The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  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, per
haps 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

  Thomas Boleyn’s heir and namesake lived until 1520, and it is probably fair to say that George’s other older brother, Henry Boleyn, was still alive when he was born in 1502–1503; had he not been, this third son might also have been named after the King. Instead, it seems likely that he was called after England’s patron saint, St. George, as the name does not appear elsewhere in the Boleyn family tree, and that he was born around that saint’s day, April 23.67

  These estimated dates of birth suggest that Mary, Thomas, and Henry were the three oldest children, born before 1501 (but not necessarily in that order), and Anne and George the two youngest. There were probably others, given that their mother had a child “every year,” so this sequence cannot be conclusive. What it, and the other evidence, does suggest is that Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard married some years earlier than 1500, and that Mary Boleyn was born between 1496 and 1501.

  The surviving Boleyn children were probably born at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. Prior to his death in 1505, their grandfather, Sir William Boleyn, resided mainly at Hever—he is referred to in old records as “Sir William Boleyn of Hever Castle,”68 and Thomas and his family appear to have lived in the manor house at Blickling. Anne Boleyn’s chaplain, Matthew Parker, who was born in Norfolk, was to refer to himself as her “countryman,” and Sir Henry Spelman, a Norfolk antiquarian writing in the reign of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, wrote: “To Blickling was decreed the honor of Anne Boleyn’s birth.” Given that Anne and Mary were almost certainly born before late 1505 / early 1506, when their father left Blickling for Hever, Mary is likely to have been born at Blickling too; it is also possible, although less credible, that she came into this world in the old manor house at Mulbarton, near Norwich, another Boleyn property in Norfolk, which was part of the Hoo inheritance, and would be sold by Thomas Boleyn in 1535. The Boleyns, like the Pastons and the Heydons, owned a house in Norwich itself, by the River Wensum in King Street, the site of which is next to the fifteenth century house now known as Dragon Hall,69 which could also have been Mary’s birthplace; and of course, she could have been born at Hever Castle, although this is less likely, unless she arrived when her parents were visiting.

  The Blickling Hall of the Boleyns no longer exists. The absence of a license to crenellate, and Leland’s description—as Griffiths points out, he used the word “fair” to describe decorated houses—suggest that it had no defensive features and was probably a manor house like the one of molded brick and tile that survives at East Barsham, Norfolk, which was built around 1520. Possibly Sir William Boleyn or his son, Thomas, carried out improvements at Blickling. Their house was surrounded by yew hedges that still survive today, and was acquired in a decaying state from Sir Edward Clere by the Hobart family in 1616. By 1619 it had been largely demolished to make way for the present Jacobean house. Parts of Sir Geoffrey Boleyn’s house—the western service range and sections of the north wing, including the parlor, withdrawing chamber, and one end of the long gallery—were incorporated into the new one and survived until 1767. These parts, including a gabled building with Tudor windows in the north wing, can be seen in eighteenth century prints by Edmund Prideaux. The old moat is now a flower garden.

  By November 1501, possibly through the influence of his Howard in-laws, Thomas Boleyn had begun to make his mark at court. That month, he was present at the wedding of Henry VII’s heir, Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, to a pretty, golden-haired Spanish princess, Katherine of Aragon, which was celebrated in great splendor in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.70 In August 1503, after Arthur had tragically died at just fifteen, and his younger brother Henry, now twelve years old, had been made Prince of Wales in his stead and betrothed to the widowed Katherine, Thomas Boleyn was among the escort appointed to conduct the King’s daughter Margaret to Scotland to marry King James IV.71 In 1507, Thomas held the post of “yeoman of the Crown” at the port of (King’s) Lynn in Norfolk.72

  Sir William Boleyn died on 10 October 1505, and was buried in Norwich Cathedral, in a plain tomb bearing the Boleyn arms, which had been built as a family mausoleum by his mother in 1463, after lightning struck the spire and a great fire had damaged the presbytery.73 His sister Anne is buried nearby, her tomb marked by a brass.

  Thomas Boleyn’s financial problems were solved by his father’s death, for he inherited the family wealth and lands, including the manors of Blickling, Calthorpe, and Wickmere, which had been purchased by Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, and were all located north of Aylsham in Norfolk. Not far off were Heydon and Baconsthorpe, where there were Boleyn family connections, and nearby lived other relatives, the Calthorpes, the Sheltons, and the Cleres. Blickling, the family seat, was by far the most important Boleyn property in the area. To the south lay Norwich, and the nearby manor of “Micklebarton” (listed in Domesday Book as “Molkebertuna”) or Mulbarton, which was also part of Thomas Boleyn’s inheritance; on occasion he may well have stayed in the original moated manor house on the site of the Elizabethan Old Hall.

