Monday, August 2, 2021

Helena Ulfsdotter Snakenborg; A Swedish lady at the Elizabethan court

During the 16th century, both England and Sweden were ruled by the colorful royal houses Tudor and Vasa. Both families had seized power by force, both had colorful and ruthless and charismatic rulers such as Gustav I , Erik XIV , (John III and Charles IX in Sweden and Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in England. One of my distant relatives came to serve members of both.

British School 16th century _A young lady aged 21
 Possibly Helena Snakenborg WikimediaCommons

Helena (Elin) Ulfsdotter Snakenborg was probably born around 1548-1549 in Fyllingarum manor  in  the province of Östergötland as the daughter of Gustaf Vasa's councilor Ulf Henriksson Snakenborg to Fyllingaryd in Östergötland and Agneta Knutsdotter.Lillie.
Helena´s family was a branch of the old noble family Bååt (Boat) that sometimes used the 
name Snakenborg wich came from Helenas fathers paternal grandmothers side of the family. Since the Swedish nobility were just beginning using family names in the 16th century Helena would sign herself as Helena or Elin Ulfsdotter (daughter of Ulf.)

Tre Kronor The old royal castle in Stockholm (burned 1697)
The Stockholm residence of the Swedish royal family and Helena
Snakenborgs workplace as a maid of honor to princess Cecilia
of Sweden.
The castle in a painting from 1661 by Govert Dircksz Camphuysen.

Helena was one of the youngest of her parents  six children. Due to her father's position as a member of the Privy Council of Sweden, she probably already came into contact as a child with first the elderly miserly king  Gustaf I  and later the young handsome  ambitious but mentally unstable  Erik XIV court. Helena was  of the same age as Gustav I:s  three youngest children Sofia, Anna and Karl (Charles IX), perhaps they were brought up together at the royal castle Tre Kronor in Stockholm. 

Erik XIV, 1533-1577, king of Sweden (Steven van der Meulen) - Nationalmuseum - 38906
Portrait  of swedish king Erik XIVsent to Queen Elizabeth I of England,
 to further the negotiations regarding the marriage. By 
Steven van der Meulen 1561

Erik XIV had big plans for his future marriage. As early as 1559, he sent his younger brother Johan (John III) at the head of a delegation to England to propose to its new queen Elizabeth I. The delegation was well received but Elizabeth very civilly  declined.
Erik did not give up and  contact between the courts continued. Princess
Cecilia Erik and Johan's younger sister admired Elizabeth and began to correspond with her, expressing a desire to visit her in England.

Princess Cecilia Gustavsdotter Vasa of Sweden
unknown artist: WikimediaCommons

In 1564 the political situation in Sweden had taken a dramatic turn. King Erik had thrown his brother Johns and Johns  new bride into prison. Princess Cecilia naturally was upset by this and protested. She was  anxious to leave Sweden and visit England with her new husband Markgrave  Christopher of Baden-Rodemachern .

In the early autumn of september of 1564  the couple  left Stockholm   together with a large group of courtiers including the now 15-year-old Helena Snakenborg as one of her  maids of honour Due to the war with Denmark, the entourage had to travel over Finland, Livonia, Poland, Germany and the Netherlands. After a stormy crossing the they   landed in England and on September 12th  they made their  magnificent entry  into London.

Princess Cecilia was wearing a black velvet dress with a mantle of silver fabric. studded with pearls. and her maids of honour  including Helena wore dresses  in crimson and coats of the same fabric and colour. For Helena, the arrival to London must have been overwhelming. With about 100,000 inhabitants, London was one of Europe's largest cities  more than 10 times larger than Stockholm. Elisabeth I's court was with its splendor one of the most sophisticated in Europe.

