Mrs. Bourne’s Case for a Divorce (1582)

By Krista Kesselring; posted 24 July 2016.

In a missive to the Elizabethan Privy Council, Elizabeth Bourne accused her husband Anthony of enormous evils, not least his attempt to slip her poison, or “an Italian fig,” and his living in sin with a “shameless rig.” Her angry narrative and insistent argument for a judicial separation is given in full below. It is remarkable in many ways, not least in allowing us insight into the legal trap marriage could be and the ways one sixteenth-century woman sought to use the law in her own defence.

Almost immediately after Elizabeth and Anthony married in 1566, the relationship soured. In her account, he physically and verbally abused her, brought “harlots” and the pox into their home, had sex with their servants, and fathered many a bastard both before and after abandoning her for one Mrs. Pagnam, who had left her own husband to live with Elizabeth’s lecherous spouse.

Elizabeth sounds as if she’d have been quite happy to be rid of Anthony himself, but as long as the marriage bond persisted, she’d not be immune from the consequences of his actions. A married woman couldn’t easily live apart from her husband in these years. He had the right to reclaim her person from any friends or relatives who might harbour her through a writ of habeas corpus (one of the lesser known functions of this exalted remedy). Even if he wasn’t inclined to do so, he could still claim and squander “her” financial resources, thanks to the legal doctrine of coverture. Full divorce with remarriage wasn’t legally possible in these years (pace the contemporaries confused on this score, a subject I’ll explore in another post); so, for lack of a better option, Elizabeth insisted upon a legal separation, what was known as a divorce a menso et thoro, or a divorce “of bed and board.” But even this was not easily had.

It was the threat to her property and that owed to their daughters Amy and Mary that prompted Elizabeth to make her remarkable suit to the Privy Council. She accused Anthony not just of diverting assets to his illegitimate second family but also of intentionally flouting the Queen’s laws against Catholics in ways that risked the forfeiture of his property.

Earlier in the marriage’s tortured history, friends and family had secured from Anthony a trust, managed by Sir John Conway, to provide for Elizabeth and their daughters. Anthony’s subsequent actions, not least his religious nonconformity and unlicensed flight to Calais in the company of Mrs Pagnam, now jeopardized even the property held in trust.

Elizabeth accused Anthony of trying to end their marriage (and the trust) through violence – not just the “Italian fig” but also with a shadowy would-be assassin sent out of France and an angry knife-wielding episode from which her step-father and Conway had to save her. For her part, she turned to the Privy Council for release.

Why did she turn to the Privy Council rather than one of the courts that routinely heard cases emerging from marital discord? Perhaps because of the risk of a royal seizure of Anthony’s estate (including the property in trust). Or perhaps because of her connections: her mother, Amy Clarke, and step-father Sir James Mervyn, had abundant social and political capital, as did her sister, Lucy Touchet, Lady Audley.[1]  Her counsel, the redoubtable Sir Julius Caesar, was also well connected. They may have hoped for a better outcome in such a venue, given the circles in which they travelled, and may have thought this route best suited to a person of her status and a case of such complexity. But part of Elizabeth Bourne’s reason for approaching the Council rather than a regular court may well have been the complication that Anthony now professed himself ready for a reconciliation, a fact that made a separation hard to secure in an age when so many so strongly favoured the bonds of marriage and patriarchal privilege within such marriages. And as odd as it may seem, the Privy Council not infrequently entertained cases of marital disorder: Lamar Hill notes that Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council intervened in at least thirty-three marital breakdowns, mostly of the gentry and nobility, in the belief that social order more generally relied upon the moral order of the families of the great and the (ostensibly) good.[2]

Whatever her reasons for approaching them, Elizabeth Bourne presented the queen’s councillors with a carefully constructed narrative of her woes and an argument supporting her preferred solution, in all a document of some 8000 words. She did not use the importunate tone and “feminine voice” so many women adopted (whether by habit or strategic choice) in their petitions to the powerful. Lest that lead one to doubt her personal authorship of the piece, suspecting perhaps that Sir Julius Caesar or her then-friend Sir John Conway took charge, we might take heed of James Daybell: he has studied her correspondence in the Conway collection and doesn’t just deem her “one of the most prolific letter writers of her generation” but also makes a case for her as a hitherto overlooked early modern poet.[3] There seems little reason, then, to doubt her authorship.

In her text Elizabeth maintained that both law and reason supported her determination to live apart from her husband and to be safe from him in both body and substance. Besides her colourful narration of Anthony’s many sins, she noted her belief that the law of the land allowed the chaste wife of an adulterous man to separate from him, and that her fear for her life in the face of deadly cruelty did as well. “Wherefore,” she insisted, “since law has provided a salve and a remedy for my sore, I mean to use it to my good.” While she included a parenthetical and probably insincere reservation, she concluded firmly and emphatically that “there is no sound reason in my judgement (under the correction of my betters) that may lead me to consent to dwell with Mr. Bourne.”

Tracing her through subsequent references in the records of the Privy Council and in the State Papers, it seems that Elizabeth won a limited – very limited – victory. She was not thereafter forced to reconcile with Anthony. But without the legal option of full divorce, the best that could be had were new trust arrangements. In due course, she ended up appealing to the Privy Council again, this time with Anthony and against Sir John Conway, the executor of the trust and guardian of her daughters: Conway fell prey to the temptation to marry young Amy off to his son Fulke to secure the boy an income, a traditional perk of guardianship. And with this we’re reminded that Elizabeth’s story, in some senses remarkable and exceptional, had features all too common and entirely predictable within a society that so tightly harnessed marriage to property and made marriages indissoluble.

