The Fascinating Elizabethan Women You’ve Never Heard Of
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that there was more than one woman in Elizabethan England. The Queen dominates the show, with a few notable exceptions – Mary, Queen of Scots*, Bess of Hardwick, and er… well that’s it really. But there’s hundreds of Elizabethan women who are just as interesting, and today I’m going to introduce you to four of the most interesting, but least well known.
*and, as queen of Scotland, she’s not even technically an Elizabethan woman
Helena Snakenborg: “Helena the Red”
Also known as Helena the Red (because of her hair, not her socialist beliefs), she was born in Sweden and came to England as a teenager in the train of Princess Cecilia, who was attempting to persuade Queen Elizabeth to marry her half brother, King Eric. Cecilia was not only unsuccessful in setting up Elizabeth and Eric, but also ran up a lot of debt, and after a year left England to avoid her creditors – with Helena staying in England.
Helena had caught the eye of William Parr, the 1st Marquess of Northampton, who, despite being in his fifties, was courting her. He wanted to marry her, and she was keen to marry him too (her letters home talk a lot about the jewels and wealth he was offering, more than love and devotion but Elizabethan women have got to do what they’ve gotta do to get ahead I suppose) but there was a slight issue – William’s first, divorced, wife was still alive. Although the marriage had been dissolved, the Church of England didn’t allow you to marry while your divorced spouse was still alive. This hadn’t stopped William before, as he’d married his second wife anyway (who had died the year Helena arrived in England), but maybe Helena was less down with bigamy.
Luckily, they only had to wait five years before his ex-wife, Anne, died, and they married almost immediately. Unluckily, it then only took five months for William to follow Anne into the grave. Helena was left a very wealthy widow, and was at court with the Queen who was very fond of her – until Helena took it upon herself to marry secretly. Her second husband was Thomas Gorges, a second cousin of Anne Boleyn, and although at first Elizabeth was happy with the match, she changed her mind based on the fact that Helena was a marchioness and Thomas only a gentleman.
Helena married Thomas secretly anyway, and when the queen found out, she exiled Helena from court and chucked her husband into the Tower of London. But Helena managed to wheedle her way back to court, probably with the help of friends in high places, and she and her husband went on to have eight(!) surviving children, remain close to the Queen and become very wealthy. Thomas even went to Sweden on a diplomatic mission, where he probably would have met his wife’s family for the first time.
When Queen Elizabeth died, the most senior peeress in the country, Arbella Stuart, refused to take on the role of Chief Mourner, and so Helena took it on. During the reign of James I she lost her role in the Queen’s privy chamber, but she did work for the court occasionally, including brokering relations between England and her home country of Sweden. After her beloved husband died in 1610, Helena retreated from public life but maintained close relationships with her children and grandchildren, eventually dying in 1635, aged 86 and with apparently at least 92 direct descendants.
Mildred Cooke: “Furious heretic”
Mildred Cooke was one of the famous Cooke sisters, the daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke, who gave all his children, boys and girls, equal levels of education. Mildred was intelligent and educated, and although her dad only left her three books in his will, over her lifetime she built up her own impressive library.
She served Elizabeth at court briefly when she first came to the throne, but most of her influence came through her marriage to William Cecil, the queen’s most trusted advisor. During marriage negotiations between Elizabeth and the Catholic Archduke of Austria Charles II, the Spanish ambassador warned the Spanish King that although William Cecil was keen for the marriage to go ahead and so was avoiding the topic of religion, Mildred was much more outspoken about being against it, and despite being a more “furious heretic” than William, held great influence with him. She was involved in negotiations of the Treaty of Edinburgh and sometimes received money in return for acting as an intermediary for petitions to her husband.
William was also a scholar, and while both of them wished their children and wards to become educated, it was Mildred who took charge of this. She spoke Greek and Latin, and translated her own books, although she never published them and so not much of her translation work survives. She was also a patron of learning and literature, and presented books to university libraries as gifts.
After her death, in 1589, her husband of 43 years wrote a text called Meditation of the Death of His Lady, where he also revealed his discovery of all the charity work that she had done in her life, but kept secret from him.
Anne Dacre: Catholic convert
Anne was born in Carlisle, in 1557; her life first changed when her father died when she was a child and her mother, Elizabeth, remarried. Her step-father was the 4th Duke of Norfolk, head of the powerful Howard family who Anne’s life would be intertwined with forever.
After her mother also died, Anne was brought up by Elizabeth’s mother: both women were devout Catholics who passed this onto the children, even bringing in a priest to teach Anne and her siblings – a super dangerous move in Elizabeth’s Protestant England. Eventually, her step-father, Thomas Howard, managed to gain custody of the Dacre children and although the Howards were seen to be loyal to the old religion, he actively discouraged her to pursue her Catholic beliefs.
Aged 12, Anne was married to Thomas Howard’s eldest son, Philip, in a triple threat arrangement where all three Dacre sisters were betrothed to their Howard step-brothers. Nothing like keeping it in the family, after all…the two were still children, and didn’t see each other much for the first eleven or so years of their marriage, but once Philip’s granddad (on his mother’s side) died, Philip inherited his title: Anne became the Countess of Arundel and moved to London to be close to her husband.
