3 April 1538 – The death of Anne Boleyn’s mother, Elizabeth Boleyn

Elizabeth Boleyn as played by Kristin Scott Thomas

On this day in history, Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire and Ormond, wife of Thomas Boleyn and mother of the late Queen Anne Boleyn, died near Baynard’s Castle, home of the Abbot of Reading, in London. She was around sixty-two years of age.

Thomas Warley wrote of her death in a letter to Lady Lisle dated 7th April 1538:

“My lady of Wiltshire died on Wednesday last beside Baynard’s castle.”

And on 9th April 1538, John Husee wrote to Lady Lisle of Elizabeth’s burial at St Mary’s Church, Lambeth, on 7th April:

“My lady Wiltshire was buried at Lamehithe [Lambeth] on the 7th. My lord Comptroller was chief mourner of the men and lady Dawbny of the women. She was conveyed from a house beside Baynard’s Castle by barge to Lambeth with torches burning and four baneys (banners?) set out of all quarters of the barge, which was covered with black and a white cross. At her burial was the King of Heralds, a herald, and a pursuivant.”

Elizabeth’s cause of death is unknown, but she had been ill in April 1536, suffering with a cough “which grieves her sore”. It may have just been a cough, but it could have been the start of a more serious illness, we don’t know.

Here is a video I did on Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn.


Notes and Sources

Photo: Elizabeth Boleyn as played by Kristin Scott Thomas in “The Other Boleyn Girl”.

  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, XIII, Part 1, 696 and 717.
  • LP X. 669.

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18 thoughts on “3 April 1538 – The death of Anne Boleyn’s mother, Elizabeth Boleyn”
  1. Whatever she was suffering from in April 1536 she may or may not have overcome but with the judicial murders of her son and daughter in May of that year and the other hardships imposed on her family by King Henry, that must have exacerbated her illness. It is nice to know she was given such a beautiful send off after her passing.

