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Clandestine marriages in London: an examination of a neglected urban variable

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 February 2009


This article sets out the incidence of clandestine marriage in Restoration London. Analysis of parish registers of large suburban parishes suggests that such private unions peaked twice in the capital's history, immediately after the Restoration and again in the first half of the eighteenth century. Understanding the phenomenon is important since the increase in private weddings on the scale encountered was unique to London. Historians have failed to explain the growth in such unions satisfactorily. The practice is unlikely to be explained by the growth of religious dissent, by a desire to save money or to circumvent parish or parental control over choice of spouse. The custom's popularity can be explained more convincingly by reference to wealthier Londoners′ traditional predilection for private weddings, which was sanctioned by the church, and to emulation of the habit by those lower in the social scale. Adoption of the practice was further facilitated by increasing levels of disposable income and by the commercialization of the wedding ceremony after the Restoration.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1993

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I would like to thank Anthony Benton, Brian Outhwaite, Tony Wrigley, Richard Wall, Roger Schofield, seminar audiences in Cambridge, East Anglia and Liverpool and anonymous referees for this journal for their helpful comments. My interest in the subject arose from discussions with the late Amanda Copley, to whose memory this paper is dedicated.


1 Outhwaite, R.B., ‘Introduction’, in Outhwaite, (ed.), Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social History of Marriage (London, 1981), 13.Google Scholar

2 For the Act, see 26 George, II c. 33.Google Scholar See also, Brown, R.L., ‘The rise and fall of the Fleet marriages’, in Outhwaite, (ed.), Marriage and Society, 117.Google Scholar

3 See Meteyard, B., ‘Illegitimacy and marriage in eighteenth-century England’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 10, 3 (1980), 479–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also her debate with Stone, , ‘Comment and controversy: illegitimacy in eighteenth-century England: again’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 11, 3 (1981), 507–14Google Scholar; Gillis, J., For Better, For Worse. British Marriages 1600 to the Present (Oxford, 1985), 110–11, 140–2, 190219Google Scholar; Outhwaite, R.B., ‘Sweetapple of Fledborough and clandestine marriage in eighteenth-century England’, chapter in a forthcoming book about the origins and consequences of Hardwicke's Act.Google Scholar

4 Many authorities cite from Burn, J.S., History of the Fleet Marriages; with some account of the Wardens of the Prison, the Parsons, and their Registers (2nd ed., 1834).Google Scholar For Brown, see his important thesis ‘Clandestine marriages in London, especially within the Fleet Prison, and their effects on Hardwicke's Act, 1753’ (unpublished M.A. thesis, University of London, 1973).Google Scholar See also Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, in Outhwaite, (ed.), Marriage and Society, 117–36Google Scholar; Stone, L., The Road to Divorce (Oxford, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gillis, , For Better, For WorseGoogle Scholar; Stone, L., The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800 (London, 1977), 33–7Google Scholar; Lasch, C., ‘The suppression of clandestine marriage in England: the Marriage Act of 1753’, Salmagundi, 26 (Spring 1974), 60109.Google Scholar

5 Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 123–4Google Scholar; Outhwaite, , ‘Introduction’, Marriage and Society, 13Google Scholar; Stone, , Family, Sex and Marriage, 33Google Scholar; Earle, P., The Making of the English Middle Class, (London, 1989), 179.Google Scholar

6 For recent work on the law of marriage see, Ingram, M., ‘Spousals litigation in the English Ecclesiastical Courts, c. 1350–1640’, in Outhwaite, (ed.), Marriage and Society, 3557Google Scholar; Ingram, M., Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England (Cambridge, 1987), esp. 189218Google Scholar; Smith, R.M., ‘Marriage processes in the English past: some continuities’, in Bonfield, L., Smith, R. and Wrightson, K. (eds), The World We Have Gained. Histories of Population and Social Structure (Oxford, 1986), 4399.Google Scholar

7 These vows would be binding if they were delivered in the present tense, the ‘de praesenti’ vow. If delivered in the future tense they only created a binding union if followed by sexual intercourse.

8 The Hardwicke Act removed the legal validity of clandestine marriages by laying down that only a wedding celebrated in church according to the proper form would have legal force.

