Of Henry VIII’s three nieces—Margaret, Countess of Lennox, Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, and Eleanor, Countess of Cumberland, the last was the shortest-lived and probably the least known. Eleanor was the younger daughter of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and his wife Mary, known as the French Queen because of her previous marriage to Louis XII.
Eleanor was born sometime between 1518 and 1521. S. J. Gunn has speculated that she might have been named for Eleanor, Queen of Portugal and later Queen of France, who was the Emperor Charles V’s older sister. Erin Sadlack has suggested that she might have been born in late 1520 or 1521, after Henry VIII met Charles V at Gravelines. According to Anne Clifford, Countess of Pembroke, who wrote a history of her family in the seventeenth century, Eleanor was around twenty-seven or twenty-eight when she died in 1547.
In 1533, Eleanor had the sad duty of attending the funeral of her mother, where Frances Grey, Eleanor’s older sister, who was then the Marchioness of Dorset, served as the chief mourner. Present at the funeral was Henry, Lord Clifford, Eleanor’s future husband, who was the heir to Henry Clifford, first Earl of Cumberland.
Eleanor was married in 1535 to Henry, who had been born in around 1517. According to Lady Anne Clifford, the couple were married at Suffolk Place, the Duke of Suffolk’s home in Southwark, in the presence of Eleanor’s uncle, Henry VIII. An Act of Parliament concerning Lady Eleanor’s jointure was passed in February 1536. So pleased was the Earl of Cumberland to acquire a royal daughter-in-law, Lady Anne writes, he built an octagonal tower and a great gallery at Skipton Castle for her “more magnificent entertainment.” Despite the splendid arrangements at Skipton, Henry and Eleanor seem to have resided mainly at Brougham Castle until he succeeded to his father’s earldom.
In 1536, Eleanor served as chief mourner at Catherine of Aragon’s funeral. It seems odd that her older sister Frances was not called upon for this duty; perhaps Henry thought that his cast-off wife did not rate the higher-ranking sister, or perhaps Frances, who had been married in 1533 and whose first two children died young, was pregnant with one of these children or was recovering from the birth of one of them. Neither sister seems to have been closely connected with the current queen, Anne Boleyn, perhaps because of their late mother’s strong dislike for the king’s marriage to her.
In October 1536, Eleanor had a terrifying experience. During the Pilgrimage of Grace, she was staying with her young son and two of her sisters-in-law at Bolton Priory. The commons, besieging the Earl of Cumberland’s stronghold at Skipton Castle, threatened to capture them and, if the castle was not yielded, “to violate and enforce them with knaves unto my Lord’s great discomfort.” Instead, Christopher Aske, brother of the rebel Robert Aske and a cousin and receiver to the Earl of Cumberland, enlisted the aid of the vicar of Skipton, a groom, and a boy and led the would-be captives over the moors at night to the safety of Skipton Castle. Eleanor’s husband, meanwhile, defended Carlisle against a force of rebels.
The siege of Skipton Castle lasted from October 21 or 22 to October 27, when the rebels abandoned the effort. They were preparing to march on Doncaster when news of the truce at Pontefract reached them. On November 7, 1536, Eleanor’s worried father wrote to the Earl of Cumberland, “And forasmuch as I understand my daughter was of late in some daunger by reason of the rebels in your partes: I hartely pray you my lord in eschewing any further danger or peril ye will send her unto me hither if yee thinck yee may so doe by any surety possible, and here I trust she shall be out of danger.”
Following this high drama, Eleanor appears to have lived a quiet life, well away from court. She is not mentioned as being present at Prince Edward’s christening. Nor does she appear as one of the ladies at Jane Seymour’s funeral in 1537 or in the list of ladies who greeted Anne of Cleves in 1539-40, although her sister Frances was present on both occasions and her father and stepmother were prominent in welcoming Anne of Cleves. Perhaps Eleanor was in ill health or pregnant; at some point the Duke of Suffolk wrote to the Earl of Cumberland, “And understanding that my daughter Clifforde cann never have her good health at Riche Abbey, I desire you my lord that you would be contented that your sonne my lord Clifford and my said daughter may have your castle at Brome [Brougham] as they have had afore tyme where they may be and contynue for such season as they shall thincke most convenyent for the more confirmation of both their healths, wherein you shall doe me and them great pleasure.” On December 20 in an unspecified year, Suffolk, having heard from Eleanor’s husband that he was planning to go to London, wrote to the Earl of Cumberland that he was content to learn that Eleanor would remain with her father-in-law until the holidays had passed. If this was written in December 1539, as its editor has suggested, Eleanor was presumably not expected to be on hand to meet Anne of Cleves, who arrived in early January.
Sometime in 1540, Eleanor gave birth to her only child who would live to adulthood, Margaret. Her first son, Henry, had died when he was two or three, and her second son, Charles, also died young. Eleanor’s father-in-law died in 1542, and his son succeeded to his earldom, making Eleanor the new Countess of Cumberland. Eleanor suffered another loss when her father died in 1545. In his will, he left Frances and Eleanor two hundred pounds’ worth of plate each.
As with Henry’s earlier queens, there is no indication that Eleanor was part of Anne of Cleves’ or Katherine Howard’s households. She and her sister Frances, however, were both listed in 1546 as one of the “ladies ordinary” attendant upon Katherine Parr who were accustomed to be lodged within the king’s house.
