Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire

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.

St. Mary's Lambeth

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.
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Comments

  1. I think it’s so sad that Elizabeth ultimately lost all her children. Two or more at a very young age, Anne and George to the executioners block and then Mary by disowning her. Such a sad tale.

    • It really is a tragedy! It seems that in the end Elizabeth and Thomas’ relationship suffered greatly as a result of Anne and George’s terrible end. The fact that they’re buried in separate places is a testament to this. How could their relationship not have suffered when Thomas Boleyn returned to court after his children were brutally murdered and served those who orchestrated their downfall. By January 1538 he was back at court! And even earlier had been rubbing shoulders with Cromwell and helping suppress rebels. I imagine that Elizabeth was appalled!

      • If Thomas Boleyn defense , did he really have a choice? If the king offer, or rather demand he return to court, he couldn’t very well say no. He might have had very little choice in the matter.

  2. This is true but from what I have read Thomas was not demanded to return to court instead he took it upon himself to try and regain the favour he held before Anne and George’s downfall. Of course it is difficult to judge the events from our time as it was very different to the way of life at court in Tudor times. Thomas lived his entire life in service to the king and knew no other way of living. I just cannot imagine losing my own children so violently and then trying my best to gain favour from those who took them from me. Yes, this is a ‘modern’ woman talking but wouldn’t raw human emotions play some part in your decisions regardless of the historical context? Tricky subject!

    • It does make me wonder what Elizabeth thought of all of this – her daughter’s execution, her son’s execution and then watching as her husband worked his way back into the court of the men that ultimately brought about the deaths of her children. Must have been very difficult for her, such a conflict of interest. And in a time when she could not speak out against how she felt.

  3. Sandie Reed says:

    What a fabulous article. I too wondered about Elizabeth Boleyn. You put the facts together nicely to give us the bigger picture of the tortured life Elizabeth Boleyn. It’s was good that she had a relationship with Anne, maybe George. But what a shame that she had to continue to live with Thomas, her husband; after he voted to condem them to death. It does speak volumes, that the parents of a Queen of England chose to be buried in separate places. Too bad Elizabeth didn’t live long enough to see her granddaughter – Elizabeth become Queen of England.

    • Thank you for your lovely feedback Carol! It takes a long time to write articles and it is so wonderful when readers take the time to comment and offer their opinions. I think you are absolutely correct, the fact that Elizabeth chose to be buried separately from Thomas does indeed tell us a lot about how strained their relationship must have been in those final years.

      • Tracey Burdus says:

        Ive been confused in the past as to what happened to Elizabeth, theres much written about Thomas but hardly anything about his wife, she seems to dissappear and be neglected in most books, fact and fiction, about this family, so thankyou for a very interesting article.

  4. What a great article that shows one more sorrow for Anne to bear as she awaited her own pending execution. There must have been a special love between them as Anne’s thoughts at such a horrific time for her were of her mother’s suffering. As for Anne’s father I think history has judged him for who he was, and Elizabeth has judged him by where she choice her final resting place to be. Thanks Natalie

  5. It seems that Elizabeth had one thing in common with her ‘wayward’ daughter Mary, that there is not alot know on them.
    I have also read in the past, Natalie, that Anne, Mary and George, had a step-mother, it was one of the first books I read on Anne as a teen many years ago.
    Hope something turns up in the future that gives us a better insight on Elizabeth, Mary too.

  6. elizabeth pegg says:

    Interesting article,I have often wondered what happened to Elizabeth Boleyn. It highlights how difficult it was to be a woman at this time, very much a second class citizen to a male dominated world.It makes you wonder where Anne got her feisty spirit from,she certainly stood out from the crowd.I expect that was one of the qualities that attracted Henry to he in the first place,yet he chose her opposite to replace her. As you have said ,different timeline..

  7. BanditQueen says:

    What evidence is there that she actually disowned Mary? Her father, Sir Thomas cut off her allowance when she chose to marry below her station, Sir William Stafford, but she did not lose the affection of her mother, that we have any evidence for. Mary may have had a strained relationship with her parents, which to be honest is their own fault. Their ambition first of all promoted their eldest daughter as the mistress of King Henry VIII and then when she became pregnant and Henry cooled towards her, they were disappointed. They coldly followed this by promoting Anne, who wanted to go all of the way and become a Queen instead. I feel rather sorry for Elizabeth Howard, as she is only going along with the decisions of her husband in all of this, and it is very sad that she should have lost some children very young, and then out of the three that make it to adulthood, two were executed wrongly by that same King, that had raised them. The only one left in 1536 after May is Mary. There is no evidence of any reconciliation with her family, but I cannot imagine that Elizabeth did not at least try to assist Mary to raise her children. They would have been her only consolation at this time. Elizabeth died in 1538, and Thomas in 1539 or so. Mary died a couple of years later. What a sad family, but one that inevitably set its own end in motion by aiming too high.

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