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
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.
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.
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