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The Story Of Sir Edward Howard
BY JOHN CAMPBELL.
Sir Edward Howard was the second son of Thomas, Earl of Surrey,
afterwards Duke of Norfolk, and treasurer to Henry VIII. He seems to
have begun early in life to testify his inclination for the sea service,
and we find him employed in the Flanders expedition in 1492, when King
Henry VII. thought fit to assist the Duke of Burgundy against his
The Flemings, naturally a brave people and fond of freedom, grew uneasy
under the yoke of the House of Austria, and under the command of the
Baron de Ravenstein began to throw off allegiance. In doing this, they
seized the town and harbour of Sluys, whence they fitted out a number of
vessels of considerable force; and, under colour of pursuing their
enemies, took and plundered vessels of all nations without distinction.
As the English trade with Flanders was then very extensive, English
ships suffered at least as much as any others; and this was the reason
why King Henry, upon the first application of the Duke of Burgundy, sent
a squadron of twelve sail to his assistance under the command of Sir
Edward Poynings, with whom went out Sir Edward Howard, then a very young
man, to learn the art of war. The Duke of Saxony, in consequence of his
alliance with the Duke of Burgundy, marched with an army into Flanders,
and besieged Sluys by land; and Sir Edward Poynings thereupon blockaded
it by sea.
The port was defended by two strong castles, which the Flemings, who had
nothing to trust to but force, defended with unparalleled obstinacy;
insomuch, that though Poynings attacked them constantly every day for
twenty days successively, yet he made no great impression, till at last,
through accident, the bridge of boats, by which the communication
between the castles was preserved, took fire; whereupon the besieged
were glad to surrender their city to the Duke of Saxony, and their port
and castles to the English. After this expedition Sir Edward was made a
knight for extraordinary bravery, of which quality he gave many proofs
during the reign of Henry VII., so thoroughly establishing his
reputation that Henry VIII., on his accession, made choice of him for
his standard-bearer, which in those days was considered not only as a
mark of particular favour, but as a testimony also of the highest
confidence and esteem.
In the fourth year of the same reign he was created lord high-admiral of
England, and in that station convoyed the Marquis of Dorset into Spain.
The admiral, after the landing of the forces, put to sea again; and,
arriving on the coasts of Britanny, landed some of his men about Conquet
and Brest, who ravaged the country and burnt several of the small towns.
This roused the French, who began immediately to fit out a great fleet,
in order, if possible, to drive the English from their coasts; and, as
this armament was very extraordinary, King Henry sent a squadron of
five-and-twenty tall ships, which he caused to be fitted out under his
own eye at Portsmouth, to the assistance of the admiral. Among these
were two capital ships; one called the Regent, commanded by Sir Thomas
Knevet, master of the horse to the king; and the other, which was the
Sovereign, by Sir Charles Brandon, afterwards Duke of Suffolk. When
these vessels had joined the admiral, his fleet consisted of no less
than forty-five sail, with which he immediately resolved to attack the
enemy, who were by this time ready to come out of the harbour of Brest.
Authors differ much as to their number, though they agree pretty well as
to the name of the admiral, whom they call Primauget; yet it seems they
agree in a mistake, for the historians of Britanny assure us they have
no such name in that province, and that undoubtedly it ought to be
Whatever his name was, or whatever the force of his fleet might have
been (our writers say it consisted of thirty-nine, and the French only
of twenty, sail), he was certainly a very brave man. The ship he
commanded was called the Cordelier, and was so large as to be able to
carry twelve hundred fighting men, exclusive of mariners. At this time
there were nine hundred on board; and, encouraged by their gallant
officer, they did their duty bravely. Sir Thomas Knevet, in the
Regent, which was a much smaller ship, attacked and boarded the
Cordelier, and the action lasted for some time with equal vigour on
both sides. At last, both flag ships took fire and burnt together,
wherein the two commanders and upwards of sixteen hundred valiant men
were lost. It seems this accident struck both fleets with amazement; so
that they separated without fighting, each claiming the victory, to
which probably neither had a very good title.
