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Lovelace and Clarissa Harlowe. Wikimedia.

Lovelace and Clarissa Harlowe. Wikimedia.

Nowadays the idea of anything being clandestine suggests something having an unsavoury, grubby and secretive undertone but in the 17th and 18th centuries many couples preferred to have a clandestine marriage. Tens of thousands of couples from all walks of life were legally and respectably married in clandestine ceremonies.

Clandestine marriages were recognised in Canon Law as long as the ceremony was performed by an ordained clergyman. A clandestine marriage had a number of advantages over an official marriage for instance it did away with the need for publishing banns and buying a licence making the ceremony cheaper and quicker, the betrothed couple were not restricted to marrying in their own parish, if need be the date could be backdated to cover an unplanned pregnancy and couples could be married away from the public eye as well as interfering relatives. This type of marriage could be especially convenient for foreign couples who had just moved to England and as yet were not registered in a parish or soldiers and sailors on limited leave[1].

A number of places became well-known centres for clandestine marriages including All Hallows Church in Honey Lane, St Pancreas in Soper Lane, Mayfair Chapel (which tried to encourage business by having as a centrepiece the supposedly embalmed corpse of the wife of the parson[2]) and the notorious area of the Fleet.

Under The Rules of the Fleet

Strangely enough the Fleet Prison was one of the most popular settings for clandestine marriages in the 17th and 18th centuries and whereas elsewhere this type of marriage was seen as perfectly reputable, Fleet marriages were often viewed with suspicion.

Prior to the law of 1711 (which closed a quirky loophole in the law) marriages took place in the prison chapel. The prison was well set up for the celebration of nuptials with the happy couple able to enjoy a range of facilities including a tap-room, coffee-house, public kitchen and eating room and even a sports area which had been built to accommodate the hundreds of visitors the prison attracted each week[3]. As with all prisons at the time bribery was rife and anyone willing to pay could do as they pleased. This ensured that the prison wardens and clergy for the correct fee would obligingly look the other way if the marriage was in any way dodgy.

The Fleet Prison. Image Wikimedia.

The Fleet Prison. Image Wikimedia.

When the prison was finally banned from holding marriages, business just moved outside its walls to an area which for some bizarre reason fell beyond the jurisdiction of the church but was still classed as being under ‘the Rules of the Fleet’. This unsavoury neighbourhood which had sprung up allowed prisoners to live in lodgings outside the prison compound as long as they paid the keeper a fee for loss of earnings[4]. The taverns and coffee houses such as the Bull and Garter, The Great Hand and Pen and The Star took full advantage of the new business opportunity and turned themselves into extremely profitable ‘marriage houses’ (half the marriages in London took place in the Fleet)[5]. These marriage houses used any means possible to encourage business and some even had their own in-house clergyman such as Dr Gainham who could be found at the Rainbow Coffee House[6].

Touts were employed to harass and persuade visiting couples to pop into their marriage house for a quick ceremony and even single gentlemen were approached – I guess that there must have been a pool of potential wives that you could marry at short notice!

It is not surprising then given the character of the place, the booming marriage industry and the fierce competition amongst around 80 disgraced clergymen at a loose end and living in the area, that everyone involved was prepared to turn a blind eye to unwilling participants or repeat customers.

Fleet Street Marriage. Via Wikimedia.

Fleet Street Marriage. Via Wikimedia.

Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753

The passing of the Marriage Act proposed in 1753 by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke and implemented the following year put an end to clandestine marriages. From then on it was illegal to get married without bans or a licence, girls under the age of 21 had to get the permission of their parents or guardians and the marriage itself had to take place in an Anglican church (Jews and Quakers were exempt). Verbal and written contracts were no longer accepted as legal evidence of marriage. Couples had to register their marriages in a parish’s register and the signatures of the bride and groom had to be witnessed[7].

Lord Hardwicke. Image Gretna Green Website.

Lord Hardwicke. Image Gretna Green Website.

