Sunday, August 09, 2009

Question from Lovey - Documentation on Elizabeth Boleyn

I thought it was awful that Thomas Boleyn have never said anything in defense of his children Anne and George Boleyn. But neither did their mother Elizabeth. But the it dawn on me, that I haven't came across one single quote from Elizabeth Boleyn in regards to Anne and Henry VIII's relationship. In the ten years that Anne and Henry VIII were together, has there been any documentation of Elizabeth Boleyn's feeling towards Anne &Henry? Mary Boleyn? Anne's beheading? Has anyone came across one single quote from Elizabeth Boleyn?


  1. There have been no quotes, but that isn't as revealing as it would be in a later period. Frankly, there is much we don't know about the Tudor era. Various surviving facts however do point to the fact that Anne and her mother had a close relationship - Elizabeth often accompanied Anne as a chaperone to various events, even ones to which a chaperone was not necessarily required (such as the inspection of Whitehall); Anne was also fond of inserting her love for her mother as the highest she could possibly concieve of, as her letter to Bridget Wingfield from 1532 shows and when Anne was preparing for death in 1536 she broke down several times, fearing that the news of her death would kill her mother through grief. Elizabeth's relationship with Mary seems to have been considerably less involved and it is telling that Mary expected far more help from Anne in 1534 and failed to even approach her mother for assistance. There is no evidence, one way or the other, to illustrate what Elizabeth's relationship with her son was like.

  2. There is virtually no documentation of Elizabeth Boleyn's words or thoughts. She is a very shadowy figure. There was even some thought that lizabeth Howard Boleyn died in 1512 and Thomas married a woman of much lower social status. Since Elizabeth Boleyn is buried in the Howard aisle of Lambeth Church, and died in 1538, that she died in 1512 is erroneous. We know she was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon. She often acted as a chaperon for her daughter Anne when Henry courted her. She may have been present at the birth of her granddaughter, Elizabeth, but no one knows for sure. She and Anne were were reputed to be close. However, she went along with her husband in basically disowning Mary Boleyn for marrying beneath her. Speaking out publicly in defense of her children George and Anne would be seen as crossing the King and the laws of the realm, as they had been found guilty of treason. This may be why Thomas Boleyn remained silent and went along with it. Everything the Boleyns had came from the King's bounty and good graces. Thomas Boleyn once confessed to Cromwell that in the early years of his marriage to Elizabeth, he had only 50 pounds a year to live on, and children arriving every year. His knighthood, ambassadorship, earldom, all came through courtesy of the King, and could be taken away just as easily.
    Though Elizabeth seemingly retired to a quiet life after the deaths of her children, Thomas regained some measure of royal favor, and played a role in the christening of Prince Edward in 1537.

  3. I quite agree with you there, Lovey. I don't think I'd be able to just leave my family to be beheaded, but you do have to remember the circumstances, and that if either Thomas or Elizabeth spoke out against the beheadings of their children, they would have been accused along with them. And however much you don't want your family to die, there is still no point dragging yourself down with them. At least neither Thomas or Elizabeth actually accused Anne and George, as did their own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. And I would have to say the same thing as Gareth and Elizabeth M. There is really no documentation of Elizabeth Boleyn's thoughts or feelings at all. She remains almost a complete mystery to us.

  4. @Tudor fanatic,

    while I didn't expect her to stand up on the behalf of George and Anne,I'm just surprise that not one single comment made by Elizabeth never been recorded. I mean in the 10 years Anne was with the king, I sure she must have said something. Elizabeth Boleyn was likely catholic, so how would she had felt about Henry VIII break with the church,and Anne being protestant? I sure she must have felt something.Plus being a women of middle age, I wonder how she felt about Henry VIII divorcing KOA and marrying Anne? I think if Elizabeth Boleyn had said something favorable about the king, they probably would have made it into state papers.

  5. Luv - that's not exactly how collections of state papers are assembled.

    Archival sources, original papers and letters have been assembled over the centuries but there was a huge flurry of activity in England during the Victorian era. During that time, source material about women was not necessarily considered 'important'. Frequently surviving papers from or about women were lumped into household and property management records.

    Some were just plain thrown out because many historians and antiquarians assumed that, just as the elite Victorian woman was not responsible for domestic or foreign policy, Tudor-era women wouldn't have been either.

    This is partly what makes the Strickland sisters' work so remarkable. Yes, they too were mired in Victorian sensibilities, but they nevertheless tried to write up from archival material histories of the queens of England and Scotland and include information about other elite court women.

    Elizabethan historians are lucky that William and Robert Cecil were obsessive about record keeping, that they held high office, that their heirs had enough money to keep the household belongings in good order and that Hatfield did not burn down taking their treasure trove with them. Their 'personal' collections of papers are considered a valuable addition to the standard collections of state papers and in fact fill several gaps for the perod.

    I suspect that Anne Boleyn's mother was a fascinating woman. Elizabeth Boleyn may have been raised Catholic but that does not mean that she didn't ascribe to Reformation ideas. She was the daughter of a duke and likely traveled some with her husband - certainly she would have been at court quite a bit. It is likely that she knew how to read and write and participated in discussions of ideas and books at court. If her behavior was modeled on the Katherine of Aragon's, and imitations of the royal family was rampant amongst elites then, she may have been intimately involved with the education of her children.

    Just because we have no record existing, or have not yet found such, does not mean she didn't have strong ideas, influence her children in significant ways, or feel acutely the loss of two of them.

    It is possible that she regretted, or even disapproved, of Henry divorcing Katherine of Aragon, yet she would have known and also believed in the importance of a male heir to throne.

    That little or no source material directly about her is extant is what makes historians stare sadly into their glasses of cheap brandy and sigh, thinking, 'if only I had been the original archivist at the British Library I would have known to save all those documents for the future when there might be a feminist movement trying to recover 'her-story'. Or, 'if only they had had enough money to repair the roof, all those boxes of documents in the attic wouldn't have molded so badly in the rain.' This actually happened to some of the privy council records.

    But...alas...we have to take the state papers as we find them.


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