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Clandestine marriage in early modern London: when, where and why?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 July 2014

Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure.


Marriage ceremonies in London were easily available at a wide range of locations before Hardwicke's Marriage Act put a stop to clandestine marriages in 1754. Not constrained to their own parish church, many wed at centres of clandestine marriage such as the Fleet, or in other churches by licence. For particular parish populations, focusing mainly on the suburban majority but with comparisons with the mercantile city centre, this paper considers the relationship between demographic, geographic and social factors (age, residential location, and propensity to engage in premarital sex) and choice of marriage location between 1610 and 1753.

Le mariage clandestin à londres à l’époque moderne: quand, où et pourquoi?

Avant la législation sur le mariage de Lord Hardwicke qui mit fin aux mariages clandestins en 1754, les mariages pouvaient, sans difficulté, être célébrés en des lieux assez divers à Londres. Les époux ne devaient pas se limiter à l’église paroissiale de résidence de l'un d'entre eux, et nombreux étaient ceux qui s'unissaient avec une licence dans d'autres églises que la leur ou dans le cadre de l'un des centres de mariage clandestin qui fleurissaient à Fleet Street. Cet article étudie l'endroit choisi par les mariés pour célébrer leur union, selon leur paroisse de résidence, en se concentrant principalement sur quelques localités de la banlieue londonienne, comparant avec quelques zones commerciales du centre-ville. Pour la période de 1610 à 1753, l'auteur analyse le rapport entre le lieu choisi pour célébrer le mariage et les caractéristiques démographiques, géographiques et sociales des conjoints (âge, lieu de résidence et propension à avoir des relations sexuelles prénuptiales).

Heimliche heiraten im frühneuzeitlichen london: wann, wo und warum?

Bevor Hardwickes Heiratsgesetz 1754 die Möglichkeiten einer heimlichen Eheschließung unterband, waren in London jede Menge unterschiedlicher Orte für Hochzeitszeremonien verfügbar. Weil es keine Beschränkung auf die Pfarrkirche der eigenen Gemeinde gab, heirateten viele Paare mit einer Heiratslizenz in den Zentren der heimlichen Eheschließung wie zum Beispiel im Fleet oder in anderen Kirchen. Dieser Beitrag untersucht die Beziehungen zwischen demographischen, geographischen und sozialen Faktoren (Alter, Wohnsitz, Neigung zur vorehelichen Sexualität) und der Wahl des Heiratsortes zwischen 1610 und 1753 für einzelne Gemeinden, wobei besonderes Augenmerk auf die Vororte gelegt wird, aber auch Vergleiche zur kommerziellen Innenstadt angestellt werden.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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1 It was also possible to marry with no formal ceremony by contract, but this was not in widespread use. See Probert, Rebecca, ‘The impact of the Marriage Act of 1753: was it really a most cruel law for the fair sex?’, Eighteenth Century Studies 38, 2 (2005), 247–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Probert, Rebecca, ‘Chinese whispers and Welsh weddings’, Continuity and Change 20, 2 (2005), 211–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Probert, Rebecca and D'Arcy Brown, Liam, ‘The impact of the Clandestine Marriages Act: three case-studies in conformity’, Continuity and Change 23, 2 (2008), 309–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Boulton, Jeremy, ‘Itching after private marryings? Marriage customs in seventeenth-century London’, The London Journal 16 (1991), 1534CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Boulton, Jeremy, ‘Clandestine marriages in London: an examination of a neglected urban variable’, Urban History 20, 2 (1993), 191210CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Brown, Roger Lee, ‘The rise and fall of the Fleet marriages’, in Outhwaite, R. B. ed., Marriage and society: studies in the social history of marriage (London, 1981), 117–36Google Scholar; Benton, Anthony, ‘“Marry'd in their Closets …”: clandestine and irregular marriages in London before 1754’, Genealogists' Magazine 23, 9 (1991), 328–31Google Scholar.

4 See, for example, Outhwaite, R. B., Clandestine marriage in England 1500–1850 (Rio Grande, 1995)Google Scholar, especially chapter 3; Brown, ‘Rise and fall’, 118–19, 133–6.

