Lady Shelton

Lady Anne (Boleyn) Shelton was the aunt of Anne Boleyn, and Thomas Boleyn's older sister. She was the mother of Madge Shelton, and the governess of Princess Mary.

Anne was born November 18, 1476 to Sir William Boleyn and his wife, Margaret Butler. She married Sir John Shelton around 1503. She had ten children with him, among them Madge Shelton.

Lady Shelton served at the court of Anne Boleyn, but there seems to have been mutual dislike between them. Some speculate it was because Anne Boleyn had encouraged Lady Shelton's daughter, Madge, to become the mistress of Henry VIII and distract him away from Jane Seymour. Though her faith seems to have leaned toward the reformers, Lady Shelton may have been one of those who disapproved of Anne upsetting the social order by supplanting the queen. Or she may have simply disliked her niece for personal reasons. In any case, Anne later said she had "never loved" Lady Shelton.

In 1533, after Princess Elizabeth was born, Henry decided to break Princess Mary's stubborn pride by forcing Mary to serve the infant sister who had supplanted her. Mary's previous guardian, Countess Margaret Pole, was dismissed, and Lady Shelton appointed in her place. Sir John Shelton was placed in charge of Princess Elizabeth's household.

Katharine was convinced this change meant she and Mary would soon be martyred. She wrote to Mary, one of the last letters Mary ever received from her mother, and essentially told her to prepare for death.

I heard such tidings today that I do perceive if it be true, the time is come that Almighty God will prove you; and I am very glad of it, for I trust He doth handle you with a good love. I beseech you agree of His pleasure with a merry heart; and be sure that, without fail, He will not suffer you to perish if you beware to offend Him. I pray you, good daughter, to offer yourself to Him. If any pangs come to you, shrive yourself; first make you clean; take heed of His commandments, and keep them as near as He will give you grace to do, for then you are sure armed. And if this lady [Anne Shelton] do come to you as it is spoken, if she do bring you a letter from the King, I am sure in the self same letter you shall be commanded what you shall do. Answer with few words, obeying the King, your father, in everything, save only that you will not offend God and lose your own soul; and go no further with learning and disputation in the matter. And wheresoever, and in whatsoever company you shall come, observe the King’s commandments. Speak you few words and meddle nothing.

And now you shall begin, and by likelihood I shall follow. I set not a rush by it; for when they have done the uttermost they can, than I am sure of the amendment. I pray you, recommend me unto my good lady of Salisbury, and pray her to have a good heart, for we never come to the kingdom of Heaven but by troubles.

Daughter, whatsoever you come, take no pain to send unto me, for if I may, I will send to you.
Your loving mother,
Katharine the Queen.

Lady Shelton was instructed to treat Mary harshly to try to induce the girl to capitulate and admit her parents' marriage was invalid and she was a bastard. Some historians claim it was Anne urging this cruelty, but considering it only increased after her death, it doesn't seem the blame can be laid at her feet. Henry was the final authority, and Henry was not a weak-willed man henpecked into mistreating his daughter as some writers suggest.

It was a duty Lady Shelton performed with great reluctance, but she enforced the rules that had been laid down for Lady Mary. Mary's health was always precarious and she was prone to stress-induced illness. It wasn't long after the new regime began that she fell ill again.

Mary would not eat in the dining hall because her plate was placed with the maids, and Elizabeth was given the seat of honor as princess. Mary took her meals in her rooms until Lady Shelton was instructed to put a stop to it and force Mary eat in the hall at her assigned place. Mary wouldn't concede. She might be forced to sit there, but she refused to eat.

As ridiculous to us as it seems that a girl would literally starve herself rather than eat from a plate that was placed in an unacceptable spot at the table, to Mary, this was a deadly-serious battle for her political future, and her immortal soul.

To accept a lower seat at the table was loaded with very real implications. If she accepted it, she was admitting Elizabeth had superior status to Mary, which meant her parents' marriage was invalid, Mary was illegitimate, and her father was - indeed  - head of the church instead of the pope. To Mary, it was endorsing a lie, denying her faith and putting her in a state of mortal sin.

Mary survived on scraps her few faithful servants smuggled to her after the meal. Surrounded by hostile persons, unable to eat regularly, and under enormous stress, Mary succumbed to illness. Part of it may have been malingering, because while she was in her bed, Mary did not have to capitulate to any slights on her status, but Mary did have legitimate medical issues. She suffered from migraines, indigestion - likely from the rich, fatty, heavily sugared diet of Tudor nobles - insomnia, fevers, depression, and menstrual woes.

Lady Shelton summoned an apothecary, and Doctor Butts, Henry's personal physician was sent to examine the girl.

Katharine wrote to Eustace Chapuys and begged him to ask the king if she could take care of her daughter, certain she knew what it would take it make Mary well again. In truth, she was probably right. With some loving care, Mary probably would have been much better, but the king was unsympathetic.

