10 Facts about Marriage and Divorce in Historical England
I’m writing about marriage and divorce in England, but I must start earlier than the Georgian/Regency period because the chaos of the earlier years led to major reforms during the Georgian era.
1. There were three basic ways to marry in early England: by voluntary consent before two witnesses, through clandestine marriages performed by clergymen without a license or the reading of banns, and by canon law, in a church, after banns had been read or a license obtained.
2. In 1753, Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act provided that only the third type of marriage was legal in England, though if a special license was obtained the marriage could be performed outside of a church.
3. Prior to 1753, bigamy was not uncommon. Birthright, by A. Roger Ekirch tells the true story of James Annesley who was kidnapped and sent off to America by a bigamous uncle to prevent James from inheriting.
4. The Marriage Act of 1753 did not apply in Scotland. Contract marriages “by consent” and clandestine marriages were still legal there.
5. Thus came the Gretna Green marriages. In Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, the heroine and her family are concerned that her sister Lydia is headed to Gretna Green with the villainous Mr. Wickham. Couples in a hurry to marry due to lack of parental consent, pregnancy, or in some cases kidnapping, traveled to a Scottish border town, Coldstream or the more famous Gretna Green to avoid the requirements of the Marriage Act of 1753. Upon crossing the border, they merely needed to find two Scottish citizens to witness their vows, or their “handfasting”.
6. Legally ending an English marriage was far more difficult. Desertion, wife sales, which I’ve blogged about previously, and separation by private deed, did not render the partners able to legally remarry.
7. The ecclesiastical authorities could grant legal separations, or they could annul marriages that were not valid at the start, much in the way the Roman Catholic Church provides its members with annulments today, (though that process today has no impact on civil dissolution of marriages). Grounds for such ecclesiastical invalidation of a marriage could be: lack of consummation; or prohibited degrees of consanguinity between the bride and groom, for example, a man marrying his deceased wife’s sister; or bigamy.
8. Parliamentary divorce was extremely rare and very expensive. The process required legal action in a series of three courts: ecclesiastical, a common-law court, and a private bill in Parliament.
9. If a couple married in Scotland, they could more easily divorce in Scotland. If they had married in England, they could still divorce in Scotland but by the second decade of the nineteenth century the divorce would not be recognized in England.
10. An exception to this is Henry Paget, the first Marquess of Anglesey. He began an affair with Wellington’s sister-in-law, and in 1810, both he and his lover managed to divorce their spouses in Scotland and marry each other, with no charges of bigamy or questions about the legitimacy of the children they had together. Paget is an interesting character who lost a leg at the Battle of Waterloo and lived on another thirty-nine years.
I’ve used handfasting in Rosalyn’s Ring, and a special license in Bella’s Band, and I have plans for the Scottish divorce to deal with a plot problem in my Work in Progress. I wont say any more—I have to see how this plays out for my characters first!
Do you have any interesting facts to add? I’d love to hear them.
Broken Lives, Separation and Divorce in England 1660-1857 by Lawrence Stone
All images, Wikimedia Commons
©2014 Alina K. Field