Friday, April 3, 2015

The Mysterious Life & Lonely Death of Elizabeth Boleyn

On Lambeth Road, on the south bank of the River Thames, is the elegant Garden Museum, offering visitors lush gardens to walk through and an array of horticulture tools to examine. The shop sells books, kits, soaps, embroidered bags, and thumb-pot waterers. Somewhere beneath the shop floor—no one knows exactly where, since there are no markers or plaques—lies the body of Elizabeth Boleyn, the mother of Henry VIII’s second queen and grandmother of one of England’s greatest rulers, Elizabeth I.

Her present obscurity is not a shock; there is no irony to this. Instead, her unmarked grave is the outgrowth of a life remarkable for its silence amid the noise–the style, the wit, the fiery ambition and brilliant allure of the Boleyn family.

How did Elizabeth Boleyn feel about her striving husband, Thomas; her notorious daughters, Anne and Mary; her erudite son, George? Was she proud to be mother-in-law of Henry VIII—and did that emotion flip to outrage and grief when Anne and George were beheaded in 1536, among the charges being that they committed incest? Or, perhaps, like her spouse, the Earl of Wiltshire, Elizabeth was grateful to survive the brutal coup that destroyed the Boleyn faction and even willing to court the king’s favor once more.

We don’t know as much about Anne Boleyn as we think we do. The movies and miniseries and novels and articles and twitter handles create the impression of a certain kind of woman: beautiful, witty, and bold. Someone who could steal a king from a prestigious first wife of many years’ standing. But there are surprisingly few authenticated likenesses or letters of Anne Boleyn’s, and many descriptions of her behavior come to us from the pens of her enemies.

Anne Boleyn, National Portrait Gallery. It was painted after her death.

If the facts about Anne Boleyn are minimal, they are fragmentary for her mother. One assumption is that most women’s lives from this period are not recorded. But other mothers of Henry VIII’s wives come into greater focus, with one sad exception. Queen Isabella of Castile is of course a famous figure of history; the other royal mother, Duchess Maria of Cleves, comes through in her religious choices, her relationships with her husband and children, her loyalty to her homeland. Jane Seymour’s and Catherine Parr’s mothers are present in history; we can feel their care taken for their families. Only Joyce Culpepper, wife to that ne’er do well Edmund Howard, is more of an enigma than Elizabeth Boleyn, and that is because she died before Catherine Howard reached the age of 10.

But Elizabeth Boleyn outlived Anne. She was there, in the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII, the daughter, wife and mother of prominent courtiers. So how can there be so few mentions?

Elizabeth Boleyn does play a part in an unsavory scandal. There was a rumor that Henry VIII had an affair with her when he was young, before his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Supposedly a gentleman said to the king about his planned marriage to Anne that it would be a blot on his conscience, “It is thought that ye have meddled both with the mother and the sister.” The king replied, “Never with the mother.” And Thomas Cromwell leaped in, “And never with the sister.” (Cromwell’s attempt to clear his master’s reputation notwithstanding, Henry VIII’s affair with Mary Boleyn is accepted by historians.)

Elizabeth Boleyn was at least 11 years older than Henry VIII and giving birth to nearly a child a year during the last decade of the reign of the old king, Henry VII. The prince was kept under close watch by his father; he married at the age of 17. So any adulterous affair between the two seems improbable.

Henry VIII, as a young man

But then the Boleyns were the subjects of many scurrilous rumors. Elizabeth Amadas, wife of the royal goldsmith, is supposed to have said, “that the king had kept both the mother and the daughter” and that Thomas Boleyn “was bawd to his wife and two daughters.”

One of the worst of the anti-Boleyn rumors was that Henry VIII fathered Anne and thus he married his own daughter. Since Anne Boleyn was born most probably in 1501, when Henry Tudor was 10 years old, this is officially ludicrous.

