Elisabeth was described as vivacious, kind and one of the most beautiful women at court. Her relationship with William Parr, Catherine Parr’s brother, would shape the politics of England for many years to come. Elisabeth became a queenmaker when she arranged for Lady Jane Grey to inherit the crown of England, in accordance with Henry VIII’s earlier wishes, as shown in his will. As the Marchioness of Northampton, Elisabeth performed much of a queen’s role during the reign of Edward VI, as she was the wife of the second most important man at court.
Elisabeth Brooke was around fourteen years old when she arrived at court as a maid-of-honour to Queen Catherine Howard. Her aunt and namesake, Elizabeth Brooke, was notorious as her husband, Sir Thomas Wyatt, had left her after he discovered her adultery. The day after Catherine Howard was condemned to death for adultery, the Imperial ambassador wrote that Henry was paying particular attention to the elder Elizabeth Brooke, and that 'she had wit enough to do as badly as the others if she wished.' She was thought to be a possible candidate for wife number six. Elisabeth’s father was George Brooke, 9th Baron Cobham of Kent.
Her lover, William Parr, had been a close friend of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and was well liked at court. He was a married man, but he had already had an affair with another Maid of Honour, her maternal aunt, Dorothy Bray, Baroness Chandos, that had been widely gossiped about at court. Parr was to become the love of Elisabeth’s life but by choosing him she wrecked her chances of a good marriage.
Elisabeth fell in love with William Parr around the time that the King chose William’s sister, Catherine, to be his sixth wife, and the relationship quickly became common knowledge. As he was now the brother-in-law of the King, he was a favoured person at court and so would have been a good catch for Elisabeth – if he was free to marry. His marriage had been a disaster from the start and while his wife got pregnant by a church prior and set up home with him in 1541, William happily spent his time in the arms of a succession of Maids of Honour. Elisabeth doesn’t seem to have cared that she could have attained a respectable marriage if she had played her cards right. She stayed with William for another six years before they went through a ceremony of marriage and she does not seem to have regretted choosing love over advancement. In the end, she achieved both.
It is unsurprising that Elisabeth seems to have pursued the attractive, witty and charismatic William Parr. He was the consummate courtier and friends with many of the leading lights at court. Henry called Parr ‘My Integrity’ – before he fell for Parr’s sister – as he could trust him to tell the truth even if it was not what the King wanted to hear.
Despite Henry’s four annulments (Henry annulled his marriages not only to Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, but also to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard days before they were executed), divorce was still not possible for the average courtier. The affair became well known and Lord Cobham was ensuring that people kept a close watch on his wayward daughter. The last thing he needed was another major scandal in the family after the infamous behaviour of his sister. Perhaps because he hoped to find a suitable husband for her or because of who the queen was, Cobham did not remove his daughter permanently from court. Henry does not seem to have offered his brother-in-law any support in obtaining an annulment as he believed strongly that marriage was a bond that could not be broken – unless it was he who wanted to rid himself of an unwanted wife.
Note: During Henry VIII's reign a man could divorce a wife if she was found to be adulteress, as William Parr's first wife Anne Bourchier was found, and he did legally cast her aside; however, the law prevented him from remarrying again, which he was allowed in Edward VI's reign (it was revoked during Mary's reign and again reversed where his marriage was legal to Elisabeth Brooke in Elizabeth I's reign).
After Henry’s death, William and Elisabeth were in a stronger position. William was the beloved uncle of the new boy king, Edward VI. In the jostling for positions, Parr was made the Marquess of Northampton and began to pressure the council into giving him a divorce. For Elisabeth, spending five years as the mistress of a courtier, albeit the queen’s brother, was beneath her dignity. They must also have been very concerned that Elisabeth would fall pregnant, and their child would thus be illegitimate and unable to inherit Parr’s titles and lands. To have not got pregnant (as far as we know) within five years is unusual, especially as people had only a very basic understanding of how to prevent pregnancy.
Northampton was a popular man. He was not particularly able, but he had friends in high places. The commission was set up, and included many of the highest clergymen in the land, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. They played for time and at least one of the commissioners, Sir Thomas Smith, was happy to accept a bribe from Parr. The commission many have been hoping for more money, or for Anne Bourchier, William Parr or Elisabeth Brooke to die, which would end the matter. In an age of low life expectancy, delaying techniques often removed the need to solve the problem.
Unfortunately for the (slim) chances of the commission’s success, William Parr was not prepared to wait any longer. In the summer of 1548, the Marquess of Northampton secretly married his longtime love. This was not legally binding as his first marriage had not been annulled, so the ceremony changed little. However, it did offer the chance that if a future commission agreed that he had grounds for divorce, any children born to William and Elisabeth could later be legitimised. Around six months later, at the beginning of 1549, this ‘marriage’ became public knowledge.