The Darnley Portrait Elizabeth I ar. 1575
 National Portrait Gallery WikimediaCommons

Princess Cecilia and her entourage were initially well received by the Queen, who became the godmother of Cecilia´s eldest son Edward Fortunatus, born a few days after her arrival in London and named  after the Queen's younger  brother Edward VI. However Cecilia's wastefulness soon  caused   tensions in her relationship with the Elizabeth I. A life-changing event for Helena came when a prominent courtier William Parr first Marquis of Northampton 1513-1571 fall in love with  her.

William Parr First Marquess of Northampton
by Hans Holbein the Younger Royal Collection WikimediaCommons

William Parr was the brother of Catherine Parr 1512-1548 Henry VIII sixth queen and thus Elizabeth I's stepmother. He had a complicated  private life. He was a newly widowed  but his first wife Anne Bourchier, whom he divorced  twenty years earlier, was still alive and it was considered that he could not remarry as long as she was alive. We do not know what Helena felt about her 35-year-old suitor.  She must have been aware that a marriage with him would make her one of England's highest ranked ladies. She wrote to her worried mother in Sweden and emphasized his fine manner and high social position.

Princess Cecilia  and her husband had by this time hastily left England to escape her large  debts.Her debtors sized all her and her maid of honours clothes. The angry Cecilia woved revenge on England and Elizabeth ! 

Helena remained in England.  Queen Elisabeth I , had become attached to the young girl and  secured Helena a position  at court by appointing her as one of her maids of honour.
Life at the Elizabethan  court,despite all the luxuries, was often stressful. Elisabeth I was a charismatic queen but also moody with outbursts of anger as she could also beat  her favorites at court. Helena's  experience of   serving members of the fierce and suspicious Vasa  dynasty certainly came in handy.

In 1568 in  Sweden the political situation had changed once more . King Erik XIV had descended into mental illness and been deposed by his brother John III who seized the throne. Erik XIV  would later  die in prison in  possibly killed by being  given peasoup spiced with arsenic !

It was probably during this time that the first portrait considered to depict her was painted (see top of page). She wears a white petticoat with red flowers under a red petticoat. On her head she has a white floral beret adorned with a white and a red feather.

Helena and William  Parr married in May 1571, after the death of his first wife, the Queen attended the wedding which took place  the Queen's Closet  in Whitehall Palace. Helena became  a widow when her husband died after just four month of marriage. William Parr died with big debts which the queen  had to pay.

After her husbands death Helena returned to the royal court as one of Elizabeth I s ladies in waiting  As the dowager marchioness  of Northampton, Helena was the highest ranking lady  at court after Elizabeth I and the queens cousin lady Margret Douglas  Helena returned as a widow to her service as a lady in waiting  to the Queen and it was at the court that in the mid 1570s she met the man who became her second husband Sir Thomas Gorges 1536-1610.

Portrait of Sir Thomas Gorges (1536-1610)
of Longford Castle in Wiltshire,
 a courtier and Groom of the Privy Chamber to Queen Elizabeth I

Thomas Gorges was one of Queen Elisabeth's chamberlains. Through his kinship  with the powerful Howard family, he was related by both Queen Elisabeth's mother Anne Boleyn and her third stepmother Katherine Howard.

Despite his kinship  to the queen Thomas Gorges was not considered to be of the same rank as Helena, since he did not yet have his own noble title. Elizabeth I who chose to live unmarried was extremely reluctant to allow her courtiers to marry. This was probably what made Helena and Thomas marry in secret in 1576. The queen was furious and banished Helena from the court and threw Thomas Gorges into the Tower of London!

However, the queen soon forgave the newlyweds and allowed them to return to court. Helena and Thomas Georges Marriage seems  have been harmonious and resulted in eight children of whom six  lived to adulthood. The time the couple did not spend at the  royal court, they stayed at Longford Castle near Salisbury in the county of Wiltshire in southwest England. During their time, the property was expanded into a magnificent castle inspired by the Swedish Vasa castles

Longford Castle front
Longford castle in Wilthshire Peter, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons 

.The diplomatic relations between England and Sweden in the  1570-thies was a bit  tense. The princess Cecilia had returned to Sweden and settled in the city of Arboga . She send privateers out the Baltic where they sized the cargo of English ships.The princess meant that she had the right to keep the cargo as compensation for the property she had lost to her debtors  when she left England in 1566. 

