Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Marriage in 17th C England

by Katherine Pym

Marriage in England during the 17th Century was confusing. Due to the government playing musical chairs for most of the century, rules continually changed. Ministers, safe one moment, were tossed out of their vocations the next. These inconsistencies brought about corruption and fraudulent marriages. They left honest couples in doubt.

During the reign of Charles I, marriage ceremonies in the Church with the Book of Common Prayer prevailed. Under the Commonwealth, couples were to be married by their local JP, but too many did not consider this proper or binding. These couples married clandestinely in a home, tavern, prison, and even brothels with an Anglican minister and the forbidden Book of Common Prayer. The couple spoke their vows in the present tense, for to do otherwise could provide a loophole for an unhappy spouse to later invalidate the marriage.

The rules of incest were also confusing. An apprentice could not marry his master’s daughter. A woman could not marry her brother-in-law after her husband died. The laws declared they were family within the fourth degree.

Due to these conflicting rules, good folk joined under the king’s reign did not know if their marriage was legal under the Commonwealth, and vise versa. This doubt gave way to excuse, and unhappy couples separated to marry another. Bigamy was rampant, and perjury in the courts flagrant.

In the 1640’s clandestine marriages multiplied due to suppression of the Anglican Church. Marriage shops called Peculiars popped up all over London to accommodate this new vogue. Anglican ministers who lost their professions under the Commonwealth and were in debtor’s prison, set up a marriage shop in Fleet Prison chapel. ‘Ministers’ would fill in names of the couple on the certificate otherwise already completed and signed. For a small tip, clerks were called in to witness, the spaces already filled in with names more than likely not their own.

Debtor's family in Fleet Prison
 These clerics never asked the couple questions, i.e., (1) if they were already married, (2) if one or the other was an in-law, or an apprentice. If the person presiding over the ceremony said he was a member of the clergy, and if the vows were stated in the present tense, the couple considered themselves newly married--which only time or a change of heart could put asunder.

In 1660 after Charles II returned from exile, the sanctioned religion again became the Church of England, but the Ecclesiastical Courts were in ruins. It took awhile for the churches to reintroduce Anglican accoutrements, and clandestine marriages continued unabated.  

The regained Anglican officials tried to stop the clandestine marriages, but failed. Marriage shops sent criers with fistfuls of ready-made marriage certificates to markets to promote the inexpensive, quick unions that only money could dissolve.

While the Ecclesiastical Courts gathered order and strength, unhappy marital unions would be dissolved by desertion, or public sales of the wife—the price most of time already settled between the old and new spouse. This marriage auction publicly announced the new union.  

The least expensive and easiest way of marriage dissolution was by mutual agreement. The couple would then go their merry way to remarry, again, possibly to another who lived not far away.

Before the Ecclesiastical Courts could gain momentum, the formal way of marriage dissolution was at King’s Bench in Westminster. It provided legal separation, but it almost always went very harsh on the wife.  

Still at Westminster, the less honest process was to seek out ‘straw-men’. They lingered in the Hall with straw sticking out of their shoes, showing anyone with a purse of coin they'd perjure themselves during the court proceedings. They would stand before the judge and say anything the purse holder wanted them to say.

This behavior continued through the century. In the 1690’s the Crown imposed a Stamp Tax of five shillings for licenses and marriage certificates. It was soon realized (by the lack of income to the Crown) that clandestine marriages continued to prevail. As a result, a series of acts were implemented to shut down the clandestine marriage shops.

As the English government settled into calm with the Protestant Church of England, so did the marriage market, but it wasn’t until the Marriage Act in 1753 that it was finally put under control.

For more on this, please read my historical novel, Viola, A Woeful Tale of Marriage, set in London 1660. You will find it on or

Sources: Broken Lives, and Uncertain Unions, both by Lawrence Stone


  1. Fascinating! And that's even before you get to the country customs of handfasting, etc. Or do those grow out of this uncertainty?

  2. Handfasting is older and more rural, but on that note, if a man and woman lived together and called each other 'husband' and 'wife', and their neighbors heard this, the couple was considered married.

  3. How did their religious sentiments figure into all this? With religion and hellfire being such a strong force, you'd have thought that they would have all demanded religious weddings for the sake of their souls.

  4. Wow! Where and when I was growing up in Northern California, we always called this 'going to Reno'- easy marriage; easy divorce. But this sounds much worse- this sounds like not even knowing if you're married from one regime to the next.
    Fascinating read!

    Thanks for the posting!

  5. Intriguing post!

    Interesting, Debra, that "church weddings" are a rather late fashion (19th century??) among common folk. "Common law" marriages were much more the norm.

  6. Debra, per your question--church weddings meant popish ceremonies. The Puritans (mainly Presbyterians)minimalized them. Their marriage ceremonies were not festive. It did not mean they were less religious. Puritans felt they did not require music and ceremony to be true to their Lord, and His dictates.

    On the other hand, Catholics still read banns during services. People who wanted a more traditional marriage ceremony went clandestine as above.

    Hope this helps, K

  7. Thanks Linda and Katherine. I keep learning- an utterly selfish reason for this blog.

  8. Fascinating - so complicated, it's a plot gift for the novelist!


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