We do know that Elizabeth and Anne Boleyn were fairly close. Anne was sent to the Low Countries and then France when very young, to receive a fine education, but that doesn’t rule out a strong bond. Lady Boleyn sometimes accompanied Anne as chaperone when her daughter was the beloved of Henry VIII. And when Queen Anne was in the Tower of London in 1536, under arrest, alternately stunned and hysterical, she said her mother would “die of sorrow.”

Two years later, Elizabeth Boleyn died. Was it of sorrow? The answer is … perhaps.

In the beginning and in the end, Elizabeth defined herself not as a Boleyn, but as a Howard. That could be the key to understanding her.

Anne Boleyn’s aristocratic blood comes from her mother’s family. Elizabeth was the granddaughter, daughter and sister of a duke of Norfolk. The Howards are considered one of the “old” families of Henry VIII’s court, but in fact theirs was not ancient nobility. Richard III raised John Howard to the dukedom in 1483, as reward for loyalty during his struggle for the crown. John was a knight’s son and, through his mother, the grandson of a duke.

John Howard died at Bosworth alongside Richard III. His son, Thomas Howard, the earl of Surrey, was imprisoned and his lands were taken. He spent years proving himself to the Tudors and buying back Howard property. This all took place during Elizabeth’s childhood. The Howards were a close-knit family, and probably the struggle to survive royal suspicion brought them even closer.

The poet John Skelton, while a guest of the Howards, wrote a poem in tribute to several young women, including Elizabeth. The poem suggests she had a potent allure. Based on the outstanding attractiveness of Anne, Mary, and George Boleyn, it seems safe to assume that their mother was lovely.

Elizabeth married Thomas Boleyn when she was 17 or 18. He was intelligent and determined—ferociously so. He set himself to climb the ladder of Tudor society: courtier, knight, ambassador, earl, all the way to Lord Privy Seal. Elizabeth gave birth to perhaps seven children (four died young) and ran his households. She may have served both Elizabeth of York and Catherine of Aragon at important occasions, but is thought to have mostly resided in the country, in Norfolk or Kent, at the family‘s castle of Hever. Although the couple must have lived apart for long periods—Thomas Boleyn traveled to France and Burgundy repeatedly for the king—there is no impression of estrangement. Many 16th century marriages worked this way.

Hever Castle

“Most historians have felt that Anne’s father personified all that was bad about the court,” writes Eric Ives in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Yet Thomas Boleyn shifts from hard to like to actively repugnant after the killing of Anne and George. He did not defend his children; in fact, he offered to serve on their jury. He left court after their deaths, yet wrote sycophantic letters to Cromwell. He lost the office of Lord Privy Seal but retained his earldom and seat on the king’s council. Incredibly, he attended the christening of Prince Edward, the child of Anne’s replacement, Jane Seymour, in 1537.

Thomas Boleyn died on March 12, 1539. He was buried in Hever Church, and King Henry VIII ordered that Masses be said for his soul. But Elizabeth was never laid to rest with him. She in fact pre-deceased him by a year; one court paper said she was “sore diseased with the cough” as early as 1536. Perhaps her children’s murders robbed her of the strength to recover and she suffered a slow decline.

Still, it was in her choice of where to die that Lady Boleyn’s voice can perhaps, finally, be heard.

She died on April 3rd, 1538. A nobleman wrote in a letter: “My lady Wiltshire was buried at Lambeth on the 7th… She was conveyed from a house besides Baynard’s Castle by barge to Lambeth with torches burning and four banners set out of all quarters of the barge, which was covered with black and a white cross.”

The Garden Museum is based in the deconsecrated parish church of St Mary-at-Lambeth. Photo by Mike Glaeser.

Before it was the Garden Museum, the building on Lambeth Road where Elizabeth Boleyn was buried was the Church of St. Mary’s. The church was abandoned in the 1970s, and sponsors moved forward to transform it into a museum. One person who was buried beneath its floor was John Tradescant, a famous gardener of the early 17th century. Before Tradescant lived and died, the church was the chosen resting place for some of the Howards.  It was very near to the family’s manor house of Lambeth. A memorial plaque, now lost, honored Thomas Howard and his wife, Agnes, Elizabeth’s parents. At least one of her sisters rested beside her.

