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For centuries this Catholic family has orchestrated Britain’s most Anglican royal events

May 4, 2023 Catholic News Agency 1
Arundel Castle in Sussex has been the seat of the Duke of Norfolk’s ancestors for 850 years. / Miles Sabin from Brighton, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

London, England, May 4, 2023 / 09:00 am (CNA).

The Earl Marshal of England is little known and rarely seen, but he oversees the world’s biggest spectacles. Queen Elizabeth’s funeral last year is reported to have attracted more than 4 billion viewers, making it perhaps the most-watched event in history. This was the finest moment for the current Earl Marshall, Edward Fitzalan-Howard, more formally known as His Grace the Most Noble Duke of Norfolk.

The 18th Duke of Norfolk, Edward Fitzalan-Howard, is the hereditary Earl Marshal of England and is the country's premier lay Catholic. Photo courtesy of WIKIMEDIA PIC
The 18th Duke of Norfolk, Edward Fitzalan-Howard, is the hereditary Earl Marshal of England and is the country’s premier lay Catholic. Photo courtesy of WIKIMEDIA PIC

The 18th Duke spent 20 years planning the late queen’s funeral but has had far less time to arrange the coronation of the United Kingdom’s new monarch, King Charles III, which will take place Saturday, May 6. Despite making the news for dangerous driving and his recent divorce and remarriage, Fitzalan-Howard will try to be as inconspicuous as possible at the coronation, just as he was at the queen’s recent funeral, which will be difficult for a man wearing the most extravagant uniform outside the military or the Church of England.

Since 1484 the Earl Marshal has supervised royal events through the College of Arms with assistance from quaintly named characters such as Garter King of Arms and Rouge Dragon Pursuivant. The payment these heralds receive is appropriately medieval.

Although it is often stated that the Dukes of Norfolk have held this position since 1672, the first Earl Marshal of the Howard family was John, 1st Duke of Norfolk, in 1483. A few other families have also had a turn, especially during the tumultuous Tudor era. The most peculiar choice was Henry VIII, made Earl Marshal by his father at the age of 3.

Queen Elizabeth proceeding to Westminster for her coronation in 1559 with the Duke of Norfolk at top right. PUBLIC DOMAIN
Queen Elizabeth proceeding to Westminster for her coronation in 1559 with the Duke of Norfolk at top right. PUBLIC DOMAIN

It’s not surprising that there is confusion bordering on bewilderment about this post. The Howard family has held different titles going back more than seven centuries. On occasion these have been stripped from them — most notably during the reign of Elizabeth I. The unrelentingly Catholic head of the family had his dukedom removed, along with all his income. It would have been little consolation at the time, but Philip Howard was eventually made a saint, canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. 

Philip Howard, who should have been the 5th Duke of Norfolk, died at the Tower of London in 1595, accused of being a Catholic and a Jesuit conspirator. Philip’s father, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, was beheaded at the same location despite denying being a Catholic before the axe came down. Similar fates befell the 4th Duke’s father and grandfather. It became a tradition among the Howards to suffer for being Catholic.

The Howard family tells us much about British history, especially Catholic history. The Dukes of Norfolk have had demotions — promotions have been difficult as they have been at the top for so long anyway. Some aspired to be kings, while others have been successful statesmen, generals, poets, and cardinals. One was committed to an Italian insane asylum. Most clung to their Catholicism, while a few did not. Others merely talked about converting. Duke Henry, appointed by Charles II when the monarchy was restored after Cromwell’s republic, told the diarist John Evelyn that he “will go to Church and become Protestant” but couldn’t bring himself to do so. His son did instead. 

It is the Howards’ abilities and persistence that helped rehabilitate Catholics as acceptable members of British society. 

One small step was a concession the 12th Duke obtained in 1824, when he was no longer required to deny Transubstantiation — a vital element of Catholic belief. After that date, they could perform their duties as Earl Marshal without needing a deputy to stand in for them. Previously, Catholic dukes had to step aside at the last minute in case the Protestant public gaze should be upon them. 

