Lady Anne Shelton, née Boleyn, is one of those Tudor women who is not well known but was a witness to significant events of the era. She was the aunt of Queen Anne Boleyn and was with her in the Tower during her final days. She also played a role in the early life of Queen Mary I.
Anne was born in 1475 at the Boleyn family home of Blickling in Norfolk. She was the daughter of Sir William Boleyn and Lady Margaret Butler, the daughter of Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond. She was the sister of Thomas Boleyn who would become an prominent courtier during the reign of King Henry VIII. We know little of Anne’s childhood but she would have been given an education worthy of her rank. Sometime before 1503, Anne married Sir John Shelton, a courtier of the Norfolk village of Shelton near Norwich.
John Shelton was appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1504 under King Henry VII. At Henry VIII’s coronation, Shelton was created a Knight of the Bath and was made High Sheriff of Suffolk in 1522. He became a Justice of the Peace for Norfolk. The Sheltons did not play a large role in the early years of Henry VIII’s reign. Their home of Shelton Hall in Norfolk served as their base and the marriage appears to have been a loving one.
Anne and John had three sons and seven daughters. Many birthdates are unknown but the children included Margaret, a son John who married the older sister of Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, Mary, Ralph, Thomas, Anne, Gabriella who became a nun, Elizabeth, Amy and Emma. Lady Anne had her hands full with all these children and running a household.
A daughter named in historical records as ‘Madge’ Shelton is said to have been a mistress of King Henry VIII but it is not known if ‘Madge’ refers to Margaret or Mary Shelton. The preponderance of evidence indicates it was Mary and she became Henry VIII’s mistress for about six months in 1534-35, causing friction between Queen Anne Boleyn and Lady Shelton. It is hinted in the historical record that Queen Anne fostered the relationship between King Henry and her cousin but the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt may also have been responsible for the liaison.
Lady Anne and her husband began to take a more prominent role at the court of Henry VIII when the king married Anne’s niece, Anne Boleyn in 1533. Queen Anne gave birth to Princess Elizabeth in September and Lady Shelton and her sister Alice Boleyn, Lady Clere were appointed to the household of the princess at Hatfield House on the orders of the Queen.
Shortly after this household was established, the Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, joined the establishment. Mary had been declared illegitimate, forbidden to use the title ‘Princess’, and required to be subservient to the Princess Elizabeth. Lady Shelton and Lady Clere were specifically put in charge of Mary and commissioned with enforcing the King’s orders of having Mary use the title ‘Lady’ and compelling her to submit to him completely and recognize Anne as Queen.
Mary refused to submit to any of the humiliations perpetrated against her. Whenever someone called her ‘Lady’ she would remind them she was ‘Princess’. She remained isolated at Hatfield having been given the worst lodgings in the house. She ate a large breakfast so she could avoid eating in the hall with the others. She would often plead sickness so she could have her supper delivered to her chambers.
When Queen Anne Boleyn heard of this behavior, she messaged Lady Shelton saying if Mary continued in this manner, she was to be starved into going to dinner in the hall. And if she tried to use the title ‘Princess’, they were to box her ears. Lady Shelton would be reprimanded many times for being too lenient and not harsh enough with Mary and for showing her too much respect. Evidence Lady Shelton abused Mary physically is scant but she certainly could be verbally abusive.
In February of 1534, Lady Shelton was chastised by the Duke of Norfolk and George Boleyn, being told she was too sympathetic and should treat Mary as the bastard that she was. According to the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, Lady Shelton replied “even if it were so, and that she was the bastard daughter of a poor gentleman, her kindness, her modesty, and her virtues called forth all respect and honor”. Lady Anne was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. While she was exasperated by Mary’s conduct, she didn’t want to be too harsh with her. On the other hand, she had to follow the orders of the king and queen.
Mary’s continued protest of her treatment resulted in more severe punishment. Her jewels were confiscated and then her clothes and other valuable items. By February 1534, Mary had to beg for money. In March of 1534, the household of Elizabeth and Mary traveled to a new residence. Mary refused to follow behind Princess Elizabeth. Lady Shelton ordered Mary be forcibly and bodily lifted into the carriage behind that of Elizabeth for the journey. In September of 1534, the Act of Succession passed, requiring an oath to be sworn that Mary was no longer Princess and her mother no longer Queen, at the risk of being put in the Tower of London or even death.
The King’s secretary, Thomas Cromwell, pressured Mary to swear. The King inquired of Lady Shelton if Mary was still being obstinate. When it was confirmed Mary refused, the King someone encouraged her and passed on information from her mother. Lady Shelton suspected one of Mary’s maids, identified her as Anne Hussey and had the maid promptly dismissed. Hussey was a confidante of Mary and her dismissal caused Mary a great deal of distress.
