Divorce, cuckoldry and bastardy: two unhappy medieval marriages

Today’s blog comes from Dr Charles Moreton, senior research fellow in our Commons 1461-1504 project, who begins our latest blog series all about parliamentarians’ marriages. Here Dr Moreton turns his attention to two particularly unhappy marriages during the 15th century…

Unlike some of the blogs to come in this series, the following offers a couple of examples of unhappy marriages. Both of the parliamentarians in question, Sir Thomas Tuddenham and John Heydon, were fifteenth-century East Anglian MPs. Tuddenham was a member of an important gentry family long resident in west Suffolk, and he sat in six of Henry VI’s Parliaments as a knight of the shire, once for his native county and on the other occasions for neighbouring Norfolk. By contrast, Heydon, who represented Norfolk in the Parliament of 1445 and, perhaps, the borough of Great Yarmouth in that of 1459, was a self-made man of lowly birth who had advanced himself through a successful career in the law. Given his non-gentle background, he probably owed his election as a knight of the shire in 1445 to the patronage of a powerful regional magnate, William de la Pole, marquess (formerly earl and later duke) of Suffolk, whose service Tuddenham had also joined. Frequently associated with each other in their capacity as leading members of Suffolk’s following in the disturbed and factional politics of mid fifteenth-century East Anglia, they are best known as two of the principal villains of the famous letters of the Paston family. While it is likely that the partisan Paston Letters have blackened Tuddenham’s name beyond what is just, the bad reputation of Heydon, the epitome of a ruthless and self-seeking late medieval lawyer, is probably not undeserved.

Born a younger son in May 1401, Tuddenham was still several years short of his majority when he succeeded his short lived elder brother, Robert, in 1415, and in the summer of 1417 John Wodehouse, an influential East Anglian servant of the Crown, acquired a share of his wardship. In due course, the young man was married to Wodehouse’s daughter Alice, but this potentially significant and advantageous match ended in failure. By the mid 1420s, the couple were living apart and, after giving birth to a short-lived illegitimate child (the result of a liaison with her father’s chamberlain), Alice was formally separated from her husband and entered Crabhouse priory, a nunnery in west Norfolk. An ecclesiastical court annulled the marriage on the grounds of non-consummation in 1436, but Tuddenham never remarried, even though he received permission to do so from the Church. He was capable of having children, since he fathered at least one bastard son by another woman, so his failure to find a new wife in an age when producing a legitimate male heir was all important is puzzling. In spite of the breakdown of his marriage, Tuddenham remained on good terms with the Wodehouse family. Perhaps they had taken against Alice for cuckolding her former husband, a hypothesis providing a grating double standard to modern eyes, given Tuddenham’s own non-marital liaison. Excluded from inheriting his father’s lands, Sir Thomas’s bastard son, Henry, was obliged to make his own way in the world. He enjoyed a respectable career as a lawyer and sat in at least two Parliaments, representing the boroughs of Truro in Cornwall and Farnham in Surrey in the Parliaments of 1455 and 1460 respectively. After his execution for treason for plotting against Edward IV in 1462, Sir Thomas was succeeded by his sister, Margaret, the widow of the East Anglian esquire, Edmund Bedingfield. In due course, she managed to recover her brother’s confiscated estates, which passed to her Bedingfield grandson after her death in 1476.

Thanks to his humble origins, John Heydon’s date of birth is not recorded, although he was probably Tuddenham’s close contemporary in terms of age. His surname was one he adopted after embarking on his successful legal career, in preference to that of his non-gentle father, William. William bore the lowly patronymic, Baxter, a synonym of ‘baker’, and lived and worked the land as a tenant of the manor of Heydon in north-east Norfolk. Exactly when John married Eleanor, the daughter of Edmund Wynter of Barningham Winter, Norfolk, is unclear but it is likely that the match occurred in the early 1430s. A respectable landed family of middling rank, the Wynters were of far superior birth than the bridegroom, but their fortunes were in decline. No doubt Edmund’s struggles to regain lost family estates persuaded him to marry his daughter to a thrusting young lawyer of growing means who might assist him in those endeavours, in spite of Heydon’s background. For his part, Heydon gained in respectability, if not in personal happiness, by marrying a woman of higher social rank. Whatever the motivations for the match, he came to enjoy a good relationship with Wynter, who appointed him the overseer of the will he made shortly before his death in February 1448. Edmund left his son-in-law a book of chronicles, but neglected to mention Eleanor, suggesting that he had taken against his daughter after she had given birth to an illegitimate child nearly four years earlier. We know of her disgrace from a letter which Margaret Paston wrote to her husband, John Paston, in July 1444. No doubt Margaret reported the news with some relish, since the Pastons and Wynters had recently been embroiled in disputes with each other over land, quarrels in which Heydon had supported his father-in-law:

Heydonnis wyffe had chyld on Sent Petyr Day. I herde seyne that here husbond wille nowt of here, nerre of here chyld that sche had last nowdyre. I herd seyn that he seyd zyf sche come in hesse presence to make here exkewce that he xuld kyt of here nose to makyn here to be know wat sche is, and yf here chyld come in hesse presence he seyd he wyld kyllyn. He wolle nowt be intretit to haue here ayen in no wysse, os I herde seyn.[1]

Interior of Norwich Cathedral, where Heydon is buried. Via Wikimedia Commons

The marriage broke down completely, and in 1450 a senior member of Heydon’s profession, the justice of King’s bench, John Markham, admonished him for his ‘ungodly’ behaviour in for ‘puttyng awey’ his wife (who was perhaps obliged to enter a nunnery like Alice Tuddenham) and keeping another woman. He was reported to have turned pale at Markham’s words and to have answered that ‘he lyved not but as God was pleased with’. Although a disaster in personal terms, Heydon’s unhappy marriage was far from a complete failure, since it did produce an all important legitimate son. Following his death in 1479, he was buried in a chapel he had constructed in Norwich cathedral. His burial place testified to the wealth and status that this unlikeable but undoubtedly able man had achieved by the end of his life.


[1]A rough modernisation: ‘Heydon’s wife had a child on St. Peter’s Day. I’ve heard it said that her husband will have nothing to do with her or the child. I’ve [also] heard it said that he has declared that he would cut off her nose to make it be known what she is, should she came to him to excuse herself, and that he would kill the child if it came into her presence. He will not be persuaded to have her again in any circumstances, as I’ve heard it said.’

Tuddenham and Heydon both feature in our recently published Commons 1422-1461 volumes, which covers the MPs during the reign of Henry VI. Follow the research of our medieval project via the Commons in the Wars of the Roses section of our blog.

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