There was at least one Lady Boleyn present at court from early in the reign of Henry VIII. The identity of this lady or ladies is disputed, with three sisters-in-law – Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, Elizabeth Wood Boleyn and Anne Tempest Boleyn – all potential candidates.
Elizabeth Howard Boleyn’s high birth made her perfectly suited to take up a position in the household of Queen Catherine of Aragon in 1509, which lasted until the mid-1520s.1 There is however some confusion over whether Elizabeth ever held any official position in the queen’s household. One recent biographer of Elizabeth’s daughter, Mary Boleyn, has suggested that there is no evidence that Elizabeth was a lady-in-waiting to the queen and that, instead, she has been confused with her sister-in-law, Anne Tempest Boleyn.2 That writer claims that there is no evidence for Elizabeth’s presence at court before the reference to her as in attendance on the queen at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, the grand meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I of France held at Calais. This is, however, a rather circular argument since there is evidence of at least one Lady Boleyn at court during the early years of the reign; it is simply that if a writer chooses to identify these sources as solely referring to Anne Tempest Boleyn then it would obviously appear that there is no evidence of Elizabeth Howard Boleyn in the queen’s household. There is no doubt that there was at least one other Lady Boleyn active at court during Henry VIII’s reign: after Anne Boleyn’s fall she was placed under observation by an aunt named Lady Boleyn, and the same Lady Boleyn, or another, was also named in connection with the discovery of the covert relationship between the king’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, and Elizabeth’s half-brother, Lord Thomas Howard, which came to light in the summer of 1536.3 The Lady (or Ladies) Boleyn from 1536 are obviously not Elizabeth Howard as she would, by that stage, always have been referred to as the Countess of Wiltshire. In addition to this, sources for Catherine of Aragon’s household early in the reign are fairly incomplete, something which hinders an identification of Elizabeth Howard Boleyn’s activities.
There are two possible alternative candidates for references to Lady Boleyn at court. The first is Elizabeth Wood, the wife of Thomas Boleyn’s younger brother, Sir James Boleyn. Elizabeth Wood was one of the four daughters of John Wood and his wife, Margaret, of East Barsham in Norfolk.4 The Wood family had occupied the manor since the reign of Henry VI in the mid-fifteenth century with the arrival of John Wood of Briston. This John died in 1470, leaving his brother Robert as heir, who was, in his turn, succeeded by Elizabeth’s father, John. John Wood died in 1496, leaving a son, Roger, who was then a minor, as his heir. Roger was not confirmed in his inheritance until 6 November 1513, something that would have occurred when he was aged around twenty-one, suggesting a date of birth of late 1492. Roger’s sister, Anne, was of childbearing age in 1512, which suggests that she would have been born around the same time. In addition to this, his mother, Margaret, took a second husband, Sir Henry Fermor, and bore him at least one child, something which supports the view that her children were young at the time of her first husband’s death. Elizabeth Wood was therefore probably born in the late 1480s or early 1490s.
Elizabeth was one of four sisters, with a sister, Alice, marrying a Michael Mackerel, a tradesman of London before 1518. A further sister, Dorothy, had married a gentleman, William Whayte, by the same date. Following her marriage to James Boleyn, Elizabeth settled with her husband at Blickling. In 1512 her sister, Anne, who was the wife of Thomas Astley, another Norfolk gentleman, visited her at Blickling, sadly dying during the visit. Given that the sisters were close enough to receive visits from each other, this must have been a traumatic experience for Elizabeth. Anne Astley’s funeral brass from Blickling church shows her holding her infant twins and wearing a dress with the open lacing characteristic of pregnancy.5 This strongly suggests that she arrived at the visit pregnant and, perhaps unaware that she was expecting twins, went into labour prematurely and unexpectedly. Given that she was depicted as pregnant with memorials to her two children, it appears that all three died at Blickling during the birth, something which must have deeply affected her sister who, in all likelihood, would have attended the birth. The evidence of Anne Wood’s grave at Blickling makes it clear that Elizabeth had married James by 1512 at the latest, although the couple had no surviving children of their own.
