Star Chamber as a Marriage Court

Posted by Krista Kesselring, 11 November 2019.

The early modern Court of Star Chamber lives on in some popular historical accounts as an engine of despotic tyranny, a sham court that censored opposition and curtailed religious dissent in the years preceding the civil wars of the 1640s. Some academic historians have moderated this view even while others turned to the court’s records for evidence of social conflict as played out in the many riotous disputes of the era. In this post I want to suggest that we might also turn to its archive for evidence of conflicts in and around marriages. Ostensibly, Star Chamber did not hear marriage cases. But it did hear charges of perjury, conspiracy, fraud, and such like, and thus became a venue for marital disputes in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, supplementing the services of the church courts.

Star Chamber’s archive is incredibly rich, but its cataloguing is still a work in progress. buxom1Helen Good has valiantly been creating access points for the records from Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Meanwhile, Amanda Bevan, Megan Johnston, and the team at the National Archives have recently revisited the files from King James’s reign and made significant improvements to their indexes. In so doing, they’ve made it easier to find some of the court’s rather remarkable records relating to marriage.

A couple examples to illustrate, both of which speak to the ways people might have tried to get around the prohibition of divorce-with-remarriage in early modern English law:

Calling herself the ‘distressed widow of Sir Edward Torbock’, a woman named Clemence petitioned King James for aid in 1619: her husband’s death while imprisoned for debt had left her in great need, she wrote.[1] Edward Torbock would likely have been apoplectic with indignant rage had he known of her suit. The debt for which he went to prison derived from a payment that a church court had ordered him to make to Clemence upon their separation, despite his assertions that they had never properly wed in the first place. Before his death, Edward had filed a suit in the Court of Star Chamber against Clemence Pottle, alias Scarborough, alias Canning, but emphatically not, he argued, Clemence Torbock.

According to the story he told in 1614, almost twenty years earlier Clemence had married a man called William Scarborough in the parish church of St Sepulchre, near Newgate. William went to sea and in time, Clemence took him for dead—or at least portrayed him as such. Presenting herself as a virtuous widow, she then married George Canning, ‘a gentleman of good worth’, in 1599 at St Mary Overy in Southwark. Canning soon heard rumours of Scarborough’s reappearance, though. Upon inquiries in Plymouth, he found Clemence’s first husband and brought him to London to confront her. She initially tried to deny Scarborough’s identity, but to no avail: Canning left her, but did so quietly to avoid shaming both himself and her.

lovers knot

Clemence moved to another part of London and there presented herself as the Widow Canning, an honest, wealthy, and ‘free woman’. Sir Edward Torbock began to court her, but ‘she, being a woman endowed with a singular good wit, seemed then in no wise disposed to marriage nor willing to hear talk of any such motions, being a woman dedicated to single life’. In his later complaint to Star Chamber’s judges, Torbock portrayed her delaying as a lure to ensnare him more completely, though she may, of course, have had qualms about marrying again given her complicated marital history to date.


In time, Clemence and a lawyer friend thought they found a solution that would allow her to marry Torbock legally: they would use the fact of the first marriage to Scarborough to void the second, supposed marriage to Canning, and then have the first one annulled on forged evidence that Scarborough had been pre-contracted to another woman before his marriage with Clemence.  It was a cunning plan, and helped by William Scarborough’s desperation. He was once again back from service at sea, but now with an injured leg, desperately poor and unable to care for himself. A ‘simple man pressed with misery’ and wanting a cure to ‘loose his leg’, Scarborough yielded to the prosecution in the Canterbury church court to annul his marriage with Clemence. weddingcAt that point, Clemence accepted Torbock’s proposal and the two wed, though evidently not to live happily ever after.

When Edward learned of his wife’s marital history, he baulked – but too late. A case in the ecclesiastical Court of Audience in April 1611 allowed him to separate from Clemence, but not, of course, to divorce her and to remarry. The church court’s officials recognized the legitimacy and hence indissolubility of Edward’s marriage to Clemence, and demanded that he pay her support. In desperation, then, he turned to another court – the Court of Star Chamber.[2]

We don’t know from the Star Chamber file itself how the case turned out – though from her later petition, it seems that Clemence kept her claim on Edward’s financial support. Nor can we know how much of Edward Torbock’s story to credit as true, at least not without more digging around the edges. But the file itself presents a tantalizing tale of how people might just try to subvert the law’s restrictions on marriage and divorce.

