William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For other people named William Stafford, see William Stafford (disambiguation).
William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford
Vandyck - willianhoward01.jpg
Portrait by Anthony van Dyck.
Spouse(s) Mary Stafford
Noble family House of Howard
Father Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel
Mother Alethea Talbot
Born 30 November 1614
Died 29 December 1680
Tower Hill, London, England
Blessed William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford
Venerated in Catholic Church
Beatified 1929, Rome, Italy by Pope Pius XI
Feast 29 December
Attributes Catholic martyr

William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford, FRS (30 November 1614 – 29 December 1680) was the youngest son of Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel, and his wife, the former Alethea Talbot. A Fellow of the Royal Society from 1665,.[1] he was a Royalist supporter before being falsely implicated by Titus Oates in the later discredited "Popish Plot", and executed for treason. He was beatified as a Catholic martyr in 1929.

Early life[edit]

William grew up in a nominally Anglican household, his father having converted to the Church of England in 1616.[1] William was undoubtedly exposed to Roman Catholic influences, as almost all of the Howard family remained loyal to that faith even when they conformed outwardly to the Established Church.[2]

His grandfather, Philip Howard, 20th Earl of Arundel had been imprisoned by Elizabeth I in the Tower of London for being a Catholic and had died there after 10 years' imprisonment. In 1620, William was placed in the household of Samuel Harsnett, Bishop of Norwich for an education, then attended St John's College, Cambridge, at age 11 in 1624, but did not receive a degree.[3] He was still regarded as part of the Church of England in 1633, still listed as an Ecclesiastical Commissioner.[1]

Marriage and children[edit]

He married Mary, sister of Henry Stafford, 5th Baron Stafford by a licence granted 11 October 1637. The Staffords were Catholics and the marriage was conducted by a Catholic, not an Anglican, priest, to the reported embarrassment of the groom's father. Following the forced surrender of the barony by Roger Stafford, 6th Baron Stafford, the Howard family secured the title for William, their being created Baron and Baroness Stafford on 12 September 1640. Two months later, William was created Viscount Stafford. The couple had 3 sons and 6 daughters, of which are known:[4][5]

Exile and return[edit]

Stafford and his family left England in August 1641, moving to Antwerp; his parents had also left England and were in the same area. He was allowed by Parliament to return to England with his wife, in 1646 and 1647; but in 1649 his estates were sequestered and compounded for recusancy and royalism. At his trial in 1680, he claimed to have performed many duties for King Charles I during this time, travelling between England and the Low Countries, and visiting Rome, the Palatinate and Heidelberg; in the last of which he was imprisoned for a year, allegedly for immorality. John Evelyn years later referred to the charge discreetly as "a vice that need not be named, but of which I am sure he repented." Stafford was imprisoned in 1656 in the Netherlands, this time for his father's debts. There were many quarrels over the Howard inheritance, especially between William and his elder brother's family, which had pursued a series of suits against William and their mother for additional money.[2]

During the Popish Plot he pointed out the absurdity of linking him with Lord Arundell as a co-conspirator, since they had not been on speaking terms for 25 years. Over the years he quarreled with many of his Howard relations, including Henry Howard, 6th Duke of Norfolk, the head of the family, which was to prove unfortunate in 1680 when several of them sat as his peers to try him for treason. According to John Evelyn, of his close relatives in the House of Lords only the Earl of Arundel voted Not Guilty. He returned to England at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and was restored to his estates. He was never really prominent in political affairs nor among Catholics, although he did promote the removal of the anti-Catholic penal laws with King Charles II and James, Duke of York. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society from 1665 onwards, becoming a council member in 1672.[1]

His relative obscurity was held against him during the Plot; informers like Stephen Dugdale cunningly invented quite plausible speeches in which he lamented the King's ingratitude and the lack of reward the Howards had received for their loyalty. In fact Stafford, like his fellow Plot victim John Belasyse, 1st Baron Belasyse thought that under the tolerant regime of Charles II, the Catholic nobility were as well off as they could reasonably expect to be; at his trial he maintained that he had always argued that: "we have no other interest than to be quiet".[6]

Popish Plot[edit]

Main article: Popish Plot

In 1678, he was implicated by Titus Oates's later discredited "Popish Plot", and sent to the Tower of London on 31 October 1678, along with four other Catholic peers. They were due to be put on trial in early 1679, but Charles prorogued Parliament and it was delayed. Scepticism about the plot grew and it was thought that the imprisoned peers might be released, but anti-Catholic feelings revived in 1680 and Stafford was put on trial in November for treason.[7]


Evidence against Stafford came from Oates, who said he had seen a document from the Pope naming Stafford as a conspirator and from Stephen Dugdale, who testified that Stafford had tried to get him to kill the King. A third witness, Edward Turberville said he had also visited Stafford in Paris and had also been asked to kill Charles. Stafford, like all those charged with treason in that era, was denied defence counsel and forced to conduct his own defence,[8] bringing forward witnesses to counter the evidence against him. One such witness would have been Richard Gerard of Hilderstone who had come to London to testify, but was imprisoned on the word of Stephen Dugdale; Gerard died in jail before the trial.[9] Although the Lord High Steward, Heneage Finch, conducted the trial with great fairness, it was not enough: while Stafford maintained his innocence with vigour, John Evelyn, a spectator, thought his speeches "very confused and without method".

Stafford was convicted by a majority of 55 to 31 and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, the punishment of traitors, which was commuted by the King to beheading. The King later said that he had signed the death warrant "with tears in his eyes".[10] He added that Stafford's accusers had his blood on their hands, just as he later told Lord Essex that the blood of Oliver Plunkett was on his head.[11]


Stafford was executed on Tower Hill on 29 December 1680.[1] Gilbert Burnet wrote that he was quickly forgotten, but others thought that the publication of a version of his final words, addressed to his daughter Delphina (a nun at Leuven), in which he spoke eloquently of his innocence: "My good child, I pray God bless you.... your poor old father hath this comfort, that he is totally innocent" helped turn public opinion against the Plot.[12]


Stafford was attainted and the family lost the title; the title of Baron Stafford was returned to the Howard line in 1824 with the attainder being reversed but the title of Viscount was extinct as there were no male heirs. His widow, Mary, had her titles restored with the accession of James II and she was created Countess of Stafford on 5 October 1688, at the same time her son was created Earl of Stafford.[13]


He was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929.


  1. ^ a b c d e William Howard, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  2. ^ a b Wikisource-logo.svg "Ven. William Howard". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  3. ^ "Howard, William, dominus (HWRT624W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  4. ^ A General and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerages of England, Ireland, and Scotland, extinct, dormant, and in abeyance, by John Burke. Published 1831, by Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley
  5. ^ Profile at Tudorplace.com[unreliable source]
  6. ^ Kenyon, J.P. The Popish Plot Phoenix Press reissue p.46
  7. ^ Kenyon p.231
  8. ^ 7 Howell's State Trials, 1293, 1339 (House of Lords, 1 December 1680; he could not have counsel with him while evidence being presented against him). A very detailed transcript of the proceedings is available from Google books.
  9. ^ John Kenyon, The Popish Plot (1972), pp. 51, 164.
  10. ^ Kenyon p.232
  11. ^ Kenyon p.234
  12. ^ Fraser, Antonia King Charles II Mandarin edition 1993 p.400
  13. ^ Kenyon p.296


External links[edit]