Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The real Romeo and Juliet

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Maria Thynne, nee Touchet
Maria Touchet married Thomas Thynne in spring 1594 in a secret wedding ceremony at the Bell Inn in Beaconsfield, they were sixteen years old and had to keep their marriage a secret from everyone as their families - the Thynnes and Maria's maternal family of the Mervyns - had a long standing feud against each other. 

Maria Touchet (1578-1611) was the daughter of George Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven (1550-1617) and Lucy Mervyn (died 1611). Lucy Mervyn was the daughter and only heir of James Mervyn (1529-1611) and his wife Amy Clark. 
Thomas Thynne (1578-1639) was the son of Sir John Thynne (1555-1604) and Joan Hayward (1559-1612). 

John Thynne and Sir James Mervyn were enemies in a lifelong feud which came about due to their politics. The feud started in 1575 and continued for decades; taking place within the confines of the courts of government as well as street violence between groups of the opponents supporters at places such as Marlborough and Salisbury, in which several men suffered injuries. The actual root of the dispute may be traced to a betrothal of marriage between Lucy Mervyn and John Thynne (the mother of the future bride and father of the future groom) that had been cancelled in winter 1574 due to opposition from the Thynne family, in particular from Sir Thomas Gresham who was John Thynne's uncle, which greatly offended the Mervyns.
In terms of allies, the Mervyns had Sir John Danvers and his two sons Charles and Henry, while the Thynnes had John Thynne's brother-in-law Sir Walter Long and his brother Henry Long, as well as Sir Henry Knyvett although he acted as more of a mediator rather than stand strongly on one side. The feud was at its peak around 1590; in September 1589 there was a physical assault between supporters of the two families at Hindon, which Thynne was summoned before the Council for in November, at this time Mervyn also brought a legal charge against Thynne in the Star Chamber. The situation only worsened when Henry Long was publicly murdered - this took place after the marriage of the young couple but before they were discovered, and would only discourage them from revealing the situation to the families. 

Thomes Thynne was in his second year of studying at Corpus Christi College at Oxford, when on the Thursday of Whitsun week he went with two friends to a supper held by some members of the Mervyn family at the Bell Inn in Beaconsfield, which was on the road towards London. It was this evening that Thomas met Maria Touchet for the first time and it appears to have been love at first sight. Thomas had dark hair, a long face, full lips and strong features with a romantic nature, while Maria was dark haired and had a lively personality. The two teenagers spent the evening together eating, drinking, talking and presumably flirting, at one point it is thought that Maria's mother Lucy put it to them to marry that night if they liked each other so strongly, an idea which they jumped upon. Later that evening, the couple went upstairs to a room at the inn and was clandestinely married by a Father Welles, the only witness and only person who knew about the teenagers becoming a couple, was Maria's mother Lucy Touchet. Lucy Touchet had long been tired of the feud between the two families and wanted an end to it; therefore it could be argued that she planned for the two youngsters to meet, as it has been suggested that she provided the couple with fresh bedding for the wedding night as the reputation of the cleanliness of inns was not high. It could be argued that Lucy sought to intervene at this time with arranging for the couple to meet as her daughter Maria had a suitor at court, a high born Mr Manners - Maria, or her sons, would eventually become the heirs of the Mervyn estate at Fountell and so had a valuable bargaining chip when it came to dowries and securing a husband. After spending the night together, come the morning the couple were separated in order to keep their secret, although messages were passed between them frequently. 

When the marriage was discovered, it was the Thynne family who was the most outraged by it. Thomas was the family's heir and as such they had hoped for an advantageous marriage for him that would bring with it a large dowry, whereas with this clandestine marriage there was no dowry and above all, it was to the daughter of their enemy. This marriage would mean that the two families would now be closely connected and could bring a reconciliation between them; something that the Thynnes were not happy about as they had  spent more time and effort into prosecuting the Mervyns in the courts. 

The marriage was not discovered until April 1595, and from 1597 until 1601, John Thynne tried to get his son's marriage annulled, however the young couple and the Touchet family fought against him to keep it declared legal and valid. In 1601 the Court of Arches came to a conclusion on the matter and declared the marriage valid, after which time the young couple began living together. However, this whole affair did not succeed in reconciling the two families that had over time become political court factions. 
Maria and Thomas lived at Longleat together after Thomas inherited it in November 1605, and the couple had three children together; John (born 1604), Thomas (born 1611) and another son, until Maria died giving birth to Thomas in 1611. 

This situation, having two warring families which are then brought together through a secret marriage between the young heirs, sounds particularly similar to that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and indeed it may have served as his inspiration. Romeo and Juliet was written in 1595 when the whole affair came to light, and  Shakespeare would have been aware of it not just through court gossip but also through his patron Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, who was also closely involved with the Touchet/Mervyn/Thynne feud. Shakespeare's works at this time, such as Love's Labours Lost, often were based on or at least took inspiration from contemporary events, and therefore the similarities between his play Romeo and Juliet and this marital scandal cannot be ignored. 

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