Modern history

Part 4
The Last Boleyn Women: 1536—1603



The fall of Anne Boleyn did not quite bring about the fall of the Boleyn family, although the death of the childless George Boleyn did mean that the direct male line of the family ended with the deaths of Thomas Boleyn and his brothers, none of whom had living sons.

Queen Anne’s two aunts by marriage, Anne Tempest Boleyn and Elizabeth Wood Boleyn, both disappeared into obscurity following their niece’s death. Since Elizabeth Wood Boleyn was present at court during her niece’s time as queen, it is probable that she is the Lady Boleyn who found herself caught up in a scandal concerning the king’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas. Soon after Anne Boleyn’s fall it was discovered that Margaret, who was the daughter of Henry’s sister, Margaret, Queen of Scots, had secretly married Anne Boleyn’s uncle, Lord Thomas Howard. In the examination of one Thomas Smith in relation to this, he declared that Howard would wait until Lady Boleyn was gone from Margaret’s chamber, leaving only the Duchess of Richmond to attend the king’s niece before he would secretly visit her.1 Although Elizabeth was quite innocent in the affair, it was dangerous for her name to be mentioned in connection with what the king considered treason.

She was still active in February 1537 when one Richard Southwell wrote to Thomas Cromwell from Yarmouth, concerned that he had heard that Sir James Boleyn, through his wife, was campaigning for one of his offices in the town.2 This suggests that Elizabeth had remained at court, while her husband was, at that point, in East Anglia. Elizabeth Wood Boleyn was still living in 1553 when her husband arranged a settlement of some of his lands, but she had died by the time of her husband’s death in 1561.3The couple probably lived comfortably at Blickling, which they acquired following the death of Jane Rochford, who had a life interest.

Sir James Boleyn’s will demonstrates that he died wealthy and on close terms with many of his nephews and nieces.4 He made his will in August 1561, aware that he was ‘naturally born to die and pass from this transitory life’. He was concerned that, since he died without children, his bequests would be challenged by his kin. He therefore begged his heirs ‘to be content and satisfied with such things as are by me given and bequeathed to them in this my same last will without trouble or vexation of any of them against other for my said goods or lands’. James left personal bequests to his great-niece, Queen Elizabeth I, which strongly suggest that they considered each other to be kin, with James declaring that ‘I give and bequeath to my most gracious sovereign lady the Queen’s most excellent majesty my basin and ewer all gilt and my written book of the revelations of Saint Bridget. Most humbly beseeching her highness to read and will so ponder the same humbly given.’ Rather than being a criticism of the queen for her recent suppression of the Bridgettine House at Syon, it would appear that the gift of the book, and the suggestion that his great-niece read it, was a friendly gesture, particularly since James relied on the queen’s support for his favourite niece, Elizabeth Shelton.

Elizabeth Shelton, the daughter of Anne Boleyn Shelton, remained unmarried. By 1561, when she was approaching middle age, she had fallen on hard times. Following his bequest to the queen, James, added, ‘Beseeching her said highness to give unto my niece Elizabeth Shelton having at this day nothing certain wherewith to comfort or relieve herself the four hundred pounds owing to me by her grace.’ This £400 was due to James from an annuity that the queen had granted him, to be paid out of the income of a manor in Kent. He then, hopefully, declared, ‘Which sums I do for very charity grant and give as before unto my said niece right humbly beseeching her good grace to extend her mercy and goodness unto that poor gentlewoman now utterly destitute and unprovided of friendship or place.’ Given that the annuity died with James, only the arrears were actually his to bequeath, not any future income. However, he clearly felt that the queen was likely to benefit a fellow Boleyn daughter, who had fallen on hard times. He also took further steps to ensure that Elizabeth Shelton was no longer quite so destitute or unprovided for, leaving her the sum of 200 marks to be paid in annual instalments of 40 marks. That Elizabeth Shelton was reliant on her uncle and the queen for support suggests that she was, by that time, estranged from the wider Shelton family. Further details on Elizabeth Shelton’s life are scant, although she was probably able to live reasonably comfortably on James Boleyn’s bequest, particularly since the queen also took pity on her, granting her an annuity of £30 shortly after James’s death.5

Anne Tempest Boleyn’s later life was taken up with arranging the marriages of her four daughters: Mary, Elizabeth, Ursula and Amy. These Boleyn daughters married into the local gentry and lived unremarkable lives, far removed from their famous first cousin. Mary, the eldest, married James, the fifth son of Robert Brampton of Brampton. The second, Elizabeth, married Thomas Payne of Iteringham.6 The third, Ursula, married a William Pigge of Essex, while the youngest, Amy, married twice, taking first Sir Edward Whinborough and then Nicholas Shadwell of Bromhill as her husbands. By her second marriage Amy is believed to have been an ancestress of the late seventeenth-century poet and playwright, Thomas Shadwell. Anne Tempest Boleyn’s date of death is not recorded.