In the beginning of the next April the admiral put to sea again with a
fleet of forty-two men-of-war, besides small vessels, and forced the
French into the harbour of Brest, where they fortified themselves, in
order to wait the arrival of a squadron of six galleys from the
Mediterranean. Sir Edward Howard, having considered their position,
resolved, since it was impossible to attack them, to burn the country
round about; which he accordingly did, in spite of all the care they
could take to prevent it; and yet the French lay still under the cover
of their fortifications and of a line of twenty-four large hulks lashed
together, which they proposed to have set on fire in case the English
attempted to force them to a battle. While the admiral was thus
employed, he had intelligence that M. Pregent, with the six galleys from
the Mediterranean, had arrived on the coast, and had taken shelter in
the Bay of Conquet. This circumstance induced him to change his plans;
and he now resolved first to destroy the galleys, if possible, and then
to return to the fleet. Upon his advancing to reconnoitre Pregent's
squadron, he found them at anchor between two rocks, on each of which
stood a strong fort; and, what was likely to give him still more
trouble, they lay so far up in the bay that he could bring none of his
ships of force to engage them. The only way open to him now was to put
the bravest of his sailors on board two galleys which were in his fleet,
and with these to venture in and try what might be done against the six.
This being resolved on, he went himself, attended by Sir Thomas Cheyne
and Sir John Wallop, on board one of the galleys, and sent Lord Ferrers,
Sir Henry Sherburn, and Sir William Sidney on board the other; and,
having a brisk gale of wind, sailed directly into the bay, where, with
his own galley, he attacked the French admiral. As soon as they were
grappled, Sir Edward Howard, followed by seventeen of the bravest of his
sailors, boarded the enemy, and were very gallantly received; but it so
happened that, in the midst of the engagement, the galleys sheered
asunder, and the French, taking advantage of this circumstance, forced
the English overboard, except one seaman, from whom they quickly learned
that the English admiral was among the slain. Lord Ferrers, in the other
galley, did all that was possible for a very brave man to do; but,
having spent all his shot, and perceiving, as he thought, the admiral
retire, he likewise made the best of his way out of the harbour.
In Lord Herbert's "Life and Reign of Henry VIII., 1513," there are some
very singular circumstances given relating to this unlucky adventure. He
says that Sir Edward Howard having considered the position of the French
fleet in the haven of Brest, and the consequences which would attend
either defeating or burning it, gave notice thereof to the king,
inviting him to be present at so glorious an action; desiring rather
that the king should have the honour of destroying the French naval
force than himself; a loyal, generous proposition--supposing the honour,
not the danger, too great for a subject, and measuring (no doubt very
justly) his master's courage by his own; the only standard men of his
rank and temper of mind ever use.
But, his letter being laid before the council, they were altogether of
another opinion; conceiving it was much too great a hazard for His
Majesty to expose his person in such an enterprise; and therefore they
wrote sharply to the admiral, commanding him not to send excuses, but to
do his duty. This, as it well might, piqued him to the utmost; and as it
was his avowed maxim that a seaman never did good who was not resolute
to a degree of madness, he took a sudden resolution of acting in the
manner he did. When he found his galley slide away and saw the danger to
which he was exposed, he took his chain of gold nobles which hung about
his neck, and his great gold whistle, the ensign of his office, and
threw them into the sea, to prevent the enemy from possessing the spoils
of an English admiral. Thus fell the great Sir Edward Howard, on April
25th, 1513, a sacrifice to his too quick sense of honour in the service,
and yet to the manifest and acknowledged detriment of his country; for
his death so dejected the spirits of his sailors that the fleet was
obliged to return home.
Sir Edward Howard, we are assured, was very far from being either a mere
soldier or a mere seaman, though so eminent in both characters; but he
was what it became an English gentleman of so high a quality to be--an
able statesman, a faithful counsellor, and a free speaker. He was ready
at all times to hazard his life and fortune in his country's quarrels;
and yet he was against her quarrelling on insufficient occasion or
against her interests. He particularly dissuaded a breach with the
Flemings, for the wise and strong reasons that such a war was
prejudicial to commerce abroad; that it diminished the customs, while it
increased the public expenses; that it served the French, by
constraining the inhabitants of Flanders to deal with them against their
will; and that it tended to the prejudice of our manufactures, by
interrupting our intercourse with those by whom they were principally
Thus qualified, we need not wonder he attained such high honours, though
he died in the flower of his age. Henry conferred upon him many titles
and other rewards, making him Admiral of England, Wales, Ireland,
Normandy, Gascony, and Aquitaine, for life, and causing him to be
chosen Knight of the Garter; believing that he should thereby command,
as indeed he did, not only the utmost service of Sir Edward, but also
all the force and interest of his potent family; an interest in later
years which he but ill requited. As soon as the news of his unfortunate
death reached the ears of his royal master he was succeeded in his high
office by Sir Thomas Howard, his elder brother.
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