What about the women?

Kirsten Claiden-Yardley | March 8, 2013

International Women’s Day has been marked on my social networks by, amongst other things, posts about strong-willed women from history. This got me thinking about the Howard women. For the most part they are on the periphery of my research This is a conscious decision driven in part by the definitions I am using and in part by the practicalities of time and space. So, today, I’m going to turn the spotlight on them for a change. Of course two female members of the extended Howard family – Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn – have been the focus of considerably attention over the centuries, both from popular culture and historians. For that reason, I am going to be passing over them today and instead looking at Agnes and Elizabeth Howard.

Agnes Howard

The second wife of the second duke of Norfolk, Agnes Tilney married Thomas Howard (then earl of Surrey) in 1497 just months after the death of Elizabeth Tilney, his first wife and her cousin. She was around 20 years old and brought barely any dowry to the marriage, suggesting that it was a match based on attraction rather than monetary or political considerations. She and her husband would go on to have thirteen children although only six of them (two sons and four daughters would survive infancy). After her husband’s death in 1524, she would survive him by over twenty years, dying in 1545.

As first the wife and then the widow of England’s leading nobleman, she occupied the leading position amongst the noblewomen at court. She was godmother to both Princess Mary and Princess Anne and carried the Anne Boleyn’s train at her coronation. She also had wider contacts, corresponding with Cardinal Wolsey and patronising the poet, John Skelton.

In popular culture, she appears as the lax grandmother in whose household poor, orphaned Catherine Howard was allowed to run wild. Numerous children of relatives and Howard followers were brought up in her household, a situation that was not unusual in the period and it would have been seen as socially beneficial for the girls. It does appear that Agnes allowed the girls a fair bit of freedom but they were reprimanded at times. When Catherine Howard’s adultery came to light, Agnes initially denied any knowledge of Catherine’s youthful indiscretions with Francis Dereham or involvement in his subsequent appointment as Catherine’s secretary. However, evidence from other sources revealed her statements to be false. She and three of her children were imprisoned in December 1541 on suspicion of misprision of treason. Her stepson, the third duke of Norfolk sought to distance himself from the scandal, writing to the king of his “ungracious mother-in-law” who had borne him “small-love” and whose wrong doings he had helped to bring to light.

Agnes was convicted in January 1542 but was eventually pardoned in May 1542. After her death she was buried in the Howard chapel at Lambeth Parish church were she had made arrangements for a tomb and where, since the dissolution of Thetford Priory in 1539, he husband had been commemorated.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required), Wikipedia, Letters and Papers, Henry VIII for December 1541, Letters and Papers Henry VIII for December 1541 pt. 2

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth Howard (nee Stafford) was the daughter of the Duke of Buckingham and second wife of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. Originally engaged to the 4th Earl of Westmorland, the Howards were able to offer a better financial arrangement and so, in 1513, she married the then Lord Thomas Howard. Despite the pragmatic start and the fact that, in 1521, her father-in-law presided over the trial that condemned her father to death for treason, the marriage began well. Elizabeth was a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, she travelled to Ireland when her husband served there and they had three children who survived infancy.

Unfortunately, from the late 1520s, the marriage took a turn for the worse. In 1527, her husband took Elizabeth (Bess) Holland as his mistress, Agnes Howard was blaming Elizabeth’s housekeeping for disease in the duke’s household and she found herself at odds with Anne Boleyn. Indeed, her outspoken loyalty to Katherine of Aragon over Anne Boleyn led to her being banned from court. She spent the 1530s in isolation in Hertfordshire, refusing divorce and writing letters of complaint to Cromwell. In them she wrote of Bess Holland as being a harlot and claimed that her husband had taken her jewels from her, kept her imprisoned and that the women of her household were violent towards her. Her open complaints led to enstrangement from her family.

Her exile to Hertfordshire had ended by the 1540s and when the Duke of Norfolk was arrested in December 1546, Elizabeth Howard and Bess Holland both living at the duke’s house in Kenninghall and were taken in to custody together. The inventory of the  household at Kenninghall revealed the separate chambers for his mistress and the clothing owned by both women. Elizabeth, her daughter and Bess Holland all went on to give evidence against her Norfolk at his trial. She returned to court at the accession of Mary, as did her husband, and she bore the Queen’s train at her coronation. Unsurprisingly, she was not mentioned in her husband’s will and after her death in 1558 she was buried not alongside him at Framlingham but in the Howard Chapel at Lambeth parish church.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required), Wikipedia, Letters and Papers, Henry VIII for June 1537

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