It took time for the couple to settle, moving from house to house until finally decided to stay in Arundel Castle, in Sussex – where they both decided to convert to Catholicism. This was a highly dangerous move. Ten years before, the Pope had excommunicated Elizabeth I, which, in theory, meant that any Catholics could throw away their loyalty and chuck her off the throne, while Mary, Queen of Scots, who was imprisoned in the country, was a constant, lurking threat to Elizabeth. Laws against Catholics were passed and harsh punishments meted out. Despite this, Anne still converted in 1582.
News spread quickly, and Elizabeth was enraged, ordering that Anne be placed under house arrest for a year, where she gave birth to her first child. After a year, she was set free, and went to join her husband, who then threw oil on the fire by also deciding to convert to Catholicism. Elizabeth was, obviously, equally angry, and also placed Philip under house arrest, although quite why she thought that would be helpful when it clearly hadn’t discouraged Anne, I’m not sure. Philip also thought this – and attempted to flee to France.
Unfortunately, Anne’s husband was caught, arrested and thrown into the Tower of London indefinitely and fined £10,000. Anne, pregnant with her second child, was not allowed to live in London anymore, by order of the queen, and so she packed up and moved to Essex where she gave birth to her son. Her husband lasted ten years in the Tower of London before he died, leaving Anne a widow – and not a rich one at that. All of his possessions were held back from her, and for years Anne struggled in poverty, trying to provide for her children and pay off debts by selling land.
Following Philip’s death, Anne took a vow of chastity and never remarried, which is interesting because it could have been one way to help support herself and her children, even if she was a debt-riddled Catholic. However Anne remained single, and struggled on for years until she finally managed to recover some of Philip’s properties. She was a prolific writer and some of the poetry that she wrote was about her deceased husband. Maybe she loved him, maybe her vow of chastity was more loyalty to the religion that had cost the couple so dear.
Later in her life, Anne settled back in Carlisle, where she’d grown up, and spent a lot of her time helping people in need, attending church, hiding a Catholic priest in her home and writing her poetry, which, unusually, was actually published under her own name. Anne also wrote many letters and journal entries, some describing emotions, such as how much the queen hated her, some simply detailing her day to day life; an amazing amount of writing to leave behind for historians to see the life of this unusual and determined woman.
Elizabeth Wriothesley: Disgraced Maid of Honour
Elizabeth came from an illustrious family, the Vernons, who listed earls and decedents of kings on the family tree. She followed an expected career path by joining the court of Elizabeth I and becoming one of her maids of honour, but when she met and fell in love, she risked everything.
Elizabeth began a secret relationship with Henry Wriothesley in the late 1590s. Henry was a bit of a wild one; he was consistently absent from various committees he was on as part of his role in the House of Lords, had to hand administration over to two trustees because of his financial issues, had challenged the Earl of Northumberland to a duel (which the queen had to step in to prevent) and in 1598 got into a fight whilst at court. More famously, though, he is supposed to be the figure that Shakespeare’s sonnets are dedicated to – although there’s no hard evidence for this.
Things in their relationship took a turn when Elizabeth fell pregnant. Henry and Elizabeth married secretly, but would have known that when the news came to light, they would face the wrath of the queen – who famously hated it when other women got married, had babies, and did it behind her back.
When the queen did find out, she, obviously, went mad. Henry had already scarpered to Europe, but the queen demanded his return. In the meantime, Elizabeth was sent to Fleet Prison. Henry eventually returned, after spending time in Paris running up gambling debts, and was also thown into prison, where Elizabeth later gave birth to their daughter, Penelope.
Interestingly, in light of the link to Shakespeare, one scholar has suggested that Penelope was actually Shakespeare’s daughter, and that Elizabeth had been having a secret affair with him, rather than Henry. Exciting as this news would be, there’s no evidence – and there’s not much chance that Henry would have tied himself to a woman who would have lost everything and was pregnant with someone else’s baby. I just thought it a fun theory.
Elizabeth and Henry remained married for many years. She fades from the records really, especially as the queen refused to receive her at court after her disgrace, giving birth to four children and putting up with her husband, who was heavily involved in Essex’s Rebellion in 1601 and sentenced to death, a situation only saved by Mildred’s son, Robert Cecil, who persuaded the queen to be lenient.
During the reign of James I, the Wriothesley’s regained some favour, with Henry’s involvement with the theatre, founding ironworks and mills and investing in colonial explorations at the time – although he was still getting into fights, and was imprisoned again in 1603 for another fight at court.
In 1624, Elizabeth’s eldest son, James, died of a fever while fighting in the Netherlands; five days later, she was also widowed as her husband died of the same illness, also while fighting. Elizabeth survived until the ripe of old age of 83, dying eventually in 1655, outliving the mistress who threw her in prison by 52 years.
Helena, Mildred, Anne and Elizabeth – four Elizabethan women who lived close to the throne and to danger throughout their lives, but in totally different ways. The successful immigrant; the Protestant academic; the Catholic writer and the scandalous lover: all these women were fascinating in their own right and deserve their own moments in the spotlight.
Did you know about these women? Which Elizabethan women fascinate you? Who do you think deserves more attention?
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Jane Boleyn: The Curse of Henry VIII’s Queens
Anne of Cleves: What Happened to the Other Queen Who Survived?
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