How to un­ravel those com­plex mar­riage mys­ter­ies on your fam­ily tree

Not all mar­riages are quite what they seem. looks at some of the tricky cou­plings that could trip up your fam­ily his­tory re­search

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Re­becca Probert

On 11 Au­gust 1858, Louisa De­necke mar­ried the Rev­erend Ge­orge Gyles in an Angli­can cer­e­mony. An en­tirely re­spectable union, one might as­sume, with noth­ing to alert the fam­ily his­to­rian to any­thing un­usual.

But al­though she de­scribed her­self as ‘spin­ster’ and used her maiden name, this was not Louisa’s first mar­riage. Just three months ear­lier she had made le­gal his­tory as the first per­son to be di­vorced un­der a new ju­di­cial process in­tro­duced by leg­is­la­tion the pre­vi­ous year, and Ge­orge him­self had been cited as the co-re­spon­dent.

This in it­self might seem rea­son enough for Louisa to gloss over her ear­lier mar­riage – di­vorce was not un­known in mid-19th­cen­tury Eng­land, but it was very rare. While Par­lia­ment had been pass­ing pri­vate di­vorce acts since the 1670s, only about 320 were ever granted. There was, how­ever, an­other rea­son for Louisa to be less than can­did, as the new law al­lowed Angli­can cler­gy­men to refuse to con­duct the re­mar­riage of some­one who had been di­vorced be­cause of their adul­tery. But it would have looked odd for the Rev­erend Ge­orge Gyles to marry in a reg­is­ter of­fice! By choos­ing a busy church away from where they lived, and us­ing Louisa’s maiden name, they min­imised the risk of such a re­fusal and en­sured their fu­ture re­spectabil­ity.

This, and sim­i­lar ex­am­ples of peo­ple hid­ing their sta­tus as di­vorcees, sug­gests that re­mar­riage af­ter di­vorce was more com­mon than of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics might in­di­cate. Even the phrase ‘sin­gle and un­mar­ried’, com­monly used at the time to in­di­cate that some­one was re­mar­ry­ing af­ter a di­vorce, is not ob­vi­ously guess­able to­day as a eu­phemism for ‘ di­vorced’ – even if it is tech­ni­cally ac­cu­rate.

Ac­cord­ing to the Reg­is­trar- Gen­eral’s re­ports, the num­ber of peo­ple de­scrib­ing them­selves as such crept up from a mere three in 1859 to more than 100 per year by the 1870s, al­though it was only in the 1920s that they ac­counted for more than one per cent of mar­riages. By that time, in­di­vid­u­als tended to be more ex­plicit in de­scrib­ing them­selves as ‘ di­vorced’, al­though the ex­act phras­ing usu­ally made it clear who was at fault. The in­no­cent party would be de­scribed as ‘the for­mer spouse of X, from whom s/he ob­tained a di­vorce’, while the adul­ter­ous party would ap­pear as ‘the di­vorced spouse of Y’. So even with­out the di­vorce pa­pers, it is pos­si­ble to draw cer­tain in­fer­ences from the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate.

Of course, di­vorce it­self re­mained rel­a­tively rare be­fore the First World War. While the num­bers rose af­ter 1858, there were still only a few hun­dred each year. Those un­able to ob­tain a di­vorce might sim­ply sep­a­rate, whether for­mally or in­for­mally. Some formed a new union and went through a big­a­mous cer­e­mony to give it the ap­pear­ance of le­git­i­macy. For ob­vi­ous rea­sons we do not know ex­actly how many chose this op­tion: were the hun­dred or so pros­e­cuted each year merely a tiny frac­tion of those who went un­de­tected, or at least un­pun­ished?

It may well be that an an­ces­tor’s bigamy went undis­cov­ered un­til an as­sid­u­ous fam­ily his­to­rian pieced his (or oc­ca­sion­ally her) story to­gether. But big­a­mous an­ces­tors pose par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges for the fam­ily his­to­rian, as they were prone to chang­ing not

Re­mar­riage af­ter di­vorce was more com­mon than sta­tis­tics might in­di­cate

only their spouses and ad­dresses, but also their names, ages, and oc­cu­pa­tions. The name of a father might also be mis­recorded on the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate. Men were more likely to use an alias than women, al­though women might re­vert to their maiden name or add it to the name of their first hus­band when en­ter­ing into a big­a­mous union. One big­a­mous widow re­verted to her first hus­band’s name when she left her se­cond hus­band to marry a third! Oth­ers chose a name that would con­ceal their iden­tity but to which they still had some link, such as their mother’s maiden name, while oth­ers chose a com­pletely false one.

