The Other Boleyn Women: Queen Anne Boleyn’s Aunts, by Elizabeth Norton
Queen Anne Boleyn is, of course, the most famous member of the Boleyn family. She was able to rise from a court appointment in the queen’s household to become queen herself. It is well known that her mother, sister and sister-in-law were present at court during much of her time as queen, but they were far from being the only Boleyn women at court. Anne’s aunts also had important roles to play in the rise and fall of their niece. In particular, she was associated with two aunts by marriage, one of whom played a role in her fall.
Confusingly, there were two Lady Boleyns at court during Anne’s time as queen, both the wives of her uncles. Elizabeth Wood was the wife of Sir James Boleyn. She came from an old Norfolk family, although her father died when she was young. She was probably born in the late 1480s or early 1490s and was close to her siblings – one, a married sister named Anne Astley later died on a visit to Elizabeth’s home at Blickling Hall in Norfolk when she prematurely gave birth to twins. Elizabeth’s husband, James, was knighted in 1516 and joined the royal household as one of the king’s knights of the Body. He was close to his royal niece, with Queen Anne Boleyn lending him the not insubstantial sum of £50 when he found himself in financial need.
The second Lady Boleyn was Anne Tempest, the wife of the youngest brother, Sir Edward Boleyn. She was considerably younger than her sister-in-law, being born in either 1505 or 1506. She was, in fact, even younger than her royal niece. Her family was of considerably higher status than Elizabeth Wood’s and she was connected by marriage to Henry VIII’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. She was also an heiress and an excellent match for a younger son, marrying Sir Edward by the summer of 1520 when she attended the Field of the Cloth of Gold meeting in France as his wife.
One of these two Lady Boleyns played a role in Queen Anne’s fall and actively seems to have disliked her niece. When Anne arrived in the Tower on 2 May 1536, accused of incest and adultery, she found that ‘Lady Boleyn’ had been sent to attend her, along with a Mistress Coffin. These two women had been instructed to sleep in the same room as the queen and were spying on her. The aunt, who had long been on ‘very ill terms’ with her niece, apparently relished this role at first, going out of her way to obtain evidence against her as ‘she engaged her into much discourse, and studied to draw confessions from her. Whatsoever she said was presently sent to the court’.
Anne herself complained to the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Kingston, that ‘I think much unkindness in the king to put such about me as I never loved’ when she saw who had been sent to attend her. She was unconvinced by the lieutenant’s response ‘that the king took them to be honest and good women’, with the queen complaining that ‘I would have had of my own Privy Chamber which I favour most’.
So, who was the Lady Boleyn that Anne so disliked? She is traditionally said to have been Anne Tempest Boleyn, who had been a favoured attendant of Catherine of Aragon and is a likely candidate. It seems that Elizabeth Wood Boleyn should be discounted. All the evidence suggests that Elizabeth and her royal niece enjoyed a close relationship. Certainly, Lady Lisle, the wife of Henry VIII’s controller of Calais, thought it worthwhile to send a token to her in July 1535 in an attempt to obtain a place for her daughter in the queen’s household: evidently Elizabeth was believed to have some influence over Anne. Elizabeth’s husband, Sir James, in his Will written in 1561 makes it clear that he died in the reformed faith, something which suggests a similarity of belief with his niece which may also have been shared with his wife. It is therefore most likely that it was Anne Tempest Boleyn who waited for her niece’s arrival at the Tower.
In spite of their poor relationship, Anne Tempest Boleyn developed a grudging sympathy for her niece in the Tower. It appears to have been Mistress Coffin who was the main informant, with Kingston informing the king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, that ‘I have everything told me by Mistress Coffin that she thinks meet for me to know’. It was Mistress Coffin who rushed to tell Kingston that Anne had spoken of Henry Norris – one of the men accused with her – and the fact that he had once professed his love for her. A few days later, Kingston recorded that he had sent specifically for Mistress Coffin, rather than Lady Boleyn, for an update on Anne’s conduct.
Lady Boleyn may not, therefore, have been as unfeeling towards her niece as usually supposed. The evidence suggests that she was disapproving of her rather than hostile. According to Kingston, Anne complained one evening that ‘the king wist what he did when he put such two about her as my Lady Boleyn and Mistress Coffin, for they could tell her nothing of my lord her father nor nothing else, but she defied them all’. In response, Lady Boleyn declared that ‘such desire as you have had to such tales has brought you to this’.
Lady Boleyn was probably one of the four ladies permitted to accompany Anne to the scaffold on 19 May 1536, watching her die with one blow of the executioner’s sword. If so, she had warmed to her witty and stoical niece in the days they spent together in the Tower, with the ladies half-dead themselves with grief, taking it upon themselves to wrap the corpse and carry it for burial.
Both Elizabeth Wood Boleyn and Anne Tempest Boleyn disappeared into obscurity following their niece’s death. Elizabeth remained at court for some time and is last recorded there in February 1537. She had died by the time her husband made his Will in August 1561 and the couple were childless.
Anne Tempest Boleyn’s only son died young, although she had four daughters who made respectable, but unspectacular, marriages to members of the gentry. Her date of death is also not recorded.
Both Elizabeth Wood Boleyn and Anne Tempest Boleyn managed to build court careers for themselves, with Elizabeth associating herself with her niece and Anne standing in opposition to her. Their stories show the ways in which the family grouped themselves following the rise of Anne Boleyn, with even the hostile Anne Tempest Boleyn gradually warming to ‘her that did set our country in a roar’.
Elizabeth Norton is a British historian that researches and writes primarily of the women contributing to English medieval history. With a MA degrees in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and a MA degree in European Archaeology from Oxford, Elizabeth certainly is multi-talented and highly gifted. Currently, Elizabeth is working on her doctoral research at King’s College, London where she is researching the Blount family of Shropshire. Recently, Elizabeth researched and released a non-fiction book focusing on the remarkable life of Elfrida, England’s first crowned queen, further broadening her expertise of England’s most remarkable female historical figures. For more information, visit Elizabeth’s website at http://www.elizabethnorton.co.uk.
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