St Mary's Church, Lambeth - Photo by Linda Saether
St Mary’s Church, Lambeth – Photo by Linda Saether

Today marks the anniversary of the burial of Elizabeth Boleyn (née Howard) in the Howard Chapel of St Mary’s Church, Lambeth. She had died a few days earlier, on the 3rd April, at Baynard’s Castle, home of the Abbot of Reading.

I thought it was a fitting tribute to her to share an excerpt of a talk I did on Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn…

Elizabeth Boleyn (née Howard), Lady Wilitshire, was born around 1476 and was the daughter of Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey and later Duke of Norfolk, and his wife Elizabeth Tylney. Her brother was Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, the man who presided over the trials of George and Anne Boleyn in 1536.

The Howards were one of the premier families in England, having a long history of service to the monarch, although Elizabeth’s father had been attainted and stripped of his titles and lands after the Battle of Bosworth as he had fought on Richard III’s side. He managed to work his way back into favour and by 1497 had been restored as Earl of Surrey, although it wasn’t until 1514, in the reign of Henry VIII, that he was restored to his title of Duke of Norfolk.

Elizabeth married the up and coming Thomas Boleyn, son of another East Anglian family, in around 1499 and we know from a letter written by Thomas Boleyn to Thomas Cromwell that in the early years of their marriage Elizabeth gave birth on an annual basis. We have evidence of five children – Anne, George and Mary, and then Thomas and Henry who died in infancy and who are buried at Hever and Penshurst, but there may have been others whose graves were lost. We know for example that there are further tombs in Hever church but that at some point the floor collapsed and these are now hidden. Intriguingly, Elizabeth’s Wikipedia page lists her as having children called William, Margaret and Catherine too!

Traditionally, it is said that Elizabeth served as lady in waiting to Elizabeth of York, Catherine of Aragon and then her own daughter but I have not found any evidence at all of her serving Elizabeth of York. Alison Weir, in Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore, challenges the idea that Elizabeth was one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting, saying that there is no evidence to back this up and that she may have been confused with Edward Boleyn’s wife, Anne Tempest, who definitely did serve Catherine. She was present at the Field of Cloth of Gold so may have been called on to serve the Queen at big state occasions, rather than on a permanent basis, we just don’t know.

You may remember that I wrote an article back in November 2011 regarding the rumours that Elizabeth had an affair with the King resulting in the birth of Anne Boleyn, and that these rumours may have been taken seriously because Elizabeth had a dubious reputation. You can read the full details in Was Anne Boleyn Henry VIII’s Daughter?, but suffice to say that the sources for this affair are suspect in my opinion because they:

  • Are Catholic and anti-Boleyn
  • Have an agenda, a reason why they are attacking Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII or later Elizabeth I
  • Seem to be based on the same rumour stemming from Friar Peto – You can read more in the article mentioned.

The rumours also don’t make sense and there is no way that Henry VIII, a man who was paranoid about his marriage to Catherine of Aragon being cursed because she was his brother’s widow, would have contemplated marrying a woman who may have been his daughter. These salacious rumours were just an attempt to blacken the Boleyn name.

As far as the dubious reputation is concerned, Weir ponders whether these rumours spread and were believed “because of Elizabeth Howard’s dubious reputation” and that she “had gained some ill fame for straying from the connubial couch”1. Weir even wonders if “the fact that all her offspring became notorious in one way or another for sexuality might suggest that she herself had set them a poor example by her loose morals and by betraying her marriage vows.”2 Weir backs this up with John Skelton’s allegorical poem “The Garland of Laurel” which was published in 1523 and which contained verses addressed to ten Howard women who helped the Countess of Surrey weave a crown of laurel for Skelton at Sheriff Hutton Castle, the seat of the Howards. In his verse on Elizabeth, he compares her to “Goodely Creisseyda” and says “of alle your bewte I suffice not to wright”. Weir thinks that Skelton is being satirical here because Cressida pledged undying love to Troilus and then betrayed him with Diomedes. By the 14th century, according to Weir, Cressida’s name had become synonymous with female inconstancy.