9 This was not thought to be the case, however, if it was one of the few special licences purchased from one of the Archbishop of Canterbury's officials: Burn, R.R., The Ecclesiastical Law (8th ed., 1824), vol. II, 464a–5.Google Scholar

10 For a case of this, see Bax, A.R. (ed.), Allegations for Marriage Licences issued by the Commissary Court of Surrey between 1673–1770 (Norwich, 1907), 263.Google Scholar For the position adopted by common lawyers, see Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 118–19.Google Scholar

11 In 1670 the parish of St Paul Shad well was carved out of the parish of Stepney. All weddings in the new parish have been included in this analysis.

12 These population estimates are derived from the average totals of baptisms, 1606–10. These were 350 for St Dunstan, Stepney, 447 for St Giles, Cripplegate and 158 for St Botolph, Bishopsgate, a total of 955 in all. These totals are calculated from East London History Group, ‘The population of Stepney in the early seventeenth century’, Local Population Studies, 3 (1968), 3952Google Scholar; Denton, W., The Records of St Giles Cripplegate (London, 1883), 199202Google Scholar; Finlay, R., ‘The population of London, 1580–1650’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1976), 221.Google Scholar The combined totals were multiplied on the assumption that the birth rate was 32.5 per thousand, the mid-point of the range suggested by Finlay, R., Population and Metropolis. The Demography of London 1580–1650 (Cambridge, 1981), 155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The resulting figure was multiplied by 1.05 to allow for 5 percent under-recording of births: 955 × 1,000/32.5 = 29,385,29,385 × 1.05 = 30,854. In the later seventeenth century the population totals were calculated as follows. For St Giles, Cripplegate in 1696–1700 the average number of baptisms was 740, assuming the same birth rate but that there was greater under-recording of births at 10 per cent, this gives 740 × 1,000/32.5 = 22,769,22,769 × 1.10 = 25,046. Gregory King's count of the population of St Dunstan, Stepney and St Paul Shadwell came to 47,193 and that of St Botolph, Bishopsgate came to 9,753. The combined totals come to 81,992. If an allowance of 10 per cent is made for omissions from the Marriage Duty Act counts, the total rises to 87,687. For Gregory King's population totals for Stepney, see Laslett, P. (ed.), The Earliest Classics: John Graunt and Gregory King, 17th century Ms notebook of Gregory King (Farnborough, 1973), 58.Google Scholar For the population of London see Finlay, , Population and Metropolis, 51.Google Scholar

13 See Power, M., ‘The social topography of Restoration London’, in Beier, A.L. and Finlay, R. (eds), The Making of the Metropolis. London 1500–1700 (Harlow, 1986), 203–5.Google Scholar For the poverty of Bishopsgate in 1638 see also, Finlay, , Population and Metropolis, 171.Google Scholar

14 This account of the occupational structure of the parishes is drawn from Power, M., ‘The London suburban working community in the seventeenth century’, in Corfield, P. and Keene, D. (eds), Work in Towns 850–1850 (Leicester, 1990), 103–20Google Scholar; Forbes, T.R., ‘Weaver and cordwainer: occupations in the Parish of St Giles without Cripplegate, London, in 1654–1693 and 1729–1743’, Guildhall Studies in London History, 4 (1980), 120–9.Google Scholar Occupations are listed in the baptism register, 1623–29, in Hallen, A.W.C. (ed.), The Register ofSt Botolph Bishopsgate (Edinburgh, 18891895), vols I and III.Google Scholar

15 The number of marriages celebrated in Cripplegate 1653–57 was 133 per year, about 75 per cent of the pre-war level.

16 Stepney recorded 265,1659–60; Cripplegate 125 and Bishopsgate 96. For national under-registration see, Wrigley, E.A. and Schofield, R.S., The Population History of England 1541–1871. A Reconstruction (Cambridge, 1989), 27–8.Google Scholar For the background to the introduction of civil marriage and to the possibility that part of this recovery could have been illusory, see Durston, C., The Family in the English Revolution (Oxford, 1989), 75–6.Google Scholar

17 For marriages in Holy Trinity Minories, see Tomlinson, E.M., A History of the Minories (London, 1907), 232–9.Google Scholar Allhallows, London Wall, began acting as such a centre in the 1640s: Finlay, , Population and Metropolis, 60.Google Scholar