5 Boulton, ‘Clandestine marriage’, 197–8.

6 Boulton ‘Private marryings’, 22.

7 Elliott, Vivien Brodsky, ‘Single women in the London marriage market: age, status and mobility, 1598–1619’, in Outhwaite, , Marriage and society, 83, 87Google Scholar.

8 Earle, Peter, The making of the English middle class: business, society and family life in London 1660–1730 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1989), 181–2Google Scholar.

9 Boulton, Jeremy, ‘London widowhood revisited’, Continuity and Change 5, 3 (1990), 323–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Finlay, Roger, Population and metropolis: the demography of London 1580–1650 (Cambridge, 1981), 137CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 This figure is derived from extant Marriage Duty Assessment listings and Poll Tax listings.

12 For Aldgate the population cited represents the total persons enumerated in the extant 1695 Marriage Duty Assessment for part of the parish and extrapolation from parish baptisms for the remainder. For Clerkenwell, the lower bound is that testified by its churchwarden to the New Churches committee; the upper bound is derived from parish register baptisms. Estimated population totals for principal English towns in 1700 are given in Clark, Peter ed., The Cambridge urban history of Britain: volume II 1540–1840 (Cambridge, 2000), 384CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 See Census of Great Britain, 1831, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to an Act, passed in the eleventh year of the reign of His Majesty King George IV. intituled, “An Act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain, and of the increase or diminution thereof.” Enumeration Abstract. Vol. I. 1831 BPP 1833 XXXVI (149) xxxiii.

14 Anita Morrison, Debbie Headrick, Fran Wasoff and Sarah Morton, ‘Family formation and dissolution: trends and attitudes among the Scottish population’, Centre for Research on Families and Relationships Research Findings no. 43/2004 (Edinburgh, 2004).

15 Grossman, Joanna L., ‘Fear and loathing in Massachusetts: same-sex marriage and some lessons from the history of marriage and divorce’, Boston University Public Interest Law Journal 14, 8 (2004), 88116Google Scholar.

16 Hopson, Arthur, ‘The relationship of migratory marriages to divorce in Tennessee’, Social Forces 30, 4 (1952), 449–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The effect is apparent from the crude marriage rate (CMR). Despite having a more youthful population, Tennessee's 1949 CMR was only 4.6 per thousand, whereas in neighbouring Mississippi it was 24.2.

17 In Vermont, for example, more than eight times as many same-sex marriages of non-resident couples as couples resident in the state were anticipated in the first three years of legalisation. See Christopher Ramos, M. V. Lee Badgett and Brad Sears, ‘The economic impact of extending marriage to same-sex couples in Vermont’ (unpublished research paper, University of California, 2009), available at [accessed 26 February 2013].

18 The legal literature on same-sex unions in different jurisdictions in both the United States and Europe frequently alludes to marriage tourism and so-called evasionary marriage. See for example: Koppelman, Andrew, Same sex, different states: when same-sex marriages cross state lines (New Haven, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Boele-Woelki, Katharina and Fuchs, Angelika eds., Legal recognition of same-sex relationships in Europe (Cambridge, 2012)Google Scholar.

19 Brown, ‘Rise and fall’, 122.

20 These administrative complexities are detailed in Boulton, ‘Private marryings’, 29–30.

21 For example, Holy Trinity Minories was on the former site of St Clare's Abbey; St James Duke Place fell within the grounds of the former Holy Trinity Priory. St Katherine by the Tower was adjacent to St Katherine's Hospital, which survived the Dissolution but was thereafter lay controlled. The pre-Dissolution locations of religious houses are taken from Lobel, Mary ed., The British atlas of historic towns, volume III: the City of London (Oxford, 1989)Google Scholar, Map 4. The history of each institution is described in Barron, Caroline and Davies, Matthew eds., The religious houses of London and Middlesex (London, 2007)Google Scholar.

22 Boulton, ‘Private marryings’, 16–18.

23 Outhwaite, Clandestine marriage, 60.

24 London Metropolitan Archives, P76/JNB/8.

25 Giles Jacob, New Law-Dictionary (London, 1729), n.p.

26 Brown, ‘Rise and fall’, 120.

27 Lysons, Daniel, The environs of London: volume 3: county of Middlesex (London, 1795), 320–7Google Scholar.

28 Hogarth also painted a private and possibly clandestine marriage ceremony at St Marylebone, London as part five of A rake's progress (1732–1733, printed 1735).

