Modern history

Part 2
Courtiers: 1485—1526



While Sir Thomas Boleyn was frequently associated with his mother during his lifetime, his wife, Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, also played a major role in increasing the family’s prominence at court. Elizabeth, unlike her mother-in-law, brought little financial benefit to her marriage, but socially she was a member of one of the highest noble families in England: surprisingly, the Howards had first been ennobled only a few brief decades before her birth, a fact that accounts for her marriage to a mere knight.

The Howards, who although by the early years of Henry VIII’s reign were one of the most prominent families in England, had obscure origins. By the late seventeenth century they were claiming Anglo-Saxon forebears, with one account suggesting that ‘William the Conqueror found them in a great condition of estate and quality here, according to the mode and method of those times, bearing distinctions proper of barons: they continued most eminent in their country, and linked themselves to the greatest families in the kingdom’.1 Another claim, which was based on the similarity of names, stated that the family were descended from the Anglo-Saxon Hereward the Wake.2 It has been pointed out by a recent historian that ‘this was wishful thinking on their part and the fabrication of clever heralds’.3 In fact, the Howard family line cannot be traced back that far, with the first certain ancestor, a Sir William Howard, appearing depicted in stained glass in the church of Long Melford in Suffolk. Sir William was a lawyer of some standing who had come to the attention of Edward I in the fourteenth century, being appointed as one of the chief justices of Common Pleas.4 The family continued to prosper over the following century, increasing their lands through marriages to East Anglian heiresses on a number of occasions.5 In 1410 the head of the family, John Howard, died leaving an infant daughter as heiress to the bulk of the Howard family lands. This left John’s half-brother Robert Howard with only the small estates of his own mother. It was Robert who eventually brought his branch of the family to the highest levels of the English nobility through his own very unlikely marriage.

The second surviving son of Edward I, Thomas of Brotherton, Earl of Norfolk, left a daughter whose husband was created Duke of Norfolk.6 This couple were also survived by only one daughter, Elizabeth Seagrave, who married John, Lord Mowbray, and was the mother of Thomas Mowbray, who was created Duke of Norfolk in 1397. The first duke was followed by his son, grandson and great-grandson before the title passed to another heiress, Anne Mowbray, who died young. Robert Howard joined the household of the second Duke of Norfolk early in the fifteenth century, a position which brought him to the attention of his patron’s youngest sister, Margaret, when she returned from serving Queen Catherine of Valois in France.7 The match was highly unequal and was arranged between the couple themselves without recourse to the bride’s family. Margaret’s elder sisters made much better matches and the fact that they received manors as part of their dowries, while Margaret received none, does suggest that her family were not entirely happy with the marriage. They accepted the fait accompli with which they were presented, with Robert remaining in his brother-in-law’s employ. The marriage proved to be brief, with Robert’s early death in 1436 although it produced three surviving children.

Elizabeth’s grandfather, John Howard, was the son of Margaret Mowbray and Sir Robert Howard and was born in around 1421. He remained associated with his Mowbray kin throughout much of his life, to his great advantage. Early in his career he was appointed to act as chamberlain to his cousin, John Mowbray, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. It was this appointment which led to him becoming an esquire in the royal household in 1449 and a Member of Parliament. He fought in France in 1453, although was unfortunately taken prisoner by the French.8 As his cousin’s chamberlain, John played a very personal role, with his accounts from the 1460s making it clear that he was responsible for paying many of the duke’s personal expenses, sums for which he would later be reimbursed. For example, in 1462 he paid for the making of a jacket of crimson cloth for the duke, as well as incurring an additional 12 pence cost for lining the jacket.9 The duke particularly entrusted John with his wardrobe, with John Howard also purchasing a short gown of russet velvet as well as a tawny cloak lined with velvet and a jacket of the king’s own livery.

In 1464 John’s accounts show that he was even responsible for paying a ferryman to transport the Duchess of Norfolk and her household, as well as expending sums to buy sheets for the children of Norfolk’s chapel.10 He was entrusted with taking delivery of 17 yards of crimson cloth to be given as gifts by Norfolk to a number of gentlemen in 1465, including the Yorkist supporter Humphrey Blount of Kinlet in Shropshire, something which suggests a political motive to the generosity.11 Towards the end of 1467 Howard incurred expenses ‘riding in my lord’s need to Framlingham unto York and from thence unto Holt, with 15 servants and 16 horses by 12 days’.12 This loyalty was consistently rewarded by John’s prosperous kinsman, although at no little cost to Howard: in January 1467 John Howard was given the honour of acting as deputy to the Duke of Norfolk as Earl Marshall in a court tournament, a role which cost him more than 300 marks.