I believe that to take this verse as a satire is reading far too much into this poem and I don’t believe that Skelton would have written a poem that would have upset the powerful Howard family in any way. Like M J Tucker3, who has written two articles on this poem, I believe that the verse dedicated to Elizabeth was written prior to her marriage and I also believe that it was simply praising her beauty. There is no evidence that Elizabeth was unfaithful to Thomas Boleyn and I think it’s time to end that rumour.

When I asked for people’s views on Elizabeth Boleyn on Facebook in December 2011, one lady commented that Elizabeth had died when Anne was a child and that Anne had had a stepmother who she’d grown close too. Well, this myth comes from Agnes Strickland and her book on the Queens of England published in the Victorian era. Historian Philip Sergeant4 pointed out in his book on Anne, that Strickland misread a source and it is now thought that Strickland was confusing Elizabeth with her sister Muriel who died in 1512.

Elizabeth appears to have had a close relationship with her daughter Anne, acting as a chaperone when Henry was courting her. We know from Chapuys that she accompanied Anne and the King to view York Place in October 1529 after Wolsey had fallen from favour:

“The downfall of the Cardinal is complete. He is dismissed from the Council, deprived of the Chancellorship, and constrained to make an inventory of his goods in his own hand, that nothing may be forgotten. It is said that he has acknowledged his faults, and presented all his effects to the King. Yesterday the King returned to Greenwich by water secretly, in order to see them, and found them much greater than he expected. He took with him “sa mye” (his darling—Ann Boleyn), her mother, and a gentleman of his chamber (Norris ?)”5

And Eric Ives writes that in 1530 “Anne Boleyn’s one refuge was Wolsey’s former palace of York Place, soon to be known as Whitehall… Anne and her mother could lodge in the chamber under the cardinal’s library.”6

In those days of waiting, those frustrating times, Anne’s mother seems to have been there for her daughter.
Around 1531 Anne Boleyn wrote a letter to her good friend, Lady Bridget Wingfield, telling Lady Wingfield “And assuredly, next mine own mother I know no woman alive that I love better”, showing that she loved her mother dearly.

Letter to Bridget Wingfield:-

“I pray you as you love me, to give credence to my servant this bearer, touching your removing and any thing else that he shall tell you on my behalf; for I will desire you to do nothing but that shall be for your wealth. And, madam, though at all time I have not showed the love that I bear you as much as it was in deed, yet now I trust that you shall well prove that I loved you a great deal more than I fair for. And assuredly, next mine own mother I know no woman alive that I love better, and at length, with God’s grace, you shall prove that it is unfeigned. And I trust you do know me for such a one that I will write nothing to comfort you in your trouble but I will abide by it as long as I live. And therefore I pray you leave your indiscreet trouble, both for displeasing of God and also for displeasing of me, that doth love you so entirely. And trusting in God that you will thus do, I make an end.
With the ill hand of Your own assured friend during my life,
Anne Rochford”7

Elizabeth attended her pregnant daughter at her coronation in 1533, riding in one of the carriages in the procession. I’m sure that she would have enjoyed this day of triumph after years of struggle.

Anne’s love for her mother is again shown in words she spoke to Sir William Kingston at her arrival at the Tower after her arrest on the 2nd May 1536:-

“O, my mother, [thou wilt die with] sorow”8

Now, it is not known whether Anne was simply worried that her mother will be heartbroken at the news of what has happened or whether she was concerned because her mother was already in ill health. We know that Elizabeth had recently been ill because on the 14th April 1536 Thomas Warley wrote to Lady Lisle commenting that Elizabeth was suffering from a bad cough:

“Today the countess of Wiltshire asked me when I heard from your Ladyship, and thanked you heartily for the hosen. She is sore diseased with the cough, which grieves her sore.”9

It may have just been a simple cough but it could have been something more serious, something that led to Elizabeth’s death in April 1538.

