Yesterday was an anniversary of Elizabeth Boleyn’s death.
Elizabeth Boleyn (née Howard), Countess of Wiltshire and the wife of Thomas Boleyn, died on the 3rd of April 1538, somewhere near Baynard’s Castle, the home of the Abbot of Reading. Elizabeth was a member of one of the highest-ranking noble families in England: she was the eldest daughter of Thomas Howard, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and his first wife Elizabeth Tilney.
Thomas Warley, an Exchequer official and clerk of the works, recorded the fact of Elizabeth’s death in a letter to Lady Lisle in Calais on the 7th of April 1538:
“My lady of Wiltshire died on Wednesday last beside Baynard’s castle.”
Not many details survive of Elizabeth Boleyn’s childhood and early life. It appears that she remained with her mother throughout her childhood and became a part of the royal court as a young girl. She received a good education and, like all female members of her class, was raised for marriage.
The Howards were loyal to King Richard III. According to some records, Elizabeth, as the eldest Howard daughter, might have been married to Sir Henry Bourchier, Earl of Essex, following the grant of his wardship to her grandfather by the king. However, even if Elizabeth and Essex were a good match, it came to nothing after the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth in 1485.
Elizabeth’s family, the Howards, survived the fall of Richard III and the end of the Plantagenet dynasty. Her father, Thomas Howard, had to negotiate a new match for his eldest daughter after his release from the Tower in 1489, and it was when he began to consider Thomas Boleyn a potential husband for her. At that time, Thomas Howard was still only the Earl of Surrey rather than the Duke of Norfolk, and he was only making his first steps to success in Tudor England ruled by King Henry VII. At that time, tying the Howard family to the Boleyns didn’t seem disparaging for the reputation of the Howards.
In her book “The Boleyn Women”, Elizabeth Norton writes about the reasons for Elizabeth’s marriage into the Boleyn family:
“Given the fact that Surrey’s lands [Thomas Howard’s lands] lay predominantly in East Anglia, it is no surprise that he came to look at Thomas Boleyn, whose father he knew. As one commentator has pointed out, ‘from Surrey’s point of view the connection was also highly advantageous, for not only was Sir William very active in local government in Norfolk, but he brought several other powerful Norfolk families closer to the Howards, such as the Sheltons, Heydons and Cleres’.”
Elizabeth married Thomas Boleyn in the last years of the 15th century, sometime between 1498 and 1499.
According to her husband’s writings, she was pregnant many times during the first five years of their marriage. We don’t know for sure how many times Elizabeth was pregnant, but modern historians believe that she was pregnant at least five times and only three of her children – Mary, George, and Anne – survived to adulthood. The seniority of the two Boleyn sisters has been highly debated, but I think that Mary was older than Anne. The evidence suggests that Elizabeth was content with her marriage.
Elizabeth was very attractive in her youth. Elizabeth Norton writes about her:
“The evidence strongly suggests that Elizabeth Howard was considered to be a contemporary beauty, which praised fair hair, pale skin and blue eyes. A surviving portrait which is commonly attributed to Elizabeth’s daughter, Mary Boleyn, suggests this colouring and she may have taken after her mother. The second daughter, Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, was famously dark, although this recalls the surviving portrait of her father, Thomas Boleyn.”
Between 1518 and 1521, Elizabeth lived in France, where her husband served as English ambassador. At that time, Mary and Anne served in Queen Claude’s household. Some historians say that it was when Elizabeth developed dislike towards her eldest daughter, Mary, presumably because of Mary’s affair with King François I. Yet, there is no real evidence that Mary Boleyn was the French king’s mistress, which is why Elizabeth might have become estranged from Mary later, perhaps when her daughter became Henry VIII’s mistress.
Elizabeth lived quite a long life by the standards of Tudor England (she was born circa 1480 and died at the age of about fifty eight). In her lifetime, she witnessed the ups and downs of her family, including the promotion of her husband and her children to power in England and, by extension, of herself.
