Like Barry Lyndon (see post on November 27, 2017), Richard Bertie was born of humble origins, but aspired to claim a peerage through marriage. Bertie (ca. 1517 – 9 April 1582) made an astounding marriage to the widowed Duchess of Suffolk, a peeress in her own right, the heiress of an important family, and a proud bluestocking. Bertie was Catherine Willoughby’s, 12th Baroness Willoughby d’Eresby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk, and a woman Henry VIII was considering as his seventh wife shortly before his death, second husband. She was also known to have received a proposal from the King of Poland. Catherine Willoughby was the daughter and heiress of William, 11th Lord Willoughby and the widow of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk.
After the marriage, Bertie wished to be recognized as the holder of the ancient feudal title, Lord Willoughby d’Eresby. Unfortunately, his claim to the peerage brought out a search of Richard Bertie’s humble origins. Richard Bertie was from an unusually undistinguished beginnings for the connections he made. He was the son of Thomas Bertie (ca. 1480 – bef. 5 June 1555), Captain of Hurst Castle and a master mason, and Aline Say. His paternal grandfather Robert Bertie (died 1501/2) was also a stonemason at Bearsted, Kent, and was married to one Marion, by whom he had two more children, a daughter Joan Bertie and a son William Bertie, born after 1480. Richard matriculated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on 17 February 1533/1534 and succeeded his father in 1555.
The claim Bertie made was a landmark one in peerage law. It raised the question of peerage jure uxoris. In European property law, jure uxoris (Latin for “by right of (his) wife”) is a title of nobility held by a man because his wife holds it suo jure (“in her own right”). Similarly, the husband of an heiress could become the legal possessor of her lands. In England, until the Married Women’s Property Act 1882, married women were legally incapable of owning real estate. The thing was the question of the legality of jure uxoris for it had never been addressed by the House of Lords. Other cases that brought forth the right of nobility by jure uxoris included the Fitzgerald v. Fauconberg case in 1730 and the Earl of Norfolk in 1906, for starters.
“The older Baronies descended to heiresses who, although they could not take their place in the assembly of the estates, conveyed to their husbands a presumptive right to receive a summons. Of the countless examples of this practice, which applied anciently to the earldoms also, etc., and although some royal act of summons, or creation or both was necessary to complete their status, the usage was not materially broken down until the system of creation with limitation to heirs male was established.” [The English Historical Review, No. CXIX – July 1915, “The House of Lords and the Model Parliament.” quoting Dr. William Stubbs’s Constitutional History of England (1873)]
Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas in his The Historic Peerage of England, Exhibiting Under Alphabetical Arrangement, the Origin, Descent, and Present State of Every Title of Peerage which Has Existed in This Country Since the Conquest; Being a New Edition of the Synopsis of the Peerage of England [London, John Murray (1857)], purports, “At a very early period the same law (sic) was applied to Baronies of Writ that pertained more especially to Earldoms and Baronies by tenure, and the husbands of heirs female are summoned jure uxoris, when, having issue by their said wives, they had obtained an interest in law in the wife’s inheritance whixh was considered to entitle them to such summons; the practice, however, clearly partook more of the nature of barony by tenure, and was not in accordance with the personal dignity of a Barony of Writ.”
The Berties had married for love around 1553, after Bertie had for several years served her as her Master of the Horse and Gentleman Usher. The pair fled to the continent during the reign of the Catholic Mary I and the Counter-Reformation. They ignored commands to return, and their estates were sequestered. They travelled first to Cleves and then Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, despite the Duchess, a strong Protestant, being one of the richest and most powerful women in England. They returned in 1559 soon after the accession of the more Protestant Elizabeth I and had their lands restored to them. Their story is recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Richard was the father of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent and Peregrine Bertie, 13th Baron Willoughby d’Eresby, prominent Protestants during Elizabeth I’s reign. Bertie became a Member of Parliament (MP) for Lincolnshire from 1562 to 1567. In 1564, he attended Elizabeth I during her visit to Cambridge University, from which he was granted a MA. In 1570, he unsuccessfully claimed the Barony Willoughby de Eresby in right of his wife. He was appointed a Justice of the Peace for Lindsey in 1564 and High Sheriff of Lincolnshire from 1564-1565.
Tomorrow, we will have a closer look at Bertie’s failed attempt to become Lord Willoughby.
Bertie, Richard. Dictionary of National Biography