Anne Boleyn’s Stepmother: A Life Not Lived
The first misfortune that befell Anne was the loss of her mother, Lady Boleyn, who died in the year 1512, of puerperal fever…. Sir Thomas Boleyn married again; at what period of life we have no record, but it is certain that Anne’s stepmother was a Norfolk woman of humble origin.
— Agnes Strickland, Lives of the Queens of England
A combination of a misreading and a misprinted date in a memorial of the Howard family were, according to Philip Sergeant, the causes of Agnes Strickland’s mistaken “furnishing of a stepmother” for Anne Boleyn. Having read that Elizabeth Howard died before 1520 and yet seeing references to “Lady Wiltshire”, the wife of Thomas Boleyn, which extended past Anne’s death, she concluded that Thomas Boleyn must have become a widower and then married again. She also deduced that Anne must have been “tenderly attached” to this mysterious woman, who after all had accompanied her to court. The truth, as Sergeant demonstrated in his 1924 biography The Life of Anne Boleyn, is less opaque: “We cannot get away from the fact that the Lady Wiltshire who died on April 3rd, 1538, was interred in the Howard aisle of Lambeth church four days later …. and there was formerly on a tomb in the Howard aisle the inscription, “Elizabeth Howard, sometime Countess of Wiltshire.” Sergeant’s book appeared in 1924, but to generations of authors raised on a Strickland diet, the news would take a remarkably long time to sink in. Therefore Anne has had a variety of stepmothers, most of them remarkably similar — much more similar, in fact, than fictional depictions of Anne’s actual mother, about whose character we know just about as much as that of her fictional successor. So, who is this ghostly woman, and how does she change Anne’s story?
The stepmother makes her first fictional appearance that I know of in two novels published in the same year. In Anne Boleyn (1912) she appears briefly once or twice, welcoming people to Hever but not otherwise much described. King Henry has obviously been speaking with her during his visits there, though.
“That old stepmother of yours says you are willful, and I believe her,” and he laughed to hear her talk, for it amused him.
“My stepmother speaks the truth, Sire,” and she did not laugh with him, but looked soberly serious.
The stepmother gets a slightly more detailed treatment in The Favor of Kings (1912), which she is “a competent, middle-aged housekeeper of no pretensions to birth at all, save the evident fact of her existence, who got on, amiably enough, with them all.” She sets the pattern that many if not all of the future stepmothers would follow; married in middle age, so that she has no children of her own, loving the Boleyn children as if they were hers, awed by the King’s visits and her own visits to court (she wasn’t brought up to expect this sort of thing, after all) comforting Anne after the Henry Percy affair goes south, concerned about her exalted future, and distressed at her end; this stepmother, with a “tear-swollen face”, is last seen attending Anne’s trial.
One attribute which neither book gives her is a name; she’s appeared in many books, but much like the “very handsome young lady” with whom Henry VIII had a fleeting affair in 1534, writers seem reluctant to pick a name when nothing has been ready-supplied. The Concubine (1963) refers to Anne’s stepmother as Lady Bo: “George had given her that name, being, as she shrewdly guessed, unwilling to call her `Mother,’ yet thinking `Lady Boleyn’ too formal.” Lady Bo is plump, pleasant, adores her stepchildren and loves her husband although she’s a bit mystified by him sometimes. (I’m a bit mystified by her appearance also, much as I like her character, since the author has obviously read Sergeant — she quotes him in a chapter header — but still has the stepmother in there). Her marriage to Thomas Boleyn serves, appealingly, as a way to make him a more complex character than the cold-blooded autocrat who so often bestrides the pages of these books. After Anne has quarreled with her father about the proposed marriage to James Butler, we read:
“I don’t see why you should so decry love, Father. I don’t know about our mother, but you love Lady Bo and you married her.”
She had hit her father in his second most vulnerable spot. Sensible, cool-headed, calculating man who had pulled himself out of the mere middle class by his first marriage, what had happened to him one late summer afternoon in Norfolk? A lapse, a total contradiction of all that had so far governed his actions. And it had brought him happiness; he’d never for a moment regretted it ….