This Act would have appealed to Daniel Defoe and other like-minded individuals who believed that prior to this “a gentleman might have the satisfaction of hanging a thief that stole and old horse from him, but could have no justice against a rogue for stealing his daughter” [8] and who had to confine his daughters to their chambers to prevent them from being abducted by “rogues, cheats, gamesters and such like starving crew…”[9].

It took six days for the new legislation to be passed as there were influential opponents of the law who believed that all that was needed was a tightening up of the current system and better record keeping. The politician Henry Fox was concerned that the delay which publishing banns and obtaining a licence created might even ruin some women. He believed that some rogues would convince their intended wife to compromise herself and then drop her before they got to the altar. The Act was also accused of being used to protect the insular nature of the aristocracy by barring new blood and commoners from entering its hallowed circle and some worried that the law would prevent children from being legitimised[10].

The downside of the current system was the few but distressing cases of forced marriages of young girls in particular heiresses and the numerous cases of bigamy which came up regularly at the Old Bailey. Although these cases gave weight to the necessity of the Act, the MP Charles Townshend questioned those who regularly spouted these examples. He believed that the legislation was an overreaction and asked his peers to consider that although forced marriages were scandalous and “a public evil. But how rarely do such infamous marriages happen, especially with respect to those that are under age”[11].

How often did these sorts of marriages really occur is difficult to gauge. Forced marriages did happen but in reality Charles Townshend was correct and these incidents were rare. Nevertheless the damage and distress they caused their unfortunate victims should not be underestimated.

The notion that an unscrupulous and undesirable suitor could persuade or force a wealthy young heiress into an unsuitable marriage against the wishes of her family generated a high level of paranoia amongst the aristocratic and wealthy classes. Older relatives trying to pre-empt and restrict inappropriate behaviour in their female offspring recounted to them cautionary tales of the perils of abduction and impulsive marriages.

eighteenth century painting

The Bolt by Fragonard.

Elizabeth Malet

Elizabeth Malet by Peter Lely.

Elizabeth Malet by Peter Lely.

“Here, upon my [Samuel Pepys] telling her [Lady Sandwich] a story of my Lord Rochester’s running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallett, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at White Hall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and foot men, and forcibly taken from him, and put into a coach with six horses, and two women provided to receive her, and carried away.”[12]

The abduction of the wealthy heiress Elizabeth Malet on the 26

May 1665 scandalised London and infuriated King Charles II who quickly signed a warrant for the arrest of Lord Rochester. Sent to the Tower and later to sea, it seems that Rochester’s had not abandoned his matrimonial plans as in January 1667 he again ran off with Elizabeth (this time with her consent). They married in a clandestine ceremony at Knightsbridge Chapel against the wishes of her father, John Malet.[13]

Bridget Hyde

Bridget was the daughter of the acknowledged beauty Mary Hyde and the wealthy Sir Thomas Hyde. On the death of her father shortly after she was born, Bridget became an heiress worth £100,000 and a pawn in her relatives’ tug of war game.

NPG 5568; The Family of Sir Robert Vyner

The Family of Sir Robert Vyner (Bridget is on the far left). Image NPG 5568;

In 1674, Mary became seriously ill and Bridget now aged about twelve was sent to stay with her mother’s sisters, Susan and Sara in Hertfordshire.  Her aunts had not done quite as well in their marriages as their successful sister, marrying two brothers of the name Emerton who worked as bailiffs on the Hyde estate[14]. Aware that Bridget’s step-father, Robert Vyner was hoping to marry Bridget to the son of Lord Danby (in return for a cancellation of his debts which were the result of lending money to Charles II) and afraid for their own livelihood, Bridget’s aunts decided to marry her to her cousin, John. Probably presenting the marriage in the form of a game, Sara and Susan convinced Bridget to go through the ceremony which was conducted by the morally challenged priest, John Brandling. When Vyner found out about the marriage he was furious seeing all his plans falling apart. Determined not to be bested by his wife’s deceitful relatives, Vyner took the case to the Ecclesiastical Court to have it declared null and void. In the meantime Bridget returned to her step-father’s care but her estates were awarded by the Court of the King’s Bench to Emerton. The case lasted six years!

