The Life of Elizabeth Stafford, Duchess of Norfolk

Who was the wife of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk and what do we know about her?

Elizabeth Stafford was the daughter of the ill-fated Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Eleanor Percy, eldest daughter of Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland. She was born in 1497, so one can assume that she was named for the queen consort, Elizabeth of York.

Before we go too deep into the life of Elizabeth, let’s understand her family a bit better. Elizabeth’s father, the 3rd Duke of Buckingham, was a proud man; here is a bit quoted from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, written by C.S.L. Davies:

“When his father rebelled against Richard III in 1483 (and was executed), Edward Stafford was hidden in various houses in Herefordshire; whether he remained there for the rest of Richard’s reign is unclear.” (C.S.L. Davies)



Edward then attended the coronation of the new Tudor king, Henry VII. In November 1485, after the reversal of the 2nd Duke of Buckingham’s attainder, Edward was restored to his inheritance. He was now the 3rd Duke of Buckingham.

“After the execution of his father, his mother had married Henry VII’s uncle, Jasper Tudor. Despite this, Buckingham’s wardship was entrusted to the king’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, and his education probably took place at her various houses… he was to follow Lady Margaret’s example in his own household.”

This should give you an idea of what Elizabeth’s father’s childhood was like. She was surely brought up with the same values as her father was taught by Margaret Beaufort.

Like most women of the time-at least women of noble birth, Elizabeth Stafford was educated at home. University was only for their male counterparts, of course.

Elizabeth’s father, the Duke of Buckingham, had originally promised to marry his daughter to his ward, Ralph Neville, 4th Earl of Westmorland – that is, until the recently widowed Thomas Norfolk-then the Earl of Surrey-came knocking.

Elizabeth is quoted as writing this about Ralph Neville: [H]e and I had loved together two years’  and her plan was to marry him before Christmas”; but Howard and her father had other plans for the young Elizabeth.



Thomas Howard wanted Elizabeth Stafford for his second bride. Buckingham, seeing as his daughter had already been promised in marriage to Neville, he offered one of Elizabeth’s younger sisters in her place. Norfolk declined the offer because Elizabeth was the eldest daughter and with her came more wealth.

Eventually an agreement was reached between Buckingham and Norfolk, and the couple were married in 1513. What a powerhouse marriage that must have been seen as; the Buckinghams and Norfolks.

Elizabeth became Countess of Surrey upon their marriage at the tender age of fifteen. Howard, was twenty years her senior at 35.

Upon their marriage, Thomas Howard received a dowry of 2000 marks, while Elizabeth was promised an annual income of 500 marks. Per reports, this was an income she never received.

With that being said, Elizabeth, like most women, had hoped to marry for love. She believed that her marriage to Howard would be just that. We are soon to discover it was not in the cards for the two of them.

Elizabeth was a dutiful wife. In 1520, she and her children moved to Ireland with Thomas where he was to serve the King as lieutenant of Ireland. Despite being away from all she knew, Elizabeth loved her husband and was loyal to him.

In 1521 Henry Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham was executed for treason. There is no evidence to declare how Elizabeth felt about it while she far away in Ireland. We must assume she mourned the loss of her father.

Unfortunately any happiness she found with her husband would soon be over.  Thomas Howard, now the Duke of Norfolk took a mistress in 1527. She is someone you’ve certainly heard of; her name was Bess Holland and she was the daughter of his private secretary.

Bess Holland, as stated, was the daughter of the duke’s secretary and household treasurer. At the time she became the duke’s mistress, she was one of Anne Boleyn’s attendants (prior to her time as queen.) Howard then installed her in his household, thereby deepening his estrangement from Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was clearly hurt by the affair. She once described Bess as a harlot, a drab, and ‘a churl’s daughter’, who was but ‘washer of my nursery’ for eight years (ibid., 12/2, no. 143; Harris, Edward Stafford, 63)

The Duke and Duchess had several children together, but we know two of them the best: Henry Howard (Earl of Surrey,) and Mary Howard (Duchess of Richmond and Somerset).

In December of 1529, Henry VIII requested that the Duke of Norfolk’s son (the earl of Surrey) become a companion to his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. It was at this time that a marriage was arranged between the Duke’s daughter Mary and Fitzroy.