John Howard naturally adopted his kinsman’s Yorkist sympathies and fought at the Battle of Towton before attending Edward IV’s Coronation in June 1461. Edward appointed Howard as his carver, a prestigious post that can only have come about through Mowbray influence. He remained in favour throughout the reign, with Edward IV’s wardrobe accounts of 1480, for example, recording that a royal gift was made to John Howard of 9 yards of black velvet.13 Edward’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, had earlier given 7 yards of green velvet to be made into a gown for him.14 He was ennobled by Edward IV as Lord Howard and his surviving accounts demonstrate that he was wealthy and able to live in some style during the reign. In his accounts from the early 1480s, for example, John made payments to a goldsmith, as well as purchasing cushions of red worsted for his home.15

John entertained lavishly, purchasing delicacies such as venison and cygnets, as well as sugar, pepper, cloves, grains, raisins and almonds.16 He enjoyed music and the arts, making payments to a bagpiper, as well as to a company of players who performed before him in December 1481.17 John enjoyed playing chess in his spare time.18 In 1463 John paid a servant 16 pence for riding to Framlingham to fetch a book that had evidently been left there on an earlier visit.19 The following year he purchased two books: one in French and the other a copy of the political treatise Dives et Pauper, further evidence of an interest in reading and education.20 John Howard cut a fine figure when he visited court or his estates, with records of his clothes including a long gown of black satin lined with purple velvet, a doublet of crimson satin, a short gown of tawny velvet and a long gown of russet, decorated with fur.21 The head of Elizabeth’s family liked comfort, possessing several pairs of slippers. When he sailed, he also took a number of rich goods with him for his personal needs, including religious paraphernalia, sheets, a silver basin, a case containing four goblets, a candlestick, his own cutlery and even a silver chamber pot.22 John Howard has been described as ‘conspicuously loyal’ to the royal house of York, something that ensured that the king showed him favour and promoted him in return for his services.23 In addition to the profits that he achieved through royal favour, he was also active in business as a prominent ship owner and was well connected among the merchants of England, something that is very likely to have brought him to the attention of Sir Geoffrey Boleyn.

Elizabeth’s father, Thomas (the future Earl of Surrey and second Duke of Norfolk), was as loyal to the Yorkist kings as his father. He fought, and was injured, at the Battle of Barnet, fighting to restore Edward IV to the throne in 1471 after the temporary reinstatement of the Lancastrian Henry VI.24 On a personal level the battle had a fortunate consequence for Thomas, whose comrade Humphrey Bourchier, the heir to Lord Berners, was killed in the fighting. Soon afterwards Thomas married Bourchier’s widow, Elizabeth Tylney. While Elizabeth Tylney was her father’s heiress, she was not a particularly good match for Thomas and there may have been more to the match than financial gain, with one commentator suggesting that the couple are likely to have known each other, with Thomas being aware of his wife’s attractions.25 It is possible that the couple made a love match, although the fact that Elizabeth, as the daughter of a Norfolk knight, Sir Frederick Tylney, also had territorial interests in Norfolk must have been a consideration. The Howards were certainly interested in Elizabeth Tylney’s lands and those of her first husband, with her son, John Bourchier, Lord Berners marrying Catherine Howard, his stepfather’s half-sister. The couple settled at Elizabeth’s principal manor of Ashwellthorpe in Norfolk, suggesting that the match was indeed considered to be of sound financial advantage to Howard, even if the existence of Elizabeth’s son by her first marriage meant that all Thomas Howard could hope for was a life interest in his wife’s estates, rather than their inheritance by his own children.

