Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  “The Garland of the Laurel” is in part an allegorical poem, but its references to the noble ladies at Sheriff Hutton, Skelton’s “court of fame,” are authentic. In 1523, when the final version was written, Elizabeth Howard (whose parents had wed in 1472 and who must have been at least twelve by c. 1498) would have been aged between thirty-seven and fifty-one, far too old in those days to be lauded a beauty. Internal evidence in the poem suggests that it had been originally composed around 1495.26 It has credibly been suggested that the poem commemorates a pageant that was staged at Sheriff Hutton around May that year, in which Skelton’s “goodly garland” was presented to him. His verses give an illuminating glimpse into the kind of life that Elizabeth Howard led as a young girl growing up in an aristocratic and cultivated household.

  In 1523, when Skelton published his poem, it was probably much in its original form, with a few later additions. But by then his compliment to Elizabeth Howard may have acquired a sting to its tail, as we will see in the next chapter.


  Thomas Boleyn’s union with Elizabeth Howard may have been socially prestigious, but it was certainly not lucrative. Given that her father had to buy back his lands from the King, Elizabeth’s dowry cannot have been great, and she proved a fruitful wife, which stretched Thomas Boleyn’s resources to the limit. In July 1536, in a letter to Henry VIII’s Principal Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, he recalled: “When I married I had only £50 [nearly £25,000] a year to live on for me and my wife, as long as my father lived, and yet she brought me every year a child.”27 By this reckoning, Elizabeth was producing children annually at least up to 1505. This early struggle to make ends meet may have been responsible for Thomas Boleyn’s notorious avariciousness in later years.

  Only four of the children survived infancy: “Thomas Bullayne,” whose grave in Penshurst Church, Kent, is marked by a cross and the date 1520, Mary, Anne, and George. Of the rest, we know only the name of one son, Henry, whose resting place is marked by a small brass adjacent to his father’s tomb in Hever church; he probably died young. There may well have been others whose names have not come down to us. This constant childbearing renders dubious claims that Elizabeth Howard was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth of York, who died in 1503,28 unless of course she had held that post prior to her marriage, but there is no evidence for this.

  Scholars have long disputed which of the surviving daughters was the oldest, some insisting that it was probably Anne,29 but there survives good evidence that it was Mary.30 Mary’s grandson, George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon,31 in a letter to Thomas Cecil, Lord Burghley, dated October 6, 1597, was to argue that he ought to be granted the earldom of Ormond in right of his grandmother, stating that “my grandmother was the eldest daughter and sole heir” of Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond—and he was in a position to know the truth. He also asserted that Mary “sued her livery [pressed her claim], as by the record of the same doth and may appear,” although that record does not survive. Had she been successful, she and her husband, William Stafford, would have become Earl and Countess of Ormond, but that was never likely, because, with Thomas Boleyn’s other heirs attaindered, half of his inheritance had gone to the Crown, which had an equal claim to the earldom.

  But George Carey had been reared in the hope that it would be restored. “My late lord father,” he wrote (referring to Henry Carey, 1st Lord Hunsdon, Mary’s son), “as resolved by the opinion of heralds and lawyers, ever assured me that a right and title was to descend on me to the earldom of Ormond, which, if he had lived to this Parliament, he meant to have challenged … In that Sir Thomas Boleyn was created Viscount Rochford and Earl of Ormond to him and his heirs general [i.e., both male and female], Earl of Wiltshire to him and his heirs male32 by whose death without issue male the earldom of Wiltshire was extinguished, but the earldom of Ormond, he surviving his other children before that time attaindered, he in right left to his eldest daughter Mary, who had issue Henry, and Henry myself.”

