Monday, October 19, 2009
Regency Marriages and Annulments
Despite what you’ve no doubt read in many historical novels, annulments in Regency England were not easy to obtain.
The old fictitious “we can get our marriage annulled if we don’t consummate it” did not apply in Regency England, nor to my knowledge, at any time in England. Annulments were never easy, quick or painless. Marriages that could be annulled were invalid from the beginning; when either person was already married, when one was under the permitted age, when a minor married by license without proper permission (this included any illegitimate child marrying by license without permission from a guardian appointed by chancery court), or if a person was insane or so feebleminded s/he did not know what she was doing. Then there were annulments granted because of errors in names when people married by banns, because the couple was within prohibited degrees of relationships (i.e. consanguinity), and when one of the couple was impotent (but this have to be proven by a medical examination). A marriage could also be annulled if one party was incapable of sexual intercourse, or absolutely refused to consummate. The absolute refusal was considered the same as impotency, especially that when the person refused to state the reason(s) why.
All questions of validity of marriages were handled by the church courts in England.
Marriages were either valid, void, or voidable. A void marriage is a marriage that never was or had claim to validity. If someone has a spouse living and marries another without obtaining a divorce, the second marriage is void. If a minor married by license without permission, the marriage was void by the Hardwick act. Most void able marriages were marriages between persons within the prohibited decree of affinity and consanguinity. These had to be challenged while the couple was alive. Voidable marriages could not be voided after death of one of the couple.
If a woman’s marriage was annulled, she was reduced from wife to concubine, and her children were illegitimate. Nice, huh? The one time husband was not required to support her or pay her alimony as he had to do if they were separated or had a parliamentary divorce. Despite this, sometimes the wife was the one who instituted the suit in order to be free of the marriage. I asssume the marriage had to be pretty bad to be willing to be reduced to a concubine!
However, if neither sued for annulment, the marriage was valid. Again, consummation was not a requirement.
In my book, the Stranger She Married, the hero hinted that they could have their marriage annulled if she was truly unhappy. The reason for this is because his face was hidden from her and which might have been considered a kind of deception. I found historical precident for it, but I don't know if it really would have worked. Still, since they didn't use it, it didn't really matter. ;-)