And one more thing about those Georgian marriages…
- Bigamy was a problem in Georgian England. The Marriage Act of 1753, passed into law March 1754, was supposed to put the kibosh on illicit elopements and the trickier problem of bigamy. In pervious centuries, most brides and grooms married in their home parish. A select few married by special license.
By the Georgian period (defined by the four King Georges who reigned from 1714 – 1830), marriages by special license were on the rise. Clergymen in Southwark made marriage an industry by offering quickie weddings for an exorbitant fee—no questions asked.
- Lord Hardwicke put the brakes on elopements in England with the Marriage Act of 1753, but Scotland did its own thing with “Anvil Weddings” (and had been since the 1500s). Most romance readers know of Scotland’s famed Gretna Green as the “Vegas” of quickie weddings.
What most people don’t know is right behind Gretna Green’s popularity was Coldstream and Lamberton. Under the Marriage Act of 1753, England required the bride and groom to be 21 (or have parental consent if younger). Scotland only required the bride be 12 and the groom be 14!
- Annulments and divorce did happen. Ending a marriage was costly and immensely embarrassing (whether an annulment or divorce). The church oversaw most marital dissolutions. In ecclesiastical law, annulment meant the marriage never truly happened for reasons of consanguinity, a lack of consummation, or a man’s impotence.
Divorce, on the other hand, was a civil matter, requiring an Act of Parliament. Of the approximate 300 divorces during the Georgian period, almost all were initiated by men. The expensive process was a public affair. Only the wealthy could afford to divorce if they didn’t mind becoming a national spectacle.
Lawmakers scrutinized and discussed every corner of the petitioner’s life. The proceedings dragged on for months like a painful sideshow, entertaining London’s citizens. The aftermath wasn’t much better. A Georgian divorce amounted to little more than a legal separation as both parties weren’t allowed to remarry.
- Young women of nobility and wealth were coddled and watched over. Chaperones protected maidenly sensibilities in lockstep with servants and family members. This is typical fodder of the rake and wallflower heiress novels. Scoundrels roamed London looking for sexual conquests—sometimes seeking the fast path to riches. Marriage to a wealthy bride guaranteed a man’s life of luxury since men controlled the family purse. This led unscrupulous kidnappings. Opportune weddings north of the River Tweed led to forced marriages all because men wanted to get their hands on a woman’s funds.
The “Shrigley Abduction” was one infamous case. Heiress to Cheshire spinning mills, Ellen Turner was away at boarding school when diplomat Edward Wakefield devised an elaborate scheme to kidnap her. Wakefield sent his servant with a carriage to Miss Turner’s Liverpool boarding school. The servant tricked the headmistress with a message that Mrs. Turner had become paralyzed and desperately wanted to see her daughter. The headmistress had grave misgivings since her young charge didn’t recognize the servant, but headmistress released her in the face of dire family news.
The servant took Miss Turner to Hotel Albion in Manchester where she met Wakefield. Wakefield informed the 15-year-old girl that her father’s business had collapsed. He went on to tell her that Mr. Turner had fled north to escape his creditors, and Wakefield was supposed to take Miss Turner to her father.
Wakefield instead dragged her to Gretna Green. The 30-year-old diplomat coerced her with more lies to an anvil wedding. When she demanded to be taken home, he instead stole her away to France. By then, the doubting headmistress had contacted the Turner family. At the same time, Wakefield sent a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Turner, alerting them to the marriage. Wakefield bet on the Turners wish to avoid scandal, but that’s when all hell broke loose.
Mr. Turner went directly to the Foreign Office (remember: Wakefield was a diplomat). Lawmen and the Turner family scoured the country for Ellen. Their investigation took them to Calais. French authorities got involved when Ellen Turner’s uncle showed up, tracking down a lead that she was in Calais.
The end result was Wakefield, his brother, step-mother, his servant, and other accomplices were put on trial. Wakefield and his brother spent three years in prison and poor Ellen Turner finally got her annulment from an Act of Parliament (almost two years after her abduction). She was then promptly married off to a man of her class…mostly for safekeeping!
You could say marriage was a perilous pursuit in Georgian England.
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