Elizabeth Boleyn’s high noble birth and her marriage status made her perfectly suited to take up a position in Catherine of Aragon’s household in 1509. The acquisition of the Duchy of Norfolk by her father served to increase Elizabeth’s prestige, and she was extremely proud of her Howard heritage.
However, there is confusion as to Elizabeth’s official status in Catherine’s household. Did Elizabeth ever hold any official position in the queen’s household? Some modern biographers claim that it was not Elizabeth Boleyn but her sister-in-law, Anne Tempest Boleyn, who was Catherine’s lady-in-waiting. We know for certain that Elizabeth was chosen to attend Catherine at the meeting between Henry VIII and François I of France in Calais in 1520.
Regardless of the above, Elizabeth must have ceased serving Catherine when Anne caught Henry’s eye. She and her husband benefited substantially from Anne’s relationship with the king. From 1525 onwards, Elizabeth Boleyn was referred to as Lady Rochford, and later Lady Wiltshire.
Elizabeth Norton writes about the benefits for the Boleyns:
“Both Thomas and Elizabeth benefited from their daughter ’s position: in 1529 Thomas was finally created Earl of Ormond, as well as receiving the English title of Earl of Wiltshire, which had once belonged to his great uncle. It is telling that, at the banquet to celebrate the ennoblement, Anne took the place of the queen. At the same time, Anne’s brother took the courtesy title of Viscount Rochford, while Anne began to style herself as ‘Lady Anne Rochford”.
We can confidently say that Elizabeth’s relationship with Anne Boleyn was closer than with the one she had with Mary. It is known that in May 1536, Anne was concerned about her mother’s depressed state in the aftermath of her arrest and imprisonment, which proves that they had a special bond. Elizabeth was regularly seen at the royal court, and she also acted as a chaperone to Anne during her daughter’s courtship with Henry.
The rumors that Elizabeth herself was Henry’s mistress early in his reign cannot be entirely dismissed, although the king himself denied an affair with Elizabeth while failing to deny an extramarital relationship with her eldest daughter, Mary Boleyn.
The last years of Elizabeth’s life were not really happy and full of joy as the stars of her husband and her children kept falling deep down the depths of hell, largely due to Anne’s failure to give Henry VIII a healthy son and the king’s growing disappointment with Anne. Mary Boleyn’s disgrace after her marriage to William Stafford and her banishment, executions of Anne and George Boleyn on trumped-up charges of adultery and incest, and Thomas Boleyn’s removal from royal favor must have left her a lonely and broken-hearted woman.
After the deaths of Anne and George and Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour, Elizabeth and her husband, Thomas Boleyn, retired to Hever Castle, the main residence of the Boleyn family in Kent. It must have been incredibly difficult for Elizabeth to be in the place where her children had grown up. Memories about happier and long-gone days assaulted her mind continuously, merging to form a colorful collage of pictures of her children’s childhood and their early youth.
Although they were not welcome at the royal court, the Boleyns were not entirely forgotten by the king. In October 1536, Henry ordered Thomas to raise troops during the rebellion in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace. But the king only needed Thomas’s help to suppress the uprising, not wishing him to return to the court. Thomas Boleyn and probably Elizabeth attended Prince Edward’s christening on the 15th of October 1537.
Elizabeth Norton writes about Elizabeth’s appearances at the court:
“Elizabeth Howard Boleyn did not remain away from court for long, as her presence is recorded in June 1537 when Lady Lisle’s agent sought her advice on a question of etiquette. She may already have been in ill health as she was suffering from a severe cough in April 1536 ‘which grieves her sore’. The couple evidently did not remain at court for long, with Thomas writing letters from Hever in August and September of that year. Thomas Boleyn returned again to court in January 1538 and was ‘very well entertained’. Elizabeth accompanied him and was still in London at the time of her death in April 1538, staying in a house near Baynard’s Castle.”
Elizabeth Boleyn outlived her two unjustly executed children – Anne and George – only for two years. Mary Boleyn died five years after her mother’s death, being the only one of the Boleyn siblings who died of natural causes.
Elizabeth was buried in the Howard family chapel at St. Mary’s Church, Lambeth, which was decommissioned in 1972 and is now the Garden Museum.