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Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire: Never With The Mother

June 26, 2013

Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the second Duke of Norfolk and sister of the third Duke who would later prove so obstructive to his niece, married Thomas Boleyn near the close of the fifteenth century, when she was roughly twenty years old. It was not a particularly glorious marriage for her, but considering that the Howards had plunked for the losing side at the Battle of Bosworth, it wasn’t a terrible one either — her new spouse might not be a duke, but at least he had some moderately respectable antecedents (the Irish earls of Ormond on his mother’s side) and, of course, a good share of ambition and the work ethic to go with it. What he didn’t have, at least to begin with, was much money; long afterwards, when all but one of his children were dead, he would write that when he married Elizabeth he had only £50 per annum, “yet she brought me every year a child.” (Ives, 17). She had at least two sons who died as young children, and of course there were the three children who survived to adulthood — two of whom would end up indirectly responsible for transforming Elizabeth from a standard-issue sixteenth century aristocrat into someone who, five centuries after her birth, would be remembered in some peculiar ways.

Thomas went up in the world at a steady rate and Elizabeth went with him; she was at court sporadically during the last years of Henry VII and the early years of Henry VIII, and once her daughter began to be courted seriously by Henry VIII, she was noted as being in attendance on a number of occasions. Any real record of personality has either been lost or never existed in the first place, but Anne’s cry on entering the Tower of “O my mother, thow wilt dy of sorow” (Singer, 218) makes it reasonable to suppose that their relationship was at least somewhat affectionate.

Her relationship with Anne aside, her feelings towards Henry VIII were also of intense interest to gossip-mongers then and later. Unlike, for example, the stories about Lady Rochford, there is evidence that rumours about Elizabeth Boleyn and Henry VIII were contemporary. Exhibit A is a letter (entry 952) from Sir George Throckmorton, writing in 1537 and recalling events “six or seven years ago” but judging from the reference to the Act of Appeals (1533) probably closer to four years earlier.

I told your Grace I feared if ye did marry Queen Anne your conscience would be more troubled at length [than it was about the marriage to Catherine] for it is thought ye have meddled both with the mother and the sister. And his Grace said `Never with the mother.’ And my lord Privy Seal standing by said `Nor never with the sister either, and therefore put that out of your mind.’

The fact that the rumour existed doesn’t mean it had any basis in fact — Anne’s situation was scandalous enough, and when you add the king’s previous affair with Mary into it, it’s easy to see how people were happy to embroider the story yet further and award him the trifecta of Boleyn women. Whatever his feelings, or lack thereof, for Anne’s mother, Henry certainly didn’t hesitate to cripple her family permanently when he had her younger daughter and only surviving son executed. Elizabeth died just under two years later, and her husband died a year after her.

Like many others who walk through these novels, her fictional afterlife has featured some remarkably consistent if not historically justified patterns. Unlike others, however, it also featured a spectacular early derail in 1844 when Agnes Strickland misread some genealogical records and thus mistakenly “discovered” that Elizabeth had died in 1512, and supplied Anne with an imaginary stepmother to serve as her “mother” in later life and account for references to the Countess of Wiltshire. (The Strickland misinformation traveled fast — just seventeen years later, in 1861’s Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy, Anne was being attended to by her “stepmother” and she would receive many more during future years). Elizabeth’s imaginary supplanter was universally characterized as warm, loving, wonderful, and caring for the Boleyn children as her own. Elizabeth herself, ironically, has received far less flattering characterizations over the years. Descriptions of her fall into two very distinct camps: she’s either a terrifying stone-cold aristocrat who matches her husband step for step in his doomed ambitions, or she’s the beaten-down, reclusive, unloved spouse who’s shunted aside by her husband and serves as a cautionary tale of unhappy submissive wifehood for Anne. Very occasionally a little individuality peeps through, but for the most part it’s astonishing how many Elizabeths are delivered straight from Column A or Column B. In at least eight books, Elizabeth does in fact have an affair, and in seven of them the affair is with Henry VIII (in a few others, he makes a pass at her but doesn’t succeed. Thomas Boleyn’s reaction to all of this varies).

Elizabeth’s earliest appearance that I’ve found so far is in Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826), in which she appears, unusually even for now, simply as a proud motherly type who’s affectionate to her daughter and granddaughter and pleased that “I and thy good Father” have lived to see Anne crowned.

I’ll not endure that my base epitaph
Write me plain wife of good Sir Thomas Boleyn;
I’ll be emblazed in characters of gold
The mother of Queen Anne.

The poem being what it is, Elizabeth is, naturally, a deeply committed Protestant and close friends with Cranmer.