  Thomas Boleyn also came into possession of other manors in Norfolk: Filby on the Norfolk Broads, bought by his father in 1501; Stiffkey, on the marshes between Wells and Blakeney; Hoe, or Hoo, just north of East Dereham, as distinct from the manor of Hoo in Bedfordshire, which he also inherited; and West Lexham, near Castle Acre; there was also Cockernhoe in Hertfordshire (now part of the urban sprawl of Luton), an estate of the manor of (Great) Offley, three miles to the north, which Thomas sold in 1518, both also from the Hoo inheritance; Seal (near Sevenoaks), purchased by Sir Geoffrey in 1463, and Hever Castle, both in Kent.74 The Boleyns probably never resided in most of the manors Thomas inherited, but would have lived off the profits instead.

  This was the close-knit social milieu in which Mary and her siblings spent their early years, the kind of society described so vividly in the letters of the Paston family. But for all their long tenure there, the Boleyns have left few traces in Norfolk, apart from a few graves.

  Thomas Boleyn received royal license to take possession of his estates in February 1506.75 Under the terms of his father’s will, he was to pay his widowed mother, Lady Margaret, 200 marks (nearly £2,000) yearly for her maintenance. By February 1506 he had left Blickling,76 which he seems to have been happy to abandon (and for which he paid 3s.6d. [£85] every thirty weeks for castle guard to the Bishop of Norwich77), and moved with his family, taking his mother with them, to Hever, which was more convenient for London and the court; in 1538 he would tell Thomas Cromwell that he had lived “these thirty-three years” in Kent.78

  Mary Boleyn was between five and ten years old when she came to live in the thirteenth century castle at Hever, where she would spend the remainder of her formative years. Set amid parkland and forest in the beautiful, undulating Kentish countryside, three miles southeast of Edenbridge, it was—and still is—an idyllic place. Originally a fortified farmhouse and keep built around 1270 by the Norman de Hever family, it was not crenellated until 1384, when it was owned by Sir John de Cobham. The oldest surviving parts are the thirteenth century three-story gatehouse, outer defensive wall and moat, and the fourteenth century battlements.

  In 1462–63, Mary’s great-grandfather, Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, had begun converting the castle into a moated manor house; his works were carried on by his son, Sir William Boleyn, and some can still be seen today: the ceiling in the room now called “King Henry VIII’s Bedchamber” dates from 1462, while the main doorway from this period still survives opposite the one created by Geoffrey’s grandson, Sir Thomas Boleyn,
who began making further improvements as soon as he acquired the castle. Around 1506 he installed mullioned windows, added the present entrance hall, the staircase gallery above it, and a ninety-eight-foot-long gallery above the great hall (which had hitherto had exposed rafters). This is one of the earliest examples of a long gallery in England.

  But the Hever that Mary grew up in was not the Hever we know today, for the decaying castle—which had reverted to use as a farmhouse—was extensively altered and refurnished in the early twentieth century by the American business magnate, William Waldorf Astor, who substantially remodeled the interior and replaced the courtyard facades. A drawing executed by Joseph Nash between 1838 and 1849 shows the courtyard as it was before a disastrous earlier restoration in 1898, when its old mullioned windows were removed and a timber-framed cladding was attached to the walls. In Tudor times there was a brick bridge across the moat.

  The present dining hall was then the great hall (not paneled until 1906); a nineteenth century narrative painting, The Yule Log, by Robert Alexander Hillingford (on display at Hever), shows the Boleyns’ great hall with its screens passage still intact, as it was before the restorations. In Mary’s day the present library was probably a steward’s office, the morning room was probably the private parlor, and the Edwardian great or “inner” hall was the kitchen, which had a large fireplace and a well sunk in the floor. The long gallery was not paneled until Elizabethan times; another of Nash’s drawings shows it much as it was in the late sixteenth century. There was stained glass in the Tudor castle, but the only piece that survives is now in the elaborately reconstructed minstrels’ gallery above the dining hall. The Tudor stables with their oak balcony and a large ancient barn were demolished in 1898; the balcony and the roof tiles were later incorporated into William Waldorf Astor’s Tudor Village. The gardens were extensively remodeled, and the lake dug, in the early 1900s, so they could not, as has been imaginatively claimed, have “provided a romantic setting for visits paid by the King to Anne Boleyn.”79

 
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