While many have said the marriage was Anne Boleyn’s idea-she was the niece of the Duke of Norfolk- it had always been maintained by Norfolk that it was the idea of the King. Regardless, the marriage between Fitzroy and Mary Howard had definitely been promoted by Anne to help strengthen her ties to the throne.

Like the later marriage of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, there was no dowry expected with the marriage of Mary and Fitzroy, which was unusual for the time. This may indicate the influence that Anne Boleyn had over the king.

Elizabeth Stafford was totally against her daughter’s marriage. Elizabeth had served Katherine of Aragon years earlier and was loyal to her cause, however she was thrust into serving Anne Boleyn and was not happy about it. Elizabeth was vocal about her opinion on the annulment proceedings, which resulted in her being exiled from court in 1531.

In 1532 it was made known to Elizabeth that since her mother had passed in February, her manors would go to the King by her husband’s attainder. (‘Henry VIII: March 1532, 1-10′, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 5, 1531-1532, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1880), pp. 401-407. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol5/pp401-407 [accessed 21 September 2018].)

When her son the Earl of Surrey returned from his time in France with Henry Fitzroy in September 1533, he was about 16 years old and returned to a different England than the one he left in October of 1532: Anne Boleyn was now Queen, her daughter Elizabeth was now heir to the throne, and the King was newly dubbed Supreme Head of the Church of England. In addition to all the change in England, Henry had also returned to a very different family situation at Kenninghall. His father’s mistress, Bess Holland had essentially replaced his mother who was in disgrace for her actions at court.

In a letter date the 17th of March 1534, Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, mentioned how Elizabeth had been appointed mistress of the robes to the “bastard” – a position that Elizabeth must have despised as she was a friend of Katherine of Aragon and presumably her daughter Mary. The letter also gives us a glimpse at the type of behavior that the Duke of Norfolk believed was acceptable toward the Princess Mary:

I am told this very morning that the duke of Norffocq went yesterday to the place where she is, to renew the former threats. Besides that, the Duke ordered her best robes to be seized on the plea that she was no longer a Princess, and that it was necessary to reduce her pomp and pride. In addition to that, the duchess [of Norfolk] has been appointed [mistress of the robes] to the bastard](Bastard meaning Princess Elizabeth), (fn. n23) and at the same time one of the principal officers of the Princess’ household has been dismissed from the service on account of his having shown some affection to her, and done her some small services. (‘Spain: March 1534, 1-20′, in Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1, 1534-1535, ed. Pascual de Gayangos (London, 1886), pp. 70-83. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/spain/vol5/no1/pp70-83 [accessed 21 September 2018].)

Elizabeth was eventually sent to Redbourne in Herfordshire where she lived in a state of virtual imprisonment with a meagre annual allowance of only Ł200, and in the spring of 1534 she said that her husband ‘locked me up in a chamber, [and] took away my jewels and apparel’ (LP Henry VIII, 12/2, no. 976).

From Redbourne, Elizabeth sent a series of letters to Cromwell pleading for help. On the 23rd of August 1534, Elizabeth sent a letter with the following request:

“Asks him to send her some venison, which is very scanty with her. Many of her friends who sent her venison last year dare send none now for fear of her lord’s displeasure. Her husband has not sent her any since she came to Redbourne. Thanks for Cromwell’s kindness, which she begs him to continue. Redbourne, 23 Aug. Signed.”  (British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol7/pp419-421 [accessed 21 September 2018].)

Elizabeth’s husband attempted to persuade her to agree to a divorce by offer of ‘material awards and the return of her jewels and clothes,’ yet she would not agree.

As state earlier, Elizabeth was opposed to the marriage of her daughter Mary. She quarrelled openly with Norfolk over the arranged marriages and primarily disapproved of them due to the involvement of the perceived concubine, Anne Boleyn.

