The marriage of Charles and Elizabeth Forth (c. 1582-1593) offers an intriguing insight into the politics of gender, family and religion in Elizabethan England. In this story, resourceful women play leading roles, sometimes circumventing or subverting patriarchal authority, qualifying our accepted image of the Elizabethan propertied family. Elizabeth's impoverished Catholic father took no part in making her marriage. Instead, Elizabeth and her mother seemingly enticed Charles, sixteen-year-old heir of a solidly Protestant Suffolk JP, into a clandestine match. When the marriage began to fail, Elizabeth turned to her mother and sisters as her principal sources of support and showed greater guile, determination and resilience than her husband in what became a protracted contest. Charles, convinced of his wife's infidelity, finally left England to travel as a voluntary exile, only to die abroad. Elizabeth and her kinsman Henry Jerningham emerged as victors in subsequent prolonged litigation with Charles's father.
Drawing on extensive testimony and decrees in the most fully recorded case of its kind heard by the Court of Requests, as well as a wide range of other material from local record offices and the National Archives, this readable micro-history unravels the tangled story of two very different young people. It establishes the background of the marriage and its failure in the contrasting histories of the families involved and sets the story in its larger political and religious contexts. Anyone with an interest in Elizabethan politics, law and religion, or the family, women and gender, will find it fascinating.
RALPH HOULBROOKE is Professor Emeritus at the University of Reading.