Elizabeth the haughty aristocrat flourished briefly just before and just after the Second World War, and then went underground for a few decades before roaring back in the 1970s. In Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) Elizabeth appears “chin lifted rather like the proud figurehead of a ship” giving her husband his marching orders about arranging Anne’s marriage to James Butler, and causing the neighbours to whisper among themselves about how the proud Lady Boleyn once assisted in “a branch of Henry’s education” — something which is implied by the text to be true. Thomas Wyatt’s mother uses Elizabeth’s past as an excuse not to betroth him to Anne. Ambitious as Elizabeth is, she’s also hardheaded enough to know a good stopping point. “You are no match for them,” she tells Anne when the latter announces her intention to take on Wolsey and company. Similarly practical, if unsympathetic, is the Elizabeth of The Queen’s Confession (1947), who threatens a sulking Anne with dire reprisal should she refuse to come and meet the lovelorn Henry, who just so happens to have stopped by Hever for a visit:

She rarely lost her temper and was the one person, save the cardinal, who could frighten me, shrinking my soul to child’s size in a glance. But even her threats of marrying me to some old murderer, of locking away my jewels and feeding me on bread and water, did not trouble me this day. I knew myself too valuable a possession to be sold in marriage for them to do me harm.

Just one year later, in Anne of the Thousand Days (1948) Elizabeth had been softened considerably, into a rather sad woman who urged Anne to accept whatever life handed her — “we’re not free to have or take or choose,” and who reminisced sentimentally about the young Henry’s attachment to her. “We danced together a good deal and he had the face of an angel in those days.” One year after this, in 1949’s Murder Most Royal, Elizabeth had been downgraded still further to “Mother is darling, but dull,” and stayed in this muted condition for the next twenty-five years. In Anne Boleyn (1957) Elizabeth is “a dull, rather plain woman, obviously afraid of her husband. Looking at her, Henry found it difficult to believe that she was the Duke of Norfolk’s sister and one of that fierce breed of Howards who had been the scourge of so many Kings of England.”

After a rather sweet throwback to the proudly domestic Elizabeth of the nineteenth century in The Uncommon Marriage (1960) (where she’s a comfortable, stepmotherly type agonizing over the fact that eggs have gone up to 6d apiece) we see her next being dismissed in The Concubine (1963). Elizabeth is already dead when this one opens, but when Anne’s stepmother wishes that the girls had had their mother’s guidance, Thomas says only “God knows what they’d have done with it! Elizabeth was a trollop.” In Anne Boleyn (1967) Elizabeth is also prematurely dead, but is described in retrospect as “young and unworldly” and beaten down by her husband’s ambition while she was alive.

The 1970s Elizabeth would prove to have more stamina. In The Heir of Allington and Feather Light, Diamond Bright (both 1974), she has a full share of her husband’s ambition and had a heavy flirtation with Henry at the very least — it’s implied that this was with Thomas’s tacit approval. In the latter, she’s an affectionate mother when the children are home, but shows strong favoritism towards Anne, much to Mary’s distress. In the former she’s just flat-out cold. In The Last Boleyn (1983) she reverts back to older, trembling victim form, this time living in the shadow of a ruined marriage; the young Henry VIII “offered to make her his mistress,” and when she turned him down out of love for her husband, “my lord Thomas was even more angry with me … indeed, something inside me died, and I knew from then on that the Bullens would live in danger.”

In 1988 appeared the first and, as far as I know, only novel to feature Elizabeth as the one of the point-of-view characters: Blood Royal. It’s an excellent read, and its Elizabeth is a good example of haughty, ambitious type without being a caricature. She’s proud of her family of origin, not so much of her husband’s, and while she initially looks on his ambition as somewhat vulgar, she’s happy to take advantage of the results. While she doesn’t have an affair with Henry (although he tries his hardest to initiate one) she does have a discreet affair with a neighbouring landowner after Anne’s birth has rendered her incapable of further childbearing — considering that she and her husband are essentially a business partnership, she sees no problem with this as long as they don’t get caught. In the end, after Anne’s and George’s deaths, she has her moment of revelation:

“I can no longer stay under the same roof as the man who did nothing to save my son and daughter from death, then crawled on his belly to their murderer — and would do so again to save his skin, I’ve no doubt. I see their blood on your hands, your face is daubed with it. I sicken to look at you. I never loved you, Thomas, or you me, which is not uncommon in our state of life. But I think now that if Anne had seen some love between us she would have grown up to be a gentler woman, and married a man instead of a monster. And I hate you because your gross ambitions made her in part like you and brought her to destruction.”

Thomas protests, truthfully enough, that Elizabeth had ambitions for Anne as well, but not surprisingly she isn’t in the mood to be receptive.