Queen Anne’s paternal aunt, Alice Boleyn Clere, was finally able to retire home following her niece’s death, leaving her responsibilities with Princess Mary behind. She died in October 1539, probably at her home of Ormesby where she was buried, according to her wishes, with her husband.7 Alice’s eldest son, Sir John Clere, was a soldier, serving first as treasurer of the king’s army in 1549 and later serving with the navy.8 He was on campaign at Orkney in 1557 when he and seventy-nine of his men were drowned in a skirmish. The family remained closely connected to the Boleyns and it was the Cleres who eventually inherited Blickling, with Alice’s grandson, Edward, buried in a fine tomb in Blickling church. Alice’s sister, Lady Shelton, outlived most of her generation, dying in January 1556. She had been a widow for nearly twenty years and had remained close to her many children. She almost certainly approved when her eldest son, another Sir John Shelton, joined her former charge Princess Mary at Kenninghall in July 1553 when she claimed the throne.9 Lady Shelton remained close to her own birth family until the end, requesting that her brother, Sir James, should supervise her will.

Contrary to Queen Anne’s fears, her mother did not die of sorrow at her fall, although the deaths of two of her three children must have blighted the last years of her life, particularly given her estrangement from her surviving daughter, Mary. There is some evidence that she was reconciled with her daughter, against her husband’s wishes, with Thomas refraining from taking any action to Mary’s detriment while his wife was still alive. Soon after her death, he abandoned this principle, promising the king that, rather than passing his Ormond inheritance to Mary, he would instead make over his lands to Princess Elizabeth.10 By waiting until after his wife’s death, it is evident that Thomas knew that she would not support this position, even if, as a regular attendant on her daughter, Queen Anne, she had got to know her infant granddaughter.

Thomas Boleyn wrote to Thomas Cromwell from Hever in July 1536 to thank the minister for his ‘goodness to me when I am far off, and cannot always be present to answer for myself’.11 It is clear that, for a time, Anne Boleyn’s parents were not welcome at court, although in October 1536 Thomas was commanded by the king to raise troops during the rebellion in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, indicating that he had not been entirely forgotten by his former son-in-law.12 He was not able to retain his office of Lord Privy Seal, which was passed to Cromwell.13

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.14 She may already have been in ill health as she was suffering from a severe cough in April 1536 ‘which grieves her sore’.15 The couple evidently did not remain at court for long, with Thomas writing letters from Hever in August and September of that year.16 Thomas Boleyn returned again to court in January 1538 and was ‘very well entertained’.17 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.18 Within a few days of her death, her body was taken from the house in which she died by barge to Lambeth, accompanied by her brother, Lord Edmund Howard, and half-sister, Lady Daubney, as chief mourners.19 As befitted her rank as a countess and daughter of a duke, Elizabeth’s body was conveyed in some state, with torches burning and four banners decorating the black-covered barge. A white cross stood out strikingly against the black.

She was buried at Lambeth, which was close to her brother’s London residence and was commonly used as a burial place for members of the Howard family who died in the capital. This burial place shows her continuing pride in her lineage and accounts for the fact that she did not select Hever as her burial place, where her husband later chose to be buried. Thomas Boleyn did not long survive his wife.20 In spite of rumours that he would marry the king’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, in July 1538, he did not take a new bride.21 He died in March 1539 and was buried at Hever with his tomb marked by a fine memorial brass. His funeral was not on the same scale as his wife’s, although his fellow Knight of the Garter, Lord Lisle, paid for memorial Masses to be said for his soul.22

With the death of his childless only son, Thomas Boleyn’s heir male became his brother, Sir James Boleyn. Since he was survived by his daughter, he also had an heir general, who, in theory, inherited all property not entailed on the male line. Since Anne Boleyn died under an attainder and, in any event, her daughter was legally illegitimate, Thomas’s only heir general was his eldest daughter, Mary Boleyn, who had survived the fall of her sister and brother. The Crown also had a claim to half of the estates as the beneficiary of Anne’s attainder. It has been claimed that Thomas recognised Mary as his heir, allowing her the use of Rochford Hall in Essex, which may have become her main residence.23 However, there is no real evidence of this and, given Thomas’s promise to the king to make Princess Elizabeth his heir, any reconciliation with Mary must be doubtful.