She is almost certainly not the Lady Boleyn present at court early in Henry VIII’s reign due to the fact that her husband was not then knighted, making her ‘Mistress Boleyn’ rather than ‘Lady Boleyn’.6 Surviving records of James suggest that he was largely based in Norfolk during the early years of the reign, with his presence regularly recorded on commission of the peace and array for the county. While Thomas Boleyn was also often present on the same commissions and he is known to have been regularly absent from the county on royal business, he was at least a major landowner there, something which James was not, suggesting that his inclusion was due more to personal presence. It is usually assumed that James was not knighted until 1520, although this is in fact not the case.7 James had not been knighted by 27 November 1515 when a document refers to him still in Norfolk as simply James Boleyn.8 By December of the following year he had both been knighted and established himself in the royal household as one of the knights of the Body, a role that did require some personal attendance on the king.9 His court presence increased with the position of his niece, Anne Boleyn, as queen, with ‘Sir James Boleyn’ recorded as owing her £50 at the time of her death.10
Elizabeth Wood Boleyn’s brother, Roger, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1518, where he died. There was some contention over the inheritance of his estates, with it being agreed on 14 September 1519 that his stepfather, Sir Henry Fermoys, would receive the family lands, in return for a payment of £35 to each of his three surviving stepdaughters. This was a substantial sum but it would not have increased Elizabeth’s status as the wife of a younger brother living at Blickling only with the permission of the head of her husband’s family. She was certainly no great heiress. Elizabeth Wood Boleyn may well be the Lady Boleyn present at court in the 1530s, but the relatively low status of her husband and the fact that she had not yet attained her own inheritance makes it highly unlikely that she was the Lady Boleyn who stood in for the queen as godmother at the christening of Henry VIII’s niece, Frances Brandon, in July 1517.11 For similar reasons, she is also unlikely to be one of the ladies listed in a record of daily liveries in the king’s household compiled in October 1519, which recorded that a ‘Lady Bullayn’ was entitled to a breakfast at court, while a ‘Lady Bolayn’ was a member of the queen’s chamber.12 This record may refer to the same lady or, equally, it may refer to the two sisters-in-law, Elizabeth Howard Boleyn and Anne Tempest Boleyn.
Anne Tempest was some years younger than her sisters-in-law and was the wife of Thomas Boleyn’s youngest brother, Sir Edward Boleyn. The Tempest family were an old one, tracing their descent to at least Sir Richard Tempest, who was Lord of Bracewell and Waddington in Yorkshire in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.13 This Sir Richard’s wife, Margaret, had the unfortunate distinction of being abducted by the Scots from Roxburgh Castle in 1385 while her husband was warden there. The couple were survived by a son, Sir Piers, who fought at Agincourt with Henry V and whose son, Sir John, assisted Henry VI during his time as a fugitive in the north of England in the 1460s following his deposition from the throne. Sir John Tempest’s fifth son married as her second husband Catherine, daughter of Leo, Lord Welles, who became one of her father’s heiresses following the death of her half-brother John, Viscount Welles, during the reign of Henry VII.14 John Welles was wealthy with strong royal connections as the maternal half-brother of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the king’s mother. In addition to this, he had been permitted to marry Cecily of York, daughter of Edward IV, although the couple had no surviving children. Robert Tempest’s fortunate marriage to Catherine Welles provided him with lands far in advance of what a fifth son could usually expect and he died relatively wealthy in 1509. The couple’s eldest son, Sir John, died in the same year, having married Joan Roos on 15 April 1501.15
John Tempest’s marriage produced two daughters: Margaret, who was aged four in 1509, and Anne, who was aged seven at the time of an inquisition post mortem held for her father on 4 February 1513, and later went on to marry Sir Edward Boleyn.16 The youth of the two girls is further attested by the fact that Anne’s wardship was granted in June 1510 to William Tyler and confirmed on 31 July 1517.17 Margaret’s was granted in July 1517 to Sir William Compton and Sir John Sharpe. Both girls were minors in July 1517 and unmarried; it appears that Margaret died unmarried, presumably not long after the grant of her wardship. The date of Anne’s marriage is not recorded although it is highly unlikely to have taken place before she was at least twelve, a birthday that would have occurred at some point between 5 February 1517 and 3 February 1518. As set out above, it was also not before 31 July 1517, meaning that she was not the Lady Boleyn who attended the christening of Frances Brandon. The earliest reference to Anne as Sir Edward Boleyn’s wife is her presence at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in the summer of 1520. On 19 November 1520 she and her husband were granted livery of her lands, demonstrating that she had finally come into her inheritance.18 Given that she was still aged well below the usual age of inheritance of twenty-one, it would seem likely that this concession was made in the light of her recent marriage.
