Elizabeth Stafford, Duchess of Norfolk

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Elizabeth Stafford
Duchess of Norfolk
Bornc. 1497
Died30 November 1558
BuriedChurch of St Mary-at-Lambeth, Surrey
Noble familyStafford (by birth)
Howard (by marriage)
Spouse(s)Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk
IssueHenry Howard, Earl of Surrey
Lady Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond and Somerset
Thomas Howard, 1st Viscount Howard of Bindon
Lady Muriel Howard
Lady Katherine Howard, Countess of Derby
FatherEdward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham
MotherLady Eleanor Percy

Lady Elizabeth Stafford (later Duchess of Norfolk) (c.1497 – 30 November 1558) was an English aristocrat. She was the eldest daughter of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Lady Eleanor Percy. By marriage she became Duchess of Norfolk. Her abusive marriage to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, created a public scandal.


Elizabeth Stafford's father, Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham

Lady Elizabeth Stafford, born about 1497, was the eldest daughter of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, and Eleanor Percy (d. 1530). Through both parents Elizabeth was a descendant of King Edward III. Her grandparents on her father's side were Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, and Lady Katherine Woodville (sister of Elizabeth Woodville), and on her mother's, Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland, and Lady Maud Herbert. Her paternal grandfather, the 2nd Duke, was executed for treason in 1483 by King Richard III, and in 1521 her own father suffered the same fate when he was beheaded on Tower Hill for treason against King Henry VIII.

Early life[edit]

Elizabeth lived at home until at least 1508. According to Harris, Elizabeth's father saw that all his children received some education and her literacy is attested to by the fact that she was termed by the poet John Skelton[1] an admirer and friend of the muses and his particular patron.[2] Elizabeth came to court in 1509 as a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, and became the Queen's lifelong friend.[3]


Elizabeth Stafford's husband, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk

Before 8 January 1513, when she was only fifteen and he was thirty-five years of age, Elizabeth became the second wife of Thomas Howard, then Earl of Surrey. He was the widower of Anne, daughter of King Edward IV.[4]

Elizabeth had earlier been promised in marriage to her father's ward, Ralph Neville, 4th Earl of Westmorland. The young Elizabeth and Ralph Neville seem to have been mutually devoted, and years later, in a letter to Thomas Cromwell dated 28 September 1537, Elizabeth recalled that:[5]

He and I had loved together two years, an my lord my husband had not sent 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 Westmorland'.

Elizabeth's father initially attempted to persuade Howard to marry one of his other daughters, but according to Elizabeth, 'He would have none of my sisters, but only me'.[6]

Elizabeth brought Howard a dowry of 2000 marks, and was promised a jointure of 500 marks a year,[7] although Howard apparently never kept that promise.[8] In her later letters she asserted that she had been a dutiful wife, continuing to serve at court daily 'sixteen years together' while her husband was absent in King Henry VIII's wars, and accompanying him to Ireland when he was posted there in 1520–22.[9] She bore him five children,[10] and according to Graves, as late as 1524, when he became Duke of Norfolk, 'they appeared to be bonded by mutual love'.[11]

However, in 1527 Norfolk took a mistress, Bess Holland, the daughter of his steward, with whom he lived openly at Kenninghall, and whom the Duchess described variously in her letters as a bawd, a drab, and 'a churl's daughter', 'which was but washer of my nursery eight years'.[12] It appears the Duchess' anger caused her to exaggerate Bess Holland's inferior social status, as her family were probably minor gentry, and she eventually became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne Boleyn.[13]

During the long period in which King Henry VIII sought to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, the Duchess remained staunchly loyal to Queen Catherine and antagonistic towards her husband's niece, Anne Boleyn, with whom the King was infatuated. Late in 1530 it was noted that the Duchess was secretly conveying letters to Queen Catherine from Italy concealed in oranges, which the Queen passed on to the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys,[14] and at one time the Duchess told Chapuys that her husband, the Duke, had confided in her that Anne would be 'the ruin of all her family'.[15] In 1531 the Duchess was exiled from court at Anne Boleyn's request for too freely declaring her loyalty to Catherine.[16]