18 See, Durston, C., ‘Unhallowed wedlocks: the regulation of marriage during the English Revolution’, Historical Journal, 31 (1988), 46–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The parish register of St George, Southwark, recorded the marriage of ‘Thomas Makins and Margaret Savadge of the new fashion’ in October 1644 whilst that of St Botolph, Bishopsgate demonstrates that most weddings after May 1644 were ‘by certificate’; see Guildhall Library, The Parish Register of St George Southwark, Challen Ms 29, 174Google Scholar; Hallen, , Register of Bishopsgate.Google Scholar

19 For descriptions, see Kirk, R., ‘London in 1689–90, part III’, transcribed by D. Maclean, London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, n.s. 6 (19291933), 657Google Scholar; Misson, M., Memoirs and Observations in his Travels Over England (1719), trans. J. Ozell, 183–4. Misson wrote in 1697.Google Scholar

20 For histories of these two centres, see Burn, , History of the Fleet Marriages (2nd ed., 1834), 15Google Scholar, esp. notes 1,4. See also Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 119.Google Scholar

21 This estimate is slightly lower than the more general figures supplied by Tomlinson and Phillimore and Cokayne reported in Brown, ‘Fleet marriages’, 119.

22 In 1700 about 15 per cent of all couples marrying at the Fleet came from outside London: Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 124–5.Google Scholar For population estimates for London, see Finlay, , Population and Metropolis, 51.Google Scholar

23 For the privileged area in St George's, see Burn, , Fleet Marriages, 137–8.Google Scholar See Clarke, A.W.H. and D'Elboux, R.H. (eds), The Registers of St Katherine by the Tower (19451949), Harliean Society vols. 76–7.Google Scholar

24 For the appropriate legislation see, 5 & 6 William and Mary c. 21; 6 & 7 William III c. 6 and 7 & 8 William III c. 35. See also Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 119–20.Google Scholar For an important account of the Acts' impact on London see Brown, , ‘Clandestine marriages’, 50, 257–9.Google Scholar

25 Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 50, 257.Google Scholar

26 For the pretended privileges of St Katherine's, see, Clarke, A.W.H. (ed.), The Registers of St Katherine's by the Tower, part I, Harleian Society 75 (1945), v–viGoogle Scholar; Lea, F.S., The Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of Saint Katherine near the Tower in its Relation to the East of London (1878), 116–17.Google Scholar

27 Lasiert, P. (ed.), 17th century MS. Book of Gregory King, rpt. in The Earliest Classics: John Graunt and Gregory King (Farnborough, 1973), 97.Google Scholar See also Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 257.Google Scholar

28 Misson, , Memoirs and Observations, 183.Google Scholar For Elliott's work, see Elliott, V.B., ‘Mobility and marriage in pre-industrial England’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1978), 1017, 95–9.Google Scholar

29 See, Boulton, J., ‘Itching after private marryings?’, London Journal, 16, 1 (1991), 1534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30 For the Commission, see Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 119Google Scholar; Brown, , ‘Clandestine marriages’, 50, 257.Google Scholar The order was recorded in the registry of the Bishop of London, Guildhall MS 9531/17, fo. 94r-95v. The sentence on the minister of Duke's Place was relaxed after three months, Guildhall MS 9531/17, fo. 96r.

31 Both the Faculty Office and the office of the Vicar General of the Archbishop of Canterbury were sited in London and customarily sold large numbers of licences to Londoners. They, too, experienced a revival of business when the clandestine centres were closed down; see Cokayne, G.E. and Fry, E.A. (eds), Calendar of Marriage Licences issued by the Faculty Office 1632–1714, British Record Society 33, 1905.Google Scholar Both the Faculty Office and that of the Vicar General continued to experience a revival in business after 1700. In 1730 together they issued 2,700 licences. See Barber, M., ‘Records of marriage and divorce in Lambeth Palace Library’, Genealogists Magazine, 20, 4 (1980), 109–17.Google Scholar

32 Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 120.Google Scholar

33 An Act of Parliament intended to eliminate the use of the prison chapel by imprisoning offending clergy in the county gaol had the effect of increasing the number of private chapels in the area outside the prison: Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 121–2.Google Scholar

34 For the exact area covered by the Rules, see Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 117, n. 3.Google Scholar

35 Information from the late Amanda Copley, who worked extensively on the Fleet registers whilst undertaking a family reconstitution of the parish of St James, Clerkenwell. Even this may be a conservative estimate. Mr Stephen Hale found that 295 out of a sample of 709 Fleet weddings of Kentish couples were duplicates: Mr Anthony Benton, private communication.