Thomas Warley to Lady Lisle, 7 April 1538:-

“My lady of Wiltshire died on Wednesday last beside Baynard’s castle.”10

John Husee to Lady Lisle, 9 April 1538:-

“My lady Wiltshire was buried at Lamehithe on the 7th… 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.”11

Elizabeth is at rest in the Howard Chapel of St Mary’s Church, Lambeth. This church is now a garden museum and Elizabeth’s tomb is not visible as it is underneath the wooden floor of the museum cafe. Although some people have commented on how awful this is, the museum actually saved the church and so therefore saved these Howard tombs.

Many people wonder if the fact that Elizabeth is not buried next to her husband at Hever is evidence of some kind of separation between them but as Linda Saether points out in her wonderful article, Searching for the Grave of Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire, there are many Howard women buried at Lambeth and she wondered of “Howard women expected to be ‘brought home’ for burial in the Howard Chapel regardless of whom they married.” We also know that Elizabeth died at Baynard’s Castle in London so perhaps it made sense for her to be buried in London rather than to be taken back to Hever in Kent. I guess we’ll never know!

I hope that this article gives you some insight into the woman who was the mother of one queen and the grandmother of another.

Notes and Sources

  1. Weir, Alison (2011) Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore, London, Jonathan Cape, p34
  2. Ibid., p35
  3. Tucker, M.J. (1969) The Ladies in Skelton’s ‘Garland of Laurel’ in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 22 No. 4, University of Chicago Press
  4. Sergeant, Philip W. (1924) The Life of Anne Boleyn
  5. LP iv. 6026, 25 Oct 1529
  6. Ives, Eric (2004) The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, p146
  7. LP v. 12
  8. LP x. 793
  9. LP x. 669
  10. LP xiii. part 1 696
  11. LP xiii part 1 717

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20 thoughts on “In Memory of Elizabeth Boleyn, Mother of Anne Boleyn”
  1. What an informative article Claire! That poor woman must have suffered unbearably to see two of her children executed. It doesn’t bear thinking about. I often wonder if people living in Tudor times had a different idea of life and death than we do – life being so precarious. Another thing that puzzels me is why The Duke of Norfolk could not have been excused from presiding at the trial. Surely the conflict of interests would have been enough to exclude him.

    1. I agree with your comments about Elizabeth. What a terrible thing for any mother to go through. As for Norfolk, I read sometime ago (cant remember source at present) that he was ordered by Henry VIII to preside over the trial. Clair correct me please if I am wrong. He was one of the two most powerful magnates of the day and would not have risked everything on trying to get out of the trial, regardless that it was his sister’s children that were being tried. Interesting people the Howard’s.

      1. Thanks for the reply, Jodi. What a position to be in, presiding at the conviction of a niece and nephew. I’m sure this added to Elizabeth’s distress.

  2. Great article, Claire … I agree that Elizabeth Howard would have suffered greatly from the executions of her children. While I also agree that the alleged “evidence” for any relationship between Elizabeth Howard and Henry Tudor is suspect at best, I don’t agree that Henry’s concern about G-d’s curse on his marriage with Catherine would have mattered at all. After all, Lev. 18:18 prohibited marriage to Anne because of Henry’s relationship with Mary Boleyn (Henry actually got a dispensation to deal with this) and Deut. 25:5 says that when a married man dies childless (as did Arthur), his brother is obliged to marry the widow. Henry however would find “interpretations” of these verses that let him do whatever he wanted, picking and choosing which verses of the Bible he liked (and would obey) while ignoring the rest.

  3. Wonderful article as always, Claire. I’m sure I’m in the minority, but I have never really thought for one minute that Henry’s conscience was the reason he left Katherine. I think he was totally driven by the need for an heir and Anne Boleyn was very physically appealing to him, hence his pursuit of her. If not Anne, then it would have been someone else. I think his reasoning was that a sure fire way to convince everyone that he needed to set his marriage aside was to play the conscience card. I think Henry’s “conscience” was a very useful tool for him when he needed it.

