By Susan Breen
In doing research for a novel I’m writing in which Anne Boleyn is a character, I was startled to come across a passage I’d never read before. It was from Alison Weir’s book about the fall of Anne Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower. In this scene, Anne Boleyn was talking to her jailor, Sir William Kingston. It was her first night in the Tower and she was beginning to understand the enormity of what was about to befall her. She began to cry and said, “Oh my mother, thou wilt die for sorrow.”
This quiet and heartfelt statement startled me because up until that moment, I’d never given any thought to Anne Boleyn having a mother. I knew she had a father, of course. Thomas Boleyn casts a large shadow over Anne’s life: arranging for her to be a maid of honor to Archduchess Margaret of Austria, and then securing for her a position with Mary Tudor at the French Court, and then manipulating her into a romance and marriage with King Henry VIII. But Anne’s Boleyn’s mother was a mystery to me.
The more I thought about her, the more intrigued I became, especially because Anne Boleyn herself was considered a good mother. One of the few things historians seem to agree on was that she was devoted to her daughter, Elizabeth. According to David Starkey, Anne Boleyn “plainly adored her.” She gave her daughter the prettiest clothes, caps made out of purple and white satin, each covered with a net of gold, and so on. There are even stories, probably fictional, that Anne Boleyn wanted to breastfeed her daughter. All of this made me suspect that Anne Boleyn herself was the daughter of a devoted mother, which brought me back again to wondering who this woman was. Who was Elizabeth Boleyn?
Elizabeth Boleyn was the eldest daughter of Thomas Howard, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, which meant that she came from one of the most powerful families in England. Or they had been, except that they backed the wrong king for the throne. They were great supporters of Richard III, and fought for him at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. When Henry Tudor, Henry VIII’s father, won that battle, Thomas Howard was stripped of his title and lands and sent to the Tower of London for three years. Eventually, and perhaps remarkably, he was able to prove his loyalty to the new king. Over time he won back his lands and titles, and he rose so high that he would have been first minister to the young King Henry VIII, except that Thomas Wolsey bested him in that contest. (Perhaps another reason for Anne’s dislike of Wolsey.) The old duke died in 1524, at the age of 82, and his funeral was one most grand ever held, with more than 400 hooded men carrying torches in his funeral procession. Was Anne at that funeral, perhaps observing the young and handsome king with her sister Mary, who was then his mistress?
Thomas Howard’s wife, Anne’s grandmother, was the mother of 13 children, 9 of them boys. What King Henry must have thought of that! Like all the women of that family, she was intrepid. When her husband was in the Tower, she fought hard to take care of her family, writing letters to maintain her inheritance and keep her servants. She moved to London, so as to be near him while he was jailed. Once her husband was released, she too assumed an important role at the Tudor court, eventually becoming godmother to Princess Margaret Tudor. When Elizabeth died in 1497, she bequeathed money to the poor of Whitechapel and Hackney. I like to imagine that Anne’s concerns with the poor came from her grandmother. These then were the parents who raised Elizabeth Howard, Anne’s mother.
Elizabeth Howard was born in Arundel Castle in West Sussex in 1486. Even at the time of her birth, the castle, which was built in the 11th century, was considered an imposing and ancient place. Young Elizabeth Howard was admired for her beauty and wit, not unlike her daughter. The great Tudor poet John Skelton dedicated a poem to her in 1495 titled, “To My Lady Elizabeth Howard.” In the poem he writes:
Troilus, I vow, that if 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.
Alison Weir has suggested that in comparing Elizabeth to Cressida (who betrayed Troilus), Skelton might have been hinting that Elizabeth Howard’s morals were not of the best quality. In fact, she was dogged by this sort of rumor throughout her life. Years later, when Anne was romantically involved with the King, there were rumors that he had been involved with her mother as well. There were even rumors, generally discredited, that Anne was Elizabeth’s daughter with the king. Whatever the truth of such speculations, it seems clear that both mother and daughter attracted comment and envy. They were both lovely and probably flirtatious women.
As a young woman, Elizabeth Howard spent time at court, and it was there she met Thomas Boleyn. They married somewhere around 1498-1500. The marriage was considered a brilliant match for him. Boleyn came from a wealthy family, and he claimed the title of the Irish earldom of Ormond, but he did not have the same ancient pedigree his wife did. Boleyn’s grandfather had made his money as a mercer, which is a dealer in textile fabrics. By contrast, his new wife was descended from King Edward I.
Not long after their marriage, Elizabeth began having children. There were the three who have become so well-known to history: Anne, Queen of England; George, Viscount Rochford, and Mary, Lady Stafford. There are believed to be four others, who died young. According to Alison Weir, there was 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. Years later, Thomas Boleyn wrote in a letter that, “She brought me every year a child.”
Early in their married life, Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn lived in a manor house in Blickling, Norfolk. This “substantial” brick house was built by Thomas Boleyn’s grandfather and it was here that Anne Boleyn was born (if you believe, as many historians do, that she was born in 1501). The family moved in 1505, after Thomas Boleyn’s father died and he inherited Hever Castle. At the time, this was a moated, medieval castle, that Thomas Boleyn (probably with Elizabeth’s help) set about transforming into a more modern showcase. An ambitious man, with a thriving career, he needed an impressive home for hosting dinners and entertainments. Certainly he would call on his gracious and polished wife for assistance.