Mary’s whereabouts after Anne Boleyn’s fall are not known. Her recent biographer suggests that she and Stafford may have spent some years living in Calais, although there is no direct evidence for this; a paucity of references to Mary in the sources can, after all, be explained by her living often away from court, as her equally poorly documented mother had often done.24 Stafford is recorded as being present in the English-held town in 1539 to welcome Henry VIII’s fourth bride, Anne of Cleves, and so, perhaps, Mary joined him. She is not mentioned in any of the substantial surviving correspondence of Lady Lisle, who was the wife of the governor of Calais, friendly with Mary’s mother and related to her distantly through marriage, something that does throw a six-year residence in the town into doubt. Mary Boleyn’s credit was also low at court in the immediate aftermath of her sister’s fall. In a letter written early in 1537, for example, the prior of Tynemouth wrote to Cromwell asking for his house to be released from paying a pension to Mary, who had assisted his predecessor and the priory, stating that she could no longer do any great good to either the prior or the house.25

Mary and her husband, William Stafford, were disappointed, for a time, in their hopes of profiting from the Ormond inheritance, of which her venerable grandmother, Margaret Butler Boleyn, remained entitled to an income of 400 marks a year until her death not long after her son’s.26 It took Mary and her husband until April 1540 to finally gain control over her Ormond inheritance, as well as other Boleyn properties such as Hever.27 Stafford was, by that stage, beginning to rise in royal service, something that may have been due to the king’s lingering affection for his former mistress. He rose to the rank of esquire of the body to the king during Mary’s lifetime.28 The couple later sold a substantial portion of their lands to the king, ensuring that they were more financially comfortable than they had hitherto been. There is no evidence that Mary returned to court after her sister’s death and she may have lived quietly on her estates. Her wealth increased again in May 1543 when she received the Boleyn family lands previously held by her grandmother, Margaret Butler Boleyn, and sister-in-law, Jane Rochford, as part of their widow’s dowers.29 Mary was still only in her mid-forties but was probably already in ill health, dying on 19 July 1543. She was survived by her second husband and her two children by her first marriage. As a married woman she was unable to make a will, with her property instead divided between her husband and son.30 William Stafford eventually remarried and continued to have a successful court career, dying as a Protestant exile during the reign of Mary I in 1556.

Although the king perhaps retained the vestiges of affection for Mary Boleyn, it was not her influence that provided for her father’s return to court following Queen Anne’s fall. Thomas Boleyn’s return to royal favour late in 1537 coincided with the king once again taking a romantic interest in Mary Shelton and a desire to please her was probably behind her uncle’s rehabilitation. As it happened, the king’s interest in Mary proved brief, with him soon moving on to Margaret Skipwith, a contemporary at court. In spite of this, Mary Shelton remained at court, eventually taking a position with Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. With the arrest of her mistress, Queen Catherine Howard, Mary Shelton found herself once again without an appointment at court. Mary was, by 1542, approaching her mid-twenties and, while she was no longer an object of interest to the king, continued to attract suitors. She was a close friend of the king’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, and his daughter-in-law, Mary Howard, the widowed Duchess of Richmond. The three moved in literary circles, remaining close to the duchess’s brother, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Sir Thomas Wyatt, who died towards the end of 1542.