  George Carey was working on the assumption that, as the heir of Mary, the elder sister, he had a better right to the earldom than Elizabeth I herself, whom he admitted to be co-heir to it in right of her mother, “Anne, the youngest daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Ormond.” But, he concluded, “admit now an equality of descent, then is it to be considered whether my Grandmother, being the eldest daughter, ought not to have the whole dignity?”33

  With Queen Elizabeth’s rights to her executed mother’s confiscated property having been restored to her by Parliament early in her reign, George Carey, the most loyal of subjects, would hardly have considered claiming a peerage that, by his reckoning, would have been the Queen’s by right, had she been the elder daughter. In the event, though, Carey never presented his petition to Elizabeth. Probably he was advised not to pursue the matter, for since the restitution of Elizabeth’s rights, Mary Boleyn could now be regarded only as a co-heir to the earldom, not the sole heir;34 legally, at this date, it did not matter which sister was the elder. And anyway, the earldom had reverted to the Butlers on Thomas Boleyn’s death in 1539.

  Other evidence that Mary was the elder daughter is to be found in a marginal note made by William Camden in the manuscript of his Annales rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum regnante Elizabetha, published in 1615; here, he states that Anne was begotten by Thomas Boleyn “among other children.” Had she been the eldest daughter, Camden would surely have described her thus. In 1585, for what his evidence is worth, Nicholas Sander, one of the chief Catholic historians of the Reformation—of whom we will hear more later—called Mary the elder of the Boleyn sisters.

  Other later sources have confused the issue. In 1619, Ralph Brooke, York Herald, in his A Catalogue and Succession of the Kings, Princes, Dukes, Marquesses, Earls and Viscounts of this Realm of England, wrote that “Anne … was second daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn,” yet contradicted himself by referring elsewhere to “Anne the eldest, Mary the second daughter.”

  Confusion seems to have reigned in one branch of the Carey family. Mary’s great-granddaughter, George Carey’s daughter Elizabeth, married Thomas, the heir of the Berkeleys, a noble Gloucestershire family, in February 1596. In a manuscript in the Berkeley collection written in 1584, twelve years before Elizabeth Carey’s marriage, Mary is called “the second daughter and co-heir of Thomas Boleyn.” This could well be an error, but on the tombstone of Elizabeth Carey, Lady Berkeley, who died in 1635, Mary is again referred to as the second daughter, as she is also described in a manuscript, “Lives of the Berkeleys,” compiled over four decades and completed in 1618 by John Smyth of Nibley, steward to the family from 1596 to 1640. If Smyth repeated the earlier error in the records, from 1584, it was never corrected, although the occasion may not have arisen. There remains the matter of the epitaph; it may be that, after Lady Berkeley’s death, her family merely found this information in their papers, or obtained it from the possibly misinformed Smyth, who was still alive.

  It would have been odd if Elizabeth Carey, who was Queen Elizabeth’s goddaughter, was under the impression that her great-grandmother was the younger of the Boleyn sisters, when her father, George Carey, had taken such pains to demonstrate that she was the elder. Yet there is no hard evidence that Elizabeth Carey herself did believe that Mary was the younger; or it is just possible that, if she had been told by her father that he had been advised not to pursue his claim, she decided to distance herself from it by pretending that her great-grandmother had indeed been the younger daughter. In either case, it is far likelier that George Carey, Mary Boleyn’s grandson, knew the truth of the matter.35

  As late as 1631, John Weever, in his Ancient Funeral Monuments, called Anne Boleyn the eldest daughter, but without revealing his source. Weever was not born until 1576, and his work has been shown to be inaccurate, and plagiarized, in parts, and therefore his evidence, according to Professor Ives, is “totally implausible” when compared to the claim and arguments of George Carey.