Even more significantly, Elizabeth did not die at Hever, her husband at her side.  Seriously ill, she left Kent and traveled to London. Elizabeth Boleyn spent her final days in the home of Hugh Farringdon, the abbot of Reading, near Baynard’s Castle, not far from Lambeth.

Who was the abbot of Reading? Born Hugh Cook, he was a Cluniac monk who took the name of Farringdon and became abbot in 1520. Reading was one of the wealthiest abbeys in England. King Henry was the abbot’s guest in January 1521, and Farringdon later became a royal chaplain. The abbot took the king’s side during the Great Divorce, signing the Articles of Faith that acknowledged the supremacy of Henry VIII over the pope. In 1532, the king gave the abbot a New Year’s gift of twenty pounds.

Reading Abbey

It seems probable that Abbot Farringdon was known to Queen Anne Boleyn, and thus to her mother. Perhaps some sort of friendship sprang up between them and, for whatever reason, Elizabeth Boleyn turned to him when she was dying.

Certainly the other members of the Boleyn family would not have turned to a monk in their final days. Anne Boleyn, her brother and her father were all fervent supporters of church reform. The tenets of such reform were a direct connection to God in faith, without the intercession of priests, monks, and abbots. But did Elizabeth in her heart agree with this? It is possible that she did not find comfort in the church that her onetime son-in-law had created.

There is a final chapter in the life of Abbot Farringdon, and not a pretty one. Although he had conformed to the king’s will for years—unlike other monks and abbots and friars who chose martyrdom—in 1539, just after his abbey had closed, he was charged with high treason. The abbot was accused of giving money to the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace. This rebellion took place in 1536 and 1537, and it is inexplicable why no steps were taken against him for so long a period afterward.

Abbot Farringdon was entitled to be tried by Parliament but his death sentence was passed before trial began, by order of Thomas Cromwell. On November 14, 1539, Hugh Cook Farringdon was hanged, drawn and quartered before the gatehouse of his own abbey.

So ended the life of Elizabeth Boleyn’s friend, yet another victim in the brutal and capricious reign of Henry VIII.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of 'Dreamland' and 'The Ghost of Madison Avenue,' set in Gilded Age New York. She is also the author of a trilogy of novels set during the reign of Henry VIII: 'The Crown,' 'The Chalice' and 'The Tapestry,' published by Simon & Schuster in North America, Orion in the United Kingdom, and seven foreign countries. 

Her novel 'The Blue' is a thriller set in the 18th century world of art and porcelain. 


  1. Interesting outline, Nancy and it's very informative as well. Elizabeth Boleyn is one of the great mysteries of that time. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Highly informative and great reading. Thank you :-)

  3. I enjoy reading about different people of this time period. Thank you.

  4. Thank you so much for your comments! I've always been interested in her. In Norah Lofts' "The Concubine," Thomas has a second wife who is a major character. I liked her a lot, but she was fictional.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  10. Excellent, informative and well balanced article. The thing that annoys me when some people criticise Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn for not standing up for their children or trying to save them is that this shows a lack of understanding of the terror of the situation and of how things were under Henry Viii. Who were they going to ask for help? Cromwell and the King were willing partners in the trial and death of Anne Boleyn. Even if they wanted to, there was nobody who would listen. Anne was Queen and in the Tower, so there was no Queen to ask. The way Thomas is shown in history as opposed to fiction is night and day. He was ambitious, but he was also brilliant and had been in Royal service for years before his daughter caught the King's eye. Thomas and Elizabeth had to survive and had other family members to protect. They had no choice but to remain loyal.

  11. Really enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Excellent informative quite sad post.