In 1536, after the execution of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was still fighting against her husband to keep their marriage. On the 26th of June she wrote a letter to Cromwell, pleading her case. I pulled this letter from Rivals in Power by David Starkey:

…The cause of my writing unto you is, that I may know whether I shall have a better living or not…which my Lord my husband hath forgotten now he hath so much wealth and honours, and is so far doting love with that quean [whore]…He knoweth it is spoken of far and near, to his great dishonour and shame; and he chose me for love, and I am younger than he by twenty years, and he hath put me away four years and a quarter at this midsummer; and [I] hath lived always like a good woman, as it is not unknown…He hath taken away all my jewels and my apparel, and kept me four years and more like a prisoner…Another cause: he set his women to bind me till blood come out at my fingers’ end, and pinnacled me, and sat on my breast till I spit blood; and he never punished them: and all this was done for Bess Holland’s sake… (page 93)

In the letter, one she wrote to clearly get Cromwell’s attention about the abuse against her, Elizabeth alleges rather awful treatment against her; some of which seems too extreme to believe. That is, until we remember what her husband was recorded as saying to the King’s daughter, Mary, in response to Mary not recognizing Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church of England and that her parent’s marriage was never valid. He stated that if she was his daughter, he would “bash her head into the wall until it was as soft as a baked apple.” That was a year before Elizabeth wrote her letter to Cromwell.

Norfolk wanted a divorce. Elizabeth, like Katherine of Aragon, refused to give one to him.

I get the impression that Elizabeth was playing dirty, a different trick than her dear friend Katherine of Aragon used. She even claimed that Norfolk assaulted her as early as 1519 (six years into their marriage) during the birth of their daughter Mary.

When Norfolk discovered what his wife had said, he sent a letter to Cromwell and called her out as a liar, as he would never harm an unborn child. He said, “My good Lord, if I prove not by witness, and that with many honest persons, that she had the scar in her head fifteen months before she was delivered of my said daughter” – due to a procedure she had done by a surgeon in London.

Elizabeth’s brother Henry Stafford even turned against her for her  ‘wild language,’ and her ‘sensual and wilful mind’. (Oxford DNB)

Norfolk was not a perfect man; This I think we already knew. During his time in Ireland, his treasurer, John Stile, had complained about Norfolk’s temper. He said that his master was ‘sometimes more hasty than needeth.’ Tudor historian Polydore Vergil said that Norfolk was ‘quick with his fists.’ This is evident at the end of his letter, saying that if his wife would ever come into his company again, she ‘might give me occasion to handle her otherwise than I have done yet.’

Elizabeth took her husband’s threat very seriously and is quoted as saying, ‘I know well, if I should come home again, my life should be but short’.

The Duchess was surrounded by enemies, and she had little support in her cause because she was a woman in a man’s world. Her voice really did not matter-however, in order to obtain his divorce, Norfolk would need Elizabeth’s consent, and she wasn’t going to give it. Even her children had turned against her and sided with their father.

Author Jessie Childs in “Henry VIII’s Last Victim” claims that Surrey probably sided with his father because Elizabeth had the nerve to approach Cromwell for help-Cromwell was the man Norfolk detested above all others.

Her daughter Mary, Duchess of Richmond, also sided with her father. Not only did she side with him, but she became good friends with Bess Holland. Whether Mary did this for self-preservation or that she supported her father for real, we do not know.

When Elizabeth discovered that her children had taken the side of their father, she was undoubtedly hurt and said that she was ‘matched with such an ungracious husband and so ungracious a son and a daughter’. She described her children as ‘unnatural’ but also said that ‘I have always love unto them.’

By the 1540s, Elizabeth had reconciled once again with her brother Henry, but not with her husband who was still with his mistress.

At the time of her husband’s arrest in 1546, Elizabeth and Bess Holland were under the same roof at Kenninghall. Elizabeth gave evidence against her husband, and after his attainder her apparel at Kenninghall was restored to her. At the time of her arrest she had little in the way of valuables, ‘all being very bare and her jewels sold to pay her debts. (Oxford DNB)

In 1554, When the Lady Mary became the first Queen Regnant in England, Elizabeth was able to return to court-she even carried the Queen’s train at her coronation. Quite an honor!

Elizabeth died on 30 November 1558 (around 61 years old)  and was buried in the Howard chapel, at Lambeth.

After doing all this research on Elizabeth Stafford, Duchess of Norfolk, I realized how much Mary Howard turned out to be like her mother. She was proud, and she stubborn. Those two traits are clearly something she inherited, or at least learned from her mother’s actions. It makes me wonder if Elizabeth was proud of her intelligent daughter, for standing up for herself.