Twelve was also recognised as the earliest date at which a girl could take up an appointment in the queen’s household. While Anne had royal connections thanks to her association with the Welles family, she was hardly a great heiress and it may have taken her longer to establish herself at court, with appointments with the queen highly sought after – certainly, the better-connected Lady Lisle, who was the wife of an illegitimate son of Edward IV, later struggled to obtain a post for her daughter with Queen Jane Seymour.19She cannot therefore be the Lady Boleyn recorded at court any earlier than 1517 and the lady in question should be identified with Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, particularly as Margaret Butler Boleyn, the only other potential candidate, made it clear in her letter to her son, Thomas Boleyn, which was written in 1515, that she came up to London only very rarely and only when necessity required it.
From 1525 Elizabeth Howard Boleyn would have been referred to as Lady Rochford, and later Lady Wiltshire. Between at least 1520, when Anne Tempest was referred to as the wife of Sir Edward Boleyn in attendance on the queen at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and 1525, there is some confusion between her and her sister-in-law. However any reference earlier than at least 1517 must be Elizabeth Howard. Since Anne Tempest is known to have been married by 1520, it is clear that she did indeed marry young, something that would have been expected of an heiress. Sir Edward Boleyn was almost certainly helped in his pursuit of the heiress by the Welles connection, with the elder sister of Anne’s paternal grandmother, Eleanor Welles, being the stepmother of Sir Edward’s own grandmother, Anne Hoo Boleyn.20 The Hoo and Boleyn families had remained closely connected and this relationship may well have secured the match for Sir Edward. Sir Edward Boleyn and Anne Tempest Boleyn had four daughters: Mary, Elizabeth, Ursula and Amy, all of whom survived to adulthood.21 These daughters were born early in the marriage, suggesting that Anne Tempest Boleyn spent much of her time in that period occupied in childbearing rather than attending the queen on a regular basis, unlike Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, who had, by then, long since completed her family.
Elizabeth Howard Boleyn attended the Coronation of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1509 as a member of the new queen’s retinue, a post for which she received material for a new gown from the royal stores.22 In the same royal document, which detailed arrangements for the Coronation, Elizabeth was listed among the baronesses in the queen’s chamber, along with her sister Muriel, a household which was headed by Elizabeth’s grandfather-in-law, Queen Catherine’s chamberlain, the Earl of Ormond. While it is possible that temporary appointments were made to the queen’s household for the Coronation, it is unlikely and Elizabeth can therefore be considered to have received a court appointment with the queen soon after the royal marriage, a date that is far too early for either Elizabeth Wood Boleyn or Anne Tempest Boleyn to have been alternative candidates. It has also long been considered by historians that Elizabeth Howard Boleyn had a post in the queen’s household from early in the reign, with considerable reason.23 A ‘Lady Bulleyn’ received a New Year’s gift from the king in 1513, receiving a cup with a gilt cover weighing 16½ ounces.24 The recipient of this gift again cannot have been either of Elizabeth’s sisters-in-law, as set out above. The only other candidate, Margaret Butler Boleyn, is rather implausible given that, at that stage, she was merely the elderly daughter of the Earl of Ormond and the widow of a knight living away from court: certainly, her sister, Anne St Leger, was not similarly honoured. While a New Year’s gift does not necessarily mean that the recipient held a court position, it is strongly suggestive of the fact that they were at least often at court and in the king’s remembrance, especially where the recipient was not of particularly high status (with Elizabeth only the daughter of an earl and the wife of a knight). Also, Lady Boleyn’s gift was one of the heaviest presents given to non-royal ladies, a mark of considerable esteem, with it being only smaller than those received by Lady Hastings (a sister of the Duke of Buckingham and former mistress of the king’s), the elder Lady Guildford, Lady Lucy and Lady Mountjoy. Lady Guildford held a position with the king’s sister, Mary Tudor, as her governess, while Lady Mountjoy was the wife of an important officer in the queen’s household and one of the attendants whom she had brought with her from Spain. The fact that Elizabeth received a gift among this company either demonstrates considerable court presence or a position in the queen’s household.