  2. Elizabeth was born a noblewoman the eldest daughter of the Earl of Surrey and like many of her class, led a privileged life, she wore fine gowns and jewels and rode carefree in the fields of her fathers estates, she had servants to wait on her and when she grew up left her home for the glittering court of the young king Henry V111, where she became one of Queen Katherine’s ladies, but she is a shadowy figure in history and we only know the basic facts about her, who she married and afterwards her brief appearances when she chaperoned her more famous daughter when she was being courted by the King, her family, her death and where she was buried, we know not the real Elizabeth who as a young woman was afforded a place at court and must have made merry at the masques and fetes there, we know not the young married woman who wept with her husband at the deaths of her children whose names sadly are not recorded, unlike her more famous children she appears to have been the epitome of the dutiful Tudor wife who supported her husband and bore him children, and who knew her place and was well behaved and discreet, as a young woman at court she was known for her attractiveness is apparent in the works by John Skelton the famous poet who compared her beauty to that of the mythological Greek woman Cressida, that Cressida was not known for her constancy also may mean that Elizabeth was a flirt who gave men the run around, however that is speculation, she as mother was responsible for teaching her daughters the attributes that were needed at court, dancing and music, good manners how to walk straight and eat properly, she and her husband must have seen something in Anne that was different from her eldest daughter Mary, she must have been more brighter and picked up things easily, she had a natural grace and could sing, all these gifts would serve her well and Thomas himself decided to send her to Margaret of Austria’s court where she would later become the very mistress of repartee, of grace of deportment and elegance, she and her husband appear to have been somewhat disillusioned by their eldest daughter Mary who had sullied her reputation and was not known to be particularly bright, maybe they compared her rather unfavourably to Anne and George who was known to be bright himself, he had been to university and was becoming rather well known himself as a talented young poet, said to be a young Adonis he must have inherited his mothers good looks and became a bit of a womaniser, Mary had slept with the King at one time and we do not know what Elizabeth thought of this, women were brought up to be virtuous as they had to make good marriages, there is evidence however that Sir Thomas Boleyn did not approve of either his daughters involvement with the King, he was a fickle and dangerous man and Boleyn knew this as he had served him at court for many years, no wonder he was not very happy and he tried to stop the Kings marriage with Anne, something which infuriated the latter, maybe Elizabeth felt the same, it was far safer to see the King at a distance than have him in the bosom of your family, they had seen how he had treated his first wife, what if he treated their daughter the same if he tired of her which he later did, with the wisdom and hindsight of the old and mature they may well have feared it would not end well, but they could never have imagined the catastrophe events that occurred with the arrests trials and execution’s of their beloved children, she had given birth to a remarkable woman and her granddaughter it is said was named after her, she knew her own brother the Duke of Norfolk had sat on her daughters trial and had told her the dreadful sentence’s which were to be carried out, death by beheading or burning, she must have fainted when she heard the news, all of this she had to endure, she was very close to Anne and I believe she was a deeply maternal woman who loved all her children equally, in Tudor times children were doubly precious as many died in childbirth, usually with the mother, or afterwards or they became victim to the sweat and other ailments, sons were killed in battle and so it was a dangerous time to live, she had seen both her husband and Anne and George survive the sweat, her young son in law Cary had not however, in that superstitious age maybe it meant God had intended them to live, then she had seen the almighty desert them in their hour of need, Elizabeth must have prayed many an hour in the family chapel, after the deaths of both their children her husband though stripped of his posts had returned to court as he was a valuable servant, and Elizabeth may have travelled to see her only surviving child and there maybe she had some comfort in her daughter and grandchildren, that Anne had been very close to her mother is apparent as she was the first person in her thoughts when she was arrested, she also in a letter written to a friend said, ‘next to mine own mother I know of none other I love more’ , Elizabeth was sixty two roughly when she died a good age by the standards of the day, she had been suffering from a cough which sounds ominous, could it have consumption now known as TB, which could well have killed the young Duke of Fitzroy and Edward V1?, she could well have had bronchitis and then caught TB, when one is ill the body is open to other infections but in those days they could nothing for the sufferer, she would have had good doctors and lived in comfort but possibly the grief she felt at the deaths of her children made her give up and long for death herself, the fight goes when there is nothing to live for, she had seen her daughter become the most glittering star at court, had witnessed her coronation and then her spectacular fall and death, her reputation was that of an evil immoral woman who had indulged in incest with her own brother, in the quiet solitude of the countryside she was at peace but her mind must have been tormented by her children’s last moments and she could not ever go to court again, she may have been welcomed but she understandably would not wish to go, how could she look on Jane Seymour’s face who was now in the place her daughter had been, she died barely two years after her children’s execution, and the sad little calvacade was rowed silently and gloomily up the river to Lambeth where she joined her ancestors one early day in April, those ancestors who had been the Earls of Mowbray in ancient times and whose blood she shared, RIP most noble and gracious lady Elizabeth Countess of Ormonde and Wiltshire mother of Queen Anne Boleyn and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth 1st.

  3. Enjoyed this so much. I have such a curiosity about Elizabeth Boleyn would love to read a biography if there is one. This was most interesting. Thank you!

  4. Rest in peace, Elizabeth Boleyn, one of the most noble ladies of the early and mid Tudor age.

    In the video Claire asks how people always question the love Thomas and Elizabeth had for their children because they did nothing to save Anne and George, but as she says what could they do? By now Henry Viii was a man who listened to nobody anymore and few appeals for the life of a condemned traitor succeeded as a rule, anyway. As Claire said, we have no evidence that they didn’t appeal to Cromwell but they could do nothing to stop the execution of their children as they had no power to stop them. Like so many fallen families they had to endure and accept the judgement and find a way to survive. They lost other things as well, position and favour as well as property. Thomas lost his main position at court, Lord Privy Seal, which later went to Thomas Cromwell, an ally now of the Seymour family. Now it was about survival. The family fortune and prosperity depended on favour at Court and Thomas Boleyn was a courtier born and bred and his many talents made him perfect for Royal service. He was in service to both Henry Vii and Henry Viii and as a young knight to the retainers of the House of York. To gain support for his remaining family and to keep some dignity and even some way to feed himself as his income would also have come from this service as well as his estates, Thomas Boleyn had no choice but to seek a way back into royal favour.

