Hubbard on Houlbrooke, 'Love and Dishonour in Elizabethan England: Two Families and a Failed Marriage'

Ralph A. Houlbrooke
Eleanor Hubbard

Ralph A. Houlbrooke. Love and Dishonour in Elizabethan England: Two Families and a Failed Marriage. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2018. 256 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78327-240-2.

Reviewed by Eleanor Hubbard (Princeton University) Published on H-Albion (November, 2018) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)

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On a fateful day in 1581 or 1582, Charles Forth, the sixteen-year-old son and heir of a godly and prosperous gentleman, allegedly met and married another teenager, Elizabeth Jerningham, the daughter of a ruined recusant. The marriage was clandestine and wholly contrary to the will of Charles’s father, Robert. It was also a miserable failure in emotional terms, and would end with the complete estrangement of man and wife. This troubled entanglement between two very different families, one Protestant and rising, the other Catholic and declining, is the subject of Ralph Houlbrooke’s fascinating and meticulous study.

The first hundred pages of the book are devoted to describing the changing fortunes of the Jerninghams and the Forths in the context of England’s religious and political alterations. The Jerninghams, an ancient family, vaulted to prominence under Mary I, after serving among her earliest champions in her struggle for the crown. After Elizabeth’s accession, their staunch Catholicism became a hindrance, and while the head of the cadet branch, Henry Jerningham, did quite well, that of the senior branch, the volatile John Jerningham, became politically suspect and lost his once ample estates. Meanwhile the godly Forths, once wealthy clothiers, ascended in the world and purchased monastic estates, becoming gentle as well as prosperous. 

John Jerningham might have preferred to marry his children to Catholics, but the sad confusion of his affairs left him and his wife, Katherine Brooke, at odds and denuded him of his patriarchal authority. It was Katherine, the sister of the 10th Baron Cobham, who apparently enticed young Charles Forth from his studies in Norfolk into an indecently quick marriage with her daughter Elizabeth. She was said to have persuaded the girl that Robert Forth was a “plain man” who would soon accept the match. She was wrong. Robert Forth did not dispute the validity of the marriage and received the young couple into his home at Butley, but he continued to disapprove. While an adequate marriage portion was evidently paid, Forth stubbornly refused to settle any jointure on his unwanted daughter-in-law or to make provision for her children.

Working from documents generated by dueling cases in the Court of Requests in the 1590s, Houlbrooke retells the story of the marriage’s breakdown as best he can. The documents are hardly impartial, but they suggest that Elizabeth hated living with the Forths and did not much like her callow husband. If his mésaillance signaled a desire to strike out on his own, this quickly wilted when Charles commenced married life under his overbearing father’s roof. Robert Forth expected Elizabeth to seek his forgiveness with repentance and submission, but she—perhaps allergic to the godly regimen of the Forth household and conscious of her own social superiority—failed to comply. After six years, during which she may or may not have engaged in secret trysts with an unnamed young gentleman in a wood, she left the Forths to visit her sister and give birth to a daughter, then stayed away for almost four years. A reconciliation was brokered by Lord Cobham and Lord Buckhurst, and Elizabeth returned to her husband and her father-in-law’s home, but after seven weeks she left again, taking refuge with her sister Frances and her husband, Henry Jerningham, and giving birth to a son about thirty-three weeks after her departure. 

This time the marital bond was frayed beyond repair. Elizabeth reportedly refused to sleep with her husband ever again, and her sisters allegedly caused depositions to be taken insinuating that Charles suffered from a foul disease. Meanwhile Charles denied that he was the father of Elizabeth’s children, and lamented to many interlocutors that he was a dishonored cuckold whose ignominy was such that he might be murdered as he walked the streets. He prevailed on his father to disinherit him and fled the country, dying shortly thereafter. This was an extreme step, for there was no clear evidence that Elizabeth’s son, Francis, was illegitimate. If Charles did indeed become a notorious cuckold, he himself was surely responsible. Why would he tarnish his own name? Houlbrooke speculates that he may have been impotent, or that his inability to please his wife left him convinced that he could not have begotten her children.