According to Graves, the Duchess also quarrelled[17] with Anne over Anne's insistence that the Duchess's daughter, Mary Howard, should marry Henry VIII's illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy.[18] When Anne Boleyn was crowned on 1 June 1533, the Duchess refused to attend the coronation 'from the love she bore to the previous Queen'.[19]

Meanwhile, the Duchess's own marriage continued to deteriorate. The Duke refused to give up his mistress, and resolved to separate from his wife. Both the Duke and Thomas Cromwell requested the Duchess's brother to take her in, a suggestion he utterly rejected.[20] The Duchess wrote of her husband's abuse of her during this period, claiming that when she was recovering after the birth of her daughter, Mary, he had pulled her out of bed by the hair, dragged her through the house, and wounded her with a dagger. In three separate letters to Cromwell the Duchess repeated the accusation that the Duke had 'set his women to bind me till blood came out at my fingers' ends, and pinnacled me, and sat on my breast till I spit blood, and he never punished them'.[21] Howard responded to the allegations by writing that 'I think the apparent false lies were never contrived by a wife of her husband that she doth daily increase of me'.[22]

Continued cohabitation was clearly impossible, and on 23 March 1534[23] Howard forced a separation. According to the Duchess, the Duke had ridden all night, and arriving home in a furious temper had locked her in a chamber and taken away all her jewels and apparel.[24] She was sent to a house in Redbourn, Hertfordshire, from which she wrote a number of letters to Cromwell complaining that she was kept in a state of virtual imprisonment with a meagre annual allowance of only £200.[25] At first the Duchess attempted to reconcile with her husband, but when she received no reply to her 'kind letters' to the Duke, she declared to Cromwell in a letter dated 30 December 1536 that 'from this day forward I will never sue to the King, nor to none other, to desire my lord my husband to take me again'.[26] On his part, Norfolk refused to give up Bess Holland, and attempted to persuade the Duchess to agree to a divorce, offering to return her jewels and apparel and give her a great part of his plate and stuff of household, but she rebuffed his offers.[27] She received little or no support from her family. Her eldest son and daughter became estranged from her,[28] while her brother condemned her behaviour.[29]

Forsaken by almost everyone, the Duchess remained obdurate. On 3 March 1539, she wrote to Cromwell that:[30]

I am of age to rule myself, as I have done these five years, since my husband put me away. Seeing that my lord my husband reckoned me to be so unreasonable, it were better that I kept me away, and keep my own house still, and trouble no other body. . . I pray you, my lord, take no displeasure with me, although I have not followed your lordship's good counsel, and your letters, as touching my lord my husband for to come home again, which I will never do in my life.

Final years[edit]

Framlingham Church, burial place of Elizabeth Stafford's husband

The Duchess's entreaties to Cromwell ceased with his fall from power in 1540. She and her brother were eventually reconciled, and at some time before 1547 he sent one of his daughters to live with her, whom the Duchess treated very generously.[31]

During Henry VIII's last years Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford, and Henry's last wife, Catherine Parr, both of whom favoured the reformed faith, gained influence with the King while the conservative Duke of Norfolk became isolated politically. The Duke attempted to form an alliance with the Seymours through a marriage between his widowed daughter, Mary Howard, and Hertford's brother, Thomas Seymour, but the effort was forestalled by the provocative conduct of the Duke's eldest son and heir, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who had displayed in his own heraldry the royal arms and insignia.[32] On 12 December 1546 both Norfolk and Surrey were arrested and sent to the Tower. On 12 January 1547 Norfolk acknowledged that he had 'concealed high treason, in keeping secret the false acts of my son, Henry Earl of Surrey, in using the arms of St. Edward the Confessor, which pertain only to kings', and offered his lands to the King. Norfolk's family, including the Duchess, his daughter Mary, and his mistress, Bess Holland, all gave evidence against him. Surrey was beheaded on 19 January 1547, and on 27 January 1547 Norfolk was attainted by statute without trial. The dying King gave his assent to Norfolk's death by royal commissioners, and it was rumoured that he would be executed on the following day. He was saved by the King's death on 28 January and the council's decision not to inaugurate the new reign with bloodshed.[33]

