Hidden historical heroines (#29: Helena von Snakenborg)

A portrait supposedly of Helena, aged 21Helena von Snakenborg (c.1549 – 10 April 1635) was a Swedish noblewoman who was highly favoured by Elizabeth I. She was taken into Elizabeth’s household and eventually became Marchioness of Northampton by her first marriage, which made her one of the senior peeresses of the realm.

Helena was born Elin Ulfsdotter of Fyllingarum, a younger daughter to Ulf Henrikson, Lord of Fyllingarum and a Senator of Sweden, a right-hand man to the Swedish King, Gustav I. Her mother was a renowned beauty and heiress, Agneta Knutsdotter. From the earliest accounts, Helena was considered a beauty to surpass her mother, with large, expressive brown eyes, red-hair and a fine complexion. Flatterers related her as having above-average intelligence, an independent mind and a strong will.

In 1564, Queen Elizabeth invited Princess Cecilia of Sweden, to visit her in England. Presumably this was to discuss the marriage suit of Cecilia’s half-brother, King Eric XIV. Princess Cecilia brought six Maids of Honour with her on the long journey, one of which was the teenaged Helena. The party had to travel a gruelling round-about route, avoiding countries that were hostile towards Sweden, so it wasn’t until the 8th of September 1565 that they arrived at Dover, the journey having lasted almost an entire year.

The welcoming party at Dover was led by Sir William Parr, the first Marquis of Northampton, brother of the late Queen consort Katheryn Parr. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the grizzled fifty-something Marquis found himself somewhat taken with the red-headed nymphet and almost immediately after settling the Swedish party in London’s Bedford House, started to court her.

Parr presented Helena with embarrassingly excessive gifts, including reams of expensive clothing and jewels. Contemporaries held the courtship as rather romantic, with the extravagancy of the experienced Marquis sweeping the impressionable foreign girl off her feet. Helena’s personal letters sent back to her family in Sweden present a different take; in them she discusses her suitor’s prestige, his rank and – most importantly – his wealth, but says nothing about his personal character. It seems even at sixteen, Helena was savvy enough to know the value of the attentions of a wealthy, elderly man…

The Princess Cecilia of Sweden

By 1566, any chance of a Swedish marriage to Elizabeth had become slim to non-existent, and Princess Cecilia prepared to return home (rather hurriedly, as she had incurred humungous debts in London from living way beyond her means, and her creditors at this point where pounding at the door). Panicked that his beau would be whisked away across the sea, Parr proposed marriage. Unfortunately, he was already married…

Parr had divorced his wife Anne Bourchier in 1552, but at this point the English Church did not acknowledge subsequent marriages of divorcees until one of the ex-spouses was dead. Baroness Bourchier was (unfortunately for Helena) alive and kicking, and reportedly rather happy since she created a terrific scandal by running off with her (priest!) lover in 1551. Parr knew all too well that if he were to actually marry Helena, their marriage would be considered illegal – he had ‘married’ a lady called Elisabeth Brooke in c.1548 and had endured much legal wrangling for no validity (luckily, Elisabeth Brooke had died in 1565, so Helena only had to compete against the one ex-wife).

Helena didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t yet marry her Marquis, but surely it was too good an opportunity to pass up? She’d fallen in love with England – country and court – and found herself desperate to stay. Good Old Queen Bess stepped up. She’d reportedly grown fond of Helena – and was always disposed towards Parr in memory of her beloved step-mother Katheryn – and so took her into her own household, first as a Maid of Honour and later as a Gentlewoman of the Royal Privy Chamber, a great honour.

Over time, Helena became one of Elizabeth’s most trusted aides and intimate friends. The Queen paid for all of Helena’s privileges, such as her own lodgings at Hampton Court Palace, her servants’ wages and the associated costs for her horses and such even though Helena couldn’t be ‘salaried’ as such. However, Anne Bourchier died in late January 1571, and Helena was promptly elevated to Marchioness of Northampton the following May. Elizabeth attended the wedding, which was held in her private rooms at Whitehall Palace. The groom was 57, the bride a sprightly 22. For all my cynicism, it seems the marriage was a happy one. Unfortunately, it was also a short one. Parr died in October, mere months after the wedding. As Parr had had no heir, his title became extinct and Helena was allowed the title of Marchioness of Northampton for the rest of her life – making her one of the most senior peeresses in England, only behind Elizabeth’s own cousins Arbella Stuart and Margaret Douglas.

Unsurprisingly, the young, beautiful and rich widow soon attracted another admirer, one Thomas Gorges. Gorges was a minor nobleman, for all that he was descended from the Duke of Norfolk and was a second cousin to the Queen’s mother, Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth didn’t approve of the match. She refused to give her consent and allow them to marry. Naturally, they married secretly in 1576. Elizabeth hated it when her ladies did this and in typical fashion, she exiled Helena from court and had Gorges sent to the Tower. Luckily, Elizabeth herself wasn’t the only influential friend that Helena had made, and Elizabeth was subtly petitioned for leniency. In less than a year, Helena was returned to the Queen’s good graces and the hitherto scandalous marriage received the royal nod of approval.

"The Good Lady Marquis"

Helena and Gorges had eight children, their first a daughter, Elizabeth (naturally), whose royal namesake stood as godmother. Eventually Elizabeth relented fully, and knighted Gorges in 1586. Her relationship with Helena grew stronger and closer as Elizabeth aged. As the Queen’s health failed, Helena often acted as Elizabeth’s deputy – most often standing in for her during the baptisms of noble children. Helena was highly respected, mainly because of her absolute refusal to be bought and her disdain for court intrigues and her very real love and loyalty towards the Queen. Eventually, Elizabeth gifted her the royal estate at Sheen, so that Helena and her husband could live in their own household with their children whilst still serving at the Royal Court (Elizabeth’s primary residence was the nearby Richmond Palace).

When Elizabeth died in March 1603, Helena took on the role of chief mourner in the royal funeral, as she was the most senior peeress in London. As she led the procession, her grief was said to have been palpable, and she had to be bodily supported by the Chancellor and Lord High Admiral who walked beside her.

Helena was demoted from her position in the Queen’s Privy Chamber with the arrival of James I and his Queen, Anne of Denmark, and ‘retired’ to her estates. She was, however, used occasionally to serve at court and – on occasion – was used by James as an unofficial diplomat in matters regarding Sweden; Helena was involved in brokering a marriage between James’ daughter – Princess Elizabeth – with the Swedish heir to the throne, a match that only didn’t come off due to Queen Anne’s reticence.

Helena's effigy

Thomas Gorges died on 30th March 1610 at the grand age of 74, after which Helena increasingly retreated from court and publicity. She was a vestige of a by-gone time; most of her contemporaries had predeceased her.  As she herself aged, she went to live with her son in Somerset, where she kept up a lively correspondence with her children and grandchildren; Helena had no fewer than an impressive ninety-two direct descendants at the time of her death, on 19th April 1635, at the age of 86. She is buried next to her second husband in Salisbury Cathedral, where you can see her beautiful effigy to this day.


7 thoughts on “Hidden historical heroines (#29: Helena von Snakenborg)

  1. It’s wonderful to read such a well written story about my ancestor! She is one of my favorite leaves on my tree!

  2. Her story is not well enough known. I have huge admiration and respect for her. In fact Im going to look around Longford Castle in March. Her Portrait in the Tate is heartbreakingly lovely. And the story of her journey from Sweden is extraordinary.

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