Career wives or wicked stepmothers?

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Volume 17

Lucas de Heere’s watercolour of townswomen (‘Femme et fille Irlandaises’) c. 1547. (Central Bibliotheek, Rijksuniversiteit, Ghent)

Lucas de Heere’s watercolour of townswomen (‘Femme et fille Irlandaises’) c. 1547. (Central Bibliotheek, Rijksuniversiteit, Ghent)

Arranged marriage alliances were a very important feature of life in the Pale in early modern Ireland. Rather than springing from emotional attachment, marriage among the gentry and nobility was normally viewed as a contract fostering mutually beneficial alliances between the families involved. A marriage had to be advantageous to both families and was normally contracted to consolidate land holdings or to increase wealth. It was also possible, through marrying into nobility, to receive a title or to curry favour with the Crown. So choosing a suitable spouse was obviously a very important task and not one that could be undertaken lightly. The six marriages of Jenet Sarsfield, a member of a Pale merchant family, brought her further into the upper echelons of Pale society and, along the way, into confrontation with one of her stepchildren. Her marriages and those of her fourth husband, Sir Thomas Cusack, who experienced his own set of marital problems, serve as a useful template for the discussion of just what those who brokered marriage alliances wished to achieve, as well as some of the problems that they could encounter along the way.

Thomas Cusack’s tangled marriage history

Thomas had been made lord chancellor of Ireland in 1550 and was an influential political figure in the Pale. Born around 1505, Cusack was in his mid-fifties when he married Jenet, who was probably in her late twenties or early thirties at this time. Financial comfort was obviously a major consideration for people who married in the early modern period, and the marriage between Thomas and Jenet, which was childless, is a perfect example. When Cusack married Jenet, the financial implications of the match were made perfectly clear. In a feoffment dated 2 November 1564, Thomas settled lands upon her ‘in consideration of the preferment that I the said Sir Thomas had with Dame Genet Sarsfield in maryadge and in consideration of dyvers great sums of money that the said Jenett laid out and paid for such debts as I did owe to the Queenes majesty and others, and for dyvers other good considerations and profitable things by her extended to mine use’.
Cusack also experienced his own share of marital woes, which he attempted to obscure as much as possible. In his will, he refers to Maud Darcy, who predeceased him, as his first wife, but this was not actually the case. His first wife was in fact Joan Hussey, with whom he had three children. Thomas later applied for a divorce from Joan on grounds of consanguinity (they were third cousins), which was granted in 1537. Interestingly, Cusack was accused in 1547 of persuading a servant of his to ‘enter into familiaritie with his wif [Joan Hussey] whereupon he had a divorse betwixt him and hir: and soone upon married the late wife of the baron of Skeyne [Maud Darcy]’. This accusation, however, was part of a series of allegations designed to smear Lord Deputy Anthony St Leger and his followers, so it should not necessarily be taken at face value. Although lessened from seven degrees of blood relationship to four in 1215, the laws of consanguinity and marriage relations were still strict in the sixteenth century. If a man had had sexual relations with a woman, he could not then marry her sister, first, second or third cousin. Nor, through bonds of spiritual affinity, could a widower marry the godmother of his children or vice versa.

Section of Thomas Cusack’s funerary monument, now in Tara Church, Co. Meath, showing Cusack, his second wife Maud Darcy, and their thirteen children. Elsewhere it has the coats of arms of the Cusacks, Darcys and Sarsfields (family of his third wife, Jenet) but no reference to his first wife, Joan Hussey, or her family. (Julian Thomas/OPW)

Section of Thomas Cusack’s funerary monument, now in Tara Church, Co. Meath, showing Cusack, his second wife Maud Darcy, and their thirteen children. Elsewhere it has the coats of arms of the Cusacks, Darcys and Sarsfields (family of his third wife, Jenet) but no reference to his first wife, Joan Hussey, or her family. (Julian Thomas/OPW)

‘Table of kindred and affinity’