It is likely that there was affection in the marriage. Certainly, Elizabeth’s children by her first marriage seem to have been assimilated easily into the family. Elizabeth Howard Boleyn was close enough to her half-brother, Lord Berners, in later life to receive the gift of a sapphire ring from him.26 In addition to this, the couple’s first child, Thomas Howard, who would later become the third Duke of Norfolk, was born in 1473, relatively soon after the wedding. The marriage was well received by the Howard family, with Thomas’s father’s accounts making regular references to both his daughter-in-law and to his grandchildren and step-grandchildren. For example, in January 1482 he paid for a girdle of gold that was sent to Elizabeth Tylney, presumably as a New Year’s gift.27At the same time a little horn was sent to ‘my young Master Howard’ who can be identified as Elizabeth Howard Boleyn’s eldest brother, Thomas. Later in the year John Howard paid from his own pocket for his son-in-law and step-grandson, Lord Berner’s medicines.28 It is clear that family was important to Elizabeth’s grandfather, with payments in his accounts regularly made for his children’s clothing, such as a payment for fine green cloth for a livery gown for his third daughter, Jane.29 In February 1465 his second daughter, Margaret, received a gift of ‘a devise of gold’ and also a pair of shoes from her devoted father.30

Elizabeth Tylney quickly proved her fecundity to her second husband. Young Thomas’s birth was followed in 1477 by Edward and then Edmund in around 1479. The three sons were followed by two daughters, Elizabeth and Muriel, with four sons and one daughter also dying young.31 Elizabeth’s date of birth is nowhere recorded. However she had married by the last years of the fifteenth century, suggesting a date of birth early in the 1480s. Her mother died in 1497 and her father quickly remarried, producing a family of seven further surviving children, including another daughter called Elizabeth who eventually married the Earl of Sussex.32

Elizabeth Howard Boleyn’s father and grandfather remained devoted to the Yorkist dynasty during the years after Barnet, with both being steadily rewarded by Edward IV. They came to particular prominence in 1483 with the controversial accession of Richard III, to whom they were conspicuously loyal. John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, died suddenly in 1476, leaving a daughter, Anne Mowbray, as his heiress. She was married in childhood to Edward IV’s second son, Richard, Duke of York, but did not long survive, ensuring that John Howard and his cousin, William, Lord Berkeley, stood as potential co-heirs to the Mowbray estates. Shortly after Richard came to the throne, he repaid the Howards’ loyalty by creating John Howard first Duke of Norfolk. At the same time his son, Elizabeth’s father, was created Earl of Surrey and given an annuity of £1,100, in recognition of the fact that the earldom had little endowment. He was appointed Lord Steward of the Household at the same time.33

The following year, after he had made his peace with his brother’s widow, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Richard III gave the Howards an even greater honour by betrothing his niece, Anne of York, who was the daughter of Edward IV, to Elizabeth’s eldest brother, young Thomas. It is therefore no surprise that both were prominent among the king’s supporters at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485 when he faced the Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor. The first Duke of Norfolk paid for this loyalty with his life, dying on the battlefield alongside his king. Elizabeth’s father survived but was injured, finding himself a prisoner of the victor and new king, Henry VII. He was incarcerated in the Tower and was unable to succeed to his father’s dukedom, with both being attainted by Parliament on 7 November 1485, with the loss of their lands and honours which this entailed.

As he sat in the Tower awaiting his fate, Surrey had time to reflect on the unfairness of it all. Given that two of Henry VII’s three ‘titles’ to the crown had only come into existence after the Battle of Bosworth Field – title by conquest and title by marriage to Elizabeth of York (which did not in fact occur until 1486), dating his reign to the day before Bosworth based only on his dubious title as heir to the house of Lancaster was highly ambitious. Surrey could hardly have been expected to recognise that a descendant of the legitimised Beaufort family, who were produced in a long-running affair between John of Gaunt, third surviving son of Edward III, and his Hainault mistress who later became his third wife, was in fact the true hereditary king before Bosworth, particularly since the first Tudor claimed through his mother, the then-living Margaret Beaufort, whose husband, Lord Stanley, could have made an equally good attempt at claiming the crown matrimonial. Surrey was no traitor to have fought for his crowned king, and a man who certainly had a better claim to the throne than Henry Tudor, regardless of the rights and wrongs of Richard III’s own position regarding the bastardisation of his brother’s children. Unfortunately for Surrey, such legal niceties carried little weight in the years after Bosworth as Henry VII sought to cement his claim to the throne. Henry VII was always aware that there were rival claimants to the crown and he required absolute loyalty from his nobility, ensuring that, until Surrey had been able to prove his loyalty to the new king, he was going nowhere.

