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October 22, 1537 – The Duchess of Norfolk Writes to Cromwell

Elizabeth Stafford, Duchess of Norfolk
Elizabeth Stafford, Duchess of Norfolk (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

So The Duke and Duchess of Norfolk really did not get along, and this letter (one of a series she wrote asking for Cromwell’s help) describes why…But before we get to that, I’m going to give the background  so you have the context and can understand what she’s saying.

Elizabeth Stafford was the oldest daughter of the Duke of Buckingham – a man who was executed by Henry VIII for treasonous activities, one of which was possessing Plantagenet blood. Elizabeth had been promised in marriage to Ralph Neville, Earl of of Westmoreland. Ralph was a year younger, and Buckingham had bought his wardship so the couple had a chance to get to know each other. It seems they were actually in love. Then, when Elizabeth was fifteen, right before that marriage was to take place, Thomas Howard (then Earl of Surrey) came along because his wife had just died and persuaded Buckingham that he should be the one to marry Elizabeth (Buckingham tried to get him to settle for one of Elizabeth’s younger sisters, but that didn’t work). That marriage took place sometime before January 1513, and for more than fifteen years all seemed well: Elizabeth bore five children; she also came to court and served Catherine of Aragon. the At time of Howard’s elevation to Duke of Norfolk in 1524, they appeared devoted.

Then in 1527, Norfolk took a mistress: Bess Holland – a woman who had served in Elizabeth’s household as a laundress. And when I say he “took” a mistress, I mean he flaunted a mistress – and Elizabeth was furious. Meanwhile, this was around the time when Henry VIII was questioning the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon…and thinking of replacing her with Norfolk’s niece, Anne Boleyn. While Norfolk was encouraging Anne, Elizabeth was secretly smuggling letters between Catherine and Chapuys and openly declaring her loyalty to the former Queen. This got her exiled from court – and paved the way for Bess to be given a position as lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn, which further infuriated the Duchess.

Elizabeth continued to rebel – refusing to attend Anne’s coronation and even protesting that she did not want her daughter Mary to marry Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond and the King’s illegitimate son. The Duke and Duchess formally separated in March 1534, and Norfolk was not generous with the terms. There really was no such thing as “separation” under the law. When a (wealthy) woman married, her father transferred money and property to her new husband: this was her dowry, and would be held by him alone. A father protected his daughter by designating some of this as a jointure, which was still held by the husband but had to be kept safe and untouched because it would be what the wife would life on if she were widowed. No one ever said anything about separation.  Bottom line: Elizabeth wanted her jointure, Norfolk said he owed her nothing.

By 1537, Elizabeth had also alienated her children so she found herself really isolated and things just kept getting worse. She began a stream of letters to Cromwell – all of which repeated the complaint that her former husband had stolen all her jewels and clothes (holding her down while they emptied her rooms, with Bess Holland actually sitting on Elizabeth’s chest until she spat blood) and that Norfolk owed her the jointure. This is an excerpt from one of those letters (I cleaned it up to make it clearer… I also included the part where she threw her daughter Mary under the bus):

I pray you, now my lord my husband is come home [Norfolk had been in France], that you will arrange with him to get me a better living, seeing he has all my jewels and my apparel, and received two thousand marks and more because of me, while he had only his lands when he first married. Seeing that my-lord-my-father made me sure of five hundred marks a year, and seeing that my-lord-my-husband chose me himself (for my-lord-my-father had bought my lord of Westmoreland for me; he and I loved together two years) and my-lord-my-husband had not send immediately word after my lady and my lord’s first wife was dead, he made suit to my-lord-my-father, or else I had been married before Christmas to my lord of Westmoreland; and it was my lord my husband’s suit to my lord my father, and never came of me nor none of my friends: and when he came thither at Shrovetide, he would have none of my sisters, but only me. My lord, seeing I have been his wife twenty-five years, and have borne him five children, and (he) can lay nothing to my charge, other than the fact that I would not suffer the bawd and the harlots that bound me to be still in the house. They bound me, and pinnacled me, and sat on my breast till I spit blood, which I have been worse for ever since, and all for speaking against the woman in the court, Bessy Holland; therefore he put me out at the doors, and keeps the bawd and the harlots still in his house. Surely, my lord, I am fully determined that I will never make suit to him to come in his company whilst I live, seeing that the King’s grace and you can make no end. I will never make suit to none creature more, nor I myself to my lord my husband, nor I will never come at him during my life. It is four years come the Tuesday in the Passion-week that he came riding all night, and locked me up in a chamber, and took away all my jewels and all my apparel, and never gave me but fifty pounds a quarter, which is three hundred marks a year, and therewith I keep twenty persons, and I lie in a hard county.

My lord, if it would please you to be so good lord to me to move the King’s grace to speak to my lord my husband, that I might have my whole jointure and to dwell on it, I were greatly bounded to your lordship. I hear say my daughter Richmond hath not her jointure yet, and it would please you, my lord, to move the King’s grace that he should not grant my daughter of Richmond her jointure till I be sure of mine jointure.

FYI, Mary never got her jointure since she and FitzRoy had never consummated the marriage because of their age. Elizabeth never got hers either – but she got the last laugh when she AND Bess Holland testified against the Duke of Norfolk in 1547…he was attainted and sentenced to death (though escaped because Henry died a few hours before his scheduled execution).


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October 22, 1537 - The Duchess of Norfolk Writes to Cromwell
Published inInteresting Letters and Speeches

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