06 January 2015

Today's Princess: Eleanor Brandon

For a king obsessed with having a male heir, Henry VIII was ironically surrounded by female relatives. He had two daughters, two sisters, three nieces, and four great nieces to survive to adulthood. No male relatives of his generation or the next lived to adulthood. In the third generation, he finally had three Scottish great nephews to live to adulthood, but two of them died in their early 20s and the third, King James V of Scotland, died at 30.

The Tudors were a largely female dynasty, and for all that they devalued them as potential monarchs, they educated them well. These ladies were among the first young women to actually be educated at all.

Of Henry's nieces, the least well-known is his sister Mary's youngest daughter, Eleanor Brandon. After her first husband, the King of France, died, Mary had eloped with Henry's dear friend Charles Brandon, who was created Duke of Suffolk. Although not regally titled, Eleanor and her older sister Frances were certainly recognized as members of the royal family and were prized on the marriage market among the English nobility. Eleanor married Henry Clifford, the heir of the Earl of Cumberland, who was so honored to have a royal bride for his son that he expanded his residence, Skipton Hall, by adding a great hall and two towers for her leisure. As with most noble and regal marriages of the day, both the bride and groom were still quite young; both were in their teens. And despite the political advantages she brought to his family, the couple seems to have been very fond of each other. In her only surviving letter, she addresses him as her "most loving husband and lord" and as her "dear heart." As for him, he was prostrate and inconsolable for months when she died after barely ten years of marriage.

Eleanor's short life, despite her nearness to the throne, is not very well-documented. It is known that she was a lady in the court of her uncle's last queen Catherine Parr and that she served as chief mourner at the funeral of his first wife Catherine of Aragon, but she seems to have missed some of the key Tudor family events like the christening of the future Edward VI and the arrival of Henry's fourth wife Anne of Cleves. Perhaps this was because she was pregnant (she bore at least three children) or because of what appears to be chronic ill health. Indeed that letter to her husband includes graphic details of her health and asks him to send a doctor immediately.

The only surviving child of Eleanor Clifford, Countess of Cumberland was her daughter (of course), Margaret, who married the Earl of Derby.

For more about Eleanor, including the intriguing details of her husband's despondency, go to:
Henry VIII's Other Niece on History Refreshed by Susan Higginbotham

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