  In Harleian ms. 123
3, fol. 81, there is a pedigree of the Boleyn family that was probably drawn up in the reign of Charles I: this too describes Mary as “second dau.” The College of Arms holds another pedigree, formally attested in 1679 to be “proved out of certain Registers and Memorials remaining in ye College of Arms,” which gives Anne as the “eldest daur.” and Mary as “daur. and heir.” Yet Mary’s seniority is supported by the wording of the Letters Patent of 1532 creating Anne Boleyn, “one of the daughters” of Sir Thomas, Lady Marquess of Pembroke.36 Had Anne been the elder, she would surely have been described as such. Mary was also the first sister for whom a husband was found, another indication of her seniority,37 for it was customary in England for landed families to marry off their daughters in order of seniority. Retha Warnicke, relying on Weever, believes that Mary was the younger sister and that the Boleyns flouted this convention because Anne was still in France and they were hoping that she would make a grand match there; but this theory flies in the face of the other compelling evidence to support Mary being the elder of the two, on a balance of probabilities.38

  It is worth saying that this debate over seniority has raged for well over a century, and is never likely to be resolved to the satisfaction of all historians.

  Further controversy surrounds the dates of birth of the Boleyn siblings. The actual date of the marriage of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard is not recorded; the dates most often given or suggested are 1498 or 1500.39 We know, from the evidence of Skelton’s poem, that Elizabeth was still unwed in May 1495, but all we can surmise is that she married Thomas sometime between then and 1498, the latest possible date estimated on the evidence for the probable births of their children, as laid out below.

  There survives, however, what seems to be the jointure settled on Elizabeth Howard, dating from shortly before November 29, 1501, and granting her manors for the term of her life,40 which must have been made after her marriage, because at this period “the marriage contract created the jointure, which did not exist without it.”41 Marriage contracts would commonly state that a dowry was being paid “in consideration” of the bridegroom’s family’s promise to settle a jointure on the bride,42 a jointure being the legal provision made for a wife in the event of her husband’s death.

  It was not until the reign of Henry VIII that jointures had to be made before marriage. Prior to that, they were often settled within a year of marriage, but there was in fact no time limit,43 and sometimes the bridegroom failed to establish any jointure at all, so this cannot be seen as conclusive evidence for the date of the wedding, although it supports the other evidence that the marriage had taken place in recent years, with 1498 being the date most frequently suggested.44

  In order to estimate Mary Boleyn’s possible birth date, we must look at the evidence for her sister Anne’s, which is much more plentiful. According to the marginal note made by William Camden in 1615, Anne was born in 1507, the date also given by Henry Clifford in his memoir of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria, printed in 1643, long after it was written; according to the latter, Anne was “not twenty-nine years of age” at the time of her execution in 1536. That would place her date of birth either in 1507, after May 19, or in 1508. Jane Dormer, who assisted in the preparation of Clifford’s work, had been born two years after Anne’s death, and later became one of the maids of honor and close confidantes of Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Mary I. She could have obtained this information from people at court (including Mary herself) who had known Anne—but if she did, it was almost certainly incorrect, for there is good evidence that Anne was not born in 1507.

  William Roper, Sir Thomas More’s son-in-law, whose biography of More was finished around 1556, went so far as to claim that Anne was born as late as 1512, but that date does not fit with the other evidence and is obviously far too late, because we have records of her at the court of Margaret, Archduchess of Austria, the following year.

  Writing more than seventy years later, John Weever, who must have seen a translation of Camden’s work, claimed that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn fell in love when he was thirty-eight and she twenty-two, again placing her birth in 1507.45 But by June 1529, when Henry was thirty-eight, he had been pushing for an annulment of his marriage for two years, and had been pursuing Anne for at least fifteen months before that; furthermore, Weever states elsewhere that Anne was twenty-two when she returned to England from France early in 1522 and entered the service of Katherine of Aragon, yet there is no evidence to suggest that Henry VIII fell in love with her at this early date, when he was only thirty-one. It would therefore be unwise to rely on Weever, whose dates are hopelessly confused, yet have been cited to bolster theories that Anne was born in 1507 or 1499.46

  The identification, in 1876, of the skeleton of a woman aged twenty-five to thirty as Anne Boleyn, during excavations in the royal chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, was based on her having been born in 1507; other remains, of a woman aged thirty to forty, may well have been Anne’s, but were reburied without further examination as those of her sister-in-law, Jane Parker, Lady Rochford.47 Thus, archeological evidence is of little use in confirming Anne’s likely age.