Lovelace Abducting Clarissa Harlowe - Louis Edouard Dubuf

Lovelace Abducting Clarissa Harlowe – Louis Edouard Dubuf

For some reason, Bridget seemed to attract trouble like a moth to a flame. Whilst the legality of her marriage was being debated she became the subject of a second marriage plot. One fateful night, Vyner invited a man known as Henry Wroth to dinner at his house in Ickenham. On finishing his dinner Wroth repaid his host’s hospitality by pulling out a gun and absconding with Bridget. Wroth with his ‘unwilling bride to be’ headed towards Richmond where he had a ferry waiting for them. Vyner pursued and Wroth was arrested. Bridget was unharmed except for losing an amber necklace and a hankerchief[15].

In 1680 the Ecclesiastical Court finally came to a decision and announced in favour of Emerton (possibly due to the key witnesses being unable to testify as they had been excommunicated) [16]despite the fact that the marriage was conducted without the consent of the Bridget’s guardian, Vyner or even Bridget herself. The story did not end there as Danby was still determined that Bridget would eventually marry his son. For the next two years Danby and Vyner entered into negotiations with Emerton. All Emerton had ever really wanted was financial compensation in order for him to renounce the marriage. Thinking that things were progressing far too slowly, Viscount Dunblane decided to matters into his own hands and eloped with a this time willing Bridget to St Marylebone Church (another notorious location for clandestine marriages). The Ecclesiastical Court ever mindful of their own interests, suddenly decided that the marriage with Emerton was not legal!

Although it is sad that even after all this, Bridget did not have the fairy tale ending she deserved (as in a few years Dunblane had run through all his wife’s fortune forcing her “to part with all her plate”) she did in a way finally get the man she wanted as shortly after their marriage it was reported “The Lord Dunblane is dancing with his mistress day and night, and she dotes on him.”[17]

Pleasant Rawlins

Contemporary pamphlet from the abduction trial. Source Heineonline.

Contemporary pamphlet from the abduction trial. Source Heineonline.

In 1701, the seventeen year old heiress, Pleasant Rawlins was arrested for an imaginary unpaid debt of £200 trumped up by a Haagen Swendsen, a German adventurer whose advances Pleasant had previously rebuffed.

Seized under false pretences, Pleasant was taken first to the Star and Garter in Drury Lane and then moved to The Vine in Holborn where Swendsen’s accomplice, a Mrs Baynton convinced Pleasant that she would be incarcerated in Newgate if she refused to go through with the marriage. Now more afraid of being murdered by her captors than worried about imprisonment, a terrified Pleasant reluctantly agreed to the union and was married to Swendsen in the Fleet Prison.

When Pleasant’s horrified family finally found out what had happened to her, Swendsen and Mrs Baynton were arrested and the marriage ruled illegal. Swendsen was found guilty and hung but a pregnant Baynton escaped the death penalty[18].

Mary Wharton

The Honourable James Campbell of the Clan Campbell was an officer in the Royal Scots Army and the British Army, politician[19] and unsuccessful kidnapper. In November 1690 Campbell conspired with Sir John Johnson to abduct the thirteen year old daughter of the late Philip Wharton (cousin of Lord Wharton) worth £1500 and heiress to Goldsborough Hall in North Yorkshire from outside the home of her mother in Westminster.

Image by Hogarth.

Image by Hogarth.