Although Elizabeth’s court duties and those of her husband would have taken her regularly to court, some evidence of her social circle when she was at home survives. She spent time with her husband’s niece, Anne Shelton, who was the daughter of her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn Shelton.25 Anne Shelton was friendly with Anne Lestrange, who lived in Hunstanton. In 1519 Lady Lestrange’s accounts show that Anne Shelton stayed with her for seven days, with additional visits being made in 1526, following her marriage.26 Interestingly, Elizabeth visited Lady Lestrange with her niece in 1526, something that suggests that she was also friendly with her hostess. The association with Anne Shelton shows that Elizabeth took steps to befriend her husband’s family. The fact that Anne had by then married Elizabeth’s nephew, Sir Edmund Knyvet, who was the son of her sister Muriel, strongly suggests that she, as the couple’s common aunt, played a role in arranging the match, something which again suggests a friendship with both parties. Knyvet attended the visit with his wife and aunt.27 It was certainly not unnatural for Elizabeth to socialise with the Lestranges or her Shelton kin when she was resident at Blickling. All three lived within 40 miles of each other.28 She was well entertained at her visit, with the Lestrange household accounts recording that seven rabbits were taken out of store for the company to eat.
Elizabeth benefited from the increasing prominence of her own family during the years of her marriage. During Henry VII’s reign Elizabeth’s father continued to prosper, something which increased her own status as his eldest daughter. In 1501 Henry, who had become convinced of the elder Howard’s loyalty, appointed him as High Treasurer of England.29 The family were finally restored to their full social position in 1513 following Elizabeth’s father’s great victory over the Scots at Flodden Field when Surrey led an English army against the Scots while Henry VIII was absent in France. The victory was both brutal and complete, with James IV of Scotland and much of his nobility killed, something which persuaded Henry VIII to finally restore his loyal general to the dukedom of Norfolk in February 1514, with his son, Elizabeth’s eldest brother, promoted to the earldom of Surrey. The grateful king also granted the new duke twenty-six manors, vastly increasing his wealth, as well as allowing him to add part of the royal arms of Scotland to his heraldic shield as a reminder of his victory.30
The acquisition of the duchy of Norfolk by her father served to increase Elizabeth’s prestige substantially. When Elizabeth was chosen to attend the queen at the meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I of France at Calais in 1520, which is known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, she was listed among the baronesses due to her status as a duke’s daughter, something which entitled her to take two female servants, three male servants and six horses to the meeting.31 Her sister-in-law, Anne Tempest Boleyn, was merely listed among the knights’ wives, something which allowed her only one female servant, two male servants and four horses. Elizabeth’s own daughter, Mary Boleyn, was only allowed to take one woman, two male servants and three horses, with the status gap between Elizabeth and other female members of the Boleyn family obvious at the meeting. Elizabeth’s father did not die until 1524 when he was nearly eighty years old.
For much of her marriage, Elizabeth had access to the court. It appears that she did not necessarily have an entirely spotless reputation. In 1533 a Mistress Amadas, whose own name had earlier been linked with the king, declared scandalously that ‘my lady Anne [Boleyn] should be burned, for she is a harlot; that Master Norris was bawd between the king and her; that the king kept both the mother and daughter, and that my lord of Wiltshire [Thomas Boleyn] was bawd both to his wife and his two daughters’.32Elizabeth Amadas had a family connection to another of the king’s former mistresses, Bessie Blount, through the marriage of Bessie’s sister, Isabel, to William Reed of Oatlands, a goldsmith like Amadas’s husband and the nephew and heir of her father’s prominent friend and her brother’s godfather, Sir Bartholomew Reed.33 She may therefore have had a political point to her claims: there was a party in England at the time who hoped that the king would marry Bessie and legitimise their son, rather than taking Anne Boleyn as his bride.34 Her claims should be treated with caution, perhaps as an outburst due to her disappointment in the king’s marriage.