For Elizabeth Tylney and her children, news of the outcome of the Battle of Bosworth was a disaster and she immediately moved with her family to the Isle of Sheppey, a location that was calculated to afford easy access to the Continent if required.34 She found herself in particular difficulty, with records from October 1485 recording that Lord Fitzwalter, a supporter of the new king, had broken up her household at Ashwellthorpe and dismissed her servants. She appealed to her husband’s kinsman, the Earl of Oxford, who took both her eldest son, the eighteen-year-old Lord Berners, and her third son, Edward Howard, into his household.35 The eldest Howard brother, young Thomas, may perhaps have entered royal service at this time, an indication that the family were not considered to be fully in disgrace, although Elizabeth Tylney’s younger children, including young Elizabeth, remained with their mother while they waited to see whether their fortunes would be revived.36

Signs of royal favour came relatively quickly with a limited pardon granted to Surrey in March 1486, although he remained in prison. He was finally released in January 1489 and the attainders against him reversed, although he was still not permitted to take up his father’s title of Duke of Norfolk. For Surrey, this release was intended as a test of his loyalty to his new master and he immediately headed north with a royal army to take up a position as Lieutenant of the North.37 Surrey performed well at this task and quickly obtained the return of his lands. In 1495 the king even allowed his sister-in-law, Anne of York, to marry Surrey’s son in fulfilment of the couple’s long-standing betrothal. This was clear evidence of royal favour and Elizabeth, who by 1495 was of marriageable age herself, also saw her own prospects rise.

Few details survive of Elizabeth Howard’s early life. She appears to have remained with her mother throughout her childhood and in the 1490s travelled with her parents and siblings to Sheriff Hutton Castle in Yorkshire.38 Elizabeth’s half-brother, Lord Berners, and eldest full brother, Thomas, had a very similar handwriting style which suggests that they were educated together. In addition to this, her half-sister, Margaret Bourchier, was known for her own learning, while Thomas was fluent in French, as well as knowledgeable in Latin and Italian. In later life he enjoyed reading every night before he went to bed, something which strongly suggests that education was valued by Elizabeth’s parents and that she too would have received a good education. This would have fitted her for her marriage to Thomas Boleyn, who was reputed to be the best French speaker at Henry VIII’s court and who promoted the education of his children. If Elizabeth was still unmarried in 1495 when her own brother married, she gained a new companion with the arrival of her sister-in-law, Princess Anne of York, who, under the terms of the marriage contract, was to live with her parents-in-law while her sister, the queen, paid an annual sum for her clothes and expenses. This may have been Elizabeth Howard’s first exposure to royalty and would have assisted her in her later role as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon. Certainly, Elizabeth of York maintained an interest in her sister throughout her life, with a payment of £120 ‘to my Lord Howard for the diets of my Lady Anne for a year ended at Michaelmas last passed’ appearing in her accounts for March 1503.39 The queen took an active interest in the dress of Anne of York, suggesting her close involvement in her life after marriage, something which would have benefited the Howards. In May 1502, for example, she made a payment for 7 yards of green satin from Bruges for a kirtle ‘for my Lady Anne’.40 She paid her sister pocket money, with two references in her surviving accounts mentioning sums of money paid to Anne personally, one of which was noted to be ‘for her purse’.41

Elizabeth, like all female members of her class, was raised for marriage. While her oldest half-brother, Lord Berners, had been married to her aunt to secure his inheritance for the Howards, Surrey cast his net further when arranging marriages for his two stepdaughters, with Margaret Bourchier marrying John Sandys of the Vyne in Hampshire as a child in 1478: a solid, but unspectacular match.42 This match proved to be short-lived with Margaret, who would later become the lady governess to her own great-niece, Princess Elizabeth, later marrying Sir Thomas Bryan. Elizabeth’s other elder half-sister, Anne Bourchier, married Thomas Fiennes, Lord Dacre, while Surrey was able to provide an heiress for his second son, Edward, with his marriage in around 1500 to Elizabeth, daughter of Miles Stapleton.

It has been suggested that Elizabeth, as the eldest Howard daughter, had been intended for Henry Bourchier, Earl of Essex, following the grant of his wardship to her grandfather by Richard III.43 This is certainly possible and it was common for the guardian of a ward, who also possessed the rights to their young charge’s marriage, to arrange a match with a member of their own family. If Elizabeth was engaged to Essex, however, this came to nothing after Bosworth and her father was instead left to negotiate a new match for her at some point after his release from the Tower in 1489. Given the fact that Surrey’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’.44Elizabeth’s father was still only Earl of Surrey rather than Duke of Norfolk and coupled with his very recent release from imprisonment, the match was not particularly unequal, especially given the wealth of the Boleyn family. The marriage occurred in the last years of the fifteenth century and certainly before 1499 when Surrey acquired the wardship of John Grey, Viscount Lisle, who was a significantly higher-status individual and to whom he chose to marry his second (and presumably only unmarried) daughter, Muriel. This marriage proved to be short-lived, with Lisle dying in 1504, leaving an infant daughter, Elizabeth. Muriel herself quickly remarried, taking Thomas Knyvet as her second husband.