    Elizabeth Howard was the sister of one Duke of Norfolk and daughter of another, who as Earl of Surrey at the time was still working hard for the new King and had proven his loyalty. Although a retainer of this Earl, Sir Thomas Boleyn was still considered a good match for a semi royal Howard. From merchant stock and the son of a knight he was an upcoming gentlemen with prospects and many skills. Elizabeth and Thomas were well matched and she was fertile very early on in their marriage, giving him five children in six or seven years. We have evidence for this in his letter to Thomas Cromwell many years later about his wife and their children. Elizabeth appears also to have been beautiful and intelligent and active in her children’s lives and character formation. She was also a very early feature at court, as a leading lady to Queen Katherine of Aragon. Her husband was often away on one diplomatic posting or another, which suggests he spoke more than one foreign language fluently, French for certain and there is no reason to suppose that Elizabeth did not effectively handle his affairs while he was away from home.

    Elizabeth had a close relationship with Anne, who may have been her eldest and favourite daughter, but to whom it is very possible that she passed the necessary love of learning and book intelligence which made Anne Boleyn the remarkable young woman that we know her for. Sir Thomas made certain his children all enjoyed an advanced education and Anne and George had the natural talent to lap it up and develop a love for learning. Mary appears to have been less interested, more content to marry and have children, but that doesn’t mean she was any less intelligent. We know very little about her, in fact, but we do know how much Anne excelled at learning to the extent that she made a big splash at the French Court and received a sophisticated education there. George also received a classical education at home and University. He was able to translate religious and theological works from Latin, Greek and French, so he too had good book learning. I would guess that this was also inherited from both parents.

    Mother and daughter spent a lot of time together at court and her mother apparently acted as Anne’s chaperone. Anne expressed concern for her mother during her darkest hours in the Tower in May 1536. She was concerned for her mother’s health and how much all of the strain and shame even would have on her health. Before she died Elizabeth was known to have been ill in 1536 and it is possible that the same problem plagued her, aggravated by the judicial murder of her son and daughter. Today a constant cough can be a sign of something more serious such as cancer or it may have been consumption. Elizabeth and Thomas Boleyn were not uncaring parents, although there are things which may appear to modern eyes as unfeeling, such as the dismissal of Mary from court in 1534,_ but she had defied them and had married without their permission to a man well below her in status. Thomas was being a typical sixteenth century father and Mary wrote to Cromwell to gain reconciliation. There is no evidence that they placed either daughter in the King’s bed and they didn’t act from ambitions either as they were already well placed high in favour at Court. Henry Viii fell in love with Anne and they had similar interests which helped her to develop a long term relationship with the King. Elizabeth and Thomas were not stupid, they knew this could be both advantageous and dangerous. They accepted the risk and the benefits having a daughter betrothed to the King brings. Why wouldn’t they? If the King wants to make you an Earl, you say yes thank you and savour the moment. There is no evidence that either Thomas or Elizabeth did anything which harmed their children. Mary was given a very prestigious marriage and also benefited from life at the French Court. In many ways they were typical of the parents of children born into the nobility or gentry of their day and it was only fortune that turned on them. Had Anne not actually become Queen, no criticism would have been laid at their door at all. These were parents who one day saw all of their dreams come true, then saw them dashed in the most horrific set of circumstances. Henry Viii was responsible for the execution of Anne and George on trumped up charges, not Thomas Boleyn. Elizabeth and her husband were plunged into grief and mourning and also lost much materially as well and I am certainly of the opinion that, a) they had little choice but to regain favour and b) the health of Elizabeth suffered deeply because of the loss of her children.