36 Brown, , ‘Clandestine marriages’, 258.Google Scholar

37 For additional evidence which suggests that around 59 per cent of plebeian Londoners marrying 1750–51 married at the Fleet, see Kent, D.A., ‘“Gone for a soldier”: family breakdown and the demography of desertion in a London parish, 1750–1791’, Local Population Studies, 45 (1990).Google Scholar

38 These returns are in Lambeth Palace Library, Fulham Papers London, Terrick 6/fos lr–4v,38r,104r-105r,111r.

39 For recent, indirectly calculated estimates, see, Schofield, R.S., ‘English marriage patterns revisited’, Journal of Family History, 10, 1 (1985), 220.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed For higher figures from Tetbury, Gloucestershire, see Wrigley, E.A., ‘Clandestine marriages in Tetbury in the late seventeenth century’, Local Population Studies, 10 (1973), 1521.Google Scholar

40 Cobbett, W. (ed.), The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, vol. XV, 1753–65 (1813), 47.Google Scholar

41 See Steel, D.J., National Index of Parish Registers (1968), 301–2.Google Scholar

42 The parish clerk of St Botolph, Aldersgate, explained the recovery of marriage after the Hardwicke Act partly by reference to the fact that the fees in Aldersgate were ‘larger than many other churches, it is probable that when People were at liberty, many married where it could be done cheapest’. Lambeth Palace Library, Fulham Papers London/Terrick 6/fo. 67r.

43 For details of London parish fees see Boulton, ‘Itching after private marryings’, passim.

44 Guildhall MS 25665. Lambeth Palace Library CM7/105. The parish of Stepney charged 6s 8d from 1684. The lowest fees charged in Restoration London were, in addition to those of Cripplegate, those of St Sepulchres, 3s, and Whitechapel, 3s 6d. See Guildhall MS 9531/18, fos 19v, 124r-v; 9531/16, fo. 200v.

45 For the Minories, see Tomlinson, E.M., A History of the Minoriez (London, 1907), 406.Google Scholar For the Fleet's fees, see Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 124.Google Scholar

46 For a recent account of marriages by licence conducted for this reason amongst the middling sort of Restoration London, see Earle, , Making of the Middle Class, 178–80.Google Scholar

47 Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 127–9.Google Scholar

48 For the importance of the so-called ‘big wedding’, thought to be a declining custom in the seventeenth century, see Gillis, , For Better, For Worse, 5583.Google Scholar See also Malcolmson, R.W., Popular Recreations in English Society 1700–1850 (Cambridge, pbk ed. 1979), 1516.Google Scholar

49 See Misson on the continuing secrecy of Londoners' weddings, after which the couple were supposed to ‘steal softly out, one one way, and t'other another, either on Foot, or in Coaches; go different ways to some Tavern at a Distance from their own Lodgings, or to the House of some Trusty Friend, there have a good Dinner, and return Home at Night as quietly as Lambs': Misson, , Memoirs and Observations, 351–2.Google Scholar

50 For this custom, see, Misson, , Memoirs and Observations, 352.Google Scholar

51 See Chartres, J., ‘Food consumption and internal trade’, in Beier, A.L. and Finlay, R. (eds), The Making of the Metropolis. London 1500–1700 (Harlow, 1986), 170–84Google Scholar; Weatherill, L., Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain (London, 1988), 2590.Google Scholar

52 Wrigley, E.A., ‘Clandestine marriage in Tetbury’, 1521Google Scholar; Wrigley, and Schofield, , Population History of England, 428Google Scholar; Lawley, J., ‘Non-conformist marriage in Tetbury’ (unpublished paper in library of Cambridge Group)Google Scholar; Landers, J., ‘Some problems in the historical demography of London, (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1984), 81123.Google Scholar For marriage, see ibid., 96–101.

53 Misson, , Memoirs and Observations, 349.Google Scholar

54 For a recent account of the course of dissent in Restoration London, see Harris, T., London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II (Cambridge, 1987), 6295.Google Scholar

55 For an example, see GLRO, DL/C/237, fos 34v-38r.

56 See Harris, , London Crowds, 66.Google Scholar See also, De Krey, G.S., A Fractured Society. The Politics of London in the First Age of Party 1688–1715 (Oxford, 1985), 7487.Google Scholar For the lower estimate see that of Watts, M.R., cited in Port, M.H. (ed.), The Commissions for Fifty New Churches, London Record Society 23 (1986), ix, 3n.Google Scholar

57 See Harris, , London Crowds, 6870.Google Scholar

58 In the 1690s the total number of Quaker marriages in London and Middlesex was less than 1 per cent of the 5,750 expected from the metropolis: Landers, , ‘Problems in the historical demography of London’, 123.Google Scholar

59 Most Fleet parsons were legally ordained, see Brown, ‘Fleet marriages’, 122, 128.Google Scholar The ministers of Duke Place and the Minories were also ordained ministers.

