About English Ancestors

Genealogist.

Annie Elizabeth & James: a marital relations masterclass

In this post and the next we have a case study in two parts: a sort of marital relations masterclass courtesy of my ill-starred biological GG grandparents.  I used Rebecca Probert’s books Marriage Law for Genealogists and Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved to help me clarify the legalities.  I hope it will help you to look at any marital inconsistencies with fresh eyes.  You’ll also see how understanding the law and context of events can (sometimes!) help you see them from the viewpoint of your ancestors.

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The marriage
15th Jan 1866: James and Annie Elizabeth are married at St Peter’s church, Leeds.  It’s likely they have known each other only a few weeks: James is not long out of prison, having been sentenced in April 1865 to 8 months for larceny.  Both give their age as 18, but Annie Elizabeth is not quite 15½.  Their only witness is James’s older sister, Mary Elizabeth.  James and Mary Elizabeth sign; Annie Elizabeth (who we shall see from later documents is literate) only makes her mark.

Analysis: Is the marriage legal?
From the perspective of age?
Yes.  Until the Marriage Act 1929 the minimum age for marriage was 12 for girls and 14 for boys.  (After that Act it was raised to 16 for both.)

From the perspective of lack of parental approval?
Being under 21, both Annie Elizabeth and James were minors.  Not until 1970 would the age of majority be reduced to 18.  However, marriage after banns did not require an active, public statement of parental approval.  Rather the dissent of parents during the three-week period of the publishing of the banns would prevent the ceremony from going ahead.  Here, there was no voiced dissent, therefore the marriage was not invalidated by lack of consent.

From the perspective of elements of deceit?
What if James thought Annie Elizabeth was 18?  What about the fact that Annie Elizabeth was able to sign and yet didn’t?  The issue here would seem to be around the concept of ‘knowingly and wilfully’ failing to comply with the law, a concept introduced by the 1823 Marriage Act.  However, if it wasn’t a problem in the eyes of the law that Annie Elizabeth was just 15, then it’s likely that even if James thought otherwise this would not be an issue.  Similarly, although Annie Elizabeth may have been trying to distance herself in some way from the event by not adding her signature to the paperwork when she could have, a ‘mark’ was sufficient for the law.  In any case, we don’t know if Annie Elizabeth did deceive James; and even if she did, the fact remains that the marriage was not contested.  It is therefore valid.

*****

Two lots of nine months
4th June 1866: James is brought before magistrates at Dewsbury, charged with stealing a horse.  He is also ‘wanted’ in Leeds for another similar crime.  On 4th July he is found guilty and sentenced to seven years penal servitude.
At the time of the arrest Annie Elizabeth is about 4 months pregnant.  The baby, George, is born in November 1866.  By this time, James is serving an initial nine months under the ‘Separate’ system at Wakefield Convict Prison.  Designed to ‘break’ new prisoners, this involved keeping the individual in solitary confinement, allowing them to see and speak with only the prison warders.  Possibly he doesn’t even know he has a son.
By the time George is baptised in July 1867, James’s nine months under the Separate system are over and he has moved south for the next stage of his sentence.  Meanwhile, aged just 16, Annie Elizabeth is facing life as a single parent with no support, alongside the expectation that she respect the sanctity of her condition as a married woman.

Analysis: What are Annie Elizabeth’s options?
Could the marriage be annulled on the grounds of the falsifications?
No.  And to attempt to rely on them now could be an admission of perjury.

Might she have considered remarriage? 
There was great confusion at the time about the seven-year rule under which if, after a period of seven years of no contact the abandoned partner genuinely believed their spouse was dead, the marriage could be considered at an end.  Many focused only on the ‘seven years’ aspect of this rule, believing they were safe to marry after seven years living apart.  But a remarriage in such circumstances is always bigamous.  It would not have been a legal option for Annie Elizabeth.

*****

2nd April 1871: the census
James is an inmate at Chatham Public Works Prison.
Meanwhile, back in Leeds:
Little George has a new surname and is listed with his aunt Mary Elizabeth (she who witnessed the marriage) and husband.
Annie Elizabeth is eight months pregnant and listed as the wife of John William.  When their baby is born the following month, she will be baptised as the illegitimate daughter of Ann Elizabeth whose ‘absent husband was transported 5 years ago’.

Analysis: adoption and adultery
At some point between George’s baptism in July 1867 and the census of April 1871, George has been adopted by Mary Elizabeth and her husband.  This suggests he was given up by his mother either because she couldn’t support him, or because the new man in her life refused to support the child of another man.  Prior to The Adoption of Children Act of 1926, such informal adoptions in England and Wales were the norm. 

Has Annie Elizabeth committed a crime?
Not so many decades earlier, Annie Elizabeth and John William would have been hauled before the church courts and punished severely for adultery and fornication.  However, they have not gone through a marriage ceremony, therefore their relationship is not bigamous, and therefore no criminal act has occurred.

*****

James returns
14th December 1871: A Licence is signed for James’s early release: a reduction of 19 months for good behaviour.  He returns to Leeds.  Does he believe Annie Elizabeth will be waiting for him?  Is he shocked to find her with another man and new baby?  Or perhaps the last 5½ years have provided time enough for James to reflect on past errors, and he now wishes to move on with his life?

Analysis: What are James’s options?
Legally, James and Annie Elizabeth are still married.  However, it’s complicated: their son is now settled as the child of his sister and her husband, while Annie Elizabeth is living with another man, with whom she has a baby.  James has two legal options: to ask Annie Elizabeth to return to him, and presumably to accept her child as his own, or to divorce her.

Since 1858 (Matrimonial Causes