Norfolk remained in the Tower throughout the reign of King Edward VI. He was released and pardoned by Queen Mary I in 1553, and in Mary's first parliament (October–December 1553), his statutory attainder was declared void, thereby restoring him to the dukedom. He died at Kenninghall on 25 August 1554, and was buried at St. Michael's Church at Framlingham in Suffolk. The Duchess was not named in his will.[34]

Elizabeth Howard died 30 November 1558 at Lambeth, and was buried in the Howard chapel in the Church of St Mary-at-Lambeth. Her brother wrote a brief but apparently heartfelt epitaph:[35]

Thou wast to me, both far and near,
A mother, sister, a friend most dear.


By Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, Elizabeth had three sons and three daughters:[36]


  1. ^ However Scattergood states that Skelton's patron, mentioned in his Book of the Laurell, was Elizabeth (nee Tilney), Countess of Surrey; Scattergood 2004.
  2. ^ Harris 2002, p. 48.
  3. ^ Graves 2004.
  4. ^ Richardson IV 2011, pp. 416–17.
  5. ^ Wood II 1846, p. 361; Harris 2002, p. 54; Graves 2004.
  6. ^ Wood II 1846, p. 361; Harris 2002, pp. 54–5; Graves 2004.
  7. ^ Wood II 1846, p. 361.
  8. ^ Elizabeth later stated that Howard 'had but little to take to when he married me first but his lands, and he was always a great player' (gambler); Wood II 1846, p. 361.
  9. ^ Wood II 1846, p. 359.
  10. ^ Wood II 1846, pp. 361, 365.
  11. ^ Graves 2004; Harris 2002, p. 70.
  12. ^ Wood II 1846, pp. 224, 362.
  13. ^ Harris 2002, p. 63; Graves 2004; Weir 1991, p. 168.
  14. ^ Weir 1991, p. 220.
  15. ^ Weir 1991, p. 231.
  16. ^ Harris 2002, p. 67; Graves 2004.
  17. ^ In contradiction to Graves, Weir claims that Anne won the Duchess's favour by arranging brilliant matches for Thomas Howard with the daughter of the Earl of Oxford, and for Mary Howard with Henry FitzRoy, and that, appeased, the Duchess stopped plotting the restoration of Queen Catherine, and returned to court; Weir 1991, p. 249.
  18. ^ Graves 2004; Wood II 1846, pp. 363–4.
  19. ^ Harris 2002, p. 67; Graves 2004.
  20. ^ Wood II 1846, pp. 218–19; Wood III 1846, pp. 96–8.
  21. ^ Wood II 1846, pp. 361, 362–3, 371.
  22. ^ Wood III 1846, p. 96; Harris 2002, pp. 67–8; Graves 2004.
  23. ^ Wood II 1846, p. 220.
  24. ^ Wood II 1846, p. 362.
  25. ^ Wood II 1846, pp. 220, 359.
  26. ^ Wood II 1846, p. 220.
  27. ^ Wood II 1846, p. 367.
  28. ^ Wood II 1846, pp. 224, 367.
  29. ^ Harris 2002, pp. 68–72; Graves 2004.
  30. ^ Wood III 1846, p. 99; Harris 2002, p. 71.
  31. ^ Harris 2002, p. 71.
  32. ^ Brigden 2008.
  33. ^ Graves 2008; Brigden 2004.
  34. ^ Graves 2008.
  35. ^ Aubrey, 5: 238.
  36. ^ Wood II 1846, p. 361; Harris 2002, p. 57; Richardson IV 2011, pp. 416–17.
  37. ^ Croft 2004.
  38. ^ Cokayne 1926, p. 584.
  39. ^ Knafla 2008.


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