29 These data were compiled in the 1980s by the late Amanda Copley, a doctoral student at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, from a total of 118 additional locations. Copley extracted marriages of Clerkenwell inhabitants from the numerous Fleet register volumes with assistance from Stephen Hale, flagging duplicates and removing forged early entries. She worked through a checklist of other London centres of clandestine marriage, parishes neighbouring Clerkenwell, and extant registers of the 97 parishes within the walls. Parishes in Middlesex, Essex and further afield seem to have been prioritised if their registers were available in transcript.

30 Marriages from all three united parishes took place in St Mary le Bow church, since the other two churches had been destroyed in the Fire of 1666 and not rebuilt.

31 Boulton, Jeremy, ‘The Marriage Duty Act and parochial registration in London, 1695–1706’, in Schurer, Kevin and Arkell, Tom eds., Surveying the people: the interpretation and use of document sources for the study of population in the later seventeenth century (Oxford, 1992), 233–4Google Scholar.

32 Wrigley, E. A. and Schofield, R. S., The population history of England 1541–1871 (Cambridge, 1989), 780–1Google Scholar.

33 Boulton, ‘Private marryings’, 24.

34 Boulton estimates the annual marriages at Holy Trinity Minories in 1666–1670 as 397 per year, based on simple linear interpolation between the known totals for 1662 and 1676. Boulton, ‘Clandestine marriage’, 198.

35 Boulton, ‘London widowhood’, 327.

36 Puberty is easier to measure in girls than boys, through mean age at menarche. Peter Laslett argued that in the eighteenth century female menarche was below 15 years, or ranged from 12 to 16 years, but derived this indirectly from the ages of 77 married women and their co-resident children from a 1733 Belgrade inhabitants listing that is rendered problematic by age-heaping (Laslett, Peter, ‘Age at menarche in Europe since the eighteenth century’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 16 (1985), 221–36Google Scholar). It was almost certainly higher than this. In nineteenth-century Birmingham for a cohort of 623 girls born before 1845 the range was 10 to 21 years with an average of 15 to 16 years, and this is corroborated by other early nineteenth-century English data, whereas Norwegian and Danish cohorts in the same period had means of around 17 years (Brown, P. E., ‘The age at menarche’, British Journal of Preventative Social Medicine 20 (1966), 914Google Scholar; Helm, P. and Helm, S., ‘Uncertainties in designation of age at menarche in the nineteenth century, revised mean for Denmark,1835’, Annals of Human Biology 14 (1987), 371–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Liestøl, K., ‘Social conditions and menarcheal age: the importance of early years of life’, Annals of Human Biology 9 (1982) 521–37CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed).

37 Wallis, Patrick, Cliff Webb and Chris Minns, ‘Leaving home and entering service: the age of apprenticeship in early modern London’, Continuity and Change 25 (2010), 377404CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially 386, 388.

38 Daniel Defoe, The complete tradesman (London, 1729), chapter XI.

39 Bich Luu, Lien, Immigrants and the industries of London 1500–1700 (Aldershot, 2005), 124–6Google Scholar.

40 Whipple's index values were 107 for spinsters and 109 for bachelors.

41 Of those marrying at St Katherine by the Tower, 20 spinsters and 50 bachelors were stated to be from Aldgate, although 33 of the men were mariners and therefore unlikely to be traceable in earlier baptism records. The three individuals traceable without ambiguity in the Aldgate baptism register were: Sarah Rivitt, born 22 July 1675 and married on 21 November 1697 aged 22 years; Jeremiah Mallory, born 29 April 1672 and married on 16 February 1695/6 aged 23 years, and George Wright, born 6 October 1672 and married on 25 April 1687 aged 24 years.

42 Finlay, Population and metropolis, 149–50.

43 Wrigley, E. A., Davies, R. S., Oeppen, J. E. and Schofield, R. S., English population history from family reconstitution 1580–1837 (Cambridge, 1997), 421CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 Peter Kitson, ‘Family formation, male occupation and the nature of parochial registration in England c.1538–1837’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 2004), 201–3.

45 Reported in Outhwaite, Clandestine marriage, 61.

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