The surviving evidence suggests that Elizabeth Howard was an attractive woman. She was certainly highly praised by the poet John Skelton, who knew Elizabeth and the female members of her family personally. In his early career, Skelton has been described as a protégé of Elizabeth’s mother, the Countess of Surrey, who took a personal interest in his work.45 The Garland of Laurel, which has been described as Skelton’s most biographical poem, was published in October 1523, but set at Sheriff Hutton Castle when Elizabeth’s family were present there at some point between 1489 and 1499. Astronomical references in the poem itself suggest a date of 8 May 1495, something which is possible given the fact that Elizabeth’s parents are both known to have been in the North at this time. However, it is clear that the poem, which refers to the countess and her ten ladies weaving a crown of laurel for him to wear, does not relate to any one date or event as not all the ladies referenced can have been in attendance at the time. Instead, it appears that Skelton was familiar with the ladies of the countess’s household and that his work was the result of a number of visits and meetings with ladies, including Elizabeth Howard herself before her marriage. Notwithstanding the fact that not all the ladies can be assembled at the same time, a date of the 1490s would suit Elizabeth very well, when she was then a young woman and still the maiden described by Skelton.46

In his work, Skelton provides a picture of domestic contentment, with the Countess of Surrey surrounded by female members of her family. As well as Elizabeth and her younger sister, Muriel, the countess was also attended by her elder daughter, Lady Anne Dacre of the South, who was a child of her first marriage. In addition to her daughters, the countess’s niece, Margery Wentworth, who would later become the mother of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, was present. Other kinswomen included Margaret Tylney, whose sister-in-law later became Elizabeth Howard Boleyn’s stepmother, suggesting close family links. The other ladies also had family connections. The poet suggests a happy family circle at Sheriff Hutton while Elizabeth and her siblings were growing up and before the death of her mother in 1497, her own marriage towards the end of the century and the marriage of her sister, Muriel, in 1500.47 Given that he wanted to honour his patroness in his work, it is no surprise that Skelton was flattering in his depictions of the countess and her attendants. In spite of this, his description of Elizabeth is likely to have been largely accurate, if allowances are made for a certain amount of flattery. There is also no indication in the work that it had been substantially rewritten before publication, particularly as the Howards were by 1523 even more politically prominent.

For Skelton, in The Garland of Laurel, Elizabeth’s mother was of ‘noble estate’, chaste and bountiful and ‘of gentle courage and perfect memory’.48 His more fulsome praise was however left for some of the younger ladies, including Elizabeth herself, who was described as:

To be your remembrance, madam, I am bound,
Like to Irene, maidenly of port,
Of virtue and conning the well and perfect ground;
Whom Dame Nature, as well I may report,
Hath freshly embeautied with many a goodly sort
Of womanly features, whose flourishing tender age
Is lusty to look on, pleasant, demure and sage.

Good Criseyde, fairer than Polexene,
For to enliven Pandarus’ appetite;
Troilus, I trow, if that he had you seen,
In you he would have set his whole delight:
Of all your beauty I suffice not to write!
But, as I said, your flourishing tender age
Is lusty to look on, pleasant, demure, and sage.49

For Skelton, Elizabeth was one of the most attractive of the ladies described, with only her half-sister, Anne Dacre, coming close, being described as a beauty and ‘princess of youth, and flower of goodly port’. Skelton took pains to describe each of the ladies’ virtues as he saw them, with Margery Wentworth, for example, praised for her gentleness and Gertrude Statham, who rejected Skelton’s advances, grudgingly praised for her chaste virtue. For Elizabeth, her chief virtue described was her beauty, strongly suggesting that she was indeed a striking woman. This was evidently a family trait, with Skelton also referring to Elizabeth’s sister, who was then still a child and called ‘my little lady’ in the poem, as a child within whom:

The embedded blossoms of roses red of hue,
With lilies white your beauty doth renew.50

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.