Prob­lem­atic re­mar­riages

All bigamists, of course, had to de­cide how to de­scribe their mar­i­tal sta­tus at the time of the se­cond mar­riage. As one might ex­pect, in­di­vid­u­als opted for what­ever was most plau­si­ble in the cir­cum­stances. Those en­ter­ing into a se­cond mar­riage at a young age were more likely to de­scribe them­selves as ‘spin­ster’ or ‘ bach­e­lor’; those with chil­dren al­most al­ways de­scribed them­selves as ‘widow’ or ‘wid­ower’; and those who were over the age of 35 were also likely to opt for this de­scrip­tion.

An­other cat­e­gory of prob­lem­atic re­mar­riages in­volves peo­ple who were le­git­i­mately de­scrib­ing them­selves as ‘widow’ or ‘wid­ower’ but whose re­mar­riages were none­the­less void – those en­ter­ing into a union with a sib­ling of their de­ceased spouse. The rea­son for pro­hibit­ing such unions was a the­o­log­i­cal one: hus­band and wife were ‘one flesh’, and on mar­riage a

per­son’s rel­a­tives be­came their spouse’s rel­a­tives as well. Be­fore 31 Au­gust 1835, such mar­riages had been ‘void­able’, that is to say they were open to chal­lenge dur­ing the joint life­time of the par­ties but valid un­less and un­til they were ac­tu­ally an­nulled by a court. Af­ter that date, though, while any such ex­ist­ing mar­riages were no longer open to le­gal chal­lenge, any fu­ture ones were void. De­spite fre­quent at­tempts at re­form, it was not un­til 1907 that mar­riages with the sis­ter of one’s de­ceased wife were val­i­dated, and women who wished to marry the brother of their de­ceased hus­band had to wait un­til 1921. Fur­ther leg­is­la­tion val­i­dat­ing mar­riages to a de­ceased spouse’s aunt, un­cle, niece, or nephew fol­lowed in 1931, but it was not un­til 1960 that it was pos­si­ble to marry a di­vorced spouse’s rel­a­tives.

The devil’s in the de­tail

With th­ese types of re­mar­riage, the de­tails on the two mar­riage cer­tifi­cates – the com­mon sur­name of the spouses, and in par­tic­u­lar the same father be­ing recorded – should put the ge­neal­o­gist on alert to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther.

Of­ten more baf­fling are those mar­riages where the par­ties lied about al­ready be­ing mar­ried to each other! Th­ese took a num­ber of dif­fer­ent forms: in some, the hus­band was a sol­dier, and the first mar­riage had taken place with­out the per­mis­sion of his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer; in oth­ers there had been an elope­ment, and the par­ties were go­ing through a se­cond cer­e­mony to re­as­sure fam­ily and friends that they were ac­tu­ally mar­ried. Other cases seem to be ex­pli­ca­ble only on the ba­sis that churches were of­fer­ingg some kind of in­cen­tive to cou­ples get­ting mar­ried – in one case, the same cou­ple went through three wed­dings at dif­fer­ent churches in the space of 18 months.

So, given that our an­ces­tors were not al­ways telling the truth about their sta­tus when go­ing through a mar­riage cer­e­mony, what other fac­tors should alert us to the ppos­si­bil­i­tyy of a mar­riageg not be­ingg qquite what it seems? One is the place the mar­riage was cel­e­brated. Peo­ple did not nec­es­sar­ily tell the truth about where they were liv­ing at the time of the mar­riage, but cen­suses and elec­toral rolls pro­vide the pos­si­bil­ity of cross­check­ing, at least for the 19th cen­tury. Those mar­ry­ing big­a­mously gen­er­ally tried to put some dis­tance be­tween their first and se­cond mar­riage venues, un­less they were liv­ing in a city so pop­u­lous as to vir­tu­ally en­sure anonymity. Oth­ers might re­sort to such cities to marry with­out too many ques­tions be­ing asked.

Cou­ples mar­ry­ing within the pro­hib­ited de­grees – ie a de­ceased spouse’s rel­a­tive – might even travel to a coun­try that did per­mit such mar­riages in the hope that this would val­i­date their union (al­though the English courts con­sis­tently held that it did not).

An­other way of mar­ry­ing with­out at­tract­ing at­ten­tion was to be strate­gic about how one mar­ried. Reg­is­ter Of­fice mar­riages were nor­mally per­fectly re­spectable affairs en­tered into by peo­ple who did not want to make a spe­cific religious com­mit­ment.