In his Treatise of Three Conversions of England, published in 1604, Robert Parsons claimed that Anne Askew was accused of finding “meanes to enter with the principall of the land, namely with queene Catherine Parre herselfe, and with his neeces the daughters of the duke of Suffolke.” As other ladies in the queen’s household were connected with Anne Askew, it is possible that Eleanor and Frances were indeed approached by her, although nothing indicates whether either sister was receptive.
Henry VIII died in January 1547, leaving a will which provided that if his children Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth died without heirs, the crown would pass to his niece Frances’s heirs, then to Eleanor’s. Eleanor did not live to see the repercussions this will would have for her Grey nieces or for her own daughter, for she died the same year as her uncle the king. The following letter, written, sadly, on Valentine’s Day, may belong to the last year of her life. It is inscribed, “To my mooste lovynge Lorde and husband, the Erle of Combreland.”
Dere hart, after my moste hartye commendatyons, thys shalbe to sertify yow that sense yowr departure frome me, I have byn very seke & att thys present my watter ys very redd, wherby I suppos I have the jaundes and the aygew both, for I have none abyde to meate & I have suche payns in my syde & towardes my bak as I had att Brauham, wher ytt be gane with me furst. Wher for I desyre yow to help me to a physyssyon and that thys berer may brynge hyim with hyim, for now in the begynning I trust I may have gud remedy, & the longer ytt ys delayed the worse ytt wylbe. Also my sister Powys [Anne Grey, a daughter of the Duke of Suffolk from a previous marriage] ys comyd to me and ys very desyrous to se yow, whiche I trust shalbe the sooner at this tyme, and thus Jhesu send hus both healthe. Att my lodge at Carleton, the xiiiith day of February.
And, dere hart, I pray yow send for Doctor Stephyns, for he knowyth best my complexon for such cawsys.
By yowr assuryd loufyng wyff, Elenor Cumbarland.
According to Anne Clifford, Eleanor, at the age of around twenty-seven or twenty-eight, died at Brougham Castle toward the end of November 1547, although the Complete Peerage gives her date of death, without citing a source, as September 27, 1547. The countess was buried at Holy Trinity Church at Skipton.
Lady Anne Clifford tells us this colorful story of the earl’s reaction to his wife’s death:
[H]e fell into an extream sickness, of which he was at length laid out for a dead man, upon a table, & covered with a hearse of velvet; but some of his men that were then very carefull about him perceiveing some little signs of life in him, did apply hot cordials inwardly & outwardly unto him, which brought him to life again, & so, after he was laid into his bed again, he was fain for 4 or 5 weeks after to such the milk out of a woman’s breast and only to live on that food; and after to drink asses milk, and live on that 3 or 4 months longer.
History does not record the identity of the woman who suckled the earl. According to Lady Anne Clifford, he seldom came to court after his first wife’s death. In addition to being interested in alchemy and chemistry, she tells us, “he had an excellent library, both of written hand books and printed books. To which he was exceedingly addicted, especially towards his latter end, when he had given over living at the court & at London.”
Henry Clifford turned his attention away from his books and alchemy in 1554 long enough to remarry. His second wife was Anne, the daughter of William, third Baron Dacre of Gilsland. She bore him two sons, George and Francis, who became the third and fourth earls of Cumberland. Before this, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, had approached the earl about a marriage between Northumberland’s fourth son, Guildford Dudley, and Margaret Clifford. The Earl of Cumberland appointed men to negotiate a marriage settlement, but Guildford instead made a fatal marriage to Lady Jane Grey while Margaret was ultimately betrothed to Northumberland’s younger brother, Andrew. The latter marriage never took place, however, as Andrew was imprisoned for his role in the attempt to divert the succession from Mary Tudor. Margaret Clifford instead married Henry Stanley, Lord Strange, the future Earl of Derby, in 1555, in the presence of Mary I and Philip. Though the marriage produced four sons, it broke down, and the couple eventually separated. Margaret, dangerously close to the throne after the demise of her Grey cousins, was later accused of attempting to employ astrology to divine the date of Elizabeth I’s death and her choice of an heir; as a result, she spent several years under house arrest. She died at Clerkenwell in 1596. Margaret’s will can be found here (N.B. I do not endorse the premise of this site, which is devoted to proving that the Earl of Oxford was the author of Shakespeare’s plays).
Dulcie Ashdown, Tudor Cousins: Rivals for the Throne. Gloucestershire, Sutton Publishing, 2000.
M. L. Bush, The Pilgrimage of Grace: A Study of the Rebel Armies of October 1536. Manchester University Press, 1996.
A. G. Dickens, ed., Clifford Letters of the Sixteenth Century. Durham and London, Surtees Society, 1962.
S. J. Gunn, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, c. 1484–1545. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
R. W. Hoyle, “Letters of the Cliffords, Lords Clifford and Earls of Cumberland, c. 1500–c. 1565.” London, Camden Miscellany XXXI, 1992.
Barbara J. Harris, English Aristocratic Women, 1450–1550. Oxford University Press, 2002.
Louis A. Knafla, ‘Stanley, Henry, fourth earl of Derby (1531–1593)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26272, accessed 4 Feb 2012]
Leanda de Lisle, The Sisters Who Would Be Queen. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.
Erin Sadlack, The French Queen’s Letters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Richard T. Spence, ‘Clifford, Henry, second earl of Cumberland (1517–1570)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5648, accessed 4 Feb 2012]