Lady Elizabeth Boleyn née Howard, Countess of Wiltshire and of Ormond, and the wife of Thomas Boleyn, died on the 3rd of April 1538. It happened 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, 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 in childhood and became part of the royal court as a young girl. She received a stellar education and, like all aristocrats, was raised for marriage. The Howards were loyal to King Richard III of England. According to some records, Elizabeth, as the eldest Howard daughter, might have married Sir Henry Bourchier, Earl of Essex, following the grant of his wardship to her grandfather by the York monarch. However, even if Elizabeth and Essex were a good match, it came to nothing after the defeat and demise of Richard III at Bosworth in 1485.
The House of Howard survived the fall of Richard and the end of the Plantagenet dynasty. Her father, Thomas Howard, had to negotiate a new match for Elizabeth after his release from the Tower in 1489, and it was when he began to consider Thomas Boleyn a potential husband for her. At the time, Thomas Howard was only the Earl of Surrey rather than the Duke of Norfolk, and he was making his first steps to be successful in the Tudor England ruled by King Henry VII. Tying the Howard family to the Boleyns did not seem disparaging for the reputation of the Howards.
In her book “The Boleyn Women”, Elizabeth Norton discusses Elizabeth’s marriage:
“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. From Surrey’s point of view the connection was also highly advantageous, for not only was Sir William Boleyn very active in local government in Norfolk, but he also brought several other powerful Norfolk families closer to the Howards, such as the Sheltons, Heydons, and Cleres.”
Elizabeth married Thomas Boleyn 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 do not know how often Elizabeth was pregnant, but historians believe that she was pregnant at least 5 times and only 3 of her children – Mary, George, and Anne – survived into adulthood. The seniority of the two Boleyn sisters has been debated, but I think that Mary was older than Anne was. It seems that Elizabeth was quite content with her marriage to Thomas.
Elizabeth was very attractive in her youth. Elizabeth Norton writes of 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 coloring, 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 Boleyn lived in France, where her husband served as English ambassador at the Valois court. At the time, Mary and Anne served in Queen Claude of France’s household. Some historians say that it was when Elizabeth developed dislike towards her daughter Mary, presumably because of Mary’s affair with King François I. Yet, there is no real evidence that Mary Boleyn was the French monarch’s lover, 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 Tudor standards: she was born c 1480 and died at the age of about 58. In her lifetime, she witnessed the ups and downs of her family, including the ascendancy of her spouse and her children to power in England and, by extension, that of herself. Elizabeth’s high noble birth and her status made her perfectly suited to have a position in Catherine of Aragon’s household in 1509. The creation of the Duchy of Norfolk for her father increased Elizabeth’s prestige, and she must have been extremely proud of her Howard heritage.
There is confusion as to Elizabeth’s status in Catherine’s household. Did Elizabeth hold any official position in this household? Some modern biographers claim that it was not Elizabeth Boleyn but her sister-in-law, Lady Anne Tempest Boleyn, who was daughter of Sir John Tempest of Horbling, who was Catherine’s lady-in-waiting. We know that Elizabeth was selected to attend Catherine at the meeting between Henry VIII of England and François I of France in Calais in 1520. Elizabeth must have ceased serving Catherine when Anne caught Henry’s eye. From 1525 onwards, Elizabeth Boleyn was referred to as Lady Rochford and later as Lady Wiltshire.
Elizabeth Norton writes of the privileges 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’.”
Elizabeth’s relationship with Anne Boleyn was closer than with one she had with Mary. 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 often seen at the royal court, and she acted as a chaperone to Anne during her daughter’s long courtship with Henry. The rumors that Elizabeth was Henry VIII’s mistress early in his reign cannot be entirely dismissed, although the monarch denied that while failing to deny a liaison with Mary Boleyn.
The last years of Elizabeth Boleyn’s life were not full of joy as the stars of her husband and her children fell into the depths of hell, largely because of Anne’s failure to give Henry VIII a healthy son and of the king’s growing disappointment with Anne. Mary Boleyn’s disgrace after her union with 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 Elizabeth a lonely and broken-hearted woman.
After the deaths of Anne and George, and following Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour, Elizabeth and her husband retired to Hever Castle, the main residence of the Boleyn family in Kent. It was incredibly difficult for Elizabeth to be in the place where her offspring had grown up. Memories of happy, long-gone days assailed her 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, in October 1536, King Henry ordered Thomas to raise troops during the rebellion in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire to suppress the Pilgrimage of Grace. However, the ruler only needed Thomas’s help to squash the uprising, not wishing him to return to court. Yet, Thomas Boleyn and probably Elizabeth attended Prince Edward’s christening on the 15th of October 1537.
Elizabeth Norton writes of Elizabeth’s appearances at 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 killed children – Anne and George – by 2 years. Mary Boleyn passed away 5 years following her mother’s passing, being the only one of the Boleyn siblings to die of natural causes. Elizabeth Boleyn was interred in the Howard family chapel at St Mary’s Church, Lambeth, which was decommissioned in 1972 and is now the Garden Museum.
All images are in the public domain.
Text © 2021 Olivia Longueville