Other than Skelton’s depiction of her in his poem, little evidence survives of Elizabeth’s character. Like her husband, she was a courtier, being considered an expert on court protocol in later life. For example, in 1537 Lady Lisle, who was the wife of Edward IV’s illegitimate son, Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle, became troubled by the correct status of her stepdaughter, Frances Plantagenet, due to the illegitimate birth of her father. In a letter to Lady Lisle in Calais from her agent at court, John Husee, she was reassured that

this shall be signifying the same that ij days since I moved my Lady Rutland again concerning Mrs Frances, and her ladyship standeth in doubt of that matter. But madam, I have been in hand with the Heralds of Arms, and they saith plainly that the woman shall never lose no part of her degree, but shall always be taken as her father’s daughter. And if need be, to this I can have both their seals and hands, which is sufficient, for they hath the perfect knowledge.51

This assurance was not enough for the cautious Lady Lisle, and only six days later Husee again wrote to her on the matter:

And touching Mrs Frances, the heralds saith planly that she shall lose no degree, but use the same according the dignity of her father. Howbeit, if I might speak with my Lady Wiltshire [Elizabeth], I will not fail to have her advice in it.52

Sadly Elizabeth’s response does not survive, although it is clear that she was considered something of an authority on the matter, presumably due both to knowledge gained due to her long years at court and, perhaps, due to her known pride in her own status as a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, rather than as the wife of Sir Thomas Boleyn. Elizabeth was friendly with Lady Lisle, perhaps due to the fact that her sister, Muriel, had been married to John Grey, who was the brother of Lord Lisle’s previous wife. In April 1536, when her daughter was still Queen of England, Lady Lisle received a letter from a Thomas Warley which provides one of the only first-hand accounts of Elizabeth, in which he stated from court that

also, this day my lady the Countess of Wiltshire [Elizabeth] asked me when I heard from your ladyship, and how you fared, and heartily thanks your ladyship for the hosen; and said you could not have devised to send her a thing that might be to her a greater pleasure than they were considering how she was then diseased; and further desired me that I would not depart over to Calais until I should speak with her, which, God willing, I will not fail. And I ensure your ladyship she is sore diseased with the cough, which grieves her sore.53

Given that Elizabeth died just under two years later it seems not impossible that her cough represented the early stages of tuberculosis which was all too common in the Tudor period. In this brief anecdote she appears friendly and approachable, recalling fondly the gift that her friend had sent her, something which shows her character in a favourable light.

The date of Elizabeth’s marriage to Thomas Boleyn is not recorded. It has been estimated to have been as early as 1495 and it was certainly by 1499, given her father’s acquisition of the wardship of John Grey, who was instead assigned as a husband to her younger sister.54 Elizabeth’s dower, which was settled upon her by her father-in-law in July 1501, survives, in which she was given a life interest in Boleyn lands in Sussex and Norfolk, as well as a life interest after William Boleyn’s death in Hever and other manors in Kent.55 While these documents do prove that Elizabeth was married by July 1501, they do not provide the date of the marriage, particularly as it was frequently a term of contemporary marriage agreements that a financial settlement would only be made to the bride within a specified period following the birth of a first child. Thomas had joined the court by around 1500, something which may well have been motivated by poverty since he later lamented that, at the time of his marriage, he had had only £50 per year to live on, in spite of Elizabeth’s fecundity, something which also suggests that he and Elizabeth lived as man and wife for some years before she received her financial settlement from his father.56

Thomas was known to be a proficient jouster, which brought him to the attention of the future King Henry VIII. Certainly, he was knighted at the young king’s Coronation in 1509 and took part in court ceremonials during the early years of the reign. He has been described as a courtier and this description is apt. Elizabeth and Thomas spent much time at court during the years of their marriage, although the couple were frequently apart, with Thomas serving as ambassador abroad during Henry VIII’s reign. For example, in May 1512 he was sent as English ambassador to Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, an appointment which lasted nearly a year.57 Thomas could be very charming and became a particular favourite of the regent’s, with her making a friendly wager with him, on which they shook hands, over the likely outcome of the negotiations.58 As a reward for his services, Thomas and Elizabeth jointly received the royal grant of a Norfolk manor in September 1512 while Thomas was still in Brussels.59

