Prudence, the unhappy bride

TW: suicide

I’m currently transcribing Little Clacton’s earliest register, which survives from 1538.

On 15 August 1592, Clement Fenn, a single man, married Prudence, the widow of Nicholas Lambert of Little Clacton Lodge. Nicholas had been buried on 22 June that same year, so Prudence hadn’t been a widow for long by the time that she married Clement. That said, such a short distance between a spouse’s death and another marriage wasn’t all that unusual at the time – in 1560, at the same church, Reginald Wignall had married Elizabeth Hurrey on 25 May, then was at the altar again on 2 September when he married Joane Bashe, his second wife.

The record of Clement and Prudence’s marriage goes on to tell a very sad story:

She (the most accursed creature), did the verye next morning, desperatelie hang her selfe, to the intollerable grieffe of her new maryed husband; & the dreadfull horror & astonishment of all the countrye.

Prudence was buried on 17 August, the day after her death, but without sympathy, as was the custom at the time:

Prudence Fen; now the wife of Clement Fen; & late the wife of the abovenamed Nicholas Lambert; was buried out of the compas of christian burial; in the furthest syde of the churchyard northward; uppon the xviith daye of August; for that shee most accursedlie hanger her selfe.

The north side of the church was where suicides, the excommunicated and unbaptised were buried, in unconsecrated ground. Nowadays, far more sympathy would have been extended to Prudence – at least, I hope it would’ve been. Perhaps something happened on the wedding night to make her regret her decision to marry again. Perhaps she had felt guilty, and maybe hadn’t had time to properly mourn Nicholas. Clement’s “intolerable grief” suggests that he did care about her. He would marry again a couple of years later, and lived at Little Clacton Lodge where Prudence and her husband had once lived.[1]Clement Fenn of “Litel Capthton” and Margaret Cannum of St Osyth were married at Great Bromley in 1594.

The “dreadful horror and astonishment” of the locals demonstrates how shocking it was – and still sounds even today. And yet today perhaps our reaction is one of pity for a woman who felt so desperate that she saw no option but to take her own life, whereas in Elizabethan times their reaction was one of “dreadful horror and astonishment.”


1 Clement Fenn of “Litel Capthton” and Margaret Cannum of St Osyth were married at Great Bromley in 1594.