60 For wedding fees and the cost of licences, see Boulton, , ‘Itching after private marryings’.Google Scholar

61 Gally, H., Some Considerations upon Clandestine Marriages (London, 2nd ed. 1750), 132, rpt.Google Scholar in Trumbach, R. (ed.), Marriage, Sex, and the Family in England 1660–1800. The Marriage Act of 1753, four tracts (New York, 1984).Google Scholar

62 Some 35 couples out of around 1,895 in the period when such exceptions were recorded, 1.85 per cent. For the register see, GLRO P93/DUN/267,268.

63 Kirk, R., ‘London in 1689–90, part II’, London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, n.s. 6 (19291933), 495.Google Scholar

64 Gillis, , For Better, For Worse, 96.Google Scholar See also, Gillis, J.R., ‘Conjugal settlements: resort to clandestine and common law marriage in England and Wales, 1650–1850’, in Bossy, J. (ed.), Disputes and Settlements. Law and Human Relations in the West (Cambridge, 1983), 265–70.Google Scholar

65 Single London men married at 27.6, London-born brides at 20.5 and migrant brides (the majority) at 24.1, see Finlay, , Population and Metropolis, 139.Google Scholar

66 For remarriage in London, see Brodsky, V., ‘Widows in late Elizabethan London: remarriage, economic opportunity and family orientation’, in Bonfield, L., Smith, R. and Wrightson, K. (eds), The World We Have Gained. Histories of Population and Social Structure (Cambridge, 1986), 122–54.Google Scholar See also Boulton, J., ‘London widowhood revisited: the decline of remarriage in seventeenth century London’, Continuity and Change, 5, 3 (1990), 323–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

67 For the occupations of those marrying at the Fleet, see Brown, , ‘Fleet marriages’, 126.Google Scholar

68 For low bridal pregnancy in London, see Finlay, , Population and Metropolis, 149–50.Google Scholar For the national trend, see Smith, R.M., ‘Marriage processes in the English past: some continuities’, in Bonfield, Smith and Wrightson (eds), The World We Have Gained, 8492.Google Scholar For an assertion that the sexual content of courtship in eighteenth-century London was extremely high, see Wilson, A., ‘Illegitimacy and its implications in mid-eighteenth-century London: the evidence of the Foundling Hospital’, Continuity and Change, 4, 1 (1989), 103–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

69 Chartres, , ‘Food consumption’, 170–6.Google Scholar

70 For London's role in promoting social emulation, see Wrigley, E.A., ‘A simple model of London's importance in changing English society and economy, 1650–1750’, rpt. in Abrams, P. and Wrigley, E.A. (eds), Towns in Societies. Essays in Economic History and Historical Sociology (Cambridge, pbk ed., 1979), 232–4, 239.Google Scholar For consumer behaviour, see Weatherill, , Consumer Behaviour and Material CultureGoogle Scholar; McKendrick, N., Brewer, J. and Plumb, J.H., The Birth of a Consumer Society. The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London, 1983).Google Scholar For the growth of privacy in upper-class family life, see Stone, , Family, Sex and Marriage, 253–7.Google Scholar

71 LPL Fulham Papers London/Terrick 6/fo. 67r. For the growth of leisure and alcohol consumption in the capital, particularly after the turn of the eighteenth century, see Daunton, M.J., Towns and economic growth in eighteenth-century England’, in Abrams and Wrigley (eds), Towns in Societies, 252–5Google Scholar; Chartres, , ‘Food consumption and internal trade’, 174–6.Google Scholar

72 See Brown, , ‘Fleet Marriages’, 128.Google Scholar Surely the most bizarre being that perpetrated by Alexander Keith, who kept the embalmed body of his wife on show to attract custom, see Burn, , Fleet marriages, 143, n.2.Google Scholar

73 Boulton, , ‘Itching after private marryings’, 26–9.Google Scholar

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