Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Poor Man's Divorce: The Sale of a Wife

by Lauren Gilbert

Caricature c 1820

The following notice appeared in an 1815 newspaper:
On Friday last [September 15th 1815] the common bell-man gave notice in Staines Market that the wife of ---- Issey was then at the King's Head Inn to be sold, with the consent of her husband, to any person inclined to buy her. There was a very numerous attendance to witness this singular sale, notwithstanding which only three shillings and fourpence were offered for the lot, no one choosing to contend with the bidder, for the fair object, whose merits could only be appreciated by those who knew them. This the purchaser could boast, from a long and intimate acquaintance. This degrading custom seems to be generally received by the lower classes, as of equal obligation with the most serious legal forms. 
The breakdown of a marriage is not a modern phenomenon.  Unfortunately, unhappiness in marriage was a very common situation throughout history in England (and elsewhere).  For centuries, annulment through the Catholic Church courts was an option but was not easy.  A pre-contract (an agreement to marry which was considered as binding as marriage itself), prohibited degrees of kinship (such a marriage required a dispensation; failure to obtain one would be a problem), and marriage by force or under the age of consent were all grounds for annulment.   Basically, an annulment is a statement that the marriage itself was an error.  The process was (and is) lengthy, required investigation and took several months or longer, and could be expensive in terms of donations to the church during the process.  In spite of the separation from Rome under King Henry VIII, the Protestant clergy retained similar requirements.
Divorce was another option but, again, was not easy.  In the 16th century in Europe, adultery was established as grounds for divorce and some Protestant clergy interested in ecclesiastical reform were in favour of allowing this in England, including the provision to allow the partner who had not committed adultery to remarry.  A watershed was reached when, in 1552 the Marquess of Northampton, who had separated from his first wife due to her adultery, obtained an Act of Parliament recognizing the validity of his second marriage.   Between 1700 and 1857, there were only three hundred-fourteen Acts of this nature. (1)   Women were only allowed to petition if adultery was combined with extreme cruelty and their cases had to be handled for them by a trustee as women were legally not allowed to enter into a contract.  A rare example of this is the case of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore who succeeded in obtaining a divorce, which included rescuing what remained of her inheritance and her obtaining custody of her children.  Her story is worthy of a blog of its own.  Divorce in this manner was expensive, scandalous and took a long time as well.  Obviously, it also required rank and influence.
The question comes down to this: what alternatives did someone who did not have rank or fortune have to end a marriage?  For many, the answer was simply to desert the other party.   (This was much more common for men than women.)  Given the difficulties with travel and communications, it was possible to leave one place and establish a new life in another, which some did in spite of the risk of getting caught.  Another option for a man was to put one’s wife up for sale.   Thomas Hardy used the sale of a wife as a plot device in his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge.  In The Reluctant Widow, Georgette Heyer had a character reading items aloud from a periodical, which includes this note:  On Friday, a butcher exposed his wife for sale in Smithfield Market...” (2)   How did such a thing work?
There is no way to know exactly when the process of selling a wife for the purpose of ending a marriage began.  It may have occurred as early as 1073, but the first established case occurred in 1553.  At its most basic, a man ended his marriage by selling his wife to another man.  Customs used for the sale of cattle were applied: a rope was put around the wife’s neck and she was led to the marketplace, paying toll along the way, where she was sold to the highest bidder at auction.  If this weren’t humiliating enough, the price was sometimes determined by weight.   As this was an auction, the auctioneer (possibly her husband) would have described her to the crowd of purchasers, possibly praising her virtues (which could improve the chance of sale and the purchase price) or listing her flaws (another potential source of punishment and humiliation).
This process took on an official form during the late 17th century and, once sold, the woman was considered to be married to her purchaser.  Sometimes, it must be said, there was collusion as the purchaser was the woman’s lover-in some instances, the woman apparently played an active role in her sale, surprising as it may be.  Many such sales occurred at fairs,  markets and other public places.  Smithfield Market in London (see the quote from Georgette Heyer above) was apparently a popular site for such activity as about 20 wife sales were held there in the 1790’s to 1830’s(3).  It appears that being held in public caused the sale to dissolve the existing marriage and establish the new one officially.    Also, having such a sale in public would have attracted more buyers who may have had more money to spend.   It’s unclear how many such sales may have occurred, as not all were advertised or otherwise noted.  While Kirsten Olsen considers that such sales were rare, indicating that only 91 were recorded between 1730 and 1799 (4), data in Maria Nicolaou’s work suggests a much more significant number.
The reasons for the wife sales vary as much as the reasons for divorce today: inability to get along, money problems, adultery, and so forth.  Sometimes, a soldier or sailor returned home to find that his wife had taken up with another man and simply wanted to finalize the end of his marriage.  The Marriage Act of 1753 increased government control of marriage, which made it more difficult for someone to deny that a marriage had occurred; if a divorce or annulment was out of reach, a sale could end the marriage just as effectively. 
Shockingly, such sales occurred through the 19th century into the 20th century, although they declined due to changing attitudes, especially during the Victorian era, when women became perceived as more delicate creatures in need of protection, and the sales process was perceived as uncivilized.  Also, the Marriage Act of 1857 put the issue of divorce into the civil courts which made it more accessible and affordable.  According to Maria Nicolaou, in 1919, a woman from Tottenham said that her husband had sold her, and another attempted wife sale occurred in Northumbria in 1979.(5)    
Sources include:
Houlbrooke, Ralph A.  THE ENGISH FAMILY 1450-1700.  1983: Longman Group Ltd, Harlow, Essex, England.
Heyer, Georgette.  THE RELUCTANT WIDOW.  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY. Published 1946, 2nd American Edition, 1971.  (Footnote 2 from page 198)
Moore, Wendy.  WEDLOCK The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore.  2009: Three Rivers Press (Random House), New York, NY.
Nicolaou, Maria.  DIVORCED, BEHEADED, SOLD Ending an English Marriage 1500-1847.  2014: Pen and Sword History, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England.  (Footnote 3 P. 139, Footnote 5 p. 137)

Olsen, Kirsten.  DAILY LIFE IN 18th-CENTURY ENGLAND.  1999: Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.  (Footnote 4 p. 47)

Parliament.UK. “Obtaining a Divorce” (no date or author shown).   (Footnote 1)

Lauren Gilbert is a member of JASNA and lives in Florida with her husband.  Her first book, HEYERWOOD: A Novel, was published in 2011 and a second novel (working title A Rational Attachment) is expected to be released later this year.  Visit her website at


  1. Fascinating post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Cryssa. Thank you for commenting!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.


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