Henry Howard earl of Surrey “So cruel prison how could betide”

The poem was written during Howard’s imprisonment for striking another courtier. The imprisonment was hardly “cruel” since it took place in Windsor Castle, so it was more of a symbolic punishment. However, this period reminds Surrey about the happy times he spent there as a teenager with Henry FitzRoy, Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, his childhood friend and for a short period of time his brother-in-law before his untimely death one year before the poem was written. The poem is a long and rather intimate evocation of their friendship and provides also a rare insight into the minds and hearts of aristocratic teenagers in the 1530s. Surrey himself writes about five years after these events, so it is hardly ancient history to him. They were enjoying themselves, he writes, “in greater feast than Priam’s sons of Troy”. Priam’s sons, as we all know, for all their lavish lifestyle came to a rather sad end, which indicates young Henry’s imminent demise and in a spooky way foreshadows Howard’s. The two Henrys spent their lives at Windsor in a style typical of the Tudor court at the time. Henry VIII was very anxious to keep up the tradition of chivalric life, with tournaments, joustings, courting ladies etc. and so the young men do all of that – they court ladies, dance at balls, play tennis, joust, hunt and talk late into the night, the way you talk with you friend when you are both teenagers and you both believe you are going to be friends until the ends of your lives. But then the sad realization comes – his friend is here no more and all the places just serve to remind the poet about his death. Howard uses the “greater grief” of his mourning to forget the ‘lesser grief” of his punishment.


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