Chapuys reported the encounter to the emperor:

He then said there was no great occasion to put the Princess again in the Queen's hands, for it was she who had put it into her head to show such obstinacy and disobedience, as all the world knew; and although sons and daughters were bound to some obedience towards their mothers, their chief duty was to their fathers, and since the Princess could not have much help of the Queen, and it was clear the whole matter proceeded from the latter, she must submit to his pleasure. I did not wish to dispute with him on the subject, but asked that he would at least put the Princess under the care of her old gouvernante, the countess of Salisbury, whom she regarded as her second mother. He replied that the Countess was a fool, of no experience, and that if his daughter had been under her care during this illness she would have died, for she would not have known what to do, whereas her present governess [Lady Shelton] is an expert lady even in such female complaints.

Chapuys took it upon himself to warn Lady Shelton what would happen if Mary was poisoned:

Long ago I warned her by a third hand of the mischief which might arise to her if anything happened to the said Princess, and I also took care to get the King's physician to tell her that of late there was a common report in London that she had poisoned the said Princess; which put her in terrible fear, so that she can do nothing but weep when the sees the Princess so ill.

Whatever Chapuys had Doctor Butts say to her, it must have been very dire to leave the woman in a state of constant weeping. Poor Lady Shelton was afraid to administer any of the apothecary's medicines to Mary, lest the girl die and she be blamed for it.

And all the while, Lady Shelton was being urged to treat Mary more harshly to force the girl to capitulate, knowing the harsh treatment was part of what caused Mary's illnesses.

Chapuys claims the household servants - who would have been assigned to serve Princess Elizabeth and loyal to Anne Boleyn - were cruel to Mary.

Your Majesty may consider what solace and pastime she can have with those about her, hearing them desire her death, by which, they say, the world would be at peace, and they discharged of the pain and trouble they have had about her.

Several months later, there was still discussion of Mary's health, and Chapuys reported that Henry decided to go to Mary's residence to check on the issue himself.

[Mary] was very ill on the 14th of this month of her usual illness, and the physicians for that day and the two following were in great doubt. On the second day I sent to request Cromwell that he would send someone to see her, and intercede with the King to do the same, assuring him it would be the best medicine she could receive. He did not fail to inform the King, who made answer to me through him that he would see after his daughter as a father should, and that next day, the 19th, he would leave Hampton Court for Greenwich. This he did, and arrived at Greenwich about 2 p.m., where he remained till after the middle of next day.
He enquired of the gouvernante and other women about the Princess of her health. He made no enquiry of the Queen's physician nor would he speak with his own. But the said physician made bold to speak to him of the Princess's illness, reporting it as dangerous if not seen to in time.
The King, for his pains, told him he was not loyal to him, and that all he said was in behalf of the Princess's desire to go to her mother; but he would take good care not to send her thither, for, the Queen being so haughty in spirit, she might, by favor of the Princess, raise a number of men, and make war, as boldly as did queen Elizabeth (Isabella) her mother.
There was no thought of the King seeing the said Princess or sending her a word of consolation. On the contrary, word was sent by her gouvernante that he had no worse enemy in the world than her, and that she was the cause of mischief to the greater number of Christian princes, and the King declared publicly that her conduct was calculated to encourage conspiracy against him

Imagine Lady Shelton having to deliver that message!

Chapuys may have had his own agenda in exaggerating Mary's health concerns. On the exact same day, he wrote to Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, one of the Emperor's advisors:

The Princess is well, better than some would have her. She may be called the paragon of beauty, goodness and virtue.

Mary's will was iron, and it frustrated everyone. Anne Boleyn wrote angry letters to Lady Shelton about it, and at one point, Lady Shelton herself said in exasperation that if she were the king, she would throw Mary out of the house for her attitude. But for the most part, she tried to treat her charge with respect. It is recorded at one point, the Duke of Northumberland chastised Lady Shelton for her lenient treatment of Mary. Lady Shelton retorted that even if Mary were only the bastard of a poor gentleman, she deserved honor and good treatment for her goodness and virtues.

Lady Shelton is commonly accused of treating Mary poorly in general, egged on by Anne Boleyn, but Chapuys sometimes paints a different picture. After Katharine died in January, 1536, Anne Boleyn tried to make peace, and Lady Shelton did her utmost to urge Mary to accept it.

The Concubine, according to what the Princess sent to tell me, threw the first bait to her, and caused her to be told by her aunt, the gouvernante of the said Princess, that if she would lay aside her obstinacy and obey her father, she would be the best friend to her in the world and be like another mother, and would obtain for her anything she could ask, and that if she wished to come to Court she would be exempted from holding the tail of her gown, "et si la meneroit tousjours a son cause"; and the said gouvernante does not cease with hot tears to implore the said Princess to consider these matters; to which the Princess has made no other reply than that there was no daughter in the world who would be more obedient to her father in what she could do saving her honor and conscience.

The "hot tears" Chapuys describes implies a lot of emotion on Lady Shelton's part, and I doubt it was all from anger or frustration. She seems to have genuinely cared for Mary. She even agreed to allow Chapuys' servant in to see Mary, though she had been expressly forbidden to do so without a note or
other token from the king. Mary, however, refused to see him because she had not gotten permission.

