When Anne Boleyn was executed, her husband famously moved on eleven days later and married again. But her mother’s devastation often goes unnoticed. Lady Elizabeth Howard was born around 1480 at Arundel Castle in Sussex as the youngest daughter of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and Elizabeth Tilney. Elizabeth Howard came from a prominent family and was a descendant of King Edward I, but very little is known about her.
Her grandfather died fighting for King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard lost, and so the Howards weren’t exactly seen as the new king, Henry VII’s, best friends. But they were able to regain favor and Elizabeth was sent to court to serve the Queen, Elizabeth of York. While in the Queen’s service she married Thomas Boleyn, an ambitious courtier, when she would’ve been in her late teens or early twenties, and became Viscountess Rochford and Countess of Ormond. They had three surviving children, Mary, George, and Anne, though the order in which they were born is hotly debated.
When King Henry VII died and his son, a certain Henry VIII, came to the throne, Elizabeth continued as a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s wife. There are rumors that Elizabeth, known to be a very attractive woman, may have had a dalliance with the king, though he would deny ever sleeping with the mother of his future wife and mistress. Anne Boleyn’s biographer, Eric Ives, says that this is probably just Elizabeth Boleyn being confused with Elizabeth Blount, a woman who certainly was Henry’s mistress.
By 1519, Elizabeth’s two daughters, Mary and Anne, were maids of honor to Queen Claude of France and were living at her court. Elizabeth was present—with her husband—at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. Her daughter Mary had a fling with the King of France, who later called her “my English mare” and then “the greatest whore of them all”. Because of Mary’s many affairs, her relationship with her mother grew strained. When Mary returned to England to marry a courtier named William Carey, she had an affair with King Henry VIII himself, and it was even rumored that her children were fathered by Henry—watch my video on Henry’s illegitimate daughters to learn more about that.
Elizabeth and Anne had a much better relationship, though, and they were always very close. Elizabeth made sure that her daughters had a great education that was slowly becoming popular for women to have. It was with her mind that Anne, who’d never been very beautiful, charmed King Henry VIII. As many know, she had seen how quickly her sister had been cast aside and was horrified at that happening to her, but contrary to what most think, Anne was simply trying to get away from the king, not fuel his desire by snubbing him.
As her daughter rose to prominence, Elizabeth was by Anne’s side. She went with Anne to inspect York Palace, which Henry VIII was planning to rename to Whitehall and give it to Anne. When Henry finally succeeded in annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth attended her daughter’s coronation, riding in one of the two carriages of the procession with Agnes Tilney, her stepmother. When Henry and Anne’s first child was born in 1533, she was named Elizabeth, possibly after Elizabeth Boleyn, or maybe after Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York, but the Princess could very well have been named for them both. When her daughter, Mary, with whom she’d never had a good relationship, married William Stafford without the family’s permission, Elizabeth joined the rest of the family in shunning her.
Just a few years later, the happy years the Boleyn and Howard families enjoyed while their relative was Queen came to an abrupt end. Anne had only given birth to a daughter and was in her early thirties (or late twenties, depending on who you ask), so it seemed like she would have no sons. On top of that, Anne had all the qualities of a great mistress, but those made her a horrible wife by the standards of the time. Henry needed a way out of the marriage to have a son and secure his dynasty, so he was all too happy to believe that she had been unfaithful to him with five men, including her own brother, George.
She arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of adultery, incest, and treason. Most historians today believe she was completely innocent. Anne was thinking of her mother throughout her imprisonment, and when one of the men accused of having an affair with her confessed to the false charges, she reportedly exclaimed, ‘Oh, my mother, thou wilt die with sorrow’. Elizabeth’s husband and brother, both judges, sided with the king. Her son and daughter were executed and her husband was stripped of his titles, while Elizabeth’s granddaughter was declared a bastard.
Elizabeth, devastated, retired to the family’s home, Hever Castle, and lived quietly for another two years, dying a broken woman on April 3rd, 1538, aged around fifty-eight.