Thomas and Joan were not the only couple to ignore these regulations in early modern Ireland. The Elizabethan church set forth its ‘table of kindred and affinity’ in 1563, requiring every church to carry a copy, which they often failed to do, indicating the continuing levels of confusion regarding consanguinity. Commenting in 1584, Richard Stanihurst noted that the native Irish were only then beginning to take notice of the marriage laws regarding consanguinity. As Thomas Cusack and Joan Hussey were probably always aware of their close blood relationship, it is difficult to understand why they had married in the first place. Claiming that their original marriage was invalid, however, was not an uncommon tactic utilised by estranged marriage partners who wished to remarry.
The Reformation brought some changes in marriage laws in Ireland. The Irish parliament of 1540–1 passed the ‘Act for marriages’, which decreed that from 1 July 1540 a solemnised and consummated marriage should supersede an unsolemnised and unconsummated prior contract. This was to safeguard against marriages agreed by oral contracts (often used by men attempting to satisfy their immediate carnal desires). The law was repealed in 1549 on the grounds that it instead encouraged people to break contracts in order to consummate their relationships.
Joan Hussey remarried after her divorce from Cusack, and, describing her as ‘sometime my wife’, Thomas left money for her in his will in return for goods that he had received on her behalf, possibly her dowry. The likelihood of an acrimonious split is supported by Cusack’s funerary monument, which only contains the coats of arms of the Cusack, Darcy and Sarsfield families, with no reference to his union with Joan and the Hussey family. The denial and admission in his will of his first marriage also illustrates Cusack’s own ambivalence regarding the failed union. This invalidated marriage continued to cause difficulties for Cusack’s heirs into the 1630s, when a great-nephew of Thomas, one John Cusack, petitioned for Thomas’s estates on the grounds that Thomas’s children with Maud (there were thirteen) were illegitimate, as his separation from Joan had been unlawful. John even alleged that Thomas himself had destroyed the dispensation document in an attempt to hide this accusation. Although John’s litigation ended in failure, it is indicative of the problems that beset the families of those affected by divorce, even 100 years after the fact!
Few marital breakdowns in Tudor Ireland, however, were as scandalous as that of Cusack’s second wife, Maud Darcy. Rumours spread of Maud’s involvement in the death of her first husband, James Marwarde, baron of Scryne, in September 1534. It was alleged that Maud Darcy had Marwarde murdered by Richard Fitzgerald, whom she subsequently married. Fitzgerald, however, was later attainted and executed for his role in Kildare’s rebellion, after which Maud quickly married Cusack. Maud’s extramarital affair was not the only one to end in bloodshed in Ireland’s early modern period. Nicholas Eismonde from Wexford was pardoned in 1557 ‘for the manslaughter of Richard Eismonde, gent., whom he had found in criminal conversation with his wife and who was endeavouring to escape from the house by force’. These notorious cases were very much the exception, however, which merely heightened the sense of scandal when they did occur.

Archetypical wicked stepmother?