These were the years when Anne would have spent the most time with her mother, and it seems they had a close attachment. (Years later, Anne would write in a letter to Lady Wingfield: “And assuredly, next mine own mother, I know no one alive that I love better.”) Her mother would have taught her embroidery. Perhaps she would have listened to her musical daughter perform on the musical instruments she learned. She would speak French with her. Perhaps too she nurtured Anne’s love of poetry. Easy to imagine her telling Anne about John Skelton, the poet who had attended the Howards for many years. Also easy to imagine her telling her about the ways of the court. With 12 highborn brothers and sisters, and another 6 stepbrothers and sisters from her father’s remarriage, Elizabeth Boleyn was connected by marriage to many of the most prominent families in England.
This being Tudor England, aristocratic mothers were not expected to play a day to day supervisory role in their children’s lives, and so Anne Boleyn would have also been establishing a relationship with her nurse, Mrs. Mary Orchard. She stayed close to Mrs. Orchard for her entire life. Her old nurse was there at her trial, “shrieking out dreadfully” when the verdict was announced. Mary Orchard was also one of the people assigned to attend to Anne Boleyn during those last terrible days in the Tower. Her mother was not there. According to a letter from that time she was “sore diseased with the cough, which grieves her sore.” But it’s easy enough to understand how for a mother, the loss of a daughter and her son, George, would be too much to bear. Anne certainly seems to have known her mother loved her.
Before all that tragedy, there were happy times for the two of them. In 1513, when Anne was a young woman, she was sent to the palace of Mechelen, home of Margaret of Austria, and one of the most glamorous and important Renaissance courts. Here she had access to a great library, a chance to meet with prominent visiting scholars, such as Erasmus, and an opportunity to learn the ways of courtly love. However much Elizabeth Boleyn mourned her daughter’s departure, she must have taken great pride in her accomplishment.
After a little more than a year at Margaret’s court, Thomas Boleyn arranged for Anne and her sister to serve at the French court, as ladies in waiting to Mary Tudor, who was to marry the French king.
Records of Elizabeth Boleyn are scanty from this time, but she does crop up at certain important events. She was there with her family in 1520 at the Field of Cloth of Gold. This was the extravagant meeting that took place between Henry and the new French King Francis I, and Thomas Boleyn was one the event’s organizers.
In 1522, when England and France were on the brink of war, Anne returned to England. She was now a refined and elegant woman far different than the girl who had been sent off to Mechelen only a decade earlier. She was not home long before she was sent to the English court, to be part of Katherine of Aragon’s household. She was not there long before she became involved in a scandal with Henry Percy, and was sent back to Hever Castle, in disgrace.
This is the period that particularly intrigues me. From 1523, when Anne returned to Hever Castle, until 1524, when she returned to the Tudor Court, Anne was in exile, presumably with her mother. What was it like for the two of them during this year? Did they plot Anne’s revenge? Did they discuss how her return? Did either of them have any idea that Anne would soon take center stage at Henry’s court?
Once Anne returned to London, things happened quickly. Her romance with Henry was in full swing by 1526. In 1529, it’s recorded that Elizabeth Boleyn went with her daughter and the King to inspect York place, as the king had declared it would be renamed Whitehall and renovated as a palace for Anne Boleyn. That same year Thomas Boleyn became Earl of Wiltshire and Elizabeth became the Lady Wiltshire.
In 1533, Lady Wiltshire attended Anne’s coronation. That year her granddaughter Elizabeth was born (though it seems more probable that the new princess was named after Henry’s mother, also Elizabeth). She must have spent a fair amount of time at court. Historian Richard Davey found a notice in state papers that read: “Item: 30s for the mending of a window in Lady Wiltshire’s room.” She had her other daughter’s scandal to deal with when Mary married the lowborn William Stafford in 1534. One of the last public records of Elizabeth Boleyn dates from that same year, when it’s recorded that she gave Henry a new year’s gift. She gave him a velvet case embroidered with the royal arms, within it being six collars, three worked with gold and three with silver. What must it have been like to have him as a son-in-law?
Elizabeth Boleyn’s final years were sad ones. After Anne’s execution, she returned to Hever Castle. She died less than two years later, on April 3, 1538. She was buried in the place of her ancestors, in Howard Aisle at Lambeth Church. Thomas Boleyn died in March 1539 and was buried at St. Peter’s Church at Hever. So the two of them were separated for eternity. She must have felt tremendous anger at how everything turned out. But I like to think of these two beautiful and fascinating women when the whole world was before them, planning how to take the world by storm.
Davey, Richard, The Tower of London.
Emerson, Kathy Lee, “A Who’s Who of Tudor Women”
Morris, Sarah & Grueninger, Natalie, In the footsteps of Anne Boleyn
Grueninger, Natalie, A Biography of Elizabeth Boleyn, On the Tudor Trail
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Poetry Foundation: John Skelton
Starkey, David, Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne
Weir, Alison, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn
Susan Breen is the author of the novel, The Fiction Class, which was published by Plume/Penguin. Her stories and articles have appeared in a number of places, among them Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and composejournal.com. She teaches novel writing for Gotham Writers in NYC and lives in Irvington, NY with her husband and two cockapoos (dogs). She’s been fascinated by Anne Boleyn since she was a girl and saw Anne of A Thousand Days.
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