With Henry Norris’s execution with Anne Boleyn in May 1536, Mary Shelton perhaps lost her fiancé. In the 1540s Mary fell in love, with the object of her affections being her first cousin, Thomas Clere, the son of Alice Boleyn Clere. Thomas was the favourite son of his mother and appears to have been well liked by most people that he came across. Mary’s love for Clere may actually have caused some conflict with her sister Anne Shelton, who was married to Sir Edmund Knyvet, with the two men coming to blows on one occasion at court. Clere was a close friend and retainer of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, the son of the Duke of Norfolk. The pair served together in France, with Surrey later recalling that when he believed himself ‘half dead’ on the field he handed his friend his will for safe-keeping, something that indicates the level of trust the pair had in each other.31 Clere was born in around 1518 and was proud both of his Norfolk upbringing and his descent through his Boleyn mother from the earls of Ormond.32 Few details of his love affair with Mary survive, although it was well known enough for Surrey to include the line ‘Shelton for love, Surrey for lord thou chase’ in a verse epitaph he composed for his friend. That marriage was not spoken of between the couple was almost certainly due to the fact that they were first cousins: such marriages were highly unusual in early Tudor England, only becoming more common in later centuries. To further complicate matters, Mary Shelton’s paternal grandmother had been Margaret Clere, the sister of Thomas’s father, so that Thomas was also a first cousin of her father’s.33 This does not mean that the couple did not consummate their relationship, especially since Mary is unlikely to have been a virgin given her affair with the king. She also appears to have had a highly modern view of love, at odds with the conventions of the day.

A remarkable manuscript known as the Devonshire Manuscript survives in the British Library. It contains a large amount of original and transcribed verse, written in at least nineteen different hands. The book is a mixture, with the exchange between Thomas Wyatt and Mary discussed earlier suggestive of courtly love, which was characterised by an exchange of verse.34 Thomas Clere was one of the contributors, as was Mary’s brother-in-law, Sir Edmund Knyvet. Mary, along with her friends, Lady Margaret Douglas and Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond, were the main contributors. Mary contributed her own compositions to the book, such as one on a woman’s failure to cloak her feelings regarding love matters. In the poem, Mary declared that she was unable to ‘make a joke of all my woe’ and that as she was, so must she appear to the world:

That though I would it lacked might
To cloak my grief where it doth grow35

Poetry written by women was still a rarity, making Mary something of a trailblazer. There is also evidence that she had radical views about the position of women and the way in which they were portrayed in love matters.

As well as showing remarkably modern views on love, Mary’s work in the manuscript has been argued to ‘convey her disillusionment with some of the inequalities of her day, particularly in relation between the sexes’.36 The works that Mary transcribed are particularly illuminating regarding her character. It was Mary who transcribed the series of verses exchanged between the king’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, and her lover, Thomas Howard, after their secret relationship had been discovered, leading to their imprisonment. Margaret was a close friend of Mary’s and she would have had access to the works, possibly even as one commentator has suggested, being in a position to facilitate the correspondence itself, since her brother Thomas was a groom porter of the Tower where Howard was held.37 The inclusion of the poems, under this analysis, is seen as an act of protest against the Henrician government.

This can be coupled with the medieval verse also transcribed in the manuscript by Mary, much of it written by Chaucer. She did not simply copy the works, instead altering many of them to give them a more feminine slant. For example, in one, Mary altered a line that had originally read ‘The cursedness yet and deceit of women’ to read ‘The faithfulness yet and praise of women’. Other extracts selected (and not amended) also demonstrate the point of view that she was attempting to convey. For example, one passage copied praised the good heart of a woman while condemning a man for speaking openly about their relationship and bringing about the ruin of the woman’s reputation. It has been argued that Mary’s transcriptions make it clear that she had been part of a scandal and that she had been wronged by one particular man.38 Given her continuing relationship with Thomas Clere, it was probably not him and it may, perhaps, have been Henry VIII himself given their earlier connection and the evidence of Mary’s political opposition to him. Alternatively it could perhaps be Francis Weston, Henry Norris or even the Earl of Surrey, all of whom have been romantically linked to her. A scandal could account for it taking her so long to find a husband. The transcriptions may also provide evidence for Mary’s feelings in relation to her forbidden romance for Clere, making it clear that she believed in the rights of lovers to choose their own partners, regardless of familial or social opposition.

To Mary’s grief, Thomas Clere died before his twenty-seventh birthday in April 1545. He was buried at Lambeth, suggesting that he died in London and close to Mary. By 1545, Mary was approaching her late twenties, which was unusual. Her parents already seem to have been at a loss as to what to do with her, with Mary spending time in a convent towards the end of the 1530s.39 Her sister, Gabrielle, was already a nun at a convent near Norwich, suggesting that the family were pious.