Despite precautions taken by Thomas to prevent such an occurrence, litigation between his children and his widow broke out after his death. To Thomas’s son, Edward Cusack, Jenet Sarsfield must have seemed like the archetypical wicked stepmother. For her part, Jenet obviously viewed her string of spouses as career moves—marrying was her profession, and she did it for financial gain. It seems that there had been tension between Jenet and Edward even before Thomas died, and upon the death in 1571 of his father, Edward became embroiled in bitter legal disputes with his stepmother over the conditions of the will. Thomas had obviously envisaged trouble between both parties upon his death and stated that ‘if he [Edward] objects to these arrangements he is to have none of the goods but only land to the value of 200 m.p.a.’. Jenet, on the other hand, was to benefit financially from any such protest that Edward was to make.
Nevertheless, Edward was determined to cause problems for his stepmother and claim what he saw as rightfully his. Jenet was left many of Cusack’s personal effects, as well as the nunnery of Lismullin, which came into Thomas’s hands in the early 1540s following the monastic dissolutions some years earlier. Edward broke into the house while Jenet was away and stole some items, along with 125 cattle. As a result of his actions, Jenet sued him in chancery, provoking Edward to retaliate in kind. Jenet further alleged that Edward ‘ran away with the said will [of Thomas] and being pursued did cast the same in a field of corn’. He later retrieved the will and ‘blotted it in sixteen several places’ in an attempt to destroy its more contentious passages. Despite his protests to the contrary, Edward was found guilty of stealing a casket of jewels and, unable to pay the damages that he owed to his stepmother, was forced to return the jewels that he had earlier sworn he had not stolen from her. It was discovered later, however, that the jewels had been willed by Edward’s mother, Maud, to her children, who had never received them, so it seems that Edward was merely retrieving what was rightfully his and had been withheld from him by Jenet.
By December 1573 Edward had obtained a chancery decree against Jenet and her new husband, John Plunkett, ordering them to hand over to him the manor of Lismullin and its profits since Thomas’s death. This was not the end of litigation between the parties, however, and during 1579–80 Edward once again sued Jenet and John Plunkett. It was at this time, while in England, that Edward sent a genealogical account of Jenet’s relationships with important personages in the Pale to William Cecil, secretary to Elizabeth I, in the hope of settling the dispute in his favour. This letter demonstrates quite clearly how many of the important Pale families were interrelated. If you opposed one, as Edward did, you were in danger of pitting yourself against some of the most powerful families in the Pale. Although Janet eventually vacated the manor, she allegedly ransacked it of most of its possessions, destroyed the orchards and brought with her the title-deeds that should have been left in Edward’s possession. Edward then sought to retrieve the title-deeds and compensation for his losses, but his involvement in the Nugent conspiracy of the early 1580s seems to have brought his lawsuit to a halt.
Although Jenet was left most of Thomas’s wealth, widows were legally only supposed to get one third of their husband’s income (the ‘widow’s third’). The large amount bequeathed to Jenet by Thomas was therefore one of the probable reasons why Edward was so unhappy. The third due to the widow rose to half if there were no children or if the children had already been ‘preferred’, i.e. taken care of financially. A widow had common law right of dower for her life in a third of her husband’s lands, but this right was increasingly waived in favour of a settled jointure. Not everyone was happy with the ‘widow’s third’, however, and one John Burnell neatly sidestepped this obligation. He paid his widowed stepmother, Joan Talbot, full rent from some of his lands once every three years; this meant that for the other two years he had full access to the rent due from the property. It also meant that John only had to pay her once every three years, and not at all if she remarried or died during this three-year period, an arrangement that was highly satisfactory for John but disadvantageous for Joan. This example illustrates how some exploited loopholes in the system to their own benefit and to the detriment of some widows.

Personal rivalries and animosities

When Jenet eventually died in February 1598 she was commemorated as ‘Lady Dowager’, a title to which she was entitled through her marriage to Lord Dunsany and which she used throughout her life. Moreover, Jenet was buried alone, not with Robert Schillingford or Dunsany, who had given her a daughter and a title respectively; Clodagh Tait has suggested that her long career as a wife entitled her to this privilege, and her solitary interment does seem to indicate an unusual degree of autonomy.
By and large, it appears that their parents and guardians often used sons and daughters to further their family’s prospects and social standing. Once made, these ties were normally strong, and rarely broken. Disputes such as those between Jenet Sarsfield and her stepson Edward, however, illustrate the difficulties facing those individuals who, through numerous tactical marriages, strove to improve their financial and social positions. As so many Pale families were connected through marriage, it was inevitable that personal rivalries and animosities could have repercussions for all the families involved. The ambiguous legal and social position held by some whose marriages ended in separation must have made them rue their wedding day, and the scandal and intrigue that went hand in hand with extramarital affairs would have put a great strain on many interfamilial relationships. Sometimes marriage caused as many problems as it was deemed to solve. HI

Brendan Scott is editor of Breifne, journal of the Breifne Historical Society.

Further reading:

H. Galley, ‘The Cusack family of Counties Meath and Dublin’, The Irish Genealogist 5 (6) (1979), 673–84.

M. McCurtain, ‘Marriage in Tudor Ireland’, in A. Cosgrove (ed.), Marriage in Ireland (Dublin, 1985), 51–66.

C. Margin, ‘A window on mid-Tudor Ireland: the “matters” against Lord Deputy St Leger, 1547–8’, Historical Research 78 (202) (2005), 465–82.

C. Tait, Death, burial and commemoration in Ireland, 1550–1650 (Basingstoke, 2002).


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