This enraged Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector, who was still recovering from the clandestine marriage of William’s sister, the queen dowager Catherine Parr, to the Protector’s wayward brother, Sir Thomas Seymour. He was unhappy to have his authority undermined again. As head of state during Edward’s minority, any noble wishing to marry had to obtain Somerset’s permission. But Catherine had died in September 1548, depriving the newlyweds of an influential friend and protector.
Francis Van der Delft, the Imperial ambassador, wrote to the Emperor in February 1548 that Parr ‘was obliged by the command of the Council to put her away and never speak to her again on pain of death…he is only spoken of secretly and does not show himself at court’. This did not last long. Elisabeth’s love life always depended on the feelings of the leader of the day – and in 1549 a political coup ousted Somerset and replaced him with Northampton’s close friend, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland. He was supportive of the couple and on 31 March 1551, a private bill was passed in Parliament annulling Parr’s marriage to Anne Bourchier and accepting Elisabeth Brooke as his legal wife. For the first time, the couple could set up home together, in Winchester House, Southwark. Finally, Elisabeth Brooke was a respectably married woman.
Elisabeth dazzled as the marchioness of Northampton, hosting parties, charming ambassadors and being the light of the court. Still only around twenty-five, Elisabeth had reason to be very happy indeed. She had obtained a very high rank, and she was now an influential woman at court, the friend of the regent and the aunt of the King. As Northumberland’s wife had little interest in leading the court festivities, it was Elisabeth who performed the duties that usually went to a queen – and she performed them admirably.
In June 1550, the French Duc de Vendôme was spending time at the English court and although she was happily (and apparently faithfully) married to Northampton, the Duke was only interested in the beautiful Marchioness – even though they could not speak the same language. He even gave her a present when he returned to France, a chain worth 200 crowns. Their expenditure records show the Northamptons’ love of socialising and sports; their gambling at cards, bear baiting and more cultured events such as plays and musical performances.
As Edward VI became gravely ill, his council became seriously worried. Having taken the country in a more overtly Protestant direction, they were now faced with the prospect of a staunchly Catholic Queen Mary. Elisabeth realised that if Henry’s daughter ascended the throne, their whole lifestyle, and the validity of their marriage, would be in tatters. It was Elisabeth who came up with the idea that Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry’s sister Mary, would make a more acceptable queen than Henry’s eldest daughter. (This reference is simply to a letter written to William Cecil, in the reign of Elizabeth, in which Elizabeth Parr is described as a prime mover in the marriage of John Dudley's son Guildford to Lady Jane Grey. The additional information, alleging Elisabeth's involvement to further Lady Jane Grey's claim to the throne, is entirely unsubstantiated by any reputable account of the events.) The devoutly Protestant Jane was quickly married to the Duke of Northumberland’s son and her sister Catherine was married to Northampton’s nephew and heir, Henry Herbert; the latter marriage was probably unconsummated and the marriage was annulled soon after. Elisabeth hoped that the Council could then keep control of the country.
Elisabeth’s father, Lord Cobham, was also instrumental in the plot, travelling to Romney Marsh to organise things, thus accidentally tipping off the Imperial ambassador; her brothers also confessed to their parts in the plot. When it dramatically failed, the Marquess and Marchioness of Northampton were lucky that no proof could be offered against them. Northampton insisted that he had merely been away on a hunting trip, when he had no doubt been away raising an army. Queen Mary took all of their lands from them, and stripped Northampton of his titles until he was simply Sir William Parr – then she ordered them to separate. Parr was told to return to his first wife, who was now Mary’s lady-in-waiting and close friend. Now Parr was in danger of being executed for bigamy if they saw each other again. Elisabeth was evicted from her home and had to rely on the charity of her family and friends.
Elisabeth, who had been a lady-in-waiting to Catherine Parr during both of her marriages, had become close to Catherine’s stepdaughter, Princess Elizabeth. When Mary I died and Elizabeth became queen of England, there was a great change in Elisabeth Brooke’s luck. Her marriage was now declared valid and Elizabeth returned to her "honest uncle" the majority of his titles and lands. The Marchioness became so close to Elizabeth I that her influence was said to rival Robert Dudley’s. Elisabeth’s importance is shown by the number of surviving letters discussing her illness at this time). She was courted by the Swedish and Spanish ambassadors in the hope that she would support them.
By 1564, Elisabeth was suffering from breast cancer, and desperate to be cured. With her brother and sister-in-law, she traveled to the Netherlands, looking for a treatment to alleviate her condition. She had doctors from all over Europe looking for a cure and exploiting her false hope in a cure. Queen Elizabeth arranged for the personal physician of the King of Bohemia to attend Elisabeth in England. One doctor’s servant, Griffith, who was meant to be helping the dying woman, attempted to seduce her, earning him and the doctor a place each in prison in January 1565.
Elisabeth died, aged around 39, on 2 April 1565, heavily in debt. The Queen was devastated. Five years later, Northampton married a sixteen-year-old Swedish woman, Helena Snakenborg who apparently looked very like his beloved Elisabeth. In January 1571, Anne Bourchier died, leaving his union with Helena beyond doubt. Parr died soon after.