Mistress Amadas was not the only individual to scandalously repeat this rumour during Elizabeth’s own lifetime, with Henry VIII’s opponent, Friar Peto, also making a similar claim in 1532. Other early evidence of this is included in a letter written by Sir George Throckmorton in the late 1530s when he recounted a meeting with Henry VIII during the parliament of 1529 when he had been in opposition to the government. According to Throckmorton’s later recollection, during this interview he attempted to dissuade the king from marrying Anne Boleyn by pointing out that ‘it is thought you have meddled both with the mother and sister’.35 Henry VIII, apparently caught off guard, immediately responded, ‘Never with the mother,’ and it was left to his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, to quickly add, untruthfully, that the king had never meddled with the sister either.
The gossip surrounding Henry VIII and Elizabeth was later used and developed by the Jesuit writer, Nicholas Sander, who was writing in the reign of Elizabeth’s granddaughter, Elizabeth I. Sander, who was strongly opposed to Elizabeth I, wrote a scurrilous account of her mother, Anne Boleyn, something which was embellished by the following passage:
Anne Boleyn was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn’s wife; I say of his wife, because she could not have been the daughter of Sir Thomas, for she was born during his absence of two years in France on the king’s affairs. Henry VIII sent him apparently on an honourable mission in order to conceal his own criminal conduct; but when Thomas Boleyn, on his return at the end of two years, saw that a child had been born in his house, he resolved, eager to punish the sin, to prosecute his wife before the delegates of the archbishop of Canterbury, and obtain a separation from her. His wife informs the king, who sends the marquis of Dorset with an order to Thomas Boleyn to refrain from prosecuting his wife, to forgive her, and be reconciled with her.
Sir Thomas saw that he must not provoke the king’s wrath, nevertheless he did not yield obedience to his orders before he learned from his wife that it was the king who had tempted her to sin, and that the child Anne was the daughter of no other than Henry VIII. His wife then entreated him on her knees to forgive her, promising better behaviour in the future. The marquis of Dorset and other personages, in their own and in the king’s name, made the same request, and then Sir Thomas Boleyn became reconciled to his wife, and had Anne brought up as his own child.36
Sander’s work is not so wholly inaccurate that it should be dismissed out of hand: he correctly recorded that the king did indeed enjoy a relationship with Elizabeth’s elder daughter, Mary Boleyn, with the claim that ‘he had her brought to the court, and ruined her’, although the claim that she had first come to his attention through his visits to her mother are likely to be false given that Mary was in France for some months before returning to England to take up a court position when she first caught the king’s eye.
The idea that Henry VIII could possibly have been the father of Anne Boleyn is entirely false. In his account, Sander claims that Anne was born after Henry VIII became king during an absence of Thomas Boleyn from England of at least two years. Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 at the age of seventeen. Thomas Boleyn, who attended the king’s Coronation, took part in a court masque in January 1510, as well as jousts in May 1510 and February 1511.37 He further appeared in a court masque in December 1514. The earliest period in which his two-year absence could have taken place is therefore some point between February 1511 and December 1514. It is true that he served as ambassador to Brussels for nearly a year during this period, an appointment that could, perhaps, have been misidentified by Sander as in France. However, although there is some uncertainty over Anne Boleyn’s birth date, it is certain that she was not born between 1512 and 1514. Thomas Boleyn used his friendship with Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, which developed during his mission to Brussels, to secure a place in his household for his younger daughter, with a letter written by Anne to her father surviving from this period: clearly, this letter was not the work of a two-year-old. In addition to this, both Boleyn sisters served in the household of Mary Tudor, Queen of France in 1514, with Anne then transferring to the household of Francis I’s wife, Queen Claude: this was hardly the career of an infant. Quite apart from the fact that Henry VIII was highly unlikely to want to marry his own child, his taste in wives and mistresses tended towards women in their twenties and even thirties, making it unlikely that he would seek to marry a girl in her early teens when he first began to attempt to make Anne Boleyn his queen in 1527. Sander was clearly intent upon slander in his work when he declared that Thomas Boleyn warned the king off Anne, telling him that he knew her to be Henry’s own child, something to which Sander claims that the king replied, ‘Hold your tongue, you fool, hundreds are compromised; and be her father who he may, she shall be my wife.’