[Image courtesy of Walwyn on Flickr, Alabaster Memorial to Thomas Cave and his Wife.]

British Library, Additional MS 38170, fols. 17ff:

[© British Library, published here with permission. Spelling and punctuation modernized.]

 6 December 1582

Mr Bourne about 16 years past, immediately after we were married, began by some foreign liking of other women to withdraw his chaste love from me.

My hope of his amendment, when time should teach him the difference between vice and virtue (considering then his young years) made me bury my secret sorrow a long time in silence. But time wrought contrary to my hope; instead of my wished good and his amendment, I have found nothing but the continual increase of his ill, to a due confirmation of my despair of better.

Most unkindly he has refused to live with me these six years, in breach of his holy vow of chaste matrimony, and has lived and still continues in open fame and shame with harlots, to the ruin and spoil of himself, me, and my children.

So heavy be these griefs, and so unfit a thing it is for a wife publicly to complain against her husband, that if unwillingly by his own want of God’s grace and good consideration, I were not compelled, I would rather commit his sins, with my sorrow, to the silence of my grave, than to the view and judgement of any living creature.

But since it becomes me, in satisfying of my betters and the world, to avoid the imputation of an unreasonable creature in myself, and to prove by truth that my husband seeks to abuse his friends and to spoil me by a false title of a reformed life: I have here underwritten the beginning, proceeding, and continuance of his incontinent life, his slanderous reports, wicked practices, terrors and tyrannous speeches against me, my friends, kin and allies, and the reasons growing from the same, which counsel me not to consent to live with him, who is so constant in sin and so imperfect in virtue.

Immediately after we were married, he left my company and lived in the liberty of his ranging affections with divers women.

When I uttered my grief of mind therein unto him, as the general report of his repair to many women and his continual absence from home gave me cause, he said it was all untrue: his absence from me was not for any dislike in me, nor his repair to the company of other women for any unlawful love, but for that his father and he could never agree.

Whatsoever I did know, I accepted of his denial, through hope, and my patient sufferance to call home his love. Because he alleged that his disagreement with his father bred the cause of his absence from me, I so entreated, and obtained, that both me and our small number sojourned with my mother.

[fol. 17d] There he continued for a time in good usage of me, to my great comfort. But the sequel in short time made proof that his continuance with me, and increase of love and liking, but was dissembled of purpose and policy, to win my consent to the sale of a good part of mine inheritance, which should be, as he gave the reasons and his promise to my mother and my friends, for the relief of us both during his father’s life, and promised that after he would recompense me with as much again.

I agreed to his desire, and joined with him in the sale of my land. Upon the present receipt of the money, he left me alone as before, and continued in London by the space of half a year, and spent 500li in vain love with a gentlewoman. (Who I mean, and who she was, he knows; I no reveal her name, of better consideration than I have cause.)

My mother perceiving him in the way and will to consume all, challenged his promise, that she might be privy how he meant to employ the money for our reliefs, which he had received for my lands; but he would not. Whereupon, she charging him with his loose life and the wrong that he did me, he answered her in these words: that I had nothing in me to content him, that I was unhandsome, a fool, and not the woman that he could love. Yet, for her sake, he would use me well.

In these terms he departed thence, and I with him, unto a little lodge of mine inheritance, where we kept house by the space of half a year; in which time, he allured one, a serving woman of mine, to be naught[y] with him, besides many other, by his own report and common speech, which he had abroad.

When I was assured of the ill between him and my maid, in his absence from home, I put her away. Wherewith at his return he was so enraged that unless I would send for her again, and suffer her in my house, he swore by great oaths that he would put me away.

Being thus delivered of her, he presently brought me home a common harlot, as any in Bridewell, one Anne Vaughan, a woman most famous for her ill life, who, out of beggars’ robes and a bawdy house, he decked in brave apparel, to the pleasing of both their fancies; and so kept her in house with me. And notwithstanding he knew she had the French pox, yet he lay with her at his pleasure. Of their ills he used no secret, nor she any silence; if it were not sufficiently seen, they both would tell it liberally.

In fear of her loathsome disease, and that harm which might come to me from her by Mr Bourne, as no creature did live in more fear, sorrow and danger than I did, when I was once assured of their ills and loathsome disease, I would not suffer her in house with me. He then sent her to his man Sales’s house by the city of Worcester. There and at Worcester he kept her at his charge so long till she was not able to be removed but in a cart: the pox had so consumed her. He has said himself that he has taken [fol. 18] the unlawful use of her body in that loathsome state, of purpose to infect me, that he might be rid of me. And he did swear with great oaths upon her going out of my house that I should never have woman serve me whilst he lived but he would lie with her, or it should cost him 500li.

After this he haunted and had one Besse Wood, a common harlot in London and Oxford, but she soon left him in better liking of others.