Her aunt and cousins who had been in the coach with Mary testified in court that after having returned from dinning with a Mr Archibald Montgomery in Soho they saw a coach drive hurry past them. On stopping, three men jumped out and in the process of forcing Mary into the six horses coach knocked the footman down and pushed one of her cousins into the gutter. Mary was taken to Watson the coachman’s house where despite being in tears and protesting she was coerced in to marrying Campbell. Disturbingly evidence from the Old Bailey trail also suggests that she tricked into sleeping in the same bed as Campbell by his female accomplice, Mrs Clewer[20] (whether or not Mary was raped by Campbell can’t be ruled out but is not inevitable as often girls married before their 14th birthday would sleep in the same bed as their husband on their wedding night but actually consummate the marriage a few years later).

The next day Campbell compelled Mary to write a reassuring letter to her aunt telling her that she was happily and safely wed and that they would soon visit. Whilst Mary and Campbell were having breakfast, Mary felt ill and was taken to an apothecary where her family finally found her and removed her from Campbell’s clutches by order of the Lord Chief Justice.

Although Johnson was convicted of abduction and sentenced to death, Campbell escaped due to a plea of ignorance of English law. Apparently in Scotland at the time abduction was a conventional method of obtaining a wife and he was falsely led to believe by Johnson that such practices were also accepted in England. Even though his excuse was accepted as reasonable by the powers that be it does sound a little dubious to me.

The marriage was annulled on the 20 December of that year and Mary later married her guardian, the son of her aunt. Hopefully after undergoing such a horrible ordeal Mary went on to have a happy and successful life.

Sibble Morris

The evidence given in the case of Sibble Morris is particularly disturbing and heart-breaking and does clearly reveal how vulnerable young girls could be.

On the 5 March 1728, Sibble Morris and her maid Anne Holiday were paying a second reluctant visit to a Mrs Hendron. On the way they met two acquaintances of theirs, Kitty Pendergrass and Peggy Johnson who told them that Mrs Hendron was not at home and was instead visiting a house in New Round Court in the Strand. They convinced Sibble to accompany them there. On arrival they all entered the house and made their way to a shuttered candle lit room filled with a number of people including a Mr Richard Russel (who Sibble had met only once on the previous visit to Mrs Pendergrass’ house and whom she believed to be a wealthy merchant) and a clergyman.

Frightened and wanting to leave both Sibble and her maid were pulled into the room and the door closed behind them. Mrs Pendergrass told Sibble that it was no use screaming as no-one would hear her. Despite the fact that the girl was young only about 16 years old, was in a near faint and had to be held up throughout the ceremony and could not speak, the clergyman seemed not to notice anything amiss. Even when questioned in the trial he maintained his innocence and stated that he was under the impression that he was marrying a gentleman to a servant and that she was just overcome by the whole situation.

After the ceremony, “Hendron and others dragg’d her [Sibble] up Stairs to a Bed-Chamber, which was also shut up with Shutters, and Kitty Pendergrass and Peggy Johnson, pulled off her Cloaths by Force, Hendron holding her Hands; and that one Mrs. Rigy was there present while all this was done, that they forc’d her into Bed, and that Hendron held her down in Bed”[21] and waited until Russel joined them.

Futile Resistance by Fragonard.

Futile Resistance by Fragonard.

It was only on the following Thursday that Sibble’s father heard about the marriage from a man who had pretended to be a friend of Russel. On hearing the devastating news Mr Morris confronted his daughter, who in her distress admitted that it was due to fear and shame that she had not told him what had happened. Mr Morris refused to speak to Russel who on hearing that a warrant for his arrest had been issued, fled.

Throughout the trial, Sibble maintained that she had never at any point agreed to the marriage. Russel’s female accomplices were found guilty of aiding and abetting a kidnap and rape and sentenced to death but the incompetent, oblivious and brainless clergyman (if you can believe he really did not know what was going on) was let off[22].

To love, honour and OBEY!

What did Hardwicke’s law really achieve? Girls were still forced to marry men they abhorred and detested just now they did it with their parents or guardians’ blessing. The main objective of the Act was never the welfare of vulnerable young girls but the protection of a family’s property by placing complete control on where it would be bestowed in the hands of the heiress’s parents or guardian. Girls lost any power or control they may once have had over their own lives and became just a pawn in their family’s dynastic game of chess. Any chance of escaping their family’s clutches and marrying their own choice of husband was now cut off (although the long shot of Gretna Green was still available).