Soon afterward, Lady Shelton received a letter from Anne Boleyn telling her to cease with the pressure on Mary. Chapuys reports that Mary found the letter in the oratory, took it to copy, and then returned it before she was discovered. Chapuys wonders in his report if it was a ruse, but relates a copy of Anne's words in his own letter.

Mrs. Shelton, my pleasure is that you do not further move the lady Mary to be towards the King's Grace otherwise than it pleases herself. What I have done has been more for charity than for anything the King or I care what road she takes, or whether she will change her purpose, for if I have a son, as I hope shortly, I know what will happen to her; and therefore, considering the Word of God, to do good to one's enemy, I wished to warn her before hand, because I have daily experience that the King's wisdom is such as not to esteem her repentance of her rudeness and unnatural obstinacy when she has no choice. By the law of God and of the King, she ought clearly to acknowledge her error and evil conscience if her blind affection had not so blinded her eyes that she will see nothing but what pleases herself. Mrs. Shelton, I beg you not to think to do me any pleasure by turning
her from any of her wilful courses, because she could not do me [good] or evil; and do your duty about her according to the King's command, as I am assured you do.

If Mary thought this was light at the end of the tunnel, she was sadly mistaken. A few months later, Anne Boleyn was arrested on charges of adultery and treason, and sent to the Tower. Lady Shelton was summoned to be one of the women assigned to serve Anne during her imprisonment.

It seems Henry intentionally chose women who were unfriendly to Anne to guard her. Anne complained bitterly about it, and who could blame her? At the worst crisis of her life, Anne was without a friend to comfort her.

An odd instruction was given to the women serving her: they were never speak to Anne without Lady Kingston, wife of the Tower constable, present.  What was the reason for this unusual command? The king and council wanted every word Anne spoke recorded, because Henry knew his wife had a tendency to babble under stress. (And, indeed, some of her words were used as evidence against her.)

But couldn't Henry trust that the women he chose would faithfully report everything Anne said? Were they concerned that despite the initial animosity, Anne might charm the women into friendship and thus be able to speak freely, pass messages, or obtain information?

It's uncertain whether Anne was finally given some of her own ladies in waiting. Some of the descriptions of the witnesses imply that she did have her own serving women with her at the end, but it's more likely that it was still the ladies Henry had assigned. The witnesses report that the ladies who accompanied Anne to the scaffold wept as though "bereft of souls." In the end, did Lady Shelton come to care for her niece enough to weep as Anne knelt for the stroke of the sword?

After Anne's execution, Lady Shelton was sent back to Mary's household. If Mary had celebrated at Anne's fall and thought her persecution was over, she was sadly mistaken. It only intensified. The Duke of Norfolk visited and shouted at her that if Mary was his daughter, he would smash her head against the wall until her skull was as mushy as a baked apple.

In the meantime, Henry's new wife was trying to broker peace between them, and all of Mary's partisans were urging her to capitulate. Mary could take no more. It had taken Henry ten years, but he finally broke his daughter's pride and spirit. Mary signed a document which accepted her parents' marriage was invalid, that she was a bastard, and her father was head of the church. She even penned hims a snivelling letter, begging for forgiveness.

Lady Shelton and her husband were still in charge of the dual household of Mary and Elizabeth. Sir Shelton had complaints of his own: after Anne's death, the funds for Elizabeth's household were cut off.

I perceive by your letter the King's pleasure that my lady Elizabeth shall keep her chamber and not come abroad, and that I shall provide for her as I did for my lady Mary when she kept her chamber. Have me in remembrance for the King's warrant you commanded me to deliver to Master Wrisley for money for the household, otherwise I cannot continue it. Within seven or eight days provision must be made at the seaside for Lent store and other necessaries. You promised me to let me have the warrant and the checkroll reformed at the King's pleasure. If the household is to be served on two sides, 4,000£ will be little enough.

But the money was very slow to trickle in. By the following May the household had only received 300£.

Elizabeth's governess complained in August, 1536 that the child had outgrown her clothing and no more had been provided. She noted Sir Shelton was having Elizabeth dine in the main hall.

Mr. Shelton would have my lady Elizabeth to dine and sup every day at the board of estate. It is not meet for a child of her age to keep such rule. If she do, I dare not take it upon me to keep her Grace in health; for she will see divers meats, fruits, and wine, that it will be hard for me to refrain her from. "Ye know, my lord, there is no place of correction there; and she is too young to correct greatly." I beg she may have a good mess of meat to her own lodging, with a good dish or two meet for her to eat of.

Courtesy of
Back in her father's favor, Mary departed for her own household. In the August 1536, the Sheltons' assignment to the household of the king's children ended. They departed back to their own estates.

Mary does not seem to have resented Lady Shelton. During her reign, she granted Lady Shelton a rent-free manor for life and a small annuity. Perhaps she understood how Lady Shelton was torn between emotion and duty.

As Elizabeth grew older, she sometimes fled to the Sheltons for shelter in times of trouble. One of the pews in the church there is known as "Elizabeth's Pew."

Lady Shelton died in 1556. Her grave is lost, though her will asks that she be buried in the chancel at Carrow. Her husband is buried at St. Mary's and a stained glass window at the church depicts Lady Shelton.

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