What Was Northampton Up To?

Simon Adams is intrigued by a new life of the Stuart noble

Simon Adams | Published in

Northampton: Patronage and Policy at the Court of James I by Linda Levy Peck

x + 277 pp. (George Allen and Unwin, 1982)

Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton was one of the more enigmatic Jacobean courtiers. A younger brother of the Elizabethan Duke of Norfolk, he had been a partisan of Mary, Queen of Scots in his youth and then had carefully cultivated her son. In 1603 he was rewarded with a peerage, membership of the Privy Counci( and, later, appointments as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Lord Privy Seal. Following the death of the Earl of Salisbury in 1612 he became First Lord of the Treasury and the senior member of the Privy Council until his own death in 1614. A high-flying aristocratic reactionary, a more or less open Catholic and a reputed homosexual, Northampton has always been portrayed in Whig accounts of the reign of James I as the evil genius behind the more unsavoury aspects of its first decade.

Dr Peck has set out to redress the balance, but instead of writing a formal biography, she has produced a carefully-researched but curiously lop-sided account of Northampton as a Privy Councillor. Her title is somewhat misleading, for she does not discuss Northampton as a member of the Court (rather than of the Council) and she comments only fleetingly on his relationship to the King. Moreover, Northampton's career as a Privy Councillor was a curious one. Dr Peck establishes the important point that Salisbury was careful to keep major affairs of state firmly under his own control; only in 1612 did Northampton obtain real influence over the making of policy. Yet his 'years of power' were dominated by the bitter faction struggles over the succession to Salisbury's offices and by the winter of 1613-14 his health had declined so much, Dr Peck argues, that the Earls of Suffolk and Somerset had become the effective leaders of the Council.

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