The poet Edmund Spenser writes to Helena, Marchioness of Northampton dedicating his poem “Daphnaïda: An Elegy upon the Death of the Noble and Vertuous Douglas Howard, Daughter and Heire of Henry Lord Howard, Viscount Byndon, and Wife of Arthure Gorges Esquier” to her.
Helena Parr, marchioness of Northampton (1548-1635), a courtier, was born in 1548 in Sweden, the daughter of Ulf Henriksson (d. 1560×68), a nobleman of Östergötland, and his wife, Agneta Knuttson (d. after 1568). Helena (Elin) had two brothers and several sisters. Her father was a supporter of Gustav Vasa, king of Sweden, and came from the old noble family of Bååt, while her mother was a descendant of the jarls or earls of Orkney. The name Snakenborg was taken from her mother’s family, which was originally from Mecklenburg.
Helena was one of six young Swedish girls appointed from 1564 to 1566 as maids of honour to Princess Cecilia, margravine of Baden, daughter of Gustav Vasa. Late in 1564, when she was fifteen, they embarked on a voyage to England. It was rumoured that Cecilia decided to visit England to revive the suit of her brother Erik XIV to marry Elizabeth I, but it is not clear that this was the case. Taking a roundabout route over land and travelling through Poland and Germany, in order to steer clear of hostile countries, the party was so hampered by bad weather that almost a year passed before it reached its destination.
On its arrival in England many prominent members of the nobility received the party. Helena was by all accounts a beautiful woman, having large brown eyes, red hair, and a perfect pink and white complexion. She caught the attention of William Parr, marquess of Northampton (1513-1571), nobleman and courtier, the third and only surviving son of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal, Westmorland, and his wife, Maud. He soon endeavored to court her. Northampton presented her with many extravagant gifts such as clothes and jewels, and ‘being an impressionable and romantic young girl, Helena was swept off her feet by the experienced older man’ (James, 395). Cecilia built up large debts due to a lavish lifestyle and left England in April 1566 in order to escape her creditors. She wanted to take Helena back to Sweden with her; however, her young maid, enjoying life in her new country and becoming close to the marquess, was keen to remain. This wish was granted through Elizabeth’s influence.
Northampton hoped to marry Helena but felt prevented from doing so because, although divorced in 1551, his first wife, Lady Anne Bourchier, was still alive. Elizabeth was fond of Helena and appointed her a maid of honour from about 1567, before promoting her to gentlewoman of her privy chamber-a highly respected position at the heart of the court in which she was among the queen’s most intimate servants and controlled access by the press of courtiers. She was entitled to many privileges, such as her own lodgings at court, servants, and a horse. However, she was not a waged member of the privy chamber and it is not known how regularly she attended court. Bourchier died on 26 January 1571 and Northampton and Helena were finally able to marry in May. The wedding took place in Elizabeth’s presence in the queen’s closet at Whitehall Palace. The bride was twenty-two and the groom fifty-seven. They seemed happy together and divided their time between their houses in Guildford, Surrey, and at Stanstead Hall, Essex. The marriage came to a sudden end within a few months when the marquess died on 28 October in Thomas Fisher’s house in Warwick. There were no children. The marchioness received a substantial dower of £368 per annum, drawn from her husband’s estates in Cumberland. This may have been exchanged for lands worth £400 per annum in Huntingdonshire.
It was not too long before Helena captivated another admirer, Thomas Gorges [see below]. The queen was originally in favour of his approaches to Helena but changed her mind and refused to consent to a marriage, perhaps as a result of her notorious sexual jealousy regarding gentlewomen of her privy chamber or because she had strong views on unequal marriages; Helena was a marchioness and Gorges only a gentleman. The couple wed in secret about 1576. When Elizabeth learned of their deceit, Helena was banned from court, although she was later reinstated, possibly with the help of her influential friend Thomas Radcliffe, third earl of Sussex, the lord chamberlain. The queen warmed to her again and with wholly uncharacteristic generosity granted her manors in Huntingdonshire and Wiltshire.
The couple’s first child was born in June 1578 and named Elizabeth (1578-1659) after the queen, who was her godmother. Their first son, Francis (d. in or before 1599), was probably born in 1579. Gorges was persuaded by his wife to make his property of Longford, Wiltshire, bought after 1573, more appealing by rebuilding it. The mansion had been damaged by fire when he acquired it and a replacement was completed at great expense by 1591, under the final supervision of John Thorpe, since the entrance on its north-east front bears that date. Longford was the model for the ‘Castle of Amphialeus’ in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. Gorges was knighted in 1586. During this time Helena settled down to raise her family. She had two more daughters, Frances (1580-1649) and Bridget (1584-c.1634), and four more sons, all of whom were knighted: Edward Gorges, first Baron Gorges of Dundalk (b. 1582/3, d. in or before 1652); Theobald (1583-1647); Robert (1588-1648); and Thomas (b. 1589, d. after 1624).
The marchioness was still valued highly by Elizabeth and often acted as her deputy at the baptism of the children of distinguished noblemen, particularly towards the end of the reign, when the queen’s health was deteriorating. Helena must have been distressed when Elizabeth, whose friendship and guidance she had known ever since her arrival in England, died in March 1603 and she was the chief mourner in the funeral procession as senior peeress because Arabella Stuart refused to undertake the role. The accession of James VI to the English throne paved the way for the removal of many of Elizabeth’s old courtiers and Gorges was demoted. Helena did not retain all her privileges but was probably glad to escape the rivalry that existed among the gentlewomen of the privy chamber to Anne of Denmark. After Gorges died on 30 March 1610 at the age of seventy-four, Helena increasingly retreated from public life, although she remained a devoted member of the Church of England.
Helena died on 10 April 1635 at Redlynch, Somerset, the residence of her son Sir Robert Gorges, and was buried on 14 May in Salisbury Cathedral. She had no fewer than ninety-two direct descendants at the time. She granted over £1700 in annuities and bequests in her will.
Sir Thomas Gorges (1536-1610), courtier, was born in Wraxall, Somerset, the fifth son of Sir Edward Gorges, landowner, of Wraxall, and his wife, Mary, daughter of Sir Anthony Poyntz of Iron Acton, Gloucestershire, and his wife, Elizabeth. He was a member of the royal household, groom of the privy chamber from 31 December 1571, JP for Huntingdon and Wiltshire from about 1579, special ambassador to Sweden in 1582, and MP for Longford, Wiltshire, in 1586, as well as keeper of many important royal estates. Gorges acted as Elizabeth’s ‘high grade messenger’ (HoP, Commons, 1558-1603, 2.208). He was one of the wealthiest gentlemen in Wiltshire. Gorges, like his wife, was buried in Salisbury Cathedral.
C. A. Bradford, Helena, marchioness of Northampton (1936) · S. E. James, Kateryn Parr: the making of a queen (1999), 394-7 · HoP, Commons, 1558-1603, 2.208 · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/167, sig. 41 · TNA: PRO, PROB 11/116, sig. 64 · administration, TNA: PRO, PROB 6/2, fol. 22r · GEC, Peerage, 4.16 Paul Harrington, ‘Gorges , Helena, Lady Gorges [other married name Helena Parr, marchioness of Northampton] (1548-1635)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/69751
Tate Gallery Report, 1960-61, pp.16-17 Gunnar Sjogren, ‘Portrait of a young lady, 1569; an identification’, Burlington Magazine, October 1980, pp.698-700