, was known to have performed kind actions, though with a bad grace’ and ‘more notorious than famous’ (Brenan, The House of Howard, vol. II, p. 630).
Contemporaries gave him nicknames such as Jockey and Butcher. Poor Mr Brenan, attempting to be truthful whilst not offending the family’s sensibilities, refers obliquely to the eleventh Duke’s ‘tendency to licentious courses by which he was so unhappily conspicuous’ and acknowledges that ‘no one imagined him to be the type of man to make any sacrifice for his religion’ (pp. 631–32). So it was not surprising when in 1780 he renounced his Catholicism and embarked on a political career.
The rebellion of the American Colonies was under way, and it soon emerged that despite his position in life the Duke held radically democratic views and was both open and unconciliatory in expressing them, which scarcely endeared him to King George III or his government. Undismayed, he became a crony of Charles James Fox, chaired the Whig Club, and was active in the House of Lords, where he advocated against the slave trade and in favour of parliamentary reform—despite having a controlling interest in a large number of rotten boroughs, whose seats he sold for £4,000 apiece. In 1798, at a party celebrating Fox’s birthday, he offered a toast to ‘Our Sovereign’s health: the majesty of the people!’—the Jacobins’ rallying-cry in the French Revolution. In an era when the Powers That Be were nervous that seditious ideas would take root in England and whilst the nation was actively at war with France, this provocation was not well received, and the Duke was stripped of most of his lucrative honorary positions, though not of his title.
Though the Duke was considerably older than the Prince of Wales they enjoyed a close friendship, which scarcely pleased the straitlaced King, who worried constantly about his erratic and expensive heir. The Duke of Norfolk could not have presented a less attractive rôle-model.
The Eleventh Duke had a more serious side, however. He was a capable amateur architect, albeit regrettably inclined to the Gothic Revival style. He offered patronage and support to many scholars he admired and was generous to the chronically impoverished playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whom he allowed to live for free at his father’s beloved house The Deepdene before selling in in 1790 (he himself loathed the place and never lived there). Many friends tolerated his peccadilloes and honoured him for his rough kindness and charitable acts.
In 1800, when he puts in his hypothetical appearance at the meeting of the Gentlemen’s Darking Club, he was fifty-six years of age, obese, slovenly, drunk and dirty, a habitué of the notorious Sublime Society of Beefsteaks and the Prince’s summer palace at Brighton, expensive and headstrong. But when in Darking he was affable, known to be punctilious in paying the tradesmen he patronised, and a just if detached landlord for the extensive properties that owed him rents as the lord of the manor. In the year of his father’s death he began extending his property holdings in the vicinity of Newdigate, at Ewood and Shellwood, and later began construction there of a palatial house to serve as a stopover on his journeys between London and Arundel Castle on the Sussex coast. But he died before it was finished and the project was abandoned.
Even lthough the Eleventh Duke had disliked The Deepdene, he seems to have held Darking in considerable affection and despite having far more property in other counties, he chose to be buried there with lavish pageantry in 1815. Having no legitimate offspring—his first wife died in childbirth not long after their marriage and his second wife suffered from hereditary madness and was locked up on one of his estates shortly after they were wed—the title once more devolved on a distant cousin.
5 September 2021
Gerald Brenan, The House of Howard, 2 vols. (London, 1907).
John Martin Robinson, The Dukes of Norfolk, rev. ed. (Chichester, 1995).