In Threads (2001) Elizabeth is another haughty aristocratic specimen, filled with the spirit of noblesse oblige (she makes sure to retain servants who are old and unemployable elsewhere) but making sure that she doesn’t do anything so weak as exhibit emotion. In a nice variation from the usual pattern, this Elizabeth actually married Thomas Boleyn for love — not the first time this has happened, but in this case, if she lived to regret it she’s far too proud to let anyone know. In The Other Boleyn Girl Elizabeth the Haughty is in full, frightening flower; she and her husband are basically indistinguishable when it comes to their determination to squeeze every possible advantage out of their children, regardless of what it will do to the children themselves — in Elizabeth’s case, she goes so far as to burn the miscarried corpse of Anne’s baby in a fireplace rather than let the king see it. The Elizabeth of Dear Heart, How Like You This? (2002) is less versatile but no more pleasant. “Elizabeth Boleyn was a shallow woman — a woman who appeared only to be happy when she felt herself at the centre of attention.” She doesn’t play much of a role in the book, but it’s notable for a very odd scene in which her husband accuses her of cuckolding him and bearing someone else’s children, the children in question being Anne and George. This particular plotline is never followed up and their “real” father is never a subject of speculation, so whether this Elizabeth is meant to be adulterous or merely the unpleasant victim of an even more unpleasant husband I’m not sure.

Lately, the pendulum seems to have begun swinging back to the postwar depiction of Elizabeth as the downtrodden spouse. In The Boleyn Wife (2007) she defers timidly to her husband’s authority and has little to say for herself, and in Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007) we see her only briefly but her horrible position as a sixteenth-century wife is made amply, overly clear. After her husband has started pinching and twisting Mary’s cheeks “to pink them” Elizabeth asks him to stop — “My mother’s tone was one — if dogs could speak — of a beast begging its master not to kick it.” Anne admires how she “risked father’s wrath” by speaking up, but Thomas doesn’t agree, scolding Elizabeth like “a stupid child.” And all of this is from page 1. Fortunately she isn’t in the rest of the book, because I’m not sure how much more comically heavy-handed abuse I, let alone she, could have tolerated. I’ll be interested to see how future Elizabeths evolve — whether they’ll swing back towards being proud Howards or remain as quivering victims a while longer. Perhaps they’ll even strike a happy medium wherein in addition to court and religious drama they also run households and worry about the price of eggs.

From → Brief Lives

  1. Ah, Blood Royal where Elizabeth curses the Tudors after the execution of Anne and George and then realises with horror, that she has cursed her own granddaughter too. Sometimes, Elizabeth’s fictional death gives us characters that are richer than her. I love Lady Bo of the Concubine who is the only one to give Anne a wedding present and obsesses about her home-cured hams whilst Lady Boleyn of the Rose of Hever is essentially proud of her quince pies and the fact the King asked her for the recipe. Ironically, the real Lady Boleyn now lies buried below the café in Lambeth Church where she can listen to the chink of tea-cups until eternity!

    • sonetka permalink

      I loved that bit in Blood Royal. I know, kind of soapy, but it worked really well — she just lashes out and only afterward realizes what she’s done. And Lady Bo is great — one thing I like about the stepmothers is how they often make Thomas Boleyn a lot more three-dimensional. Sure, he’s a cold, ambitious, penny-pinching autocrat, but he’s got a softer side — witness his falling in love with a woman who had no money or connections!

      So has Lambeth Church become a teashop, then? I haven’t been there. The phenomenon of having cafes in church buildings isn’t one that we have over here, so when I see one in England it always seems deeply strange. Do they have to deconsecrate the church first or anything like that? On the plus side, Elizabeth and her ilk probably hear more interesting conversations from the tea-havers than they would from Mass attenders, so there is that :).

      • It’s now deconsecrated and houses the Museum of Gardening. I got a free ticket to visit when I visited Lambeth Palace’s exhibition of manuscripts which was held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Palace’s library. (As an aside, this was very interesting and I saw the execution warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots and Richard III’s prayer book which was found in his tent after Bosworth!)

        I did have a very nice coffee there and thought about her underneath my feet, as I sipped it!

  2. I always found the different portrayals of Elizabeth in the two adaptations of ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. In the BBC’s, she is stern, cold and quite domineering while Hollywood’s is so loving and kind.
    I think there’s a nice balance in ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’ where she is a good wife, loyal and helpful to her husband’s ambition. She’s happy to push her daughters forward for the king’s attention but she’s also emotionally attached to them, whereas it seems the norm for these two attributes are mutually exclusive.

    I never could imagine her as afraid of her husband though. As the sister of the Duke of Norfolk and a Howard woman, I always pictured her as the perfect aristocratic wife 😀

  3. sonetka permalink

    I can’t, either. Thomas was marrying up and they both would have known it. And I’m always puzzled too by the “ambition = unloving” portrayals of her — it’s like someone 400 years from now writing a novel about our times and assuming that a mother who, say, urged her child to go to medical school, or take a good job in a distant city, was unloving.

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