Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Worst Marriage of the 16th Century

By Nancy Bilyeau

On November 23, 1511, at the age of thirty-six, Anne of York, born a princess, died, possibly of consumption. She had outlived not only her parents, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, but her two brothers, the tragic Princes of the Tower; her oldest sister, Queen Elizabeth of York; and, saddest of all, her own four children, who died at birth or not long after.
            We don’t know how fervently the widower of Anne of York, Lord Thomas Howard, mourned her passing. It had been a prestigious match for Howard, not least because his father, the Earl of Surrey, fought on the wrong side of the Battle of Bosworth and the newly minted Tudor monarch, Henry VII, consigned him to the Tower of London as punishment. But after Surrey, the son of the first Duke of Norfolk, was released a few years later, he dedicated himself to playing the new game in town. With success.

Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk

Thomas and Anne's union was definitely not the last time a Howard married (or attempted to marry) royalty—the 16th century is littered with the carnage of ambitious Howards. Time and again they struggled to climb that final rung of the dynastic ladder but slipped and fell. Decapitation sometimes followed or, if they were lucky, a stint in the Tower. In fact, through a century of Tudor rule, the Howards cycled in and out of the Tower of London more than any other clan.
But to return to the premature passing of Anne of York, the most significant aspect of her death is how it cleared the way for a disastrous marriage, one that, if it weren’t for the truly over-the-top Henry VIII and his “ill conditioned wives,” would take a leading place on a hall of marital infamy.
With apologies to Jane Austen, a childless man who stands to inherit a dukedom must be in want of a wife. Proud Thomas Howard would settle for nothing less than the best, and so he zeroed in on the children of the man who was at that time the sole duke in England: Edward Stafford, duke of Buckingham (Charles Brandon had not yet been elevated, nor had Howard’s own father). Stafford was rich and had three daughters. The oldest, Elizabeth, was of marriageable age: fifteen. Howard was old enough to be her father. But her own father was not bothered by the age gap--Buckingham approved of the marriage. 

Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham

The young woman in question did not.
For the rest of her life, the word that would be used most often to describe Elizabeth Stafford was “willful,” and she definitely wanted to exercise her own will in marriage.  She had a husband in mind already: her father’s ward, Ralph Neville, her own age and the future earl of Westmoreland. She wrote in a sad letter, years later: “He and I had loved together two years, and I had married him before Christmas, if the widowed Thomas Howard, the earl of Surrey's heir, had not made vigorous suit to my father.
Her wishes were ignored. Elizabeth married Howard on January 13, 1513.
In the early years, it must have seemed to most observers that the marriage succeeded. Elizabeth gave birth to a son within the first year, Henry, the future poet and earl of Surrey; three healthy children followed. Elizabeth traveled with her husband, including two military campaigns to Ireland. She was a success at the court of Henry VIII, becoming a trusted lady in waiting to Katherine of Aragon.
Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk

In the late 1520s, two things happened. First, Howard, by then the third Duke of Norfolk, the Lord Treasurer of England and more than fifty years of age, humiliated his wife by trying to move his mistress, Bess Holland, into official apartments in one of their homes. And second, Elizabeth and Norfolk took opposite sides on the matter of the king’s divorce. Anne Boleyn was half-Howard, and Norfolk supported his niece’s tireless quest to be queen. But Elizabeth, devoted to Katherine, was outraged by the king’s affair with Anne Boleyn. She tried to smuggle foreign messages of support to the spurned queen in a basket of oranges. It was discovered, and Norfolk was embarrassed.
Politics may have strained the marriage, but infidelity destroyed it. Most wives suffered in silence when their husbands took mistresses. Not Elizabeth. Outraged, she complained to everyone, loud and clear. Bess Holland, she said, was a “churl’s daughter.” She wrote: “But because I would not be content to suffer the harlots …therefore, he put me out of doors…He locked me up in a chamber and took away all my jewels.” Elizabeth said that her husband ordered women who served in his household to bind her and sit on her “until I spat blood and he never punished them.” (Elizabeth also later claimed that her husband had assaulted her days after she gave birth to their daughter, but he furiously denied it.)
Elizabeth, Duchess of Norfolk