Quite aside from the cases specifically centered on marriage disputes, Star Chamber’s archive contains others with stories ancillary to the main complaint, raised in efforts to discredit an opponent. Here’s another brought to light by the new indexing efforts:

In 1610, Thomas Knollis, rector of Withington, filed a bill to complain of slanderous libels made against him and his wife. In the course of a long litany of complaints and disparagements of his enemies, he referred to one Richard Caffold and his two wives, Eleanor and Judith. pub1According to Knollis’s narration, Richard Caffold, Eleanor, and Judith met up in a pub with John Hawkins and his wife Margaret, and one Stephens. They brought with them Thomas Rich, a man with legal training, to help them effect an elaborate spouse swap. Eleanor would leave Richard and live with John Hawkins; Margaret would leave John and live with Stephens. And Richard would live with his new wife Judith (in an alehouse called the Church House, no less). Richard agreed to pay John three pounds to cement the agreement – as an early version of the latterly more (in)famous ‘wife sales’? – and they mutually pledged never to claim each other’s new partner as their own. They performed a ceremony of their own devising to mark the informal divorce, calling for the former couples to break apart a silver two penny piece: ‘in token and signification of a perpetual and final separation of the one from the other and that as by a ring they were joined and united together in matrimony, so by breaking in sunder of the said two penny piece they should be disjoined and separated the one from the other’. They assured themselves and anyone who asked that the exchanges would hold good at law, as a counsellor with legal training had supervised the separations. [3]

cheat3It’s a remarkable tale. Of course, it was told by someone who sought to discredit and disparage the men, someone caught up in a bitter local feud with them and who was himself accused of various sexual failings. Maybe this illicit, marriage-and-penny-breaking ceremony didn’t occur at all. But if nothing else, it’s at least an interesting imagining of how such a self-divorce might have happened. These sorts of cases can provide a wealth of incidental details on the attitudes,  assumptions, and normative expectations that shaped early modern marriages.

Two points by way of conclusion: One, historians interested in marriage in the early modern period will find fresh evidence in Star Chamber’s files — and historians interested in Star Chamber will find themselves studying a court that dealt with marriage, alongside the better-known cases of riot, libel, and all the rest. Two, collaborations between archivists, historians, and other scholars have the potential to turn up ‘lost’ gems that have been there all along, even in well-mined seams. With recent news that Daniel Gosling, Katie Bridger, and others at the National Archives are revisiting the indexing of Star Chamber’s files for earlier reigns, we can look forward to new insights into both the court and the messy moments of everyday life that so many people brought before it.


Images are taken from the English Broadside Ballad Archive, ed. Patricia Fumerton:

Cheat upon Cheat, or, The Debaucht Hypocrite (EBBA 35089); A Weeks Loving, Wooing, and Wedding (EBBA 33588); The Loyal Lovers Farewell (EBBA 35239); and The True Lovers Knot Untied (EBBA 37021).

The cover image is a detail from Braun and Hogenberg’s 1572 map of London, courtesy Wikimedia images.


[1] The National Archives [TNA], Discovery summary of Lancashire Archives, DDM 48/101.

[2] TNA, STAC 8/279/12. My thanks to Amanda Bevan for this reference. Amanda Bevan and Megan Johnston have re-revisited Thomas Garden Barnes’s index of the Jacobean Star Chamber files and updated the entries in the online Discovery catalogue accordingly.  This case had previously been tagged as one involving perjury, conspiracy, etc., and thus might not have been found by anyone looking for marriage cases.

[3] TNA, STAC 8/193/2 (my thanks to Amanda Bevan for bringing this case to my attention, too); see also STAC 8/190/34, a second, more streamlined version of the bill that focuses only on the main complaint and omits much of the secondary, disparaging material.

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