In October 1545, Sir Ralph Sadleir learned that his wife and the mother of seven surviving children, Ellen Mitchell, had been married before. In order to save his reputation and legitimise both his marriage and his children, he wrote a letter to his employer and close friend Henry VIII, asking for help. The Act of Parliament that followed annulled Ellen’s first marriage on the grounds that her husband, Matthew Barre, had abandoned her, saving Sir Ralph’s family as well as his career. It was a truly unprecedented case.
In The Unprecedented Case project, a group of artists and children are based at Sutton House, Homerton, which was built in 1535 for Sir Ralph and Ellen. The group explore Sir Ralph’s tale, discovering what life was like in the Sadleir household, as well as some surprising tales from Sutton House’s 483 year history since – including its time as a school, a church, a punk venue and a squat.
The group also enjoy a rare chance to visit the Houses of Parliament, where they are able to see a 1545 Act of Parliament about Sir Ralph’s story, up close. This unique trip includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Parliamentary Archives, with bespoke workshops delivered by some of the Archivists there, in which the group learn about vellum scrolls in the famous Act Room, make their own scrolls, and even learn how to decipher Sir Ralph’s Act – including a very famous signature…
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