In  1582  Thomas Gorges lend an embassy  to Sweden where he also met members of the Snakenborg family. As far as we know, Helena never returned to Sweden after her move to England. But she corresponded with  her mother and siblings, one of her brothers was present at her first husband's funeral in 1571.

In 1580ties  he Elizabeth I rewarded  Helena and her husband  with the Sheen property for their lifetime.  Sheen was located near the Richmond Palace, the queen's main residence, which allowed the spouses to live with the children even when they were in court.

Richmond Palace, west front, drawn by Antony Wyngaerde, dated 1562

Helena remained Elizabeth's close confidant and, due to the Queen's faltering health often had to represent the queen on official occasions  at the end of the 1590s. At the Queen's funeral in 1603, she walked  closest to the coffin  as the highest ranked female mourner  present.

Helena Snakenborg, Marchioness of Northampton, 1603

Helena Snakenborg, Marchioness of Northampton, 1603
Helena Snakenborg widow marquis of Northampton in that costume
she bore at James I coronation 1603 artist Robert Peake the Elder

Helena and Thomas Gorges attended the coronation of the new King James I in 1603 at Westminster Abbey in London. Helena was portrayed by the artist Robert Peake the Elder in the magnificent red dress adorned with ermine she wore at the coronation.

After Thomas Gorge's death in 1610, her Helena increasingly withdrew from the center of power of which she had been a part since her arrival in England 45 years earlier. She returned to court a few times to assist in diplomatic negotiations with Sweden over a possible marriage between the princess Elizabeth  and the Swedish prince Gustavus Adolphus son of Helenas childhood friend king  Charles IX which was never completed due to the opposition of the princess mother queen Anne of Denmark.

Helena Snakenborg lady Gorges detail of grave monuments in
 Salisbury Cathedral h
original photo:

She had a varied life to look back on and a large family to worry about. According to a contemporary writer, she had 92 descendants at the time of her death! Helena died on 10 April 1934 at the age of 86 at Longford castle and was buried next to Thomas Gorges under a stately monument in Salisbury Chatedral (No bad career for a girl from Östergötland)!

Salisbury Cathedral (St. Mary) (14674778559)
Monument and effigies, in Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire,
Helena Snakenborg (d.1635) and her second husband
Sir Thomas Gorges (1536–1610). Erected after her death in 1635


Web links and sources


Claire Ridgeway from The Anne Boleyn Files talks about Helena Snakenborg

Claire Ridgeway and her dog Teasel speaking about maids of honour  and ladies in waiting at the court of Elizabeth I.

A video with views from Longford Castle built by Helena and her second husband Thomas Gorges

Web links

in  english

Helena Ulfsdotter Snakenborg in Svenskt Kvinnobiografiskt Lexikon (Swedish Encyclopedia of women)
Helena, Marchioness of Northampton Gunnar Sjogren Published in HistoryToday Volume 28 Issue 9 September 1978

Family of Queen Katherine: The Death of the Marchioness of Northampton blogpost Posted on  by Tudorqueen6   

in Swedish

Snakenborg, släkt, urn:sbl:6081, Svenskt biografiskt lexikon (art av Hans Gillingstam), hämtad 2021-05-2

Helena Snakenborg: Drottning Elisabeths sängkamrat Birgitta von Heland Published in Populär Historia 5/2002


in Swedish

Helena Snakenborg: en svenska vid Elisabet I: s hov / Gunnar Sjögren. 1973


in english

Roses have Thorns a novel about Helena Snakenborg by Sandra Byrd 2013

Triology about Frances Gorges the daughter of Helena Snakesborg dotter
 by  Tracy Borman 

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