Sander’s story, the central point of which was to highlight a scandalous paternity for Anne Boleyn rather than to focus on a supposed royal affair for her mother, is therefore entirely improbable. However, the evidence of Throckmorton’s letter, other contemporary rumours and the fact that Sander later developed the tale does suggest that there was some substance to the claims and that there may have been some kind of relationship between them, even if it was not one that produced a child. The evidence that Elizabeth was a mistress of Henry VIII must therefore be considered. In The Garland of Laurel, Skelton very pointedly compared Elizabeth to Criseyde and commented that Criseyde’s legendary lover, Troilus, Prince of Troy, would have loved her if he had seen her, presumably in preference to Criseyde herself. It is just possible to posit a deliberate comparison between Troilus, Prince of Troy, and Henry, Prince of England, falling in love with the charms of the beautiful Elizabeth Howard in their youths, an allusion which, given the fact that the poem was not published until 1523, Skelton could have added to an earlier draft of his work after witnessing a relationship between Elizabeth and Henry VIII. However, given the fact that it is Troilus, Criseyde’s princely lover, who is betrayed by her, rather than any husband, it is probably stretching the source too far to posit from this that Elizabeth had a reputation for faithlessness in her lifetime as one recent writer has suggested.38 If anything, Skelton’s poem positively highlights Elizabeth’s character, calling her both demure and sage in her conduct.
Another point which must count against Elizabeth being Henry VIII’s mistress in the period before he became king is quite how over-protected the young prince was known to be by his father, whose hopes of founding a dynasty rested on the shoulders of his only living son. A surviving poem, The Justes of the Moneths of May and June, describes jousts held in the late spring of 1507 when the future Henry VIII was sixteen. In his description of the June jousts, the poet recorded that Prince Henry was a prominent spectator, a prince ‘most comely of stature’ who was eager to engage the combatants in talk of the jousts and clearly displayed an ambition to take part himself, something that would never have been allowed by his over-protective father.39 The poet recorded of the future king that:
And though a prince
And a king’s son he be
It pleaseth him of his benignity
To suffer gentlemen of low degree
In his presence
To speak of arms and of other defence
Without doing unto his grace offence.
Henry VII was simply not prepared to hazard the person of his only son in any way, and, given the generally held belief that sexual activity could be dangerous to an adolescent, it would seem highly improbable that such a cloistered young man could have taken a mistress, particularly after the premature death of his elder brother, Prince Arthur, within a few months of his own marriage when a youth of fifteen.
If there was any relationship between Henry VIII and Elizabeth it must have taken place after 1509 when Henry came to the throne and when Elizabeth had secured a court appointment as one of his wife’s ladies. Henry tended to draw his mistresses from the households of his wives and this is therefore not impossible in relation to Elizabeth: both Mary Boleyn and her predecessor, Bessie Blount, were members of the queen’s household. Skelton’s description suggests that Elizabeth Howard was a beautiful woman with an extrovert personality and she may therefore have captured the king’s attention.
In 1509 she was in her mid-thirties and still attractive. Henry VIII’s taste in women, although fairly eclectic, does suggest an interest in more mature women: his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, with whom he believed himself to be in love, was twenty-four at the time of their marriage, while Henry was seventeen. Anne Boleyn was probably already aged twenty-six at the time that she first caught the king’s eye, eventually marrying him when she was in her early thirties. Jane Seymour was aged around twenty-seven or twenty-eight at the time of her marriage, while Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, was thirty-one. Admittedly, one of the criticisms levelled at the appearance of Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was that when she arrived in England for the first time she was found to look older than expected. However, there is no evidence that Henry himself voiced this complaint, instead directing his criticism to her figure, manner and personal hygiene. Even Henry’s mistresses tended not to be young girls: he is believed to have been involved with the married Anne Hastings early in his reign, as well as the mature Jane Poppincourt. The exceptions to this are Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who may have been as young as fifteen at the time of her marriage and was certainly under twenty, and his mistresses Bessie Blount and Mary Boleyn, who were in their late teens and early twenties respectively.
