Being a close relative of a Tudor monarch was not a very comfortable position. According to Henry VIII’s Third Act of Succession of 1544, Eleanor was designated as eighth in line behind Henry’s three children, Eleanor’s sister Frances, and Frances’ three daughters Lady Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey. Despite being so near to the throne, Eleanor managed to live a full and satisfying life.
In the will of King Henry VIII, his son Edward, daughter Mary and daughter Elizabeth were named as his heirs. He totally bypassed the children of is eldest sister Margaret and also ignored Eleanor and her sister Frances, naming their children as next in line. This has been debated ever since. Perhaps Henry anticipated his children would have heirs. He did not think highly of Henry Grey and didn’t want him to have any power which he could claim if his wife Frances became Queen. He also may have expected Eleanor and Frances to have more children, possibly sons, as they were still of childbearing age.
Eleanor was born sometime between 1518 and 1521. She was possibly named after Eleanor of Austria, Queen of Portugal and France and the sister of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Eleanor’s father was Henry VIII’s boon companion Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and her mother was Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor, one-time Queen of France. When Eleanor’s tomb in Skipton Church was opened in the seventeenth century, her skeleton was found to be in perfect condition and indicated she was very tall and large boned. She was described as having fair hair, probably a strawberry blond.
It is most likely Eleanor was born in the family home of Westhorpe Hall in Suffolk. Eleanor and her older sister Frances received an education worthy of their status as royalty and daughters of a duke. There is some circumstantial evidence Eleanor spoke and wrote French. When Eleanor’s sister Frances married Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset in March of 1533, Eleanor was betrothed to Lord Henry Clifford, the eldest son of the Earl of Cumberland who was also distantly related to King Henry VIII. Eleanor’s mother died in June of that year and in January of 1536, Eleanor served as chief mourner at the funeral of Catherine of Aragon.
Eleanor’s fiancée Henry Clifford was described as being tall and slender with dark hair. He was well educated, had a superb library, and enjoyed his hobbies: alchemy, astrology and distilling. He spent time at court, working in the household of Henry VIII’s natural born son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond at Pontefract Castle. He was made a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn. Eleanor and Henry were married in the summer of 1537 in London near Suffolk Place in the Church of St. Mary Overies, now incorporated in the Cathedral of Southwark. King Henry VIII attended the wedding.
In celebration of the wedding, Henry’s father, the Earl of Cumberland built additions to Skipton Castle for the couple to occupy. These included a long gallery extension and two towers, one of them octagonal. The renovations were made in less than four months, and the newlyweds spent the early years of their marriage here. It was highly unusual, at the time, for a couple of Eleanor and Henry’s standing to have their own establishment while parents were still alive. Eleanor gave birth to two sons and a daughter named Margaret who was born in 1540 and would marry Henry Stanley, 4th Earl of Derby and live until 1596.
During the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Clifford family was in significant danger. The rebels were swirling around Skipton Castle. Eleanor’s husband and father refrained from joining the rebels. In fact, her husband played a major role during the crisis. He rallied the Carlisle townsmen to stand firm against the insurgents. It was clear Skipton would come under siege, and the family did what it could to fortify the castle. Her father-in-law sent Eleanor, her attendants, her sisters-in-law, and her son to Bolton Abbey for safety, about ten miles from Skipton.
By October 22, 1536, Skipton was under siege. The renegades were unable to bring down the castle but they heard Eleanor was at Bolton and made their way there and forced their way into the abbey. They took Eleanor, her son, and her sisters-in-law captive. They were held hostage and treated with extreme severity.
The rebels sent a message to Eleanor’s father-in-law threatening to place them before the insurgents who were storming Skipton. They said if the castle wasn’t surrendered, they would hand the women over to the lowest camp-followers. The Earl was enraged that the king’s niece was being mistreated and left immediately for Bolton. He entered the rebel camp and negotiated the release of the women and his grandson. Everyone returned to Skipton and the siege of the castle was abandoned five days later.
The old Earl of Cumberland died in 1542, and Eleanor’s husband inherited his titles. Shortly afterwards, Eleanor and Henry lost their two sons. Baby Charles died first. The eldest, named Henry after his father, lived to be about two or three and was buried in the family vault in Skipton Church next to his brother. This must have been very hard on Eleanor.
She was an attendant of Queen Katherine Parr at the end of Henry VIII’s reign. She got along well with her step-mother Katherine Willoughby. Her father died on August 22, 1545 and in his will, he left Eleanor £200 worth of plate along with jewels and other household items. She is listed as a frequent recipient of New Year’s and other holiday gifts from Henry VIII, perhaps indicating she was a favorite of the king. There is evidence that Eleanor visited Bradgate in 1546, the home of her sister and her nieces Lady Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey. During the reign of King Edward VI, Eleanor and Frances received New Year’s gifts from Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, the Lady Mary.
While she did spend some time at court after the death of her sons, she mostly lived in retirement at Brougham and Skipton. It was probably during this time she wrote her only surviving letter to her husband:
After my most hearty commendations, this shall be to certify you that since your departure from me I have been very sick and at this present my water is very red, whereby I suppose I have the jaundice and the ague both, for I have none abide [no appetite for] meat and I have such pains in my side and towards my back as I had at Brougham, where it began with me first. Wherefore I desire you to help me to a physician and that this bearer may bring him with him, for now in the beginning I trust I may have good remedy, and the longer it is delayed, the worse it will be. Also my sister Powys [ half-sister Anne Brandon] is come to me and very desirous to see you, which I trust shall be the sooner at this time, and thus Jesus send us both health.
At my lodge at Carlton, the 14th of February.
And, dear heart, I pray you send for Dr Stephens, for he knoweth best my complexion for such causes.
By your assured loving wife, Eleanor Cumberland”
Eleanor died at Brougham in November 1547 and was buried at Skipton Church. Sir Henry was overcome with grief when told Eleanor was dead. He fainted and lay as if dead. Indeed, his attendants believed he was dead. They stripped his body and were preparing to have him embalmed when he bewildered them by reviving and struggling to sit up in his coffin. The servants put him in a warm bed and fed him warm milk and bread until he fully recovered. Sir Henry would marry again to the Lady Anne Dacre. He lived until 1570 and was buried between his two wives in Skipton Church.
Further reading: “Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey” by Nicola Tallis, “English Aristocratic Women 1450-1550” by Barbara Harris, “The Sisters of Lady Jane Grey and Their Wicked Grandfather, Being the True Stories of the Strange Lives of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and the Ladies Katherine and Mary Grey, Sisters of Lady Jane Grey, ‘the Nine-days Queen’” by Richard Davey, entry on Henry Clifford, second earl of Cumberland in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Richard T. Spence