Immediately after Charles’s flight, Elizabeth sued Robert Forth in the Court of Requests for the repayment of her dowry and for maintenance during the periods in which she had been living with her sisters. Forth fought her with a countersuit, and amassed a number of depositions attesting to Elizabeth’s undutiful and unloving behavior, but the Court ruled in Elizabeth’s favor and Forth was obliged to pay on both counts. Assessing the weight of the evidence, Houlbrooke argues that the Court was right to order Forth to repay Elizabeth’s dowry, but that its decision that he owed her maintenance for her stays with her sisters was less justified: Forth’s witnesses’ depositions strongly stated that Elizabeth had gone away and stayed away of her own free will, contrary to Charles’s express desire. Under the judge Julius Caesar, then, the Court may have been not only sympathetic to married women’s causes, as Tim Stretton has shown , but in this case, overly sympathetic.[1]

The book, based as it is largely on Robert Forth’s witnesses’ statements—Elizabeth did not supply her own witnesses—presents Elizabeth Forth as a ruthless schemer, who enticed Charles into marriage then churlishly discarded him, crushing his fragile sense of manhood in the process. It seems possible, however, that she was tricked or coerced into the marriage as well as he. She too was sixteen, surely unsettled by her father’s troubles and vulnerable to pressure from her mother. Such a beginning would help explain Elizabeth’s distaste for her husband and desire to live with her much-loved sisters. It is even possible that the rumors of Charles’s venereal disease were true. Something, it seems clear, was wrong with this unfortunate young man. If Houlbrooke’s study has a flaw, it is perhaps that of too readily and exclusively ascribing sexual guilt to Elizabeth, suggesting that she may have lured young Charles into an indiscretion to trap him in marriage, and that both her children were illegitimate. Contemporaries had more doubts. Robert Forth himself never challenged the marriage or overtly accused his daughter-in-law of adultery and the Court of Requests appears to have disregarded what evidence was presented of her secret trysts.

More generally, this book demonstrates both the benefits and the limitations of studying dynastic gentry families in Reformation England. It reveals the strategies that went into devising matrimonial alliances, the ways that people helped position their cousins at court, the value of appealing to the aid of close or even distant or affinal kin in times of need. To work well, dynastic alliances needed to be reasonably religiously coherent. Catholics and godly Protestants could both successfully ally themselves with more moderate conformists, it seems, but not with one another. Houlbrooke is careful to describe the ramifying nature of gentry kin networks, but nonetheless the book’s focus on the Jerningham and Forth patrilineal dynasties decenters the motivations of the central women involved. John Jerningham was a staunch Catholic, but his wife, Katherine Brooke, was not born into a Catholic family and it was she who married Elizabeth to Charles. Robert Forth disliked his son’s inappropriate marriage, but his wife, Frances Glemham, treated Elizabeth kindly, seemingly valuing her maternal Cobham relations and understanding her desire for a household of her own. Cold to her adopted marital family, Elizabeth Forth herself seems to have cared most for her “sweet,” “dear” sisters, their “sweet babes,” and her own disinherited children (p. 185). Gentry women were hardly indifferent to dynastic considerations or confessional differences, but moving as they did between families and religious cultures, their perspectives were necessarily different.

After the central confrontation in the Court of Requests, the book goes on to follow the fortunes of the central families. It is striking how often these fell, with expensive litigation and early death taking their toll on honorable names. For all its limitations, this broad perspective on dynastic gentry families is also one of the study’s central strengths. Written so as to be accessible for undergraduate readers, it brings Houlbrooke’s deep archival research to a wide audience, providing a richly detailed and moving account of how the intimate troubles of one Tudor marriage reached the Court of Requests against a sweeping background of gentry families rising and declining amid dramatic religious and political change.


[1]. Tim Stretton, Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Citation: Eleanor Hubbard. Review of Houlbrooke, Ralph A., Love and Dishonour in Elizabethan England: Two Families and a Failed Marriage. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL:

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