Even after his return to England, he did not remain in the country for long, joining the king’s army in France in the summer of 1513 with a retinue of 100 men under his command.60 Before Henry VIII’s accession, Thomas Boleyn, his father-in-law, Surrey, Elizabeth’s three brothers and her brother-in-law, Thomas Knyvet, were often at court. Elizabeth’s eldest brother, Thomas Howard, and his wife, Anne of York, buried their four young children in Lambeth during the last years of Henry VII’s reign, suggesting that they spent much time at the Howards’ London residence in the parish, while Muriel and Knyvet are also known to have spent time there. Given that Elizabeth later chose to be buried at Lambeth, it is likely that she and Thomas Boleyn also stayed at the residence for long periods when they were in London, a location that would have given them very easy access to the court.61 Thomas Boleyn was a regular participant in court tournaments during the early years of the reign.62 In addition to this, he and Elizabeth were in high enough favour with the king to receive a visit by him to their residence at Newhall in Essex in 1515, with the property apparently so impressive that the king later acquired it for himself. Thomas had already been appointed as an Esquire of the Body by 1509 and he had become a Knight of the Body by 1515. His court career progressed steadily, with his appointment as Comptroller of the Royal Household in 1520 and Treasurer of the Household in 1521.

There is no evidence to suggest that Elizabeth had her own court position during the reign of Henry VII, something which would, in any event, have been unlikely following the death of Queen Elizabeth of York in 1503. The presence of small memorials to two of Elizabeth’s minor children, Henry and Thomas, at Hever and Penshurst respectively suggests that the family were most likely resident in Kent. There is little evidence of Elizabeth’s personal relationship with her husband. The fact that she bore at least five children in the early years of her marriage suggests that they were close. Although Thomas was also close to his mother, Margaret Butler, there is no evidence that Elizabeth was overshadowed by the older woman. In a royal pardon granted in 1520–21, for example, concerning the Boleyn manor of Fretwell in Oxfordshire, Elizabeth was named as a party along with her husband and mother-in-law, suggesting that she had an equal standing.63

Most of Elizabeth’s early married life was taken up with childbearing: her husband later commented in a letter that, after their marriage, his wife brought him a child every year up until at least his father’s death in 1505 – something which must have been rather expensive for a young man who had not yet attained his inheritance and may hint at why Thomas was so keen to pursue a court career.64 The names of five of Elizabeth’s children are known: Mary, Anne, George, Thomas and Henry. It is possible that there may have been others, particularly as the two children who are known to have died young, Thomas and Henry, bore the names of their father and the king and may well each have been the oldest son during their brief lives. It is therefore no surprise that both received some form of commemoration following their deaths in the form of small brass crosses in Penshurst church and Hever church. These memorials, in spite of one recent author’s assertion that the younger Thomas Boleyn lived until adulthood, are clearly memorials to children.65 They are the only records of the two boys’ brief lives. It is not at all impossible that further children, in particular young daughters, may have escaped any commemoration or notice in contemporary sources. Elizabeth’s daughter, Anne, for example, left no record in surviving contemporary documents until she was approaching her teenage years.

There is some uncertainty about the dates and order of the births of Elizabeth’s three surviving children: Mary, Anne and George. A contemporary of the siblings, George Cavendish, later claimed of George that ‘years thrice nine my life had passed away’ when he became a member of the king’s Privy Council in 1529, suggesting a date of birth of 1502.66 Anne’s date of birth is usually claimed as either 1507 or earlier, perhaps 1501. The Elizabethan historian William Camden, in his history of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, claimed that Anne had been born in 1507, a date which was also given in the early seventeenth-century Life of Jane Dormer, an account of the life of an attendant of Anne’s stepdaughter, Mary I. However, it is clear that the author of the Life of Jane Dormer was familiar with Camden’s work and the authority for Anne’s birth being in 1507 must therefore rest with Camden alone. If Camden is correct with this birth date then Anne would have been only six years old when she first left home to serve Margaret of Austria in the Netherlands. While princesses were, on occasion, sent abroad at young ages, this was unheard of for lower members of society and twelve was the commonly accepted earliest age for which a girl could take up service in another noble household. An earlier birth date of 1501 therefore seems more plausible for Anne, particularly due to the fact that a letter survives from Anne to her father from her time in Brussels in which she declared that ‘I beg you to excuse me if my letter is badly written, for I assure you that the orthography is from my own understanding alone, while the others were only written by my hand’.67 While the letter is written in the eccentric French of a beginner, it is certainly not the work of a six-year-old. This is also supported by the fact that Anne would later bemoan her lost youth to Henry VIII while she waited to become his bride, and the fact that she was considered to be rapidly ageing and losing her looks during her time as queen: something more likely in a woman approaching her late thirties than a woman still in her twenties, regardless of the stresses of her position. Although Anne Boleyn’s birth date is by no means universally agreed upon, 1501 is very likely, making her the senior of her only surviving brother.