Following Clere’s death, Mary may well have begun to be concerned about the future and, in particular, her financial security. She therefore finally decided to marry, taking Sir Anthony Heveningham as her husband. Sir Anthony was in fact a cousin of Mary’s, as the son of her aunt, Alice Shelton, although he was not, as Clere had been, also a cousin on the maternal side of her family. Heveningham was an eldest son and the possessor of substantial estates, something which may have assuaged her family’s concerns about their close family relationship. In taking a first cousin as her husband, Mary Shelton defied convention to the last, although the need to obtain a papal dispensation for the match had at least been removed following the break with Rome. Heveningham was a widower with two children whose education Mary would have been required to superintend.40 The couple were married by 1546 when Heveningham settled a number of manors on him and Mary for life, with the remainder to their heirs rather than his elder children, something that provided Mary with financial security but may have been resented by her stepchildren. The couple became close, with Mary bearing several children. Heveningham also asked to be buried with her in the church at Keteringham in Norfolk, the manor on which they settled.

Mary made one further contribution to court life before retiring to Norfolk and obscurity. When her friend, Surrey, was arrested for treason in 1546, it was recommended to the investigators that they ‘examine Mrs Heveningham, late Mary Shelton, of the effect of the Earl of Surrey his letter sent unto her, for it is thought that many secrets have passed between them before her marriage and since’. This suggests a continuing close relationship even after her marriage and the possibility must be raised that they were lovers, perhaps coming together in their mutual grief over Thomas Clere. If that is the case, Mary clearly saw Surrey’s arrest and execution as the time to settle down into a more conventional life. Her first husband died in 1557 and she quickly took a second husband, a gentleman named Philip Appleyard. She died in 1560, probably aged in her early forties.

Mary Shelton was not, of course, the only Boleyn daughter to remain connected to the court. In late April 1536, as her marriage crumbled around her, Queen Anne Boleyn had taken her little daughter in her arms in the gardens at Greenwich Palace and held her up to Henry as he looked down from an open window.41 Angry words were spoken between the couple before the queen walked away, defeated, taking Elizabeth with her. This was the last time that mother and daughter saw each other, a separation that had a devastating effect on the young princess. Elizabeth was not yet three at the time of her mother’s death and was used to being a cosseted and favoured princess and heiress to the crown. She immediately noticed her demotion in status which came with her mother’s death, asking her governess, ‘How happs it yesterday Lady Princess and today but Lady Elizabeth?’ With her mother’s death Henry lost interest in his younger daughter for a time, something that the child keenly felt.42 Anne’s aunt, Lady Bryan, found the change in circumstances so dramatic that she was forced to write to Cromwell begging for clothes for her young charge and stating that ‘she hath neither gowns nor kirtle, nor petticoat, nor no manner of linen nor rails [nightdress], nor body stichets [corsets], nor biggens [night caps]’.43

Although Elizabeth, like her maternal grandparents, was at court for the celebrations following the birth of Prince Edward in October 1537, it was some years before her father would show any particular interest in her and she was fully welcomed back to court. He never doubted her paternity, however, in spite of Princess Mary’s later assertion that she looked like Mark Smeaton, something that is a strong indication of just how little credence the king gave to Anne’s ‘adultery’. Chapuys had believed at the time of Anne’s fall that Elizabeth was to be declared Norris’s daughter but this was merely rumour, designed to blacken her mother’s name. While he acknowledged her as his child, Henry was not prepared to retain her as his heir and, like her elder half-sister before her, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate in the second Act of Succession, which was passed in the summer of 1536, with her parents’ marriage declared to be ‘taken reputed and deemed and adjudged to be of no force strength virtue or effect’.44 Surprisingly, it was left to Princess Mary, who found herself back in favour, but not in the succession, to pay attention to the younger girl, writing to their father that Elizabeth was ‘such a child toward, as I doubt not but your Highness shall have cause to rejoice of in time coming’.45 In the summer of 1536 Elizabeth, along with other members of the Boleyn family, must have seemed of very little consequence.

After the events of May 1536, the Boleyn family was severely depleted, particularly since Sir Thomas Boleyn and his brothers had no surviving male heirs. With the death of Sir James Boleyn in 1561, the male line of the first Geoffrey Boleyn of Salle had entirely died out. In May 1536 there was still one prominent member of the family at court: Jane Parker Boleyn, the notorious Lady Rochford.

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