    RIP Dear Elizabeth Boleyn. Amen

  5. With Henry becoming so unstable and paranoid I would be afraid that pleading for the life of a condemned traitors in in his mind could in itself be construed as treason.

    1. The Weston family didn’t get anywhere with pleading for Francis and I expect the Boleyns knew full well that their children’s deaths were a foregone conclusion. They’d seen it happens to others close to home, like Edward Stafford.

      1. Yes did not Weston’s family offer up a huge sum of money for his life, even Norris was condemned yet he had been a close friend of his like Suffolk.

  6. It’s so tragic we have no portraits of Elizabeth either, the daughter of a queen and grandmother of the heir apparent to Henry V111, only of her daughter Queen Anne, and they were not painted in her lifetime, there are two beautiful paintings of Anne and Mary in Hever, I have seen them and Mary looks very beautiful with a round face large brown eyes, rosebud mouth and tawny colouring, her sister is shown with her face at an angle with a longer nose, the same full mouth and those legendary large dark eyes, but we have no proof that this is Marys true likeness, there was a portrait said to be of their father Thomas for many years yet was then proved to be that of his relative James Butler, one time fiancé of Anne, there are none of George who was said to be very handsome none of his wife Jane either, although there is a sketch titled Lady Morley but some believe it to be of Jane’s sister in law, the most prominent family at the court of the King for many years and we have no true likeness of them, those of its most famous member were destroyed after her death and therefore we can only deduct from the Hampton Court painting of her, done after her death based on an original and the sketch by Holbein titled Anna Bouillan Queen, (not sure of the spelling) of their true likenesse’s, of course some says it does not really matter what they look like but for us who are fascinated by this most fascinating nor families it would be great if we could actually have a true authentic painting of them all, as I said before Elizabeth is a shadowy figure in history as we have no idea of her true feelings about her family’s rise and fall, what she felt about her daughters involvement with the King, how she felt about Queen Katherine who she had served loyally during her early life at court, how did she feel about her daughter attempting to supplant her?, did she sympathise with her or just shrug her shoulder’s rather callously and believe that Anne was right in her dream to be queen, all these questions we have no answers to we can only speculate, her true character like her face is lost in time and that is part of her fascination, like her more famous daughter what did she really look like, was she dark haired or blonde, did she have tawny colouring like the sitter in the alleged Mary Boleyn’s portrait, was she ambitious tenacious and hot tempered like Anne or retiring like Mary, we have no idea but whatever she was really like we can safely come to the conclusion that she must have been quite remarkable to have produced such an enigmatic woman as Anne Boleyn.

    1. I would imagine it to be highly unusual for a noble woman of the Howard clan not to have been painted, at the very least at the time of her marriage or just before she withdrew for childbirth. Many paintings have been lost or renamed or destroyed over the centuries for numerous reasons and it would not surprise me that there is a drawing somewhere that nobody realises is of Elizabeth Boleyn and is identified some time in the future. I mean who knows what some old family may have in a dusty basement or dark hallway, behind a curtain, especially if they have had it for centuries and just moved it out of the way? That’s how the true portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie was found, in an old house, in a hallway, behind a curtain and the family knew it was there, had a provenance and didn’t know anyone was looking for it. The National Gallery of Scotland had always identified their portrait as Bonnie Prince Charlie but it became known that it was his brother. A four year search found the only known painting of Charles Edward Stuart from 1745/6 hidden away in a private house. Of course it is now on long term loan to the Gallery. You never know, Elizabeth may turn up one day.

      The saddest thing of all is the loss of her grave. She is buried somewhere in Lambeth Church but the building was made secular and is no longer a church. No doubt the records will show she was there somewhere, but her actual location is lost. Now last year they found several vaults containing several coffins of the Archbishops of Canterbury and other coffins, so who knows, maybe Elizabeth will be found as well. It would be a wonderful discovery.