How­ever, it is no­tice­able that in mid19th-cen­tury Eng­land bigamists were twice as likely as other cou­ples to marry in a civil cer­e­mony. Mar­ry­ing ac­cord­ing to the rites of a re­li­gion or de­nom­i­na­tion to which nei­ther be­longed might also in­di­cate some el­e­ment of con­ceal­ment: one man con­victed of

bigamy in 1881 had mar­ried first in an In­de­pen­dent chapel and then in a Pres­by­te­rian one, trav­el­ling from Cum­bria to Lan­cashire to do so. Those re­mar­ry­ing in the Church of Eng­land might try to avoid the pub­lic call­ing of the banns by ob­tain­ing a li­cence or by giv­ing no­tice to the civil reg­is­trar. Mar­ry­ing ac­cord­ing to Angli­can rites on the ba­sis of a su­per­in­ten­dent reg­is­trar’s cer­tifi­cate was legally per­mis­si­ble, but was so un­usual as to raise ques­tions as to the cou­ple’s mo­ti­va­tion.

For­mal wit­nesses

A fur­ther ques­tion is who at­tended the wed­ding – or, at least, who for­mally wit­nessed the mar­riage? The ab­sence of rel­a­tives is not ev­i­dence that the par­ties had some­thing to hide, nor is their pres­ence a guar­an­tee of the mar­riage’s va­lid­ity, but in trial re­ports of big­a­mous cer­e­monies it is no­tice­able how of­ten the parish clerk or sex­ton were called upon to give the bride away or sign the reg­is­ter. Some­times their wife or daugh­ter would be pressed into ser­vice as a brides­maid as well.

The lack of any other at­ten­dees was suf­fi­cient to raise the sus­pi­cions of the sex­ton at the mar­riage of one ap­par­ently re­spectable cou­ple mar­ry­ing by li­cence in 1821. As a re­sult, he ‘took par­tic­u­lar no­tice’ of the groom and was able to swear to his iden­tity in his sub­se­quent trial for bigamy.

Of course, there are many cases where there is sim­ply noth­ing on the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate to in­di­cate any­thing out of the or­di­nary. The his­tory be­hind Louisa and Ge­orge’s re­mar­riage is a re­minder of the im­por­tance of search­ing as many sources as pos­si­ble, even if the facts of an an­ces­tor’s life ap­pear clear – de­tails of their di­vorce had ap­peared in The Times, and news­pa­pers of­ten car­ried re­ports of pros­e­cu­tions for bigamy. Even the pro­ceed­ings of mag­is­trates’ courts might be re­ported, par­tic­u­larly in Lon­don, and de­tails of a cou­ple’s mat­ri­mo­nial prob­lems and sub­se­quent sep­a­ra­tion thereby cap­tured for pos­ter­ity.

Fi­nally, while the ap­par­ent reg­u­lar­ity of a mar­riage cer­tifi­cate can hide an in­ter­est­ing back­story, ob­vi­ous ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties did not nec­es­sar­ily in­val­i­date a mar­riage. Knock­ing a few years off your age, for ex­am­ple, did not af­fect va­lid­ity. Even claim­ing to be ‘of age’ (21 years old) when you were in fact un­der­age only in­val­i­dated a mar­riage if you were mar­ry­ing by li­cence, with­out parental con­sent, be­tween 1754 and 1823.

Dur­ing that same pe­riod, hav­ing the banns called in a name you were not known by also in­val­i­dated a mar­riage, but af­ter 1823 this was only the case if both bride and groom knew of the de­cep­tion. In other words, cou­ples could flout var­i­ous le­gal re­quire­ments and still be legally mar­ried.

Most mar­riages were, of course, ex­actly what they seem to be – two peo­ple choos­ing to be­come man and wife to the ex­clu­sion of all oth­ers.

Re­becca Probert is Pro­fes­sor of Law at the Univer­sity of War­wick. Her books in­clude Mar­riage Law for Ge­neal­o­gists (2012), A Noble Af­fair (2013) and Di­vorced, Bigamist, Be­reaved? (2015)

Di­vorce was not un­known in the mid-19th cen­tury

this 1870 sketch shows court pro­ceed­ings

A num­ber of mar­riage laws were passed in the 19th cen­tury, in­clud­ing re­quire­ments for cen­tral reg­is­tra­tion

A wed­ding party from the turn of the 20th cen­tury

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