In an ironic way if one of the aims of the Marriage Act was to protect women it did so by imprisoning them within their families and making them even more vulnerable to forced marriages then before.

The ambitious mother and the obliging clergyman by Charles Dana Gibson.

The ambitious mother and the obliging clergyman by Charles Dana Gibson.

Bibliography

Elizabeth Wilmot, Countess of Rochester: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Wilmot,_Countess_of_Rochester

Samuel Pepys, Diary of Samuel Pepys

Georgian London: http://www.georgianlondon/post/494612709431/fleet-marriages

Marriage among Londoners before Hardwicke’s Act of 1753: when, where and why?  http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/people/newton/MarriageArticleDRAFT.pdf

Fleet Prison: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fleet_Prison

The Fleet Prison: http://www.okima.com/tour/fleet.html

From Fleet Street to Gretna Green: The Reform of “Clandestine Marriage” under Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, http://jenpayne10.info/clandestine.html

Daniel Defoe: Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom

Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde

Nigel Pickford, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynne, 2014

Naomi Clifford: Two 18th-century bride abductions http://www.naomiclifford.com/two-18th-century-bride-abductions/

James Campbell (of Burnbank and Boquhan): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Campbell_(of_Burnbank_and_Boquhan)

John Johnson, William Clewer, S – C -, Grace Wiggan, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 10th December 1690: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t16901210-56

Mary Hendron, John Wheeler, Margaret Pendergrass, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 1st May 1728. http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17280501-13-off75&div=t17280501-13#highlight

Guardian Shorts: A Marriage Proposal by Sophie Ward http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/jan/30/guardian-shorts-a-marriage-proposal-by-sophie-ward-chapter-1

The History of Parliament: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1660-1690/member/osborne-peregrine-1659-1729

Jacqueline Rose: Godly kingship in restoration England: The politics of the royal Supremacy, 2011

Notes

[1] Georgian London: georgianlondon/post/494612709431/fleet-marriages

[2] Marriage among Londoners before Hardwicke’s Act of 1753: when, where and why?  http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/people/newton/MarriageArticleDRAFT.pdf

[3] ibid

[4] Fleet Prison: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fleet_Prison

[5] Full text of “The history of the Fleet marriages [electronic resource] http://www.archive.org/stream/historyoffleetma00burnrich/historyoffleetma00burnrich_djvu.txt

[6] ibid

[7] From Fleet Street to Gretna Green: The Reform of “Clandestine Marriage” under Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, http://jenpayne10.info/clandestine.html

[8] Daniel Defoe: Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom

[9] Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde: http://nigelpickford.com/sad-history-bridget-hyde-2/

[10] From Fleet Street to Gretna Green: The Reform of “Clandestine Marriage” under Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, http://jenpayne10.info/clandestine.html

[11] ibid

[12] Samuel Pepys, Diary of Samuel Pepys, Entry on the 28 May 1665

[13] Elizabeth Wilmot, Countess of Rochester: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Wilmot,_Countess_of_Rochester

[14] Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde: http://nigelpickford.com/sad-history-bridget-hyde-2/

[15] ibid

[16] Nigel Pickford, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynne, 2014

[17] ibid

[18] Naomi Clifford: Two 18th-century bride abductions http://www.naomiclifford.com/two-18th-century-bride-abductions/ Naomi Clifford

[19] James Campbell (of Burnbank and Boquhan): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Campbell_(of_Burnbank_and_Boquhan)

[20] John Johnson, William Clewer, S – C -, Grace Wiggan, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 10th December 1690: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t16901210-56

[21] Mary Hendron, John Wheeler, Margaret Pendergrass, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 1st May 1728. http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17280501-13-off75&div=t17280501-13#highlight

[22] ibid

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