Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Elizabeth Howard - The Queen's Mother

by Judith Arnopp

Believed to be Elizabeth Boleyn nee Howard

Queen Elizabeth I, as we know, was named after her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth of York, the flower of the Plantagenets who, by marrying Henry Tudor, strengthened and secured his throne. Queen Elizabeth’s ‘other’ grandmother, the mother of Anne Boleyn, was also an Elizabeth and, unlike her daughter and granddaughter, is often bypassed in the history books.

Elizabeth Howard was the eldest daughter of Thomas Howard (2nd Duke of Norfolk) by his first wife, another Elizabeth – this time by the name of Tilney. Through her father’s line Elizabeth Howard was directly descended from Edward II.

John Howard, the old Duke of Norfolk fought in King Richard's vanguard and perished at the Battle of Bosworth. As a result his estates were forfeit and his heir, Thomas Howard, faced had an uphill battle to gain favour with the new Tudor king. His estates were not restored until 1489. As a girl, Elizabeth served in the household of his queen, Elizabeth of York, and later as lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. During this period rumours began to circulate that the young Henry VIII  was romantically involved with Elizabeth Howard but most historians now discount them. 

Anne Boleyn
 Before Henry and Anne were married, because of his affair with Mary Boleyn (Anne’s sister), he asked for a dispensation, ensuring there was no impediment to his marriage. He made no mention of a relationship with Elizabeth and another story says that when it was suggested in his presence that Henry had slept with all three Boleyn women, the king scotched the rumour with the words, ‘Never with the Mother.’ It would make little sense to confess to one affair and lie about another, when both would equally affect his marriage to Anne.

In her early years at court, Elizabeth was courted by a friend and ally of her father, the upwardly mobile Thomas Boleyn, a diplomat in the king’s service. They were wed in the 1490's and Elizabeth gained the titles of Countess of Ormond and Viscountess Rochford. 

After many unsuccessful pregnancies Elizabeth presented Thomas with three surviving children, all of whom were to become notorious. Mary, later mistress to King Francis I and Henry VIII; Anne, to become Queen Consort to Henry VIII and George who, had it not been for his proximity to his royal sister, would have remained in relative obscurity, instead died with her on the scaffold, accused of treason and incest.

Mary Boleyn
While Thomas Boleyn was Ambassador in France  his daughters, Mary and Anne, served as ladies in waiting to Queen Claude. It is probable that Elizabeth was with them there. What she made of her eldest daughter’s interlude with the French king is anybody’s guess but historian M. L. Bruce in his book Anne Boleyn claims that Thomas and Elizabeth developed ‘feelings of dislike’ for Mary. 

Later rumours that the French king referred to Mary as his ‘English mare’ and a ‘great whore, the most infamous of all’ may have made the situation worse.  Possibly as a measure to protect her reputation a marriage was arranged between Mary and William Carey, a gentleman courtier and friend of Henry VIII. Unfortunately, this only served to put Mary in the way of the English king who was quickly smitten and began an affair with her.
When the ever-fickle Henry set his eyes on her sister Anne, his interest in Mary began to wane. The rumours that Mary’s children, Henry and Catherine Carey, were in fact the king's persist to this day and a study of the portraits do show some convincing resemblances to the monarch.

Catherine Carey: Mary's daughter, showing a resemblance to the king.
Mary’s misdemeanors didn’t end there and after the death of her husband to the sweating sickness in 1528 she formed a liaison and secretly married a commoner, William Stafford. Mary could have made a brilliant second match, and the king and queen saw her marriage to Stafford as a great insult. As a result Mary was banished from court, her relationship with her Boleyn family apparently severed. It is interesting to note that Mary was not shunned by her family while a royal mistress and valuable to the Boleyn cause but only after her unsuitable, unprofitable marriage.

Elizabeth’s relationship with her younger daughter appears to be rather different. It may have been that Anne was more intellectual, less given to impulse than her sister or it may have been that, unlike her sister, Anne did so much more to boost the standing of the Boleyn family, putting her head before her heart. Anne and her mother shared a love of music, theology and reading and when Anne arrived at court in the early years of her relationship with Henry, Elizabeth was at her side and remained part of her daughter’s household until the queen’s execution in 1536.

Henry VIII: showing a resemblance to Catherine Carey
As a mother myself I can scarcely contemplate even the idea of witnessing my own children reviled throughout the kingdom, accused of the most dreadful of crimes, treason, fornication  and incest, and finally executed as traitors to the king. 

We can only speculate on Elizabeth’s state of mind at this time but I am quite certain that she would have known them to be innocent, she would have prayed for some sort of reprieve and her feelings of powerlessness must have been immense. For Elizabeth, I am quite sure, the loss of her children in such circumstances, the bastardisation of her granddaughter and namesake, the princess Elizabeth (now to be addressed only as Lady) would have outweighed the loss of her own status.

We do not know if she was present for the executions; I rather hope not. All we do know is that she retired from court life and died two years later in April, 1538 at Baynard’s Castle. She now lies, not with her husband in the Boleyn tomb at Hever, but in the Howard chapel at St Mary’s in Lambeth.


You can read more about Judith Arnopp and her novels on her webpage:

Further Reading

Bruce, M. L. (1972). Anne Boleyn. London, Collins
Denny, Joanna (2007) Anne Boleyn
Ives, Eric (2004). The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn
Ridgeway, Claire (2012) The Anne Boleyn Collection
Weir, Alison (2009). The Lady in the Tower
Weir, Alison (20011) Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore

Photographs from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi Judith .. what an interesting post. Why do you think Elizabeth, the mother, put power and influence before her children? Was she obeying her husband or did she actively manoeuvre on behalf of the family.

  3. How sad this was. The more I read about court life in Tudor England (and other periods and countries as well) the more I wonder about how families could be so ambitious, since most gains were so short-lived and the consequences so horrifying. To become royal was to be forever afterwards in danger. I can understand why Mary married a commoner, and it was probably her great luck to find herself far, far from this ill-fated family. Banishment from court probably saved her life. :-)

  4. Oh, yes, Mary married for love and lived happily ever after. I believe she has descendants to this day...? I have read Alison Weir's biography of Mary and she makes some convincing arguments for Henry and Catherine not being the king's children. It must indeed have been hard to be Elizabeth Howard, losing both your son and daughter, and in such a dreadful way.

  5. I enjoyed reading and learning about this Elizabeth. Thank you!

  6. Great article as always, but I am somewhat sceptical about the provenance of the picture of Elizabeth shown. It shows a youngish woman and the costume dates it much nearer to that of Catherine Carey - Elizabeth's Grand-daughter. The ruff, sleeves and cap did not come in till the 1550s. I would expect a young Elizabeth to be costumed much more like a "playing card" queen - as a lady in waiting to Elizabeth of York, and a contemporary of Katherine of Aragon.

  7. Being a descendant of the Carey's I read all I can on their history, thanks for a very interesting article. Alison Weirs biography of Mary Bolyen was fascinating and very informative.

  8. As a descendant of the Carey's I found this article interesting. Having read Mary Bolyens biography recently by Alison Weir has enhanced my knowledge of this period in history regarding Mary and William Carey and their offspring.


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