      I noted also on the video that Claire said that people get confused and feel that the fact she was buried in the Howard vaults that it means she was estranged from her husband, but husbands and wives were not always buried together and I agree that it shows nothing of the sort and we can’t say that she had fallen out with Thomas, because there is no evidence to support this. Elizabeth was given a proper funeral and she was honoured. Women of higher status than their husbands may have been buried in the ancestral tombs and if she was in London when she died, Lambeth was the closest of the Howard family vaults and so it was a natural place for her to be buried. Thomas might have wanted to move her but perhaps it was too expensive. A body might travel miles if they were very important but it was very expensive and not always practical if plague was in the City or there was a risk of the corpse going off. It was much more normal to bury people close to where they died unless family members paid to have them preserved and moved to lie in a specified vault or tomb. There could be any number of practical reasons for Elizabeth being laid to rest in a Howard vault, her status and place of death being the most likely. If the Duke of Norfolk was in town, it may even have been at his insistence and Lambeth was chosen as the nearest Howard seat.

      I also agree that Thomas and Elizabeth must have judged it was useless to plead with a King who had made up his mind that he wanted Anne and her innocent fellows dead, especially given that these men had been his friends and Anne had been the centre of his world for a decade. The whole thing must have been devastating, because they couldn’t publicly mourn Anne and George. If Anne had died in childbirth as Queen she would have had a public send off and her parents could mourn their daughter, but with her execution, in such terrible circumstances, with such dreadful charges laid at her door, they were denied this. The same with George. Had he died from illness, suddenly, they could mourn, but now their grief had to be secret. No masses were ordered for Anne, nobody could speak of her and it must have been agony, as if she had never lived. That was hard to bear and it probably did make her mother ill. At least Elizabeth and Thomas Boleyn had proper funerals.

      1. You mentioned the loss of Elizabeth Boleyn’s grave. This is indeed sad. Though the church is now secular, those interred there I understand are still there. A situation I find tragic and sad is with the destruction of old St. Paul’s in the 1666 fire, all those tombs we’re lost including that of Francis Walsingham. That place was ancient then so there must have been many entombed there by that time.

        1. Hi Michael, it’s true the loss of the old St.Pauls is regrettable because of the tombs that were lost, there have been lots of theories about what actually caused the great fire of 1666, the baker was held responsible but was he a scapegoat? Other people blamed the foreigners who resided in London at that time, I have also heard that parliament decreed that London should burn because the year before the plague had visited the city and destroyed thousands of lives, the old city was dirty without any sewers and poor sanitation, people threw their refuse out of their windows and rats and flies carriers of diseases abounded, people lived next to each other in hovels and the very hot summer of 1665 caused the plague to strike hard that year, had Parliament decided that the best way to cure the city of its ills was a huge fire, fire is a wonderful cleanser and after it had finished, leaving smouldering blackened piles of what had once been buildings and ale house’s and so forth in its wake, then the city could be rebuilt with proper sewers this time and better houses for the poor as well as the rich, this is only a theory but it is possible, I feel sorry for one citizen however who had spent about ten years writing a biography on King Charles only to find his work had all been burnt, as you mention St.Pauls yes that was tragic but Wren devised plans for another building much greater and beautiful than the old one, and lucky we still have her today lucky to that she survived the blitz centuries later.

      2. Yes that they both had separate graves does not mean they were at enmity with each other, but I can well imagine the grief that consumed them and in such circumstances people do turn on each other, it’s easy for couples to blame each other for their tragic loss but for the nobility in Tudor times it was different because the circumstances were different, families did lose loved ones to the scaffold sometimes on the flimsiest of charges, and yes as you say it all depended where they died, it was far easier to bury people close to where they had died, and the Duke of Norfolk being the head of the family and a close blood relative may have wanted her buried her there, maybe Elizabeth herself requested it, maybe it was an unwritten rule that the Howard’s regardless of who they married were laid to rest in the family tomb, being such an important family, Thomas himself maybe knew about that and accepted it, their daughter Mary was no doubt buried in the church where she died, quite possibly near Rochford manor, it would be nice to find her grave one day, and yes I believe there must be a painting or two of Elizabeth hiding somewhere, many a painting listed lost has turned up in some lucky fellow’s attic, and worth a fortune too! It would be great to look on the face of Elizabeth Boleyn and maybe see a likeness to her famous daughter there, we can only live in hope!