Shortly after this, Mary became seriously ill. Under severe strain, she complained of headaches and indigestion and soon became prostrate. Lady Shelton called in an unfamiliar apothecary who prescribed pills which made Mary’s condition worse. This may have been an allergic reaction or a psychosomatic response but it terrified Lady Shelton, who feared she would be accused of poisoning Mary. Eventually the King’s physician, Dr. William Butts called on Mary to treat her and she recovered. Lady Anne retained the trust of King Henry, who was informed she was an expert in the female complaints of which Mary was suffering.
The conditions of Mary’s house arrest became stricter as time went on. She received fewer and fewer visitors and when she did, their names were reported to the Privy Council. When visitors came to see Princess Elizabeth, Mary was shut up in her room with the windows nailed shut. Lady Shelton tormented Mary, saying if she were the King, she would throw her out of the house for her disobedience. She told Mary the King had said Mary would lose her head for violating the laws of the realm. She told Mary the King regarded her as his “worst enemy”.
Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon died on January 7, 1536. Four days later, Lady Shelton came to Mary without ceremony or preparation and told her that her mother was dead, leaving Mary inconsolable. After this, Anne Boleyn instructed Lady Shelton to tell Mary she was ready to reconcile, promised to be her best friend, like another mother and would give her whatever she asked. She wouldn’t even make Mary hold the tail of her gown. Lady Shelton reported that Mary was intractable. Soon after this, Anne Boleyn became pregnant again and asked Lady Shelton to ease the pressure on Mary. The Queen knew Mary’s fate if she gave birth to a son.
Anne Boleyn miscarried this child and Lady Shelton released some of the restrictions on Mary and was less harsh in her treatment. Due to bribes from ambassador Chapuys, Lady Shelton even allowed ambassadors to see Mary without the counter-signature required by the King. On May 2, they arrested Queen Anne and incarcerated her in the Tower. Lady Shelton was one of five ladies who greeted her. Appointed by Thomas Cromwell to attend the Queen, the other ladies included Elizabeth, wife of Sir James Boleyn, Mary, Lady Kingston, wife of the Constable of the Tower, Margaret Coffin, wife of Anne’s Master-of-the Horse and Elizabeth Stoner, wife of the King’s Sergeant-at-Arms. These women were charged with spying on the Queen and to report on every move she made and word she said.
The Queen was tried and convicted and executed on May 19. Several women accompanied Queen Anne to the scaffold but they are not named. There is a possibility Lady Shelton was one of them but we will never know for sure. For five weeks after the fall of Anne Boleyn, the most extensive pressure yet was placed on Mary to submit completely to her father. After Cromwell’s first unsuccessful attempt, the Duke of Norfolk told Lady Shelton to put Mary under constant surveillance day and night and allow no one to talk to her.
Sir John Shelton was made Steward of the Household of Mary and Elizabeth, essentially in charge of the domestic guard by July 1536. Sir John and Lady Shelton were given the title of Governor and Governess of the Princess Elizabeth after Queen Anne’s execution. Their responsibilities included the upbringing and education of Elizabeth. Lady Shelton and her daughters befriended Mary and seem to have treated her fairly. By this time King Henry had married Jane Seymour. Jane was Mary’s leading advocate with the King. Mary eventually made a complete and total surrender to her father and went to live at court with him and his new queen. There is evidence Mary exchanged gifts with the Shelton women in her accounts showing Mary retained them in some favor.
On November 22, 1538, Sir John Shelton was granted the site of the dissolved Benedictine nunnery at Carrow just outside Norwich and became the family home. Sir John died on December 21, 1539. Lady Shelton’s son John joined Mary’s household and was knighted when Edward VI came to the throne. He was one of the first men to declare for Queen Mary at Kenninghall when she fought against Lady Jane Grey and her supporters in July of 1553.
John Shelton was given an annuity of £60 and a seat on Queen Mary’s council. When Queen Mary quarreled with Princess Elizabeth, she fled to the Shelton family for protection. When Elizabeth became Queen, she summoned the Shelton family to court and they played an important role during her reign. Lady Shelton made her will on December 19, 1555 and it was proven on January 8, 1556, indicating her death was sometime between these dates. It is unknown whether she was buried in Carrow Abbey or St. Mary’s Church in Shelton.
Further reading: “The Boleyn Women” by Elizabeth Norton, “Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen” by Anna Whitelock, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” by Alison Weir, “Bloody Mary” by Carolly Erickson, entry on the Shelton family in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Joseph S. Block