For St Valentine’s Day, a sad story about marital devotion from Civil War and Restoration Suffolk – or is it?

This Valentine’s Day, Paul Seaward, Director of the History of Parliament, reflects on the marital devotion of Sir Henry North, and questions how devoted North truly was…

In the parish church at Mildenhall, Suffolk, close by the chancel, there is a pair of modest, but distinctly odd monuments, placed side by side. One bears a plain inscription noting the death in 1671 of Sir Henry North, who lived close by at the manor house rebuilt by his grandfather. It lists his various children and their connections. The other is a more puzzling affair, with the North family arms and above them, a pair of clasped hands, and a set of enigmatic texts. The monuments are unusual for a start because of their construction. North’s own is made using the scagliola technique, a way of imitating inlaid marble using a polished and coloured paste laid on top of ordinary stone. It is probably one of a handful of works by an itinerant Italian artist, Diacinto Cawley. The other is a simple wood tablet: perhaps it was intended to be replaced later by a more elaborate memorial. But however unusual their form, it is the story behind them that is more striking, and poignant.

A monument on a chapel wall. It is framed by a black marble effect with gold accents. Inside there is family arms - the coat is split in two, on the left it is green with a golden lion and on the right it it red with white wings, it is framed in gold. Above the coat of arms are two hands clasped. Around this is writing in Latin.
North’s monument to his wife, Sarah Rayney, Mildenhall, Suffolk

North was a member of an important Suffolk family, whose senior branch was based at an enormous mansion at Kirtling, close to Newmarket. His father had sided with Parliament during the Civil War; the son’s role and allegiance had been rather less clear, though after a series of false starts he managed to secure election for Suffolk to the parliament held in 1656, under the rule of Cromwell. Maybe North’s political career was more one of imagination than reality. At some point probably in the late 1650s he composed an enormous prose romance called Eroclea, or The Mayd of Honour, a piece vaguely reminiscent of works like Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, mixing stories of courtly love with discussions of political theory and as doses of pastoral poetry; it may have been intended as a sort of tribute to the dead King Charles I, executed by Parliament in 1649. On the threshold of the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 it perhaps was designed to develop the impression that North had all along been devoted to the royal cause.

North had married in 1631 a woman called Sarah Rayney, the daughter of a successful London draper. We know little of her life, or whether she was the muse who inspired Eroclea. But we know something of North’s dramatic and ghastly reaction to her death, which took place on 1 July 1670. The memorial North had erected in Mildenhall church speaks eloquently of his extreme grief, and his desperate desire to be reunited with his departed wife. The clasped hands are an emblem, the tablet says, of a link that would last till, and even beyond, death. The text below it claims that she is happy because she has been taken from earth – presumably to heaven; whereas he is miserable, because he is unable to die.

It was not true for long. On 29 August 1671, fourteen months after her death, North was found dead in bed, beside him the double-barrelled pistol with which he had shot himself. The wound, said a contemporary account, was as big as a man’s hand. It described how he had apparently been entirely composed, doing all things the day before in the same order and manner as usually. Nevertheless the coroner’s inquest found him to have been not of sound mind, thereby avoiding the risk of the forfeiture of his estate, or that his body be treated ‘to that scorn and contempt that attends such deaths’. It seems that he had planned his death quite deliberately, for it was said that his estate had been ‘all made over to his son some time before’. Unable to contemplate life without his wife of 39 years (as was said in the memorial) North had taken his own life.

A memorial on a chapel wall. It is a black wooden tablet. At the top is a black and white marble design. On it is writing in Latin. Due to picture quality it is not readable. At the bottom is a coat of arms. It is green and has a lion on it.

It has to be said that this may not be as completely the sad but affecting tale of marital devotion that it appears, though. North was widely rumoured to have another liaison, with Catherine, the wife of another gentleman, Sir Robert Crompton of Skerne in Yorkshire, who came from another Suffolk family, the Hollands, with whom the Norths were closely connected. Her son, Charles Crompton, was brought up within the North household, and was thought to be North’s son. He turned out to be a bad lot, a wild character, a fantasist who was frequently returning to the family for money. Possibly, therefore, the profound depression into which North had fallen was not unmixed with an element of guilt.


Further Reading

A biography of Sir Henry North by Andrew Barclay (from which much of this blog is drawn) will appear in the volumes of the History of Parliament covering 1640-1660, to be published in the early summer.

Extracts from Eroclea were published by one of North’s descendants, Sir Thomas Bunbury, in the nineteenth century and can be found at on Google books from p. 320

There are two articles about the work in Suffolk and elsewhere of Diacinto Cawley available in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, vols. XL part 4 and XLII part 4.

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