Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir

  The detail in Thomas Boleyn’s tomb brass suggests that some attempt was made to reflect his true appearance. It is the image of a dignified man with the long face, high cheekbones, and pointed chin that were inherited by his daughter Anne and his grandson, Lord Hunsdon. He has strong features, wavy hair cut straight at chin level, and the hint of a close-cropped beard. His coat of arms, sporting three bulls’ heads, while being a play on his name, also symbolized his valor, bravery, and generosity. In the case of the latter, it was little more than flattery.

  Thomas was a gifted linguist, more fluent in French than any other courtier, and proficient at Latin;21 he was also an expert jouster, and these were talents that would make him admired and useful at court. The celebrated humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus, thought him “outstandingly learned,” and was to dedicate two books to him, one of which was a commentary on the Psalms, in which Thomas Boleyn had shown an interest.22

  Thomas was to prove a highly able and hardworking statesman and diplomat, and Henry VIII himself would say that there was no skilled negotiator to equal him.23 He was adept at dealing with his royal master, whose liking for him seems never to have died. Yet although normally affable, even congenial, Thomas Boleyn could also be chillingly dispassionate, brusque, and even insolent, as he showed when on a crucial diplomatic mission to the Holy Roman Emperor in 1530; and when, during an embassy in Rome, the Pope—as was customary—offered his toe to be kissed, and Boleyn’s spaniel bit it, Boleyn refused to kiss it because his dog had defiled it, and so compromised his good relations with the Vatican.

  Although hardworking and diligent, Thomas Boleyn’s besetting vices—by all accounts—were selfishness and avarice; “he could not risk the temptation of money.”24 It was to be said of him that “he would sooner act from interest than from any other motive,”25 and never was that more apparent than when he showed himself willing to participate in the destruction of two of his children in order to protect himself and salvage his own position and career.

  Following in the tradition of his father and grandfather, Thomas Boleyn made a great marriage to Lady Elizabeth Howard, the eldest daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. Surrey was the son of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, who had been killed at the Battle of Bosworth fighting on the wrong side for Richard III. Henry VII had declared the title forfeit and cast the heir into prison, but Thomas Howard gradually recovered royal favor and prospered, with the earldom of Surrey being returned to him just four years later, in 1489, and the dukedom of Norfolk in 1514. Had the Howard fortunes not suffered such a reverse, Master Thomas Boleyn might not have gained such a prize as a Howard bride, even though he was the heir to an impressive landed inheritance and the families were on good terms. Elizabeth was a brilliant match for him, and marriage to her made this ambitious esquire brother-in-law to the sister of the Queen of England, for Elizabeth’s brother, another Thomas Howard (who succeeded his father as the third Duke of Norfolk in 1524), had, in 1495, married Edward IV’s daughter, Anne Plantagenet; Anne’s sister Elizabeth was Henry VII’s queen and the mother of the future Henry VIII.

  The young Elizabeth Howard was very pretty—in his verses dedicated “To My Lady Elizabeth Howard,” the court poet John Skelton compared her to the mythical Trojan beauty Cressida, whose looks far outshone those of the radiant Polyxena, youngest daughter of Priam, King of Troy, and sister of Troilus, whom Cressida was to betray:

  To be your remembrancer, Madam, I am bound:

  Like unto Irene maidenly of porte [bearing],

  Of virtue and cunning the well and perfect ground,

  Whom Dame Nature, as well I may report,

  Hath freshly enbeautied with many a goodly sort

  Of womanly features: whose flourishing tender age

  Is lusty to look on, pleasant, demure and sage.

  Goodly Cressida, fairer than Polyxena,

  For to envy Pandarus’ appetite:

  Troilus, I vow, if that 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.

  In comparing Elizabeth with the artist Irene, the gifted daughter and pupil of the Greek painter Cratinus (to whom Boccaccio refers in his book Famous Women), Skelton is perhaps implying that she had some artistic talent herself.

  In the poem in which these verses appear, “The Garland of the Laurel” (1523), Skelton describes a visit he made to Sheriff Hutton Castle as the guest of Elizabeth’s father, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. In the course of it, the countess, Elizabeth Tylney, was so impressed with Skelton’s poetry that, at her behest, her daughters, Lady Elizabeth and Lady Muriel, with some other ladies—Lady Anne Dacre of the South, Mistress Margery Wentworth (who would marry Sir John Seymour and become the mother of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour), and Margaret Brewes, the wife of Sir Philip Tylney (Surrey’s auditor and steward of Framlingham Castle)—made for him a laureate’s garland of silk, gold, and pearls in honor of his talent. No one could then have dreamed that two of these young ladies would give birth to future queens of England.

  “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. 1233, 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, whi
ch 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.

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