        1. I had not heard the theory about parliament ‘cleaning’ the city. Did you know that some theorize that Rome was burnt by Nero for the same reason?

  7. Well Nero was mad and was said to be having an incestous affair with his mother who he murdered, he was what we would call now, acting from diminished responsibility, he could well in his deranged way think he was doing th citizens of Rome a favour.

  8. The poor chap who lost all of his books when Saint Paul’s burnt because he moved them there for safety as it was stone also lost his account books of money the crown owed him so Charles just didn’t pay him. I go now with the perceived wisdom on the fire but all sorts of things were said in 1666. The comet didn’t help of course. Scientists knew what it was but most ordinary people, unless they had a classic education, just saw it as an ill omen. It was thought that the Dutch Flemish were attacking so it was their fault, especially as many of them were wealthy and could hire carts for their belongings and fled early. They were set upon but some were rescued by men led by the Duke of York to keep order. Then the Catholics started it, of course. Otherwise just anyone not native to London was the cause. Nobody said it was an accident, even though it was.

    Tom Farrah and his wife and sister and children all escaped from the bakery in pudding lane, just before the Bridge. Here it started at 11 p.m on the evening it began as the daughter went to bed and left the oven on. If you go to bed now with the electric or gas oven you will get hot, but you are unlikely to burn anything down. This was a large wood and coal range and the house was wood. With doe in the oven it was a powder keg. Up everything went. Whoosh!!! Up it all went and their house and that of next door were soon aflame. The family had to climb out of an upper room window and out onto the roof. They did escape but one of the ladies next door was old and could not get out and died. The flames leaped across from one house to another, across the street as it was very narrow. Oh and yes this is Britain, so the weather helped the fire, with just the right wind to fan the flames and carry forth the sparks and ashes to engulf the streets around them. I will jump to the fourth day as the fire has engulfed most of London and is heading towards the Tower of London and the gunpowder and arms. Kaboom if that goes up. So now the government acted and ordered fire breaks, forcing the demolition of the houses as far as possible. The wind died down and the fire was out.

    Now, as with Nero we have to have a scapegoat to blame and so someone convenient was found. Tom Farrah and his family swore it was the victim, a French Catholic with a simple mind who was on shore leave and he confessed and was hung. The Baker was exonerated for now and faded into history. The Monument was effected 300 feet from the exact spot that it started and a plaque blaming the Catholic merchant. In the nineteenth century Victorian sensitivity didn’t buy the story and the Frenchman was pardoned. The plaque was charged and the Guild of Bakers made an apology in the middle of the century on behalf of their wrongful part in his conviction. The Monument plaque now tells the full story and modern science has shown how it all started. The Monument is 300 feet high and you can go up and walk around, not that I was inclined to do that. From the Fire Court records you get a sense of what some people lost or claimed they lost and claimed against the City. One of the biggest losses was the Old Saint Paul’s and many tombs. Underneath the old walls and base stones can be seen, below the City, some of the Old Medieval stones, but it was a terrible loss for many reasons.

  9. Think it was Thomas Farringer Bq who was the bakers name and yes the Dutch had the finger pointed at them as well, it was said after the destruction the old Roman walls could be for the first time in many years.

    1. That’s right, I had a feeling I hadn’t quite got the surname right, thanks for that. I don’t just think it was Old Saint Paul’s either, but a number of Churches and civic buildings were lost. The old quarter of London across the river was also lost and many people were none to pleased with the loss of their grander homes and they certainly didn’t get the compensation promised. It would not surprise me if the King just let the place burn for a bit as he was afraid of the people and the Mayor didn’t enforce the fire breaking policy. It was up to his brother, James, Duke of York, who had to sort out everything.

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