Oct 312016

This post originally appeared on Alina K. Field‘s blog on September 16, 2014. Reposted with permission from the author.

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.

"Jumping the Broom" was an expression for a marriage by consent

“Jumping the Broom” was an expression for a marriage by consent

4. The Marriage Act of 1753 did not apply in Scotland. Contract marriages “by consent” and clandestine marriages were still legal there.

The Old Marriage House at Coldstream

The Old Marriage House at Coldstream

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

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  9 Responses to “10 Facts about Marriage and Divorce in Historical England by Alina K. Field”

  1. A clarification. Marrying the sister of one’s deceased wife was legal, for a time; one of Jane Austen’s brothers did so.

  2. Judith, thank you! Do you know what the dates were for that exception? I’ll update my post with the correct information. I welcome any other corrections.

    Also, just for fun, I wanted to share a tiny piece of trivia I discovered while watching a DVR’d episode of Black Sails recently: the actress who plays Anne Bonny is Clara Paget, the daughter of the 8th Marquess of Anglesey.

  3. Fascinating article. I’d like to know more about Wife Sales. Can you recommend any book?.

  4. I thought handfasting was a sort of trial marriage that could be ended after a year (or renewed with a real marriage).

    • Hi, Mary M.
      I’m traveling and away from all my reference books, and I’m not enough of a historian to clarify hand-fasting without some research! I wonder if someone else can weigh in?

      • Okay, I checked Wikipedia (as I should have done first). Turns out we’re both right! In England, handfasting was a binding commitment by the couple to be married at a later date; there was no hankypanky between the parties before said wedding, but it required witnesses and vows and was permanent. In Scotland, however, it was as I’d read somewhere a tryout fir a year (with hankypanky and possibly children); at the end of the year, the male could return the female to her parents and disavow the children, if any. What ties the practices together is that no priest was involved.

        The Wiki History of marriage in Great Britain and Ireland -> Marriage in England from the Middle Ages is fascinating, just search on handfasting!

  5. marriage for a year and a day was never legal or recognized in mainstream Scotland or England. no one in England could marry merely by consent and telling others they were married. Well, not in the 17th or 18th centuries. If they said they were married before witnesses , they still had to say their vows before a clergyman to have all the legal benefits and privileges of marriage . If a couple hadn’t done their vows before a clergyman , they weren’t considered man and wife for purposes of any inheritances after one of them dies and the legitimacy of children could be questioned. Usually, anyone who had reason to think about legacies made certain to marry in a church.
    Paget’s wife divorced him in Scotland after he had been in residence there with an unknown woman for six weeks. Lady Charlotte’s husband divorced her in parliament. Paget and his wife both married others in Scotland and stayed there for a time after they did so, In 1811 a man named Lolly married in England after a divorce in Scotland. He was charged with and convicted of bigamy and sentenced to the hulks.. There was a public outcry at this because some remembered the Paget divorce and remarriage. The sentence was changed but the Scottish divorce was not recognized in the English courts. Paget had divorced and married in Scotland and spent some time there. His ex married a Duke there. They did everything just right to obtain their ends. Lolly married in England after the Scottish divorce .

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