David Twiston Davies We have good reason to be thankful for the Dukes of Norfolk; not just for Miles, the 17th Duke who died last week, but because, as leading members of the Catholic laity, they represent a unique and assuringly English institution.
The history of the Howard family, which stretches back into the Middle Ages, serves as a valuable reminder that the Reformation was not the clean break with a corrupt past that Protestant myth maintains.
The fact that the Norfolks are hereditary Earl Marshals of England, trusted to organise the Coronation and other great State occasions, contradicts all those sneers about "left footers'", whose loyalties must be suspect because they owe a religious allegiance to the Pope in Rome. However, it must be admitted that they have demonstrated a strong measure of worldly ambition, and have experienced their share of tragedies.
The 1st Duke of Norfolk was created by Richard III, and died two years later on Bosworth Field. The 2nd Duke spent three years in prison though, with prudent demonstrations of loyalty to Henry VII, he won back all the family's lost possessions through his service as a soldier, administrator and diplomat.
The 3rd Duke was a merciless schemer, who overthrew both Cardinal Wolsey and his enemy Thomas Cromwell and only escaped the block because Henry VIII died the day he was to sign his death warrant. He lived to be 80, but witnessed the execution of his son, the poet Earl of Arundel. The 4th Duke, his grandson, was brought up a Protestant and also executed, for plotting to marry Mary Queen of Scots. But he survived long enough to write to his own eldest son, another Earl of Arundel, "Oh Philip! Serve and fear God above all things. I find the fault in myself, that I have been too negligent in this point." That son did not take much notice at first, devoting much of his time to flattering Queen Elizabeth I, but he became a Catholic and ended up in the Tower of London where his devout life led him to be canonised almost four centuries later.
Since St Philip Howard's day there have been less than exemplary, even Protestant, Dukes; but the family have increasingly come to be recognised as leaders of the Catholic community and also to recognise their special responsibilities, even when a couple of Dukes became Anglicans. There have been two Howard cardinals, one in the 17th century and one in the 19th; and the 15th Duke was responsible for building many churches and obtaining John Henry Newman his cardinal's hat.
For Miles, the 17th Duke, such a past amounted to a burden and a challenge. Brought up in the knowledge that he might possibly inherit from a cousin, he had enjoyed a successful military career when, at 59, he inherited the Dukedom from a cousin, only seven years his senior, who had produced only daughters.
At a time when most men were contemplating retirement, he found himself heir not only to great privileges and wealth but also to considerable cere monial, charitable and political duties. Not the least of his many achievements was the role he played, like no modern Duke before him, in projecting a Catholic view as he rallied his fellow peers to resist the growing flood of unchristian legislation in the House of Lords.
Yet, for all that, the Duke was keenly aware of public opinion about the aristocracy, and he was determined in his crisp, modest, cheerful way to remind people that he was an individual first and a Duke second.
But he had guidance of the Norfolk motto, Sola virtus invicta (Virtue alone is unconquerable).
David7iviston Davies works for The Daily Telegraph