Forcing them down the aisles

Clandestine Marriage in England 1500-1850

April 19, 1996

In this much-tilled field Brian Outhwaite necessarily devotes considerable space to commenting on the work of others, correcting for example Alan Macfarlane and Lawrence Stone. However, Outhwaite's achievement is made more apparent precisely because so much has been written on the subject. He is able to set Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753 in a number of contexts, including not only the variety of methods and objectives of clandestine marriage, but also the background of earlier attempts to legislate in the field. Outhwaite points out that previous bills tended to pass in the House of Lords but repeatedly failed in the Commons. He offers a very careful account of the debate over the 1753 act and the passage of the legislation, the two combining to produce an exemplary discussion of an important piece of 18th-century legislation.

By insisting on the officially preferred clerical route to matrimony, the act effectively ended the process whereby a lawful marriage could be established by the mere rendering of consent. Couples had now either to have banns called in the parish churches where they dwelt on three Sundays before the ceremony, with a further week's notice to the incumbents being obligatory, or they had to obtain a lawful ecclesiastical licence to dispense with banns. Punishments for clerical transgressions were greatly increased. Marriages that infringed the rules were deemed to be void, as also were those of minors who had married by obtaining licences without the consent of their parents or legal guardians. The established church was given a virtual monopoly over the making of marriage: only Quakers, Jews and the royal family were excluded from its provisions, though the act did not extend to Scotland or marriages conducted overseas.

Outhwaite challenges attempts to explain the two sides in the debate in terms of economic reductionism, arguing that it is mistaken to identify either side with any particular form of wealth. Instead, he argues, the divisions were the usual mix of ideology and connection, and the credit for the passage of the act rests with Hardwicke, whose strong position within the ministry was such that Henry Pelham ensured passage in the Commons. Hardwicke had long been against clandestine marriages, not least because they upset the ordered transmission of property.

There is a valuable account of attempts to repeal the legislation. Attempts made in 1754, 1765, 1772 and 1781 to postpone, modify or repeal the act kept the controversy alive, and in 1765 and 1781 the Commons threw out the act, obliging the House of Lords to come to its rescue. Outhwaite suggests that demographic expansion weakened the argument that the act unnecessarily restricted marriage and would therefore lead to a fall in population. Instead, he demonstrates that the suppression of the London marriage shops led to a revival in ceremonies in the capital's parish churches. Elopement also increased, initially to the Isle of Man, until it adopted its own version of the Marriage Act in 1757, but increasingly to Scotland, which continued to recognise that marriage required no more than formal consent before witnesses.

The growing weakness of the Church of England in the early-19th century led to pressure for change, as did increasing agitation over the way in which marriages could later be dissolved on the grounds of some minor infringement of the statute and the manner in which this could be abused. Important parts of the act were modified or suppressed in 1822-23 and in 1836 the drive to settle the grievances of Nonconformists was resumed. Civil marriage was instituted in 1836, though for nearly 40 years fewer than 10 per cent of marriages took place in this manner.

Outhwaite suggests, in the last paragraph of his continually interesting and scholarly study, that the clandestine tendency has not been eradicated: that sham marriage, especially in order to gain residential rights, and serial bigamy are still all too possible.

Jeremy Black has recently been appointed professor of history, Exeter University.

Clandestine Marriage in England 1500-1850

Author - R. B. Outhwaite
ISBN - 1 85285 130 9
Publisher - Hambledon
Price - £25.00
Pages - 220pp

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