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Saturday, 16 January 2010

Til death do us part.

Effigy of Sir Ralph Sadleir

I related the extraordinary story of how the father of an elderly neighbour, had left England under a cloud in the 1930s. (The British Library Volume II ). She did not know it at the time, as her father had severed all ties with his English family, but he had gone on to remarry and raise a second family in the United States. In time he vanished from their lives too, at which point he decided to re-establish contact with his family back in England. Whilst he was alive, neither family knew of the existence of the other. It was only after she had been surfing the internet to discover more about her family tree, that my neighbour unearthed the truth. Although she was able to correspond for a while with the children of her half-siblings, eventually the Americans stopped writing altogether. Several of them had forged prominent careers in the US armed services. It might have dawned on them that they did not relish the prospect of being associated with a grandfather, who had appeared in court on child abuse charges, although he was later exonerated, and had probably bigamously married their grandmother, who he had later abandoned.

The story of a man abandoning his family, leaving his spouse forever unsure as to whether she is a wife or a widow, resonates down the centuries. A favourite film of mine from the 1980s is “Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982), in which Gérard Depardieu plays the eponymous hero, who returns to his village a changed man, after having being away fighting as a soldier for years. Gradually suspicions emerge as to his true identity, culminating in a trial to establish once and for all whether or not he is indeed Martin Guerre. One of my favourite scenes from the film occurs at the very beginning. In an unrelated incident, (other than it is witnessed by the presiding judge of a trial occurring later in the film) a condemned man is on the gallows awaiting execution for crimes of a sexual natural. Alongside him is his accomplice, a donkey, who has also been sentenced to death for bestiality. Just as the hangman is about to affix the noose around the man’s neck, a horseman gallops into view. He is allowed to pass through the watching multitude as he carries a letter of pardon. The officials read it and allow the reprieved and wholly exonerated prisoner to be released and escorted off the scaffold. They then proceed to execute the man.

In his film “The Hour of the Pig” Colin Firth plays a lawyer in medieval France, who is called on to defend a pig accused of murder. Despite many difficulties he manages to temporarily save the pig’s bacon, although the pig’s owners only want it saved so it can be eaten. If the pig is found guilty of murder, then its flesh would be consumed by fire and turned to ashes as part of the judicial punishment. This quirky little film was made just a few years before Colin Firth emerged soaking wet from his lake at Pemberley. Robed in the less than flattering clothes of the medieval period, compared to those of the more dashing Fitzwilliam Darcy, Colin Firth nevertheless cuts a very sexy figure, especially when he throws his garments aside, as he is wont to do with some alacrity.

In his novel, “Le Colonel Chabert” Honoré de Balzac wrote his own version of a supposedly dead man returning to his wife, who has remarried and had children in the intervening period. She faces social ruin if the Colonel’s claims were to be proved true as her second husband threatens to repudiate her and their children if she was not really a widow when she married him. This too was made into a film starring the seemingly ubiquitous (in terms of French cinema of the time) Gérard Depardieu. His wife was played by the French actress Fanny Ardant. Mandip was much struck by my apparent resemblance to the lead actress. So I was not best pleased when one reviewer recently compared Ardant to a beautiful Colonel Gaddafi! Fanny Ardant also played Mary of Guise in the Cate Blanchette film “Elizabeth. “ As mother of Mary Queen of Scots, who went on to marry Lord Darnley, Mary of Guise would have been related by marriage to Darnley’s mother, the Countess of Lennox, who later died at Brooke House in Hackney.(“Pastime with good company,” 15th January 2010). Neither was to know it, but an earlier resident of Hackney played a key role in the fate of their daughter and daughter-in-law respectively. Ralph Sadlier’s final public duty was to act as one of the judges at the trial of Mary Queen of Scots in 1586.

Ralph Sadlier had little time for the Scots even those of royal lineage. When he was sent as ambassador to Scotland in 1544 he was not impressed by the locals and wrote: ”Under the sun live not more beastly and unreasonable people than be here”. He might have amended that when he discovered that the supposedly dead husband of his wife, Helen Barre, had suddenly turned up very much alive and seemingly bent on making a nuisance of himself.

When Ralph Sadlier first met Helen Barre, he might well have thought it advantageous to align himself with a cousin of his powerful political master, Thomas Cromwell, who was then the chief minister of Henry VIII. Helen Barre must have been equally delighted at the prospect of marrying a courtier, whose star was clearly in the ascendancy. Furthermore, having been deserted along with her two young children by a first husband, subsequently presumed to have died in Ireland, she brought little in the way of a dowry to make her an attractive proposition for a potential spouse.

It was widely believed that Mary Queen of Scots conspired in the death of her troublesome second husband, Lord Darnley in 1567, leaving her free to marry her lover, Lord Bothwell, some 3 months later. Ralph Sadleir did not resort to such drastic measures when Helen Barre’s first husband reappeared in her life in 1544. By that time the mansion at Hackney, Sutton House,  was home to Ralph Sadleir’s growing family of 7 children. All would have been declared illegitimate if Ralph’s marriage was found to be invalid. At that point, he had been knighted and was a prominent member of Henry’s council of state. He could have allowed the law to take its course and walk away from Helen and their children and been free to marry some heiress. There are various possibilities as to why he did not choose to do this. He knew all too well the vicissitudes of personal fortune. He had seen how Helen’s cousin, Thomas Cromwell, once the most powerful man under the King, suffered a traitor’s death at Tyburn. Despite being made Earl of Essex, the humble origins of a commoner like Thomas Cromwell meant he would never be afforded the aristocratic privilege of being beheaded on Tower Hill. Ralph himself had been sent in chains to the Tower in the turmoil following Cromwell’s downfall. His wife had stayed loyal to him then and he stayed loyal to her now. Somehow he was able to secure a special Act of Parliament annulling Helen’s first marriage. That would have meant the children of her second marriage to him were spared the shame of illegitimacy. By contrast, I wonder what the consequences were for the children of Helen’s first marriage.

The last time I visited Finland in summer I stayed with relatives. One family had a three year old daughter. I knew I would never be able to understand what she said or vice versa. Consequently, when I went into the sitting room where she was playing on the carpet with a pile of toys, I plonked myself in the corner and played with her toy garage. Eventually she came over to join me. I asked her mother if her daughter could have some of the white organic chocolate in my handbag. The mother agreed to her daughter’s delight. Some time later, I discovered from her grandmother that the little girl had been taken ill and was been rushed to hospital. Fortunately she made a full recovery but had been asking for Tallow. Apparently that was how she pronounced my name. When her grandmother asked her to tell her more about “Tallow”, her granddaughter described me as being “the other little girl.” Being well over six feet tall in high heels, it is a long time since anyone has described me as a little girl. Still, I am not averse to playing with objects meant for children on occasion. Thus, I was happy to see that Sutton House had an oak chest full of Tudor hats and headdresses to try on in the panelled parlour as well as glove puppets of Tudor characters such as Henry VIII. The man’s velvet cap was too small for me but the padded lady’s headdress fitted perfectly. I wonder if Ralph Sadlier’s children had as much fun playing with the toys in Sutton House as I did.

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