She had no support. Her father, the Duke of Buckingham, had been executed for treason years ago; his son, Lord Stafford, would not agree to his sister’s return to the family home because of her “sensual and willful” nature. Stafford wrote to his brother-in-law Norfolk: “Her accustomed wild language does not lie in my power to stop.”
For his part, Norfolk claimed his wife was unbearable, that she told “false and abominable lies and has obstinacy against me.” He desperately tried to get her to shut up. She wouldn’t. He offered her a divorce, which she refused (at that time divorces were difficult to obtain). At certain points, intermediaries went back and forth, suggesting reconciliation. But the couple’s mutual hatred ran too deep. They permanently separated in 1533. Elizabeth lived alone in a house in Hertfordshire her husband leased for her; their children did not visit, taking the side of the powerful duke, now the earl marshal of the kingdom. She wrote angry letters for years to Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister, and even to the king himself, protesting her ill treatment.  Elizabeth wrote Cromwell: “Though I be left poor, yet I am content with all, for I am out of danger from my enemies and of the ill life that I had with my husband since he loved Bess Holland first…she has been the cause of all my troubles.”
Norfolk, freed of his hostile wife, had his ups and downs. He turned against Anne Boleyn after she married Henry VIII and was not damaged by her fall. He even presided over her trial. Four years later, when another niece, Catherine Howard, married the king of England, he did not fare as well. The family suffered from the scandal of Catherine’s adultery. They seemed to have righted themselves but the eldest son of Norfolk and Elizabeth, the earl of Surrey, was executed for treason shortly before Henry VIII died. The duke himself was imprisoned in the Tower and was thought to have been spared the axe only by the death of the king. During Norfolk’s long imprisonment through the following reign of Edward VI, the duke’s daughter, Mary, petitioned for his release. At one point the Privy Council said that Norfolk’s “daughter and wife may have recourse to him.” The duke naturally recoiled from the prospect of visits from his long-estranged duchess.

Queen Mary

When Mary took the throne, Thomas Howard, then an incredible eighty years of age, emerged from the Tower of London and plunged into organizing the queen’s coronation and wreaking revenge on his various enemies. He even led a command against the rebels in the Wyatt uprising. But in 1554, the old warrior and schemer died. There was no mention of his surviving spouse in his long will.

Elizabeth seems to have found a place in the family again. She was, after all, on good terms with Queen Mary, the daughter of her friend, Katherine of Aragon.  In June 1557, she served as godmother for her great-grandson, Philip Howard, named after Mary’s husband, Philip of Spain. (In 1595 this same Philip Howard would die of dysentery following a hunger strike in the Tower of London, accused of treason against his second-cousin Elizabeth I.)
But four years later, it was Elizabeth’s turn, and she died in London at the age of sixty-four. Amazingly, she asked to be buried in a Howard chapel. This wish, finally, was not ignored. Elizabeth and Thomas Howard are not buried together but they are joined in a chapel effigy. Reunited at last.
Effigy of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the award-winning Joanna Stafford historical thriller trilogy, "The Crown,"  "The Chalice," and "The Tapestry," set in the 16th century. 
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  1. What a disturbing and confusing but interesting story. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Great story to Elizabeth to stand up to her husband !! I admire women of that time who were strong and stood up for what they wanted, especially in a time when a woman was a chattel..

  3. Love the Tudor era! Fascinating history. I have an historical rival for a bad marriage, though. The marriage between Scipio Minor and Sempronia Gracchus. Sempronia was the sister of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus in second century BCE Rome. When her brother Tiberius was killed by a mob of senators for promulgating land reform, Scipio Minor quoted the words of Homer saying "So perish all other who on such wickedness venture."
    Such were the complications of Roman republican politics that a woman could be married to a deadly enemy of her own family.

  4. All I can say is that has to be scary time to live. And I thought the gossip and back biting in my office was bad. Geez!.

  5. Interesting indeed, though my choice for marital misery in the 16th century -- apart from royalty -- would be Amy Robsart, whether or not she was murdered by her husband Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.

  6. Yikes! A woman scorned and all that. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Very disturbing story. One does not know who to believe. After enduring such treatment that Elizabeth describes, her desire to be buried within this strange family frankly puzzles me.

    1. Maybe it has something to do with rejecting to be cast away. She had the last word, in the end.


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