The seniority of the two Boleyn sisters has been highly debated. It was Anne who was sent to Brussels in 1513, while Mary remained at home, something which would suggest that Anne was the elder. However, Mary was sent to France the following year and it is possible that Thomas Boleyn merely decided to send his more promising daughter to Brussels. It was Mary who married first, in 1520, suggesting seniority, although it is not impossible that a younger daughter could have married first, especially as it was then only Mary who was resident in England. Better evidence of Mary’s seniority is provided in a letter written by her grandson, Lord Hunsdon, in which he claimed the earldom of Ormond. In order to substantiate his claim, he set out his position to Elizabeth I, who was, of course, the heir to the other daughter, pointing out that Thomas Boleyn’s heir was ‘his eldest daughter Mary’ and that even if the attainder over the younger daughter, Anne Boleyn, was overlooked, it could be considered ‘whether my Grandmother being the eldest daughter ought not to have the whole dignity as in the earldom of Chester’. To confuse matters further, a monument to Hunsdon’s daughter later referred to Mary Boleyn as the second daughter, although it does appear that Hunsdon, who was, after all, seeking to claim a title in preference to the queen herself, did his research thoroughly. It is most likely that Mary was the eldest surviving child of Thomas and Elizabeth, with a date of birth of around 1499.

Blickling is the most likely birthplace of all of Elizabeth’s children. Given her near-constant pregnancies, Elizabeth must have been an accessible presence in her children’s early childhoods, spending much of her time at home with them at Blickling either awaiting the birth of a child or recovering from the birth. Elizabeth was responsible for teaching her daughters traditional feminine accomplishments such as singing, music, dancing and needlework, although the evidence suggests that Anne was not an enthusiastic seamstress, later sending Henry VIII’s shirts to be embroidered by paid needlewomen once she had succeeded in wresting the duty of making his shirts from Catherine of Aragon. Elizabeth may have taught her children their letters, although, since both George and Anne are known to have been highly educated, tutors must have been employed. George is believed to have studied at Oxford University and was also renowned as a poet by contemporaries, although no examples of his work survive. Following the move to Hever in 1505 and the end of her childbearing years, Elizabeth spent more time at court, culminating in her appointment to the queen’s household in 1509. However, her absence from royal records for much of the time does suggest that she was not at court particularly regularly, ensuring that she remained available to her children.

There is clear evidence from later in her children’s lives that Elizabeth was close to them. Following the arrests of her two children, Anne and George, in 1536, there were rumours that Elizabeth and her husband had joined them in the Tower, suggesting close links.68 The fact that Lady Lisle’s agent found Elizabeth at court in April 1536 and considered her worth cultivating due to her connection with her daughter is also significant. Earlier, in February 1533, within a few weeks of Anne Boleyn’s marriage to the king the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, was reporting that the king had been married in secret in the presence only of Anne’s parents, brother, two of her friends and one of his priests.69 Whether Elizabeth was indeed present at her daughter’s secret wedding is not known, but the fact that she was believed to have been there speaks volumes for her close relationship with her daughter. Elizabeth was also prominent at Anne’s coronation later in 1533 when she rode in the first chariot with her stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, in procession after the queen.70 Further, rather surprising evidence of Elizabeth’s closeness with her younger daughter can be seen in the records of the interrogation of Elizabeth Barton, the nun of Kent, who famously prophesied the king’s doom if he married Anne Boleyn.71 According to Barton, the king offered to make her an abbess if she would desist with her prophecies, which were given widespread credence in England. At the same time, apparently, ‘my lord of Wiltshire [Thomas Boleyn] sent to the Emperor, how the queen [Anne Boleyn] would have had her to remain in the court, and my lady, her mother, did desire her to wait upon her daughter’. Clearly Elizabeth was able to wield some influence over her daughter Anne and was often present with her at court. The roots of this closeness probably lie in Anne’s early childhood.

In spite of her domestic duties, Elizabeth also had responsibilities at court during the reign of Henry VIII. She was very much a presence there in the early years of the reign.

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