Brides and Bigamy

I am delighted to welcome back, ‘legal eagle’ Melanie Barnes, who, with today being Valentine’s Day, is taking a look at brides and bigamy.

Ramsay, Allan; Lord Chancellor Hardwicke (1690-1764); Dover Collections

When the government introduced Lord Hardwicke’s Bill for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage in 1753, the whole country literally was livid.  Modern commentators have now acknowledged that in reality the Acts made little difference, but at the time the mere idea of marriages only in public led to widespread protests, a gazillion angry pamphlets and much debate.

Essentially, the Marriage Act introduced the structure for a valid marriage as we know it today with public banns and licence, but previously it was also possible to have a ‘clandestine marriage’ in secret.  You’ve probably already imagined a dashing young Master sneaking into the stables with a pretty young maid, and you’d be right, as the Bill was partly designed to prevent rich heirs from being seduced into clandestine marriages with their social and economic inferiors.

One of the problems is that a valid marriage attracted all sorts of financial goodies such as rights to maintenance, inheritance or property.  For example, a spouse could sue for ‘reinstatement of conjugal rights’ or bring a claim of ‘failure to maintain’ in order to receive regular support.  Or, a husband could sue for damages if the promised ‘portion’ or dowry was not paid.  Any valid marriage, for example, one that might quickly follow the tête-à-tête between the young heir and his maid, could also annul any future union which automatically made the children of the second marriage illegitimate.  Oh the shame!

Lewis Walpole Library
Lewis Walpole Library

In terms of punishment, the Act provided that any clergymen who performed clandestine marriages were to be transported to America for 14 years.  I like to think that this explains why there are so many Chapels of Love in Las Vegas.

It was also hoped that the Bill would prevent the problem of bigamy as marriage was a well-known remedy for women against debt.  Essentially, upon marriage in the 18th century, a man and woman became one legal entity under the doctrine of coverture and the husband would subsume his wife’s rights and obligations.  This prevented, for example, women from owning property in her own name without permission from her husband (though she could protect her money through a trust), but also made him solely responsible for their joint actions in crime, for example if they both committed murder.  Coverture is one of the reasons that gave men the right to physically chastise his wife – if there was a risk that the wife could break the law then she needs to be controlled!  It’s very hard for us now to get our heads around this doctrine, but at the time it was simply accepted.

Lewis Walpole Library
Lewis Walpole Library

In terms of liabilities, any debt accrued by a woman was the responsibility of her husband so, yep, you guessed it; all she needed to do in order to avoid liability was to marry.  This also wasn’t a problem for the new husband (who might have been paid for his services), as law suits were crazy-expensive and took years in court.  I am aware of one woman who went on to marry five times without a single divorce and in her memoir describes how she arranged the first simply to avoid prison.  In fact, her first husband was already married so when her second husband tried to argue that their marriage was void, the woman argued that this was impossible as her first union was already void so their marriage was valid and … yeah, it’s complicated.

Lord Hardwicke was aware of this particular case and referred to it in parliamentary debates.  Of course, he couldn’t say that the real reason the Act was needed was to stop rich people from marrying the poor, so much was made about bigamy, when in reality, fake marriages were probably not that widespread a problem, although they did happen.

But, it wasn’t all bad for those who opposed the Act as they had the final glorious protest.  On the day before the Marriage Act was introduced in 1754, in defiance of the new rules, hundreds of couples entered into a clandestine marriage.  I like to think that all of them ended up drinking and dancing in Covent Garden.  Thousands of people all coming together in a democratic demonstration of nuptial love and freedom.  I wonder how many of us were born of those unions.  It’s a lovely thought.

Featured Image

Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode. Tate Gallery

11 thoughts on “Brides and Bigamy

  1. mistyfan

    Looking forward to the follow-up on how marriages, especially clandestine ones, went after the Marriage Act was passed despite the protests. How effective was it in practice?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. William Paton

    Thank you for this entertaining and illuminating article. Having read quite a lot about the Jacobites, I had assumed that most clandestine marriages, and objections to them, were based on religious grounds. Instead, I find the most glorious rabbit-hole… Looking at Christopher Lasch’s 1974 article on the subject, I was struck by Charles Townshend’s objection to the Act on the basis that ‘the highest bloom of a woman’s beauty, is from sixteen to twenty-one: It is then that a young woman of little or no fortune has the best chance of disposing herself to advantage in marriage; shall we make it impossible for her to do so, without the consent of an indigent and mercenary father?’ !!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mel Barnes

      Welcome to the rabbit hole William, and Mistyfan! There were some fabulous objections to the Clandestine Act, including from a group of young girls who claimed that no one would possibly ever marry them if it was introduced, and they’d all die as spinsters! How dreadful to think that women were already considered to be wilting flowers at the age of 22, though personally, I’m not sure that I ever really bloomed!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. mistyfan

        It was an age when life spans were short and people had to marry young, so I guess in those days even 22 was getting old for marriage. Catherine of Aragon in the 16th century was by the standards of her time rather old for first-time motherhood when she finally married Henry VIII – and she was 24!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Good article! I have ancestors who married clandestinely near the Fleet prison on 29th January 1753. They were certainly Nonconformist, and possibly in a hurry, but I think both were aged over 21 years. I hadn’t until now thought that it might, for the bride, have been an escape from debt! She went on to have two children by this marriage, in 1754 and 1758, but her husband had “died” (or disappeared – no record found yet) by 1774. She married again in 1791, setting up a trust to let her manage her own money. Separated 1794, died 1810 leaving a will in her own right. A mystery I keep hoping to solve, Where did her own money come from? I’m gusessing she was running her own business .. a Milliner, perhaps, but NO proof found so far.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mistyfan

      Fleet Street marriages used to be a custom in the 17th and 18th centuries. Seems not-so reputable clergymen, mostly in jail for debt, would agree to marry anyone in the prison, no questions asked, except for the fee or the amount of liquor for the occasion. It was common for all parties in the ceremony to be drunk. I don’t know if there is an entry on the Fleet Street marriages here, but more information can be found at

      Liked by 1 person

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