St. Philip Howard


Apart from certain lapses, the Howard family of England has ranked high not only as nobles but as Catholics. Most of the time the dukes of Norfolk have been Catholics. (Today Edward William Fitzalan-Howard holds that position.) And by ancient right they have had charge of all coronations of the kings and queens of England. They can boast of two martyrs: St. Philip Howard and his grandson Bl. William Howard.

In the days of Queen Elizabeth, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, conformed, unfortunately, to the Anglican Church. He had his son Philip educated in part by John Foxe, a strongly anti-Catholic clergyman, and sent him to Cambridge University, which was also staunchly Protestant. At the age of 12, Philip was married (so far as the contract went) to Anne, the daughter of Lord Dacre. Through his mother, Philip inherited the title of Earl of Arundel and Surrey. Called to serve in Queen Elizabeth’s court as a young man, he was swept up into its worldly atmosphere. He neglected his wife, although she was a fine woman; he lived beyond his means; and he earned (but for only a brief time) the special notice and favor of the Queen.

A turning point came in 1581. The Earl one day attended a debate in the Tower of London between Catholic clergymen (especially St. Edmund Campion, the Jesuit) and Protestant clergymen. What Philip heard impressed him so much in favor of the Catholic stance that he returned to his wife and became very devoted to her. In 1584 both he and Anne were reconverted to the Catholic Church by Father William Weston, S.J.

Even before their reconciliation, the couple had fallen under suspicion as “disloyal” to the Queen. Philip was even kept under house imprisonment for a while. Harassed increasingly by Elizabeth, he decided to flee to Flanders with his family. He wrote to the Queen explaining that he was doing so to protect both his body and his soul. But Elizabethan England was a police state, and the royal spies captured him and his family at sea and brought them back. Philip was then imprisoned in the Tower of London. For twelve months the courts tried to convict him of treason, but couldn’t prove their case. So he was declared guilty of lesser charges, fined the huge sum of 10,000 pounds, and sentenced to indefinite imprisonment.

When the Spanish Armada attacked the British fleet in 1588, another effort was made to tie in the Earl of Arundel with the plot. By the use of evidence partly fraudulent, partly worthless, the Earl was now convicted of “treason.” Although he was sentenced to death, the sentence was never carried out, so he was left in prison for six more years. He died in the Tower of London on October 16, 1595 (perhaps by poisoning). His dying request was that he be allowed to see his wife and the son whom he had never laid eyes on. He was told that he could see them - indeed, that he could even be freed - if he would attend Protestant worship. Of course, he refused. In a statement prepared before his intended execution, he had said, “The Catholic and Roman faith which I hold is the only cause (as far as I can in any way imagine) why either I have been thus long imprisoned or why I am now ready to be executed.”

But Philip Howard had profited greatly by his ten years in prison. He had reached heroic heights of patience and Christian conduct. He prayed constantly, fasted three days a week, and spent much of his time in writing and translating devotional works. He did penance particularly for the way he had treated his wife. This and his past faults were, he declared, “a nail in my conscience.”

This admirable Catholic layman was 38 at the time of his death. Pope Paul VI canonized him as a martyr in 1970, along with St. Edmund Campion, who had brought him back to the Church.

--Father Robert F. McNamara