  4. Claire,A very great article! Elizabeth must have suffered greatly,loosing a child would be unbareable! Aswell as loosing two infant sons,thats four,but if she did infact have two other daugthers that died young thats, six children dead and Mary the only one to survive.Has for Henry when he “pray’s God answer’s”at least in his mind to serve his own needs.Henry would have done anything he wanted ,with or with out the Bible.But this is about Elizabeth Howard may she R I P. Regards Baroness

  5. Great article Claire to still find some information on them is astounding and very interesting I’m learning something new every day keep it up sincerely Maritzal

  6. Interesting, interesting! How cruel life could be, especially in that time. And her hands were tied & she could do nothing. What an over-whelming, gut-wrenching feeling. Poor lady!!

    1. I agree Patricia. Being a noble woman, she would also have to totally hide her emotions. I could never imagine what it would be like.

  7. Thank you for all the great information! I would love to know more about Anne’s mother, it’s so frustrating that we know so little of all these interesting people. But we must go on with what we have! 🙂

  8. Great article, Claire. I have always wondered about this woman–I wonder if she was keen to marry Thomas, since her family was higher than his own. The Bolyen men did use marriage as a way to climb…Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of Hever! Thanks!

  9. I’ve often wondered how a Howard would marry a Boleyn. The status of these two families
    are so different especially when Thomas and Elizabeth would have met (even with the disgraced of the Howard’s) . Since marriages were arranged, is there any information about this?

    1. As you said, at the time of Elizabeth’s marriage to Thomas Boleyn, the Howards’ status had been lowered somewhat. One clue we do have is the known marriages of Elizabeth’s siblings and when they took place.

      For those who don’t know, Elizabeth’s grandfather, John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk (who had just been given the dukedom in June 1483), had fallen at the Battle of Bosworth fighting bravely for Richard III and his titles declared forfeit by Henry VII so Elizabeth’s father was only Earl of Surrey at the time of her marriage. He didn’t regain his father’s dukedom until his victory at the Battle of Flooden Field in 1513. That Thomas Boleyn was the grandson of the Earl of Butler (and Thomas’ mother one of the Earl’s 2 heiresses) gives the bride and bridegroom a little more equality socially.

      Elizabeth’s oldest brother the Earl of Surrey married 1st to Lady Anne Plantagenet (sister to Queen Elizabeth of York) and 2nd to Lady Elizabeth Stafford (daughter of the Duke of Buckingham).

      Edward Howard, later Admiral, married Elizabeth Stapleton, daughter of a knight and widow of a knight, but she died in 1505.. His 2nd wife was Alice Lovel, daughter of
      Lord Morley and Elizabeth, Baroness Morley, married ca 1506.

      Edmund Howard married Jocasta Culpepper, daughter of a knight, somewhere around 1509. These are Katherine Howard’s parents.

      Marcella (sometimes referred to as Muriel) Howard married John Grey, Viscount Lisle, sometime before 1504 (their daughter inherited the title Baroness Lisle). Her 2nd husband was Sir Thomas Knyvett.

      Set against these, Elizabeth didn’t do too badly by marrying the grandson of an Earl, the son of a well-respected knight (William Boleyn was not only a Knight of the Bath, but who held several lucrative positions – High Sheriff of Kent, Norfolk, and Suffolk as well as being in charge of the coastal beacon system that warned of attack from the Channel), and grandson of a Mayor of London.

      I often think Geoffrey Boleyn’s position as Mayor of London is underrated today when studying the Boleyn family. London (the part now known as “The City”) and the office of Mayor held unique position and privileges. To be formally welcomed by the Mayor into London was a big deal even for monarchs. Just 3 years after Geoffrey served as Mayor, London locked its gates against Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou. Not long after, the City flung its gates wide to Edward of York, an essential step in making him Edward IV. Had this gone the other way, the War of the Roses might have ended differently.

      After Elizabeth’s mother died and her father married her mother’s sister Agnes, her half-sisters, all born after 1497, married better to heirs to earldoms. But these marriages took place 20 or 30 years after Elizabeth’s, after their father was once again a Duke and one of the most powerful men in the kingdom.

