Bigamy bigamy – so good he married twice

For those of you in the UK, I hope you’re enjoying David Olusoga’s third BBC series A House through Time based on a Georgian house in Bristol.  In a recent episode, a programme ‘character’ was a shadowy guy who, in the late 1790s/early 1800s married a resident’s daughter by licence.   This chap was already married and his first wife was still alive…

Now I love this programme but content decisions are made due to time constraints and this episode omitted some really important and interesting points about marriage licences and bigamy so here goes…

Olusoga’s programme pointed out a £1,000 penalty for lying about ‘impediments’ on a marriage licence and explained it was to dissuade someone from committing bigamy.  £1,000 is a stiff fine today but at the turn of the 18/19th century was the equivalent of  over £83,000. Some disincentive! The programme glossed over the fact marrying by licence was quicker.  It was also more discrete!

The majority of couples married by banns.  This required the church minister to declare their names in the Sunday service for three consecutive weeks.  It gave a chance for someone in the congregation to speak out should they know one of the prospective couple was already married.  A current spouse is the ‘impediment’ in the phrase ‘does anyone know of an impediment?   Although we know it’s a formality to ask the question, everyone today still holds their breath for a fraction of a second.  What if…?

As a result of the nineteenth century population explosion, it was common in the 1840s, 50s and 60s for up to thirty (and more) couples to be married in the same church at the same time.  So many babies were born, mass baptisms were expedited.    

If you were prominent in a community; the lawyer, the family doctor, local squire, did you want to be married alongside a road sweeper, agricultural labour and spinner?  Of course not.  So you married by licence and paid more for the privacy it afforded.  As a bonus, your names weren’t prattled in front of the hoi palloi every Sunday for three consecutive weeks.   Nine months later, the baby was baptised privately…

Back to our house in Bristol and the bigamy element.  Until the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1857, divorce was impossible!   It required an individual Act of Parliament, a humungous amount of money and only 300 divorces in total were realised before this date.    

The penalty for bigamy at the beginning of the nineteenth century was more than severe.  A bigamist could be executed!        Yes, it was a capital felony until 1 July 1828.    The marriage licence penalty of £1,000 was well worth the risk.

Even into the twentieth century, a bigamous husband (it was usually the man) was fined and/or sent to prison for six months.

You can read more in my book Tracing your Female Ancestors.