  A century ago James Gairdner accepted Camden’s date of 1507, and some modern writers still do.48 Warnicke has argued that Weever’s information was accurate, and that the age gap of sixteen years would have been worthy of comment in Tudor times; but, as any study of aristocratic pedigrees will show,49 many women did go on bearing children into their forties, and there was often great disparity in age between couples in an era in which marriages were arranged for profit or advantage, so Henry’s sixteen years’ seniority would not have been seen as exceptional.

  Furthermore, if Anne was born in 1507, she would have been only six years old when she was sent abroad to the court of Margaret of Austria in 1513, and seven when she transferred to the court of France the following year. What settles the matter is a well-authenticated letter written by Anne to her father in 1513–14,50 which is clearly written in the well-formed hand of an educated teenager, not a child of seven.51

  On the evidence of this letter, Hugh Paget effectively demonstrated in 1981 that Anne was probably born around 1501, a credible date put forward as long ago as 1842 by Agnes Strickland. It is supported by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Henry VIII’s seventeenth century biographer, who had access to sources lost to us, and states that Anne was twenty when she left the French court early in 1522. William Rastell, the mid-sixteenth-century biographer of Sir Thomas More, and the admittedly unreliable Gregorio Leti, whose life of Elizabeth I was suppressed by the Catholic Church, both suggest that Anne was born around 1499–1500. Any date between 1499 and 1502 would therefore seem to be a reliable estimate, with 1501 being the likeliest date. Certainly that would make sense of the Imperial ambassador describing Anne as “that thin old woman” in 1536,52 for in an age in which female life expectancy was around thirty years, women were considered to be middle-aged by their mid-thirties.

  It may be that Camden, or someone before him, misread the date 1501 for 1507—an error easily made—and that other early writers repeated the error.53

  Mary was older than Anne, so she must have been born in 1500–01 at the very latest, probably earlier, although there may well have been no more than a year between them.54 Mary’s year of birth is usually given as 149855 or 1499.56 On the assumption that, in common with so many little girls in those days, she was named for the Virgin Mary, it has been claimed that her actual birth date was around March 25,57the Feast of the Annunciation, popularly known as Lady Day. It has also been suggested58 that Mary was named after the Princess Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VII, who was born in March 1496, and whom Mary was later briefly to serve. If so, that might place Mary Boleyn’s date of birth (and her parents’ marriage) a year or two earlier.59

  It has been further asserted that Mary’s sister Anne was named for St. Anne and born around that saint’s day, July 26.60 She might also have been named after her great-aunt, Anne Butler, the wife of Sir
James St. Leger,61 yet Anne was a popular name in the Boleyn family; two, possibly three, daughters of Sir William Boleyn had been named after his aristocratic mother, Anne Hoo, which suggests there was a tradition that the name of the heiress who had been one of the chief sources of Boleyn wealth and status should be kept in the family. However, it is also credible that Anne was named after her aunt-by-marriage, Princess Anne of York, who had been married to Elizabeth Howard’s brother, Thomas, Earl of Surrey, in February 1495.

  Given that Anne was probably born around 1501, Mary, who was older, cannot have been born as late as 1503–1504, as has been suggested,62 nor can she have been only about twelve years old in 1520.63Furthermore, it has been rightly said that “the circumstances of Mary’s life fit much better” if she had been born in 1500 or earlier, rather than some years later.64

  We do not know the dates of birth of the other children who died young, and who may have come between Mary and Anne, but Thomas, named after his father and perhaps his grandfather, the Earl of Surrey, was almost certainly the eldest son, and Henry, perhaps named for King Henry VII, may well have been the second. George Boleyn was probably the youngest of the three surviving siblings: he was described by George Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey’s Gentleman Usher, as being under twenty-seven when he was preferred to the Privy Council in 1529,65 so he must have been born in 1502 at the earliest, or 1503. This dating is corroborated to a degree by Jean du Bellay, the French ambassador, who expressed the opinion that George was too young to be sent to France as England’s ambassador in 1529.66

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