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Brooksby [née Vaux], Eleanor (c.1560–1625), recusant and priest harbourer, was the eldest daughter and second of four children of , and his first wife, Elizabeth (d. 1562), daughter of of Grace Dieu, Leicestershire, master of the rolls, and his wife, Elizabeth. As a member of a fervent and prominent Roman Catholic family Eleanor Vaux was educated first at Harrowden under the influence of her older brother's tutor, the Jesuit Edmund Campion. In 1571 the four children of Lord Vaux's first marriage went to live at Grace Dieu with their maternal grandmother, who took on the responsibility for their upbringing.

About 1577 Eleanor married Edward Brooksby of Shoby, Leicestershire. The Brooksbys sheltered Catholic priests, notably the Jesuit Robert Persons. The family's residence at Green Street, East Ham, Essex, was home for a time to a secret recusant printing press. Eleanor Brooksby had two children, William (d. 1606) and Mary (c.1579–1628). Her husband died early in their marriage, in the summer of 1581. Soon afterwards Brooksby adopted her five-year-old first cousin, Frances Burroughs of Burrow on the Hill, Leicestershire, daughter of Maud Burroughs, Eleanor's paternal aunt, who had died in 1581.

Although she was a young widow raising three small children, Eleanor Brooksby became indispensable to the harbouring of recusant priests. She and her unmarried sister devoted their lives to using their familial connections and wealth in order to establish safe houses for clerics, and they provided significant financial assistance to the Jesuits. In 1586 the Jesuit superior Henry Garnet joined the sisters' household. For two decades Brooksby and Vaux rented many properties for their own use and Garnet's, notably Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire (1588–92), and White Webbs, Enfield Chase, Middlesex (1600–06).

Fear of discovery necessitated a peripatetic existence. Henry Garnet left a memorable account of how Brooksby coped with the considerable pressures inherent in her dangerous way of life. In his description of a violent search for priests at one of her residences in 1591 he recalled that Brooksby
was stowed away in a separate hiding place of her own, both to prevent her being torn from her children and carried off to prison, and also because she is rather timid, and finds it difficult to cope with the threats and evil looks of the searchers. (Anstruther, 188)
On that occasion, as on many others, Anne Vaux impersonated her sister, the mistress of the house, in order to relieve Eleanor from having to confront her persecutors. Brooksby's anxieties about punishment for her priest harbouring, however, should not be overstated. Her fears did not dissuade her from continuing to house clerics. Furthermore, she reared a household of committed recusants. Brooksby arranged Catholic marriages for both William and Mary, and in 1597 her cousin Frances Burroughs took her vows as an Augustinian nun at St Ursula's Convent, Louvain. Mary's daughter, , later became prioress of St Monica's, Louvain. In August 1605 Brooksby participated in an illegal pilgrimage to St Winifred's Well, Holywell. Like her sister she walked barefoot for the last portion of the journey.

Even after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Anne Vaux's temporary imprisonment, and Garnet's execution, Brooksby continued to live as a staunch recusant. In 1615 she took on the responsibility of raising her infant grandson, Edward Thimelby, her daughter Mary's child and the youngest son of the Thimelbys' fourteen offspring. She made William Wright, a priest who lived in her household, responsible for the child's early education, which Edward completed at the English College, Rome, as part of his preparation for the priesthood after her death. In 1625 Brooksby was convicted of recusancy at Leicester Castle and fined £240, which she did not pay. She died of unknown causes later that year.

Colleen M. Seguin

Sources  

G. Anstruther, Vaux of Harrowden: a recusant family (1953) · P. Caraman, Henry Garnet, 1555–1606, and the Gunpowder Plot (1964) · H. Foley, ed., Records of the English province of the Society of Jesus, 7 vols. in 8 (1875–83) · M. Hodgetts, Secret hiding places (1989) · A. Fraser, Faith and treason: the story of the Gunpowder Plot (New York, 1996) · J. Bossy, The English Catholic community, 1570–1850 (1975) · R. Connelly, The women of the Catholic resistance: in England, 1540–1680 (1997)