Then he fell into his open sin and shame with Mrs Pagnam, and took her from her husband, as the world can witness, and brought her to a house of mine own. When I would not be persuaded to endure that, neither to suffer her in house with me, he offering me his good will and my liberty to live in as loose order with any man, as he did with her; he resolved me and many his good friends that he would never live with me, nor use me as his wife. He bid me therewith satisfy myself, or else I should, whether I would nor not. He said to me and them that Mrs Pagnam had for him refused her husband, her natural children, and all the world; and he would do for her as much. And thus unkindly departed from me, and fled into France with her.

Since he has led his sinful life with her now six years, to the ruin and spoil of himself, me, and my children, and still she lives and her bastards on his charge, and at his devotion.

And to prove that he has in this time aggravated his sin and shame with many others, and abates not, but continues in the same; I [aim?] truly to charge him with these dissolute parts of his life, besides his disorder with Mrs Pagnam.

Whilst he was prisoner in the Tower of London he had a child by a nurse of Mrs Pagnam’s.

Item. He had one other child in that time that he was prisoner in the Tower, by another woman, who was brought to bed of the same, and the child nursed at Newington; one of Mr Lieutenant’s men was bound that the parish after the woman’s delivery should be discharged of the mother and child. This bastard remains in his charge, with the rest.

By this you may see what he profited by imprisonment, towards the reformation of his precedent ills. In that time, he had also one bastard by Mrs Pagnam.

Presently upon his delivery out of the Tower, he allured one Besse, a woman servant to Mrs Blount’s, who keeps the ordinary table, to be naught[y] with him. He and she both confessed their sins, without shame, to many. In short time, she was conveyed thence, and it was thought by Mr Bourne.

He did steal away a young wench from one Winnington’s in Smithfield, kept her, and paid for her diet in Westminster near half a year, left her with child, and after she should be delivered, to be sent to him into Ireland, to wait upon Mrs Pagnam.

[fol. 18d] Besides these, since he was delivered out of the Tower, he became in love with one Waste’s wife in London, and ran himself into great loss of time and charge to persuade her to leave her husband and to go with him, which, as himself confessed, he brought to pass, that she consented to go with him. In this he made his folly so apparent to the world that a merchant of great wealth and good credit told him in open street, that Mrs Waste had wasted both his wit and wealth. All this is most true. I myself did see a letter of his own hand, written to a gentleman, a companion of his, from the seacoast, wherein he did challenge him of great discourtesy for alluring her away from him, and in which letter he did greatly threaten to be quittance with him, and so, as I have heard, he was after his return.

Since his return out of Ireland, and desire to live with me, he has kept one Jane Wilson in the White Friars, until she warmed him so hot (and it is said) that he was glad to seek water to quench the fire. With some consideration, he became weary of her. Since he took away one Margret [blank] from Mrs Markes, who keeps the Lord Clinton’s house in Chanonrow [Cannon Row]. After he had kept her for a little while, he sent her in the latter part of the last summer to Mrs Pagnam’s into Wales. But by the way (as it is said) she is proved with child, and upon this chance and challenge, Mrs Pagnam has left Wales and is returned to Westminster, because she may be the more near at hand to prevent such wrongs.

About Bartholomewtide last he had another maid of Mrs Markes, some call her Welsh Anne, some [Canaw?], some Mr Bourne’s [Standardbearer?]. He placed her first at Lambeth and now she remains in Westminster. The woman herself confesses that she has been naught[y] with him, and boasts that she has had three pounds in money of Mr Bourne at a time to pay for her diet.

Himself has confessed to many that he has been naught[y] with one knight’s wife in Westminster; at the first, he promised her more to lie with than he had to give her, and then she cozened him (as he has told divers) of a case of dags, and other necessary furnitures, which is spoken of, being true, to his great reproof, shame, and folly. Now he uses her in another kind: he makes her his purveyor and receiver. He takes the pleasure of her house with Mrs Pagnam and others daily.

Since midsummer last he has had his part by consent in common with his companions and copartners of one Jane Jackson, besides many others I could particularly name, but these are too many for me to hope that ever he will be reformed. He began so young, and has continued so many years. I note this withal, which increases my grief: he takes no profit of time; experience teaches him not to be wise; one harm makes him not avoid another. In sum, he continues and is not ashamed. Since he has been dismissed out of the Tower of London, he has spent his time, being [fol. 19] years, in passing and repassing Mrs Pagnam from place to place, from England into Ireland, and back again. Since his and her return he has kept house with her in London, Westminster, Shoreditch, Lambeth, etc. About the first spring of this last year he did ride with her in progress into Worcestershire and Wales, there he left her behind him, returned to London, and to the Court, a man disburdened (as he said to his friends) of his woman and her bastards, reformed in his loose life, and desirous to live in good sort with me. All this being but a mere device and policy to abuse my Lords of the Council, his friends and mine, and tending only to the spoil of me and my children. What likelihood is there for the world or myself to believe otherwise? She has ever since lived at his charge in Wales, and has been with her there since he sought by order of my Lords of the Council to have me restored unto him. And now either he has removed her nearer him to London again, or else she of her goodwill has removed herself to him, in hope to find the supply of many courtesies that she wanted, being so far off. So as together I leave them, in folly so fast knit, as no discretion can divide them, until death dissolve the one or both. For Mr Bourne believes her bastards to be his own pretty, sweet children; and this false persuasion of the devil to continue him his servant, withholds my help and kills my hope. So, in despair of their amendment, who God has so long forsaken, I leave to speak further of their sinful lusts. Now I come to as great, or greater, wrongs which he has done me, in harder degrees.