He said furiously, “Keep her name out of this, if you please. It’s a different thing altogether. I pleased myself. When you’re my age and have made as much out of as little, and with no help or encouragement from your family, you’ll be entitled to do the same.”
Her stepmother doesn’t have quite this softening effect on her husband in Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) in which her name is Jocunda Boleyn and she is, as usual, an elevated countrywoman who is often disconcerted by her “brilliant” stepchildren but loves them nonetheless and tries to keep them on the straight and narrow: “Unversed as Jocunda was in fashionable ways, she knew a good deal about human nature.” She counsels Anne strongly against accepted the King’s attentions, and is shown breathing a sigh of, as it turns out, unwarranted relief when Anne turns him away, declaring that she cannot be his wife and will not be his mistress.
“Lady Beth” becomes Thomas Boleyn’s second wife in The Tudor Sisters (1971), and while the young Anne, still smarting from her own mother’s death, initially dismisses her yet-unseen stepmother by insisting that her father must have married her for practical reasons: “Our father knows what he is about. He has need of a mother for his children, a housekeeper who will not drain his purse, so he selects a countrywoman of simple tastes. She will not demand court dresses nor jewellery, being but of yeoman stock …. It is a simple, economic expedient for Father to re-marry.” One assumes that since Lady Beth is comparatively lowly born, the “Lady” is derived from her title of Lady Boleyn, much like Lady Bo. But even this analytical Anne is eventually won over; her stepmother is kind, affectionate, and doesn’t try to push Anne into returning these emotions, and a year later Anne is bringing her bouquets and fruit from the orchard, and after the Percy affair takes comfort in her company while rusticating at Hever.
Most often her stepmother is middle-aged, to explain the lack of any young Boleyn half-siblings, but at least once she’s young: in Anne Boleyn (1967) the heroine’s mother is housekeeper for the Boleyn family and takes over most of management duties which the lady of the manor would usually perform — “My lady was Sir Thomas’s second wife (his first wife dying soon after Anne’s birth) and, being of a somewhat delicate constitution and not over-strong, was content to have it so. Young and beautiful, she was much beloved by the children; in return she lavished upon them all the affection that their own mother would have done had she lived.” It’s subtly implied that her childlessness is due to her comparative frailty. Later on she shelters the heroine when she becomes inconveniently pregnant with George Boleyn’s twins, assists with their birth and fetches out baby-linen made by the first Lady Boleyn — “Think how she would have wished above all things that her own son’s children would wear the swaddling clothes she made for her own babes.” Obviously she has a good affect on Thomas Boleyn; while he’s still worldly-minded enough, this is the only book I’ve read in which Thomas is described as “affable.”
With very few exceptions, Anne always loves her stepmother dearly, just as Strickland dictates. When she doesn’t, it’s clear that this not due a defect in the stepmother’s character but rather in Anne’s (hence its happening so rarely). In Anne Boleyn (1932) the ambitious, cold-hearted Anne hates the country and everything about it, as she makes clear. “I am sick of my father’s taunts and his wife’s dull eyes on me. She has not spat in my face and for that I thank her, but none the less I am stale meat here — stale as Mary!” This stepmother, described as “poor good Lady Boleyn” makes a few feeble tries at keeping her on the steep and thorny way to Heaven (“Girls should let married men be”) but isn’t very effectual; unsurprisingly, she isn’t a strong enough character to receive her own name.
As best I know, Anne’s stepmother last appeared in The Lady In The Tower (1986), where she’s an unnamed bit player; oddly, in the same author’s earlier Anne Boleyn book, Murder Most Royal (1949) she still had her actual mother, not a step; some wires seem to have been crossed along the way. She didn’t have a bad run, considering that she was first debunked in 1924 but managed to hang on for another sixty-plus years, and in a weird way I’ll miss seeing her in future books. Having no historical basis she could be as kind and comforting as the author wished, and she was ideal for bringing out the softer sides of people whose more kindly attributes have otherwise been well concealed from us. Few typographical errors have had such long-lasting or entertaining results.