What happened to Elizabeth Boleyn?
Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire, born around 1480 Elizabeth Howard, was the daughter of Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey. She was the eldest of the two daughters of Thomas Howard and Elizabeth Tilney and was descended from King Edward I (Fraser, pg. 116).
Elizabeth’s paternal grandfather, the first Duke of Norfolk, died fighting for Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field (Warnicke, pg. 8). The Howards survived losing their patron and instead grew in favour under the new Tudor King, Henry VII.
Elizabeth was sent to court at an early age and soon after wed Thomas Boleyn. The exact date of Elizabeth’s marriage to Thomas Boleyn is unknown but her jointure was settled on her in 1501 suggesting a recent marriage some time after 1498 (Ives, pg. 17).
In a letter that Thomas Boleyn wrote Thomas Cromwell in 1536, after his world was turned upside down by the execution of Anne and George, he stated that his wife brought him ‘every year a child’ (Weir, pg. 146). We know that only three of these children survived into adulthood, Mary, Anne and George. It seems likely then that a number of other children, possibly four, died very young. Alison Weir mentions two other children, Thomas Boleyn who died in infancy and was buried at Penshurst Church in Kent and Henry who also died in infancy and was buried in Hever Church (pg. 146).
Considering that she was the mother of Anne Boleyn and the grandmother of Elizabeth I, surprisingly little is known about her life. Lets take a look at what we do know.
She was a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon (Ives, pg. 14) and attended the queen at her coronation ceremony (Starkey, pg.110).
Her relationship with her daughter, Mary Boleyn, was strained due to Mary’s ‘unchaste behaviour’ at the court of Francis I. Scandals involving Mary’s love life continued in the English court and put further pressure on her relationship with her family. The historian M. L Bruce tells of how Thomas and Elizabeth “developed feelings of dislike” for their daughter Mary (pg.23). In 1520 Mary was married off to William Carey, a gentleman of the privy chamber. Whether the marriage was a way of concealing an existing affair with the king or whether it was an attempt by her parents to clear her tainted reputation is unclear. What is certain is that Mary Boleyn became the king’s mistress and later, after the death of her first husband, married a commoner by the name of William Stafford. This she did without her parents, and perhaps more importantly, without Anne’s permission and so “acted in a manner unbecoming to her position as the Queen’s sister” (Wilkinson, pg. 146). So Mary’s allowance was cut off and she was banished from court.
In contrast to Elizabeth’s relationship with Mary, Elizabeth and Anne forged a more positive bond. We know that she took an interest in Anne’s early education. Whilst growing up at Hever Castle, Anne was taught music, singing and dancing- all the skills that she would excel at in the future. Weir describes how, “Under her mother’s guidance, she became expert at embroidery, and also learned to enjoy poetry” (pg. 148).
During her daughter’s relationship with Henry VIII, a rumour began circulating the court claiming that she had once been Henry VIII’s mistress but Eric Ives dismisses this concluding that she had probably been confused with Elizabeth Blount, Henry’s known mistress (pg. 17). Some people even went as far as to say that Anne Boleyn was Henry’s own daughter! Well, if we believe that Anne was born around 1501, then Henry was only 10 years old when the dalliance occurred…and somehow managed to escape his father’s ever-watchful eye. It is much more likely that this was slanderous propaganda circulated by Boleyn enemies. Importantly, Henry VIII also denied the claim and when questioned about having slept with both Mary Boleyn and Elizabeth Boleyn in 1535, responded: ‘Never with the mother’ (Ives, pg. 16).
In 1520, Elizabeth joined her husband Sir Thomas Boleyn at the Field of Cloth of Gold (Ives, pg. 31).
In 1529, she accompanied her daughter, Anne, and King Henry VIII to inspect York Place as the king had declared it would be renamed Whitehall and renovated as a palace for Anne Boleyn (Weir, pg. 208). Was Elizabeth proud of her daughter’s ever-rising status? She was now to be queen in all but name, running her own court away from the eyes of her rival, Catherine of Aragon.
Elizabeth was present at her daughter’s coronation ceremony in 1533. Of the two carriages that rode in the procession, it is possible that Elizabeth rode in the first with the Dowager Duchess, Anne’s step-grandmother (Ives pg. 177).
In 1533, Henry and Anne’s first child was born and named Elizabeth. Possibly after Anne’s mother although it’s more likely that she was named so after Henry’s own mother, Elizabeth of York.
In 1534, Elizabeth gave the king a new year’s gift, as was customary for the queen’s ladies and family. She gave him a “velvet case embroidered with the royal arms, containing six collars, three worked with gold and three with silver” (Ives, pg. 216).
After Anne’s downfall, she was taken to the tower obviously distraught and was heard to exclaim, ‘Oh, my mother, my mother!’ (Weir, pg. 317). On learning of the other men accused with her and after being told that Norris had confessed his crime (a lie) she wept, ‘Oh, my mother, thou wilt die with sorrow’ (Weir, pg. 319).
I think we can confidently say that Elizabeth shared a close relationship with her daughter, Anne Boleyn. She was a regular at court and effectively acted as a chaperone to Anne and Henry during their courtship. The fact that Anne worried about her mother after her arrest suggests that they shared a special bond and that Anne was aware that her mother would be devastated by her imprisonment and imminent execution.
After Anne and George’s execution, Elizabeth and Thomas Boleyn retired to their home at Hever Castle and to their memories of a much happier time. According to Warnicke, Elizabeth died on the 3rd April 1538 at the abbot of Reading’s place beside Baynard’s Castle in London. She was buried in the Howard aisle in Lambeth Church (Weir, pg.337).
After witnessing the death of possibly four of her infant babies, Mary Boleyn’s disgrace and subsequent banishment from court, Anne and George’s execution for treason and incest, her husband stripped of his titles and removed from royal favour and her grand-daughter named a ‘bastard’, one can only assume that Elizabeth Howard died a broken woman.
Although Thomas Boleyn was accepted back at court, in the end he would have very little to show for his lifetime of service to Henry VIII. His only consolation –his earldom (Ives, pg. 353). He died in 1539 and was buried in Hever Church beneath ‘a fine brass’ (Weir, pg. 337).
References:Bruce, M. L. Anne Boleyn, 1982. Fraser, A. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 1992. Ives, E. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2004. Starkey, D. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, 2003. Warnicke, R. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, 1989. Weir, A. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 2007. Wilkinson, J. Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, 2009.