The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  Ten years later, in 1462, Geoffrey bought the manors of Hever Cobham and Hever Brokays in Kent from William Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele,8 as well as thirteenth century Hever Castle from Sir Thomas Cobham. Sir Geoffrey now moved in the same social circles as the prosperous Paston family (Norfolk neighbors who knew the Boleyns well, and whose surviving letters tell us so much about fifteenth century life), the Norfolk gentry, and even the exalted Howards, who were descended from King Edward I, and at the head of whose house was John Howard, first Duke of Norfolk; the friendship between the Boleyns and the Howards, which would later be cemented by marriage, dated from at least 1469.9

  When he died in 1463,10 Geoffrey was buried in the church of St. Lawrence Jewry by the Guildhall in London. His heir, Thomas Boleyn of Salle, was buried there beside him in 1471,11 when the family wealth and estates passed to Geoffrey’s second son, William Boleyn, Mary’s grandfather, who had been born around 1451; he was “aged 36 or more” in the inquisition postmortem on his cousin, Thomas Hoo, taken in October 1487.12

  The Boleyns had arrived; they were what would soon become known as new men, those who had risen to prominence through wealth, wedlock, and ability. William Boleyn, who—like his father—had supported the House of York during the Wars of the Roses, was dubbed a Knight of the Bath at Richard III’s coronation in July 1483, became a Justice of the Peace, and made an even more impressive marriage than his father, to Margaret Butler, who had been born sometime prior to 1465,13 the younger daughter and co-heiress of Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond.14

  The Butlers were an ancient Anglo-Norman family, whose surname derived from the office of butler (an official who was responsible for the provisioning of wine), which their ancestor, Theobald Walter, had borne in the household of the future King John in 1185. They too were descended from Edward I, and had been earls of Ormond since 1329.15 Thomas Butler was one of the wealthiest peers; he had inherited a fortune of £40,000 (£20 million), and was lord of no fewer than seventy-two manors in England. He sat in Parliament as the premier baron and served as English ambassador to the courts of France and Burgundy. His wife was Anne, daughter and heiress of a rich knight, Sir Richard Hankeford.16

  Before he had come into his inheritance in 1477, Butler had been chronically short of money, and Sir William Boleyn and his mother had continually come to the rescue;17 Butler repaid his debts with the hand of his daughter, and a dowry that would handsomely enrich the Boleyn family.

  Lady Margaret Butler bore Sir William Boleyn eleven children, of whom there were four surviving sons: Thomas, James, William, and Edward. Thomas was the eldest,18 being born in 1477,19 when his mother was probably quite young, although perhaps not as young as twelve, as her mother’s inquisition postmortem suggests. After Richard III, the last Plantagenet monarch, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the Boleyns prudently switched their allegiance to the new Tudor dynasty; in 1490, Sir William was appointed Sheriff of Kent, by which time he was probably dividing his time between Blickling and Hever. King Henry VII, the first Tudor sovereign, demonstrated his trust in him by making him responsible for keeping the peace in his locale, delivering prisoners to the assizes, and placing and guarding the beacons that would herald the approach of the King’s enemies, giving William a commission of array against an invasion by the French, and appointing him Sheriff of Norfolk in 1501. The next year he was made the third of only four Barons of the Exchequer, who sat as judges in the Court of the Exchequer.20

  In 1497, Sir William Boleyn and his son Thomas, now twenty, fought for King Henry VII against the rebels of Cornwall, who had risen in protest against excessive taxation. Again and again the Boleyn family would demonstrate its solid loyalty to the Crown, and in so doing would win the notice and favor of the Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, who valued “new men” who had risen to prominence through trade and the acquisition of wealth, as opposed to the older nobility, whose power, hitherto boosted by private armies, they strove to keep in check.

  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

  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 Lad
y 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

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