His terrors and tyrannous speeches, which have made me these many years despair of my life, and consume my poor estate greatly, to procure my safety against his threatened mischief.

Upon diverse good causes and consideration he enfeoffed my friends in lands, goods and debts, to the recompense and advancement of me and my children. Within one quarter of a year next following through the inconstancy of his mind and his perseverance in ill, he repented the benefit which he had done us, fled beyond the seas without her Majesty’s license, of purpose and policy to do all that in him was, to make question and forfeiture of the whole, and letted not, as one careless of his conscience and soul’s health, in malice or me, to give his oath in evidence against truth and his own deed, to the overthrow of himself and to the harm of me and my children.

He required of me toward the maintenance of Mrs Pagnam the one half of that portion which he had allotted and, as I thought, assured to me and my children for our relief. [fol. 19d] I offered himself the whole, so he would refuse her, and to live with his credit anywhere, but I assured him that I would not yield to mine own wants to maintain such a shameless rig.

He fell so passionate at this my answer that he reviled me with all the ill words he could devise. He offered me the terror of his dagger (which my father, Sir James Mervyn, saved me from); with solemn oaths vowed he would tear the skin off my back. If he might not, he would blow up me and my house with gunpowder, but he would be revenged and rid of me.

Sir James Mervyn and Sir John Conway, six or seven days after this heat, used friendly persuasions with him, that there might be an unity between him and me, and that he would leave Mrs Pagnam. He asked, to what end, saying, with her he was contented. If he should leave her to live with such a moyle as I, [five score?] would not serve him a year, protesting with solemn oaths to them as he had done to myself, that it had been the heaviest burden of mind to conceal his secret hate of me from the first day he married me, and therefore he would be rid of me, or it should cost him the hazard of his work.

After this he did from Calais write to me, and Sir James Mervyn, that he would come into England again for no other cause but to be revenged of me. He said in his letters, that it should not be all the friends my father Mervyn could make, nor my mother’s credit in court, that should save me from his revenge, nor harm Mrs Pagnam.

He has since revenged himself of me by hard degrees, that never offended him. Mrs Pagnam lives with him in peace and pleasure, without any punishment of her ill life; and I live and languish through despair, being assured of the uttermost mischief that she can devise or her intend me, if God his providence shield me not. He did swear before Sir James Mervyn, Sir John Conway, and others, that, if by these means he might not come to be revenged, he would give an ill person five  hundred pounds to give me an Italian fig.

After all these ill speeches, he sent an ill man, who had been burnt in the hand, out of France to my house. He came to Chipping Norton and there used such speeches and behaviours with my servants as do yield a vehement presumption that he came to do me some mischief. In the night he enticed my men unto the tavern, bestowed banquets on them; in the midst of their good cheer, he was very inquisitive to know of my men how many persons I kept, in what places of my house they lay, what number within my gates, and how many without, and also if I did not use ordinarily to walk abroad into my gardens and pastures, and with what company and at [fol. 20]  what times of the day. This man was well furnished with dags, and stored with money. He would suffer none of mine to pay money. He told them he was sufficiently stored, that he had a thing to do before he departed the country, which, being done, would fill his purse better. He never showed himself by day, yet tarried at Chipping Norton seven or eight days. Upon the day of his departure, he came to my house and desired to see and speak with me (as he said) from Mr Bourne. But I durst not speak with him, my fear was such by these reasons I have showed you through his threatenings; of which I could set you down a number more, but these be too many, and may suffice.

I will now unfold to you some of his unconscionable devices, wicked policies, and slanderous reports, untruly invented and maliciously executed against myself, my friends, kind and allies.

After he had wilfully purchased himself a prisoner’s place in her Majesty’s Tower of London, he had convenient time to make with himself of a just audit of his past life and present estate, by wisdom to repair that which by will he had ruined, and so would any man but he, but not tasting of God his grace so far as to accept his imprisonment a divine providence to reform the disorders of his life, he wrought all things to the increase of his own mischief, and the spoil of me and my children.

He doubled his sins against me with this wicked device, to call my innocency and chastity in question; of policy, to withdraw the compassion and good conceit of the virtuous from me, to make his own offences the more tolerable, and my friends to fall from me. The intention proceeded from Satan, and the consent proves the same. The man prospers as the world can witness, as yet untaught to leave sin, to fly shame, to fear God, to known himself, to shun his harm, or to embrace virtue. This plot and policy he framed without God’s grace, and performed it without cause, conscience, or consideration. God can witness, myself never offended him, and my friends less, yet this he put in action as follows:

In March, in the 19th year of her Majesty’s reign, he went away with Mrs Pagnam, left me comfortless alone, without compassion of my sorrows, in despair of my life; by reason whereof I became as big swollen as if I had been long and quick with child, and yet not so; such was my state, not able to go without a staff, and of small hope for the physicians assured me that I had received some ill thing in my meat or drink. Being thus distressed, I desired for my better stay and comfort Mr Richard Hobby, esq., and his wife, being my cousin germain, to live with me in my life and that I might rely myself upon their good company and counsel in all my needful causes and travels. I found them my good friends. They lived with me in my house and became careful suitors with me to my Lords of the Council for my well doing, and Mr Bourne’s likewise. In recompense of their goodwills towards me, being all the offence they ever made Mr Bourne, to cause them to fall from me in their friendships, he railed at them with most spiteful and unreverent [fol. 20d]  words, calling him villain, knave, and cuckold, his wife arrant whore, saying he was a kestrel kite; he would clip his wings and cut off his head.

