Thomas Tuddenham’s Torrid Tale

A little while back, I did a guest post about Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk, for Sarah’s History Blog. One of Alice’s madcap adventures in the late 1440’s involved going in disguise to Lakenham Wood in the company of several other people, including Thomas Tuddenham, a prominent (and unpopular) supporter of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. At this time, Tuddenham was an unmarried man–but his marital history, as examined by Roger Virgoe in his article, “The Divorce of Sir Thomas Tuddenham,” was an unusual one.

According to Virgoe’s article (from which all that follows is taken), Thomas married Alice Wodehouse, the daughter of his guardian John Wodehouse, in about 1418, when Thomas was about seventeen. For several years, the couple lived together. Alice bore a son–but unfortunately, as Alice freely admitted, the father was not Thomas but Richard Stapleton, John Wodehouse’s chamberlain. The boy died soon thereafter. Alice and Thomas formally separated, and sometime before 1429, Alice entered a Augustine nunnery  in Norfolk with the unprepossessing name of Crabhouse. John Wodehouse died in 1431.

There matters rested until 1436, when William Alnwick, Bishop of Norwich, began proceedings in the ecclesiastical courts to inquire into the couple’s marriage. As Virgoe points out, the proceedings , though formally instituted by the bishop, were probably initiated by Tuddenham himself, perhaps because he wanted to remarry.

Soon a parade of witnesses came before the commissioners appointed by the bishop to investigate the matter. Alice herself, clad demurely in her nun’s habit, appeared first, accompanied by Joan Wygenhale, the prioress of Crabhouse, and Joan Kervyle, a fellow nun there. Alice told the commissioners that Thomas had treated her with “conjugal affection” for eight years, except in one important respect: “for carnal knowledge which he never had of her during those eight years nor before nor after, and thus they were never one flesh.” She admitted that during her marriage to Thomas, she had given birth to the son of Richard Stapleton. Alice was then asked whether she had taken the nun’s habit, to which Alice replied that her present appearance indicated that she had.

Joan the prioress, age 52, then testified that Alice had often said, before and after taking the veil, that Thomas had never had carnal knowledge of her. The prioress  added, however, that Alice’s father had told his daughter, through intermediaries, that she should not say this. Nonetheless, Alice persisted in saying  on several occasions that there had been no consummation, which begs the question of what the nuns of Crabhouse were talking of when they should have been praying.

Asked whether the bishop had known of Alice taking the veil, Joan Wygenhale (who, incidentally, was notable during her tenure as prioress for the building projects she undertook) said that she did not know. She added, though, that Alice had shown her “a certain notarial instrument in which was contained the summary of the divorce made between her and Thomas.”

Among the other witnesses appearing before the commissioners was Beatrice, the wife of Thomas Fulthorp, who testified that Thomas and Alice had cohabited in her house for over two years and that they had treated one another with conjugal affection. She testified that she had seen them “many times together lying on one bed; but she could not say whether there was carnal knowledge between them.” Asked whether she had heard either spouse say that carnal knowledge had not taken place, Beatrice replied that she “never heard Alice say so except when Tuddenham and Alice were in discord, which happened often during the two years.”

Beatrice also informed the commissioners that she had witnessed the birth of Alice’s son and that her then husband, John Shuldham, and John Wodehouse’s wife Alice  had served as the boy’s godparents.

Thomas himself testified that he and Alice had treated each other as husband and wife “save for sexual intercourse which he never had with her during those years, nor before nor after.”  Asked whether he wished to live in perpetual chastity, he “solemnly declared that he did not,” but wished to be able to remarry. On December 7, 1437, he was declared free to do so.

In spite of this, Thomas  never did remarry. Perhaps his marital history made him an undesirable partner, or perhaps the proceedings had dampened his enthusiasm for reentering the marital lists. He nonetheless remained a powerful, though controversial, figure. In 1458, he was made the treasurer of Henry VI’s household.

Thomas’s luck ran out, however, in 1462, when the new king, Edward IV, ordered the arrests of various men, including John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Aubrey de Vere (Oxford’s heir), and Thomas Tuddenham. Accused of plotting with the exiled Lancastrians, the men were given a summary trial in the constable’s court before the holder of that office, John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, and were beheaded at Tower Hill on charges of high treason. Tuddenham’s turn on the scaffold took place on February 23, 1462. His body was buried at the Austins Friars in London; his head probably was set on London Bridge.

Alice, meanwhile, remained at Crabhouse. She was still there in 1475, when Tuddenham’s sister Margaret Bedingfeld, who had inherited her brother’s estates, left her ten marks.


British History Online, House of Austin Nuns: The Priory of Crabhouse.

Cora Scofield, The LIfe and Reign of Edward the Fourth.

Roger Virgoe, “The Divorce of Sir Thomas Tuddenham,” Norfolk Archaelology, 1969 (collected in Caroline Barron et al., eds., East Anglian Society and the Political Community of Late Medieval England: Selected Papers of Roger Virgoe.

1 thought on “Thomas Tuddenham’s Torrid Tale”

  1. A very weird story — impossible at this stage to guess what was really going on there. For some reason I’m reminded of the story about a woman who refused to ever use her best linen on the grounds that it had to be saved for some much grander occasion than whatever was currently happening, and ended up dying without ever using it. I wonder if Tuddenham had any similar regrets when he went to the scaffold.

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