The 16th Duke of Norfolk, who organized Queen Elizabeth's coronation, was prominent enough in his day to merit a cigarette card. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The 16th Duke of Norfolk, who organized Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, was prominent enough in his day to merit a cigarette card. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Some confusion remains to this day. The Dukes of Norfolk’s ancestral home is in Sussex, far from Norfolk. For 850 years they have owned the magnificent Arundel Castle, recently robbed for relics of Mary Queen of Scots. They also own 16,000 prime acres of Sussex. In contrast, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (better known as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle) own no land in that valuable county. Nor are they playing much of a part in the coronation. The Sussexes of Montecito do have a superior title though. 

Part of the secret of the Dukes of Norfolk’s longevity has been keeping up with the times. When the present Duke was charged in court, he told the magistrate that he drives an elderly BMW because he likes “being simple and unpompous.” This is very different from the 16th Duke, who organized Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. When he led the England cricket team to Australia, he famously said: “Gentlemen, I wish this to be an entirely informal tour. You will merely address me as ‘Sir.’”

As is so often the case, the present 18th Duke of Norfolk is not a direct descendant of the 16th Duke. Descent in this family has often been confusing because of an absence of male heirs. If Norfolk had been in Scotland, things would have been different and a woman could have been the key organizer of King Charles III’s coronation. Since the Duke of Norfolk is not allowed to be a woman, there will probably never be a “Countess Marshal.”


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Benedict XVI is mourned in the United Kingdom

December 31, 2022 Catholic News Agency 2
Bishops of England, Scotland, and Wales line up to kiss Pope Benedict XVI’s ring at Oscott College in Birmingham, central England, on Sept. 19, 2010, where he later addressed bishops. / Photo by MATT CARDY/AFP via Getty Images

CNA Newsroom, Dec 31, 2022 / 14:55 pm (CNA).

The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales led tributes to the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, hailing him as one of the great theologians of the 20th century.

In a statement released Dec. 31, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said: “I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Pope Benedict. He will be remembered as one of the great theologians of the 20th century.

“I remember with particular affection the remarkable papal visit to these lands in 2010. We saw his courtesy, his gentleness, the perceptiveness of his mind, and the openness of his welcome to everybody that he met.

“He was through and through a gentleman, through and through a scholar, through and through a pastor, through and through a man of God — close to the Lord and always his humble servant.

“Pope Benedict is very much in my heart and in my prayers. I give thanks to God for his ministry and leadership.”

Pope Benedict XVI famously visited the U.K. in 2010, where he celebrated Mass at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow; led a prayer vigil for young people at Hyde Park, London; and ended his visit with the beatification of John Henry Newman at Cofton Park, Birmingham.

The president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, Bishop Hugh Gilbert, described the late pope emeritus as a “shy and scholarly man” in a statement released Dec. 31.

Bishop Gilbert said: “With the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict, we lose one of the leading Catholic figures of the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of our own.

“By nature, a shy and scholarly man and by profession a priest-theologian, he found himself drawn ever more into public life as archbishop of Munich, as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, and finally as pope, the first German since the end of the Second World War to attain world pre-eminence.

“He once wrote: ‘My basic intention has been to expose the real core of the faith underneath the encrustations, and to give this core its true power and dynamism. This has been the constant direction of my life.’ His full stature will surely emerge increasingly. May he rest in peace.”

The U.K. prime minister and King Charles III also added their voices to the tributes paid to the late pope emeritus.

Following the announcement of his death, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted: “I am saddened to learn of the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He was a great theologian whose UK visit in 2010 was an historic moment for both Catholics and non-Catholics throughout our country.”

Meanwhile, King Charles sent a message of condolence to Pope Francis, which read: “Your Holiness, I received the news of the death of your predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, with deep sadness.

“I remember with fondness my meeting with His Holiness during my visit to the Vatican in 2009.

“His visit to the U.K. in 2010 was important in strengthening the relations between the Holy See and the U.K.

“I also recall his constant efforts to promote peace and goodwill to all people, and to strengthen the relationship between the global Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church.”

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales will now celebrate Requiem Masses for the repose of the soul of the late pope emeritus in their respective cathedrals.