      (Didn’t mean for this to be a mile-long lecture – can you tell I’m a bit keen on the subject?) 🙂

  10. Excellent article! I always felt like Anne’s mother was ignored by history, even though she was constantly there for her daughter.

    Elizabeth was (I suspect, but cannot prove) also the parent who made sure Anne could stay at Hever castle for those two years when she was hiding from Henry’s affection; Thomas was so ambitious he would have happily forked another daughter over to the King and reaped the rewards (just as he did with Mary) so Anne must have had an ally in her decisions and her mother seems the best candidate.

  11. Terrific article! I’m sure that Anne and George’s death shortened Elizabeth and Thomas’ lives, though both were around the age of 60 when they died (not a bad lifespan in Tudor times).

    I’ve often wondered if Elizabeth Howard Boleyn didn’t attend Catherine of Aragon because she traveled with her husband on his diplomatic missions. Or maybe she simply made the choice to stay at home with her children, possibly because their father was away so often. So many possibilities.

    I always thought that the idea of Henry being Anne’s father – or even having an affair with Elizabeth Boleyn – was put to bed (pardon the pun) by the questions of … memory fails, but I want to say it Sir George Throckmorton… regarding Henry’s meddling with both Anne’s mother and sister, to which Henry (being rather startled) replied “Never with the mother!” and Cromwell smoothly stepped into the faux pas and added “Nor with the sister neither.” Nicholas Sander of course was quite happy to include this rumor with embellishments in his diatribe against Anne. (Why would anyone take this man seriously as a source is a question that still bewilders me.)

    This also answers my question about where these rumors of Anne having a step-mother originate; I knew it was in Strickland and had seen several other authors listing Strickland in their bibliography but never found the connection showing that Strickland was the original source for this particular idea. A step-mother made no sense to me, there were never details, if a name was given for the supposed step-mother it was “Elizabeth,” and a few authors suggested that with this supposed 2nd marriage Thomas Boleyn married beneath him (which I guess was meant to explain why this imaginary 2nd wife was kept in the background and not well known). So, very happy to have that one cleared up, thanks!

  12. I’m determined to finish the work on Katherine Howard and her family and the Howard Chapel etc this year. I know! I know! – I’ve been saying that for years but I really have been very busy with other stuff. News of that soon, I hope – Princes in the Tower, Richard III and the corpse of a medieval princess found on a building site in London, etc. Watch this space.

    Just before I had to break off from Katherine again I found a reference in ‘Natural history and antiquities of the County of Surrey begun in the year 1673’ (Volume V, 1719), page 235, which states that the brass plate in the floor which read “Here lyeth the Lady Elizabeth Howard, sometime Countess of Wiltshire” was in the chancel, not the Howard Chapel.

    1. I’ve heard about Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. “The Princess in the London building site”! Looks like I’ve missed something. I haven’t heard of her. Details please. I’m curious.

      1. Hi Jane,

        She was Lady Anne Mowbray, daughter and heiress of the last Mowbray Duke of Norfolk, who married the younger of the Princes in the Tower when she was only 5 and he was 4. The boy’s uncle, the future Richard III, held her little hand at the wedding.
        She died young, and when the prince disappeared in the Tower, King Richard settled her fortune on her nearest relatives, one of whom was Lord John Howard who became Duke of Norfolk in a new creation. Her remains were found on a building site in East London in 1964.
        The manuscript of “The High and Excellent Princess” is now with the printer and we hope to be ready with both paperback and ebook in the next few weeks.
        Do take a look at to see more.

        Best wishes,
        Marilyn Roberts

  13. I am sure that people in earlier times viewed life and death much differently than now. This can be determined from the horrific punishments such as drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, drowning those suspected of witchcraft, etc.

  14. Thanks so much. I’m definately going to read more about her.

    Child marriages were dreadful back then and are still dreadful in the countries where they still happen.

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