The idea that Elizabeth Boleyn might have been Henry VIII’s mistress early in his reign cannot be entirely dismissed. However, Throckmorton’s letter, which has the king himself denying an affair with Elizabeth while failing to deny one with her eldest daughter, is probably conclusive. Henry had no reason to lie about an affair with his future mother-in-law while tacitly admitting to having one with his future sister-in-law, since both relationships would have made the validity of his marriage to Anne Boleyn suspect. The evidence suggests that Elizabeth and Henry were not lovers, with the first member of Elizabeth’s immediate family to consummate her relationship with the king being instead her niece, Elizabeth Carew, who was the daughter of her half-sister, Margaret Bryan, and had been suggested as a royal mistress early in the reign.40 That said, the obvious rumours that something had occurred between Elizabeth and the king hint at a flirtation and it is likely that Henry made his attraction to her known at court, even if it was not actually acted upon. He certainly found the women of her family attractive: marrying her daughter, Anne, her niece, Catherine Howard, and the daughter of her first cousin, Jane Seymour. The king also had an affair with Elizabeth’s daughter, Mary, her niece, Elizabeth Carew, and was rumoured to be attracted to another niece, Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond. It would not have harmed Thomas Boleyn’s career, or the court prospects of Elizabeth’s kin, if the king had indeed been attracted to her early in the reign.
One final issue concerning Elizabeth Howard that is worthy of investigation concerns the statement, first posited by Agnes Strickland in the nineteenth century and later followed by other historians, that Elizabeth died in 1512 in childbirth.41 Strickland then claimed that Thomas Boleyn took a second wife of humble origin, something which allowed Elizabeth I to have a connection with some of her poorer subjects in Norfolk. The source from which Strickland took her statement on Elizabeth’s death appears to have confused her with her sister, Muriel, who did indeed die in 1512. In addition to this, the statement that Elizabeth I had humble maternal relatives in Norfolk also appears to have been a misreading of the sources, with a nineteenth-century commentator on Strickland’s claims pointing out that these humble maternal relatives were actually members of the Boleyn family in Norfolk rather than kin to any unidentified stepmother. There is really no evidence to support a claim that Elizabeth Howard died in 1512 and, instead, a great deal of evidence to suggest that she was the Countess of Wiltshire who died in April 1538 and was buried at Lambeth, which was, of course, the burial ground of the Howards, with Howard mourners in attendance. Elizabeth appears in sources with reasonable regularity after 1512 although, as set out above, she spent a considerable portion of her time in the country, attending to the education of her children.
The first of Elizabeth’s three children to leave home was her younger daughter, Anne. Anne Boleyn’s childhood came to an end abruptly in the summer of 1513 when she was sent to Brussels to take up a position as one of the maids in the household of Margaret of Austria. This was a very prestigious post and can only have come about through the friendship that had developed between Margaret and Thomas during his embassy the previous year. Soon after Anne’s arrival, Margaret wrote personally to Thomas Boleyn to confirm that his daughter had arrived safely and to state that Anne ‘was very welcome to me, and I hope to treat her in such a fashion that you will have reason to be content with it; at least be sure that until your return there need be no other intermediary between you and me than she; and I find her of such good address and so pleasing in her youthful age that I am more beholden to you for having sent her to me than you are to me’.42
Anne quickly learned French, as her father, who was himself fluent in the language, had hoped, writing to him proudly in French from Margaret’s court. Elizabeth must also have been with pleased with reports of Anne’s progress. It is not impossible that Anne met Henry VIII for the first time in August 1513 when Margaret moved her court to Lille to meet with the English king and his retinue, which included Thomas Boleyn. Her time in Brussels was brief and in late 1514 she left Margaret to serve the new Queen of France.
While Thomas was responsible for launching the career of the couple’s younger daughter, Elizabeth was the driving force behind the debut of her eldest child. In 1514, when Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, was sent to France to marry the aged King Louis XII, she was attended by Mary Boleyn who obtained a permanent position in her household.43 Elizabeth’s half-brother, Lord Berners, was appointed as chamberlain to Mary Tudor, while her brother, the Earl of Surrey, also attended the wedding in France, making it highly likely that it was Elizabeth who was able to use her family connections to ensure that her eldest daughter did not miss out on such a sought-after and highly prestigious position. Mary Boleyn was soon joined by her sister, Anne, in France, apparently against the wishes of her father, who had hoped that she could remain in the Netherlands. By 1514 both of her daughters had left home, which may account for the fact that references to Lady Boleyn at court increase after this period. For Elizabeth’s two daughters, it was to be their time in France that defined their characters and their futures in the years to come as they developed their careers as courtiers.