Elizabeth Tilney: Grandmother to Queens and Mistresses

Five hundred years ago a woman who was born into the gentry, but not one of the leading noblewomen in the country by any means, became the founding matriarch of England’s premiere family during the Tudor period, and was the grandmother of two different wives of Henry VIII, as well as three of his mistresses.

Elizabeth Tilney came from a landed family, and was born in the mid 15th century. She lived a pretty normal life early on, marrying when she was about 20 to a Sir Humphrey Bourchier, had a son and two daughters, and went to court as a lady in waiting to Elizabeth Woodville. During the period when Elizabeth had to flee to sanctuary at Westminster Abbey thanks to Edward IV’s throne being threatened, she stayed with Elizabeth and was present at the birth of the future Edward V.

Sir Humphrey died at the Battle of Barnet fighting on the Yorkist side, and a year later Elizabeth married into the Howard family, who would become the Dukes of Norfolk, and were constantly plotting and scheming throughout the reign of Henry VIII. The Howards had been supporters of Richard III, and when his queen Anne Neville was crowned, Elizabeth was right there in the audience.

When things turned south for Richard at Bosworth, Thomas Howard had been on the losing side, and had to forfeit his lands and titles, and spend some time in the not-so-luxurious hotel known as the Tower of London. Elizabeth was able to keep her own lands that she had inherited, so she had the money to move to London and live near the tower.

Elizabeth and Thomas were incredibly fertile. They had nine children (plus the three Elizabeth had in her first marriage meant that she went through labor and delivery a whopping twelve times. God bless her and her poor beaten up lady-parts).  Among this brood was Elizabeth Howard, the mother of Queen Anne Boleyn, and Lord Edmund Howard, the father of Queen Catherine Howard. There was also Thomas Howard, the third duke of Norfolk, who was involved in much of the intrigue involving his nieces in the court of Henry VIII.

She was also the grandmother to Elizabeth Carew, and Mary Boleyn, two of Henry’s confirmed mistresses, as well as Mary Howard, the Duchess of Richmond, who was supposedly also a mistress. She moved in influential circles, and was the patron of poets, such as Henry VII’s poet laureate, John Skelton, who wrote The Garland of Laurel while staying at her home.

I find women like this fascinating. On paper, there isn’t a lot known about her other than who she was in relation to the men to whom she was married. Though there are a few clues about her personality. She fled with Elizabeth to Westminster Abbey when she could have stayed out and protected herself, like many nobles tried to do. She moved near to the Tower when her husband was imprisoned. Both of these make me think that she was incredibly loyal to those she loved and served. Also, given the fact that they had nine children, I can only assume that she loved Thomas Howard, which is fortunate for her. The fact that her lands weren’t taken away from her when Norfolk’s were after Bosworth shows me that either Henry VII was incredibly generous to her (something he’s not really known for) or she cleverly pursued her rights and petitioned to keep her land.

Somehow she reached a point from being born into the lower ranks of the gentry, to being at a place where King Edward IV personally arranged her second marriage to one of the premiere nobles in the country. How did this happen? Was she incredibly beautiful? Witty? With women like Bess of Hardwick, who wrote a lot of letters and were constantly in court fighting for their rights, we have more information. I can only assume that Elizabeth Tilney was a similar woman to Bess, given that she had some parallel life experiences to Bess. Both of them became matriarchs of important lines of nobility, and while there is much less information about Elizabeth, I’m guessing these women were more alike than not.

I love discovering medieval women like this, who seemed to come from out of nowhere to giving birth to these huge families that would have such an impact in Tudor life.

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