Because Sir John Conway, at the request of me and my friends, waged law, in proof of his deeds to be good and lawful to such uses as they were truly meant, and not, as he did indirectly against himself, his true knowledge, and conscience (in malice of me) entitle her Majesty by jury upon his own evidence, for this he railed at him, called him knave, villain, and cozening knave, saying he went about to beguile him of all that ever he had, and swore by great oaths that he would kill him, though it were pissing against a wall.

When he saw that this indirect course of his took not effect to his will, and that Sir John Conway persevered in defence of the cause, he complained to sundry personages of honorable estate, both men and women, that Sir John Conway lived as ill with me as he did with Mrs Pagnam, and that all which he did defend in right of my children was in wrong of her Majesty, and through unlawful love and affection towards me.

To aggravate this cause, and to make his reports the more credible, he informed sundry great estates that my former loose life with one Mr Frier of Oxford was cause of his fall and fault with Mrs Pagnam, otherwise, as he gave forth, he had never gone astray. To confirm the whole, he named Mr Frier to be father of my youngest daughter, and delivered the substance of all this both in speech and writing, to be delivered her Majesty for a truth.

After this, before the right honorable my lords of the council, when we both came face to face, I complained my grief of these his reports, and desired, in honour of her Majesty, being her sworn servant, and in good grace of myself, that I might thereof acquit myself, or else find no favour. He there denied the whole, and justified me, that he had never reported me unhonest of body or, that less was, thought it.

We no sooner were dismissed of that honourable presence by commandment that he, Sir James Mervyn, Sir John Conway, and I should agree within ourselves to satisfy her majesty of a thousand pound, but in going out of the chamber, upon the passion of his mind, he called me arrant whore, and said he would use me like a whore, for my running policy and choice of time, to make him justify my honesty to the discredit of himself.

My father Mervyn and Sir John Conway desired him to be silent in that place, and for the better regard of his own credit, considering how lately he had denied the knowledge or thought of dishonesty by me; wished him to suppress such rage of speech. With that he charged Sir John Conway, that I was his whore, and said, that so sufficient a man told him as would advouch it to his face, and that his brother Powell.

He further said, his brother Powell advised him to advouch me a whore, to the state of the right honourable council, and publicly to everybody; counselled him, to confirm it with his corporal oath, and he would prove it for him; as he further said, his brother Powell advised him, that he had no other means to reduce himself [fol. 21] to be pitied, and to make his faults seem the less, but to persuade the world that I had led as unchaste a life as he, and that my loose life and ill doings were the chiefest cause of his folly and fall.

Sir John Conway being thus charged by Mr Bourne before divers of his friends and mine, and in open audience of many, charged Mr Powell with Mr Bourne’s words, required of him what reason moved him to speak them; from whom he heard them; or how he conceived so much ill of him. Mr Powell protested to Sir John Conway before Mr Brownefield and Francis Brace, esq., that Mr Bourne had therein belied him. He never used any such speech, nor heard any such from any other, but from Mr Bourne himself, who, as he said, sent for him into the Tower and told him that he had devised such a course against me, and asked his counsel and help how he might proceed in it, either to prove it true or to make it seem likely, and whether it were not a good device? And he told him no, and so left him, supposing that he would, by his counsel and of his own discretion, have fallen from it.

That he offered Sir John Conway, his brother Powell, and me this wrong, Sir Francis Walsingham his honour can witness. Francis Brace, esq., being a cousin and special friend to Mr Bourne, did affirm before his honour that he heard the words Sir John Conway received or Mr Bourne, the charge Sir John Conway gave Mr Powell, when they met in the fields, and his flat denial of all; and charged Mr Bourne, that the ill device and speech proceeded from himself, and had none other author.

Of this reproof he nothing abashed, desired of Sir Francis Walsingham his honour that he would order Mrs Pagnam to live with him in safety from all unquietness that might be offered by me, my friends, or servants; he said that he would settle himself and her within twelve miles of me at Kidlington; he swore by solemn oaths before his honour that he would never leave to love her and friend her whilst he lived; he protested to his honour that he loved her little finger better than all my body, and that he had a son by her; he held more dear his little toe than both my daughters; that I might assure myself, that all he could get for his life, should be too little for her and her children; and all he could pluck from me, he would. These cold comforts he gave me in presence of many, and added to it this injury, which I bear with greatest grief: he did swear before his honour that my youngest daughter was Mr Frier’s bastard, and protested, as God should save him, that he could prove it by credible oaths to be true that he said. After all these ill speeches and broils by the mediation of my Lord Chancellor of England and Sir Francis Walsingham his honour, and by the friendly travail of Michel Blount and John Chamberlain, esquires, he desired an end of all controversies betwixt himself [fol. 21d], me, and Sir John Conway; desired that, upon the conclusion of all things touching all goods, debts and lands, he and I might live in terms of courtesy and good speech, each of other; protested with great oaths that he would do so for his part, and entreated Mr Blount and Mr Chamberlain to promise so much on his behalf. For my better assurance thereof, he became bound at the end of all controversies in a thousand pound bond, that he would not molest me in person, lands, goods, nor any ways.

I assented to his reasonable will in all things touching a quiet end. I joined with him in consent to do all things that were thought meet by his friends and mine towards Sir John Conway, and so did I absolutely agree with Sir John Conway, to satisfy him of all things he desired.

After he had received the full accomplishment of all covenants and promises from me and Sir John Conway, and was to perform reasonable agreements on his part, he refused to do them; grew into rages and railing speeches against Sir John Conway, saying he was a villain, bankront knave, that he had the french pox by my gift, that Frier of Oxford had given them me for an increase to those my father had left me. Lastly, he swore by great oaths that he would never be quiet, nor his conscience satisfied, until he had killed me for a whore, Sir John Conway for a villain, and that pocky squire and villain borne Frier of Oxford, and my youngest daughter, as he said, Friar’s bastard. These things being done, he swore he should have a quiet conscience and never afore. And these all he swore he would do, what time, torment or dissimulation soever he should be urged to abide and suffer.

Lastly I may assure myself, he doth still entertain these ill speeches and beliefs of me: for since the time that he hath made a deceivable show of his reformed life, and demanded to have me to live with him, he hath said and sworn that my youngest daughter is Friar’s bastard. A wrong most intolerable for a clear conscience to digest, that is free from the fame, an untruth conceived in deadly heat, [persecuted?] by such degrees of spite, confirmed and continued by such exchange and length of time, as I am justly moved to learn no considerations of the man, the manner and matter undigested, through all the wisdom and judgement I may. From whom I receive these incident considerations upon the grief I have unfolded, and the peril that may befall me, in agreeing to live with Mr Bourne.

But first I protest, that, notwithstanding anything which I have before mentioned in ripping up my griefs [fol. 22] or any reason which I shall hereafter allege for my defence in the confirmation of my deliberate purpose not to live with him any more: I mind not to renounce and forgo those advantages in law, which his demerits have procured unto me against himself, but only desire in the meantime to satisfy the right honourable my very good lords of the council and such as shall be departed from their lordships to the hearing of any matters between me and Mr Bourne, to the end that the truth from them being known to others, those who have thought well of my cause heretofore, may be thoroughly confirmed in their good opinion, and all others, who have […variously?] wronged me, either by their words or thoughts, may alter their minds and correct with discretion their unadvised judgments.

The reasons and considerations, drawn from his dissolute and loose life, which persuade me not to live with him:

1. The laws, which in cases of matrimony and divorces have, at this present, place and authority in this land, have set down this expressly, which also practice and use continually doth confirm, that the honest wife of an adulterous husband, upon her suit and instant petition to be divorced from her husband, and upon manifest and clear proofs of his adultery, or else his own confession of the same, is of the judge to be heard and her petition to be granted. Since therefore truth itself and Mr Bourne his own confession to the right honourable my lords of the council have cleared me, not only from ill, but also from suspicion of ill; since his adultery is and hath been so notorious as nothing more, and confessed by himself to divers, of whom some are honourable; there is no doubt, but by law I may be divorced from him. Which benefit of law to [‘refused’ scratched out; not sure what’s added] were in me as great folly and madness as the patient to refuse a sovereign medicine or in the afflicted his aid and comfort. Wherefore since law hath provided a salve and remedy for my sore, I mean to use it to my good, as God shall give me grace; without injury to Mr Bourne, who hath given the cause thereof.

2. Secondly, Mr Bourne hath in all likelihood gotten that disease amongst his women, which he professedly sought for, to the end he might infect me therewithall. Which being true, I trust, no well advised gentleman will think me worthy blame in flying a disease so easily to be taken and so dangerous being had, as that will not only consume me whilst I live, but also bring me more speedily to the grave. [fol. 22d]

3. Thirdly, since adultery is a vice so loathsome and vile as which by the Parthians and Lydians (being heathen men) and by the word of God in all ages (practiced also in Geneva at this present) is most severely punished by extreme death, even as also lions and storks do in like kind correct this offence, and elephants so detest it that they destroy the same in men: I should, doubtless, participate with Mr Bourne’s adulteries if I should be willing to live with him, who divine and private laws and the very nature of unreasonable creatures have judged worthy of death.

4. Fourthly, the punishment of adultery by the laws now in use with us, is excommunication till the party which offended shall repent his former life, and some such bodily pain or shame as shall be thought meet by the ordinary of the place where the same is committed. Now since he or she worthily incurreth excommunication who keepeth company with an excommunicate person, especially such an one as Mr Bourne, who maketh a jest at the judgements of God, and still growth from worse to worse, walking and wallowing in his filthy lust, I hold it damnable for me to live with him, who his demerits have separate, til he amend, from the company of the faithful.

5. Fifthly, if it hath been suffered in him now these six years to disjoin himself from his lawful wife, and go about ranging from place to place with another man’s wife, divorced publicly from her husband for her adultery; I hope no reasonable gentleman will condemn my purpose, lawfully to leave his company hereafter who hath so long time unlawfully separated himself from me.

6. Sixthly, since marriage without agreement and love between the parties is nothing else but a continual vexation and hell of torments unto a quiet mind, since Mr Bourne’s affections have been so estranged from me ever since we were first married, and especially since his familiarity with Mrs Pagnam that he hath not only in his deeds made known his hate to me and love to others, but also hath expressly spoken it to some honourable personages, in preferring the little toe of her bastard before his lawful children by me: I conceive not in any reason how it is possible for him and me to live together, without giving a great offence to all those who shall understand of our domestical disagreements.

7. Moreover, it hath never seen seen, nor practiced in any place, that man and wife once disjoined as Mr Bourne and I are, each one void of love to the other, did at any time after conjoin themselves again in their first estate of holy marriage, for [fol. 23] Mr Bourne hath not upon any heat or sudden motion of his mind, but upon a long and deliberate purpose (yea, since his feined show of desire to live with me) so dispossessed me of his love (if ever he loved me) and so fixedly hath placed it on Mrs Pagnam, that it is impossible to remove it. And seeing his unchangeable determination in mind and practice (albeit in words he doth sometimes for a while dissemble it), I cannot choose but extinguish that love which I have borne him, and live to my [‘mind’ scratched out; ‘sole’?] contentedly as I may, lamenting my former mishap in joining with such an husband.

[In margin: Eighthly, ill doings breed ill thinkings, and of corrupted manners spring perverted judgements. And how there be in man two special things: man’s will, man’s mind; where will inclineth to goodness, the mind is bent to truth; where a will is carried from goodness to vanity, the mind is soon drawn from truth to false opinion. And so the readiest way to entangle the mind with false doctrine [is first to enter evil to wanton women?]. Wherefore Mr Bourne’s licentious and wanton life doth [make me?]  fear least he be grown unto a kind of atheism, a thing most dangerous to them that shall live with him.]

Moreover, I am right well assured, that those honourable personages who wish us to live again together do conceive some hope of Mr Bourne’s amendment: which, upon consideration of these reasons ensuing, may worthily be despaired:

1. First, the stinging of the bee mends the sweetness of honey; roses best refresh our senses when we prick our hands to reach them; he that cracks the nut, thinks the kernel sweetest: the reason is, not for that the goodness of a thing is better for the evil thereunto belonging, but for that the remembrance of the evil maketh us hold the good  in more reputation, especially in love. The affection of Mr Bourne towards his Mrs Pagnam, and hers towards him, hath been begun with both their open shame, and namely her divorce from her husband; nourished with expense and charges on his part, even to his utter undoing, and therefore, as he also hath protested, since she hath left her husband for him, he means to hazard the loss of his wife for her, and never to leave her during life; whose little finger he more esteemeth than my whole body; so easily did he [compass?] me, and her so hardly.

2. Secondly, as it fareth with diseases in the body, so it is with the infections of the mind. We see in daily experience that a little rottenness in any part of the body, if it be not presently removed, it will daily increase and [relieve?] itself more and more til the whole body be infected and the disease become incurable; even so sin once crept into the mind of man, and finding itself cherished for a long time without controlment, dispossesseth the mind of all reason whereby to master it, and maketh the man senseless that he may not perceive it. So little hope is there of Mr Bourne’s amendment, whose adultery for these 16 years hath continually increased.

3. Thirdly, as they that angle for the tortoise, having once caught him, are driven into such a bitterness, that they lose all their spirits, being benumbed, so they that once take hold of wanton love to abandon their bodies to divers harlots, as Mr Bourne hath done, are driven into such a [trance?] that they let go the hold of their liberty, bewitched like those that view the head of Medusa, or like the viper tied to the bough of the beech tree, which keepeth him in a dead sleep, though it begin with a sweet slumber. So deadly asleep is Mr Bourne in his cursed and wanton love, being tied to his Mrs Pagnam. [fol. 23d]

4. Fourthly, if there were any hope of amendment in Mr Bourne, it would have appeared in his careful withdrawing of himself from his harlot since the time of his fained desire to live again with me, but he hath in this meanwhile, as before, frequented her company and with solemn oaths protested both his [sound?] love towards her and his corrupt affection towards me. Whereupon I conclude that vile and wanton love as a sweet venom hath taken such deep root in his heart that he still meaneth to delight therein, because it seemeth sweet, and it will still more and more infect his senseless soul, unless God vouchsafe him such grace and favour as may conduct him to true repentance.

[In margin: Fifthly, his own confession that five score [women?]  would not serve him a year if it should be with such a moyle as I doth sufficiently prove the little hope of his amendment, albeit I should add no further proof thereto.]

All which considered, first the law which granted unto me a divorce from him for his notorious adultery; secondly, the danger of the disease, which in likelihood his women have bestowed upon him; thirdly, the vileness of his sin; fourthly, his hard estate being excommunicated (if not yet by course of law, yet by desert) and remaining unrepentant; fifthly, his 6 years absence from me and wilful refusal to dwell with me; sixthly, the bitter debate between us two for want of love, if we do live together; seventhly, the [vainness?] of this example, that we two should rejoin in marriage since neither of us doth love the other, he willfully renouncing me and I upon just cause refusing him; [inserted text?] the small hope of his amendment, first by reason of his exceeding and constant love to her upon whom he hath consumed his wit and treasure, secondly, because his disease through length is become either altogether or well night incurable; thirdly, because he is become dead in sin; and fourthly, for that having once or twice or oftener presenting his meaning to repent him of his evils, here nothwithstanding still continueth and runneth on headlong in as great misliking of me or liking of his Mrs Pagnam as ever he did before. [Marginal insertion: Lastly, his own confession that five score (women?) would not serve him a year if he should live with me]  I am persuaded in conscience that I may lawfully deny to live with him, who hath defiled his body and soul with so manifest adulteries.

Now it remaineth that I briefly set down the reasons and considerations which move me not to consent to live with him, in regard of that fear which I stand in of my life.

The reasons and considerations drawn from his tyrannous speeches and deeds which persuade me not to dwell with him:

  1. First, the laws now in use and practice in England in cases of matrimony and divorces do grant me a divorce from him for the great cruelty which he hath practiced against me by word and deed, as shall appear more particularly in that which followeth. [fol. 24]
  2. Secondly, he hath sworn with solemn oaths that he would tear the skin off my back and, if he might not, then that he would blow up me and my house with gunpowder, but he would be revenged and rid of me; that it had been the heaviest burden of his to conceal his secret hate of me from the first day he married me; and therefore he would be rid of me or it should cost him the hazard of his work; that he would give an ill person five hundred pounds to give me an Italian fig; that he would never be quiet nor his conscience satisfied until he had killed me for a whore; these things and others being done, he swore he should have a quiet conscience and never afore. And these all he swore he would do, what time torment or dissimulation soever he should be urged to abide and suffer. All which threatening speeches, confirmed with solemn oaths, makes me assure myself of death through his means if once by consenting to live with […?] to exercise on me his purpose, malice and bloody cruelty. Neither can I afford my self of safety upon any bond or oath of his whatsoever, for either he hath sworn truly […?] protestations that he would kill me or otherwise cause me to be made away, and then meaneth to omit no means whereby to perform the same or else he is wilfully and solemnly [perjured?]; if so, then what credit may be given in a matter of so great importance unto him or trust to his bond, who hath so often committed wilful perjury? For he hath ever solemnly sworn my death since the time that he hath feined a desire to live with me.

3.  [In margin: Whereby appeareth my danger to live with Mr Bourne, who hath both threatened and assayed to kill and murder me.] Thirdly, he did himself once offer the terror of his dagger, from which my father Sir James Mervyn saved me at that time, or else, no doubt, he had sped me to his desire. Also in March in the 19th year of her Majesty’s reign, he went away with Mrs Pagnam and left me comfortless alone, without compassions of my sorrows in despair of my life, by reason whereof I became big swollen; such was my state, not able to go without a staff, and of small hope for the physicians assured me, that I had received some ill thing in my meat or drink. Out of which two points, I conceive this much: first, the laws will, that the purpose to [?] made manifest by some open attempt, be no less punished, then the effect, itself already executed, for as I am not to esteem him the [?? a couple of lines, difficult to read] who practiced my death continually, albeit he be not able to [?] the same. Secondly, in all probability it is true, albeit expressly I cannot charge him, that Mr Bourne either himself gave me some venomous thing before his departure from me or else left some other to perform the same, for he threatened it before and departed from me in great displeasure; which  two considerations the rather inform the same. [fol. 24d]

4. Fourthly, Mr Bourne sent an ill man, who had been burnt in the hand, out of France to my house; he came to Chipping Norton, and there used such speeches and behaviours with my servants as do yield a vehement presumption that he came to do me some mischief. What his speeches and behaviours were is expressed in the 2 part of the griefs before mentioned. Wherefore since Mr Bourne hath not only by [injurious?] speeches sought my utter discredit and by tyrannous words threatened to kill me, but also hath practiced the same both by himself and others; since the law doth grant me for the same a divorce from him, to the end I may live in better safety and assurance of my life; I can not without extreme folly refuse this lawful means to be in less danger of his bloody practices against my life, nor [‘consent’ scratched out; ‘condescend’] to live with him, who I have descried to be my mortal enemy, unless I would myself consent to mine own death and utter ruin.

[In margin: Fifthly, he hath done what he could to bring my name and honesty in question, to make me infamous through the world, to have my children as bastards dispossessed of their lawful inheritance; the which what injury may be greater or hate more perfect, I can not [possibly?] imagine.]

To conclude, as there is no sound reason in my judgement (under the correction of my betters) that may lead me to consent to dwell with Mr Bourne, so are the considerations many and grounded  upon law and reason, which dissuade me from the same.’


[1] This name might be familiar to some readers. Indeed, members of Elizabeth Bourne’s extended family would have more infamous marital disputes than hers. Two children of her sister Lucy had sagas of their own, one with a moderately happy ending but the other emphatically not: as a sixteen-year old, Maria Touchet entered into a clandestine marriage with Thomas Thynne, of a similar age, which his parents fought for years to have annulled, a case discussed in A.D. Wall’s “For Love, Money or Politics? A Clandestine Marriage and the Elizabethan Court of Arches,” Historical Journal 38 (1995), 511-33. Lucy’s son Mervyn Touchet later became Earl of Castlehaven, and later still was convicted and executed for rape and sodomy, a case that became popularly notorious (for obvious reasons) and legally significant in establishing a precedent for allowing an injured wife to testify against her husband. Cynthia Herrup has dissected this case and its significance to telling effect in A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven (Oxford, 2001).

[2] Lamar Hill, “The Privy Council and Private Morality in the Reign of Elizabeth I,” State, Sovereigns & Society in Early Modern England, ed. Charles Carlton et al (Stroud, 1998), p. 213.

[3] James Daybell, “Elizabeth Bourne (fl. 1570s-1580s): A New Elizabethan Woman Poet,” Notes & Queries 52.2 (2005), 176.


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