Love and Dishonour in Elizabethan England

Professor Houlbrooke’s look at the marriage of Charles and Elizabeth Forth (c. 1582-1593) and its unhappy breakdown and aftermath offers an intriguing insight into the politics of gender, family, social standing and religion in Elizabethan England. Here he presents some fascinating background to the sad story, highlighting some of the pressures that acted upon the unhappy couple.

The chance discovery of testimony given by witnesses in 1596 first kindled my interest in the doomed marriage of Charles and Elizabeth Forth. One of them, who had been Elizabeth’s chambermaid, recalled that her mistress had intensely disliked her life with Charles at Butley Priory in Suffolk. This maid had frequently accompanied Elizabeth on foot to Staverton Park over a mile away. There Elizabeth had met a young unmarried gentleman with whom she walked in the ‘secret places’ of a wood while her maid waited for her. The magnificent gatehouse of Butley Priory and the dense ancient woodland of Staverton Park still exist today. One can easily imagine Elizabeth Forth slipping out for her clandestine encounters before disappearing into the depths of the wood with the mysterious young gentleman. But why was Elizabeth so unhappy at Butley? What had driven a married woman to risk her reputation in these trysts?

The Old Palace of Westminster showing where the Court of Requests met. Taken from John Rocque’s 1746 map of London. Image credit: Wikimedia

The 1596 witnesses were examined during a lawsuit in the Court of Requests. At issue were Elizabeth’s dowry and her claim for maintenance during separation from her husband.  Elizabeth and Charles had been married without his parents’ consent. This was a very serious breach of social convention.  Robert Forth of Butley claimed that Charles, his teenage heir, had been lured from his school in Norwich. Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs Katherine Jerningham, had possibly engineered this match, persuading Elizabeth that Robert Forth ‘would soon be won’. This prediction was sadly wrong.  Robert accepted Charles’s action very grudgingly. He deeply resented his son’s marrying without his knowledge or approval. Elizabeth belonged to an old and illustrious Suffolk family. But her father John was a Catholic who spent some time in exile overseas. Robert, by contrast, was a staunch Protestant, the head of a family recently established among the Suffolk gentry. He received the young couple into his household at Butley, but refused to agree a marriage settlement despite being offered a dowry with Elizabeth. His disapproval blighted the marriage. Elizabeth twice left Butley to seek refuge with a married sister. Finally, she refused Charles’s pleas to return with the message that she would never again ‘come in bed with him, or between a pair of sheets with him’.

At the heart of this story is a young woman who escaped what she seems to have judged an intolerable situation.  The sharply conflicting accounts presented by Elizabeth and her brother-in-law Henry Jerningham on one side, Robert Forth on the other make it hard to construct an impartial narrative of the central relationship. Robert Forth described Elizabeth’s actions as an ‘undutiful’ defiance of the proper authority of husband and father-in-law. In addition, he produced witnesses. Elizabeth and Henry did not. The recorded testimony, though slanted against Elizabeth, does, when taken together with two surviving letters of Elizabeth’s, throw some light on her character. Charles by contrast remains a shadowy figure. He died overseas around the time the case came to court. Witnesses’ accounts highlight his shame and distress. They make him appear rather weak and ineffectual. A friendly reviewer writes that I present Elizabeth as a ‘ruthless schemer’. I regret giving that impression. Certainly Elizabeth was a victim as well as Charles.

Religious differences were fundamental to this case. Yet those differences were not straightforward. The English Catholic community was not yet a clearly defined entity in the late sixteenth century. Partial conformity and shifting allegiances were common. Families were divided. Elizabeth’s maternal kindred were predominantly Protestant, while her paternal relations inclined to Catholicism. Social status was an additional complicating factor in the Jerningham-Forth dispute. Unsuitable as Elizabeth may have been in Robert Forth’s eyes as a bride for his son, her social connections could have made the match advantageous. Elizabeth’s maternal uncle, Lord Cobham, became a privy councillor. Under different circumstances, a member of the recently established Forth family might have been considered very lucky to have made this marriage. Consciousness of her higher rank probably underpinned Elizabeth’s refusal to put up with her life at Butley. This story of an unhappy couple thus led to a fascinating exploration of nuanced religious differences and the importance of friends in high places. It also resulted in several interesting discoveries concerning such different matters as the history of Somerleyton Hall, Elizabeth Forth’s ancestral home, and the colourful career and death of Charles Forth’s maternal uncle Edward Glemham, a notorious adventurer and corsair.


This guest post was written by Ralph Houlbrooke, Professor Emeritus at the University of Reading.

Love and Dishonour in Elizabethan England
Two Families and a Failed Marriage
by Ralph Houlbrooke

Hardback / 9781783272402 / £37.50 or $67.50
eBook / 9781787441811 / £14.99 or $18.74

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