In Memory of Elizabeth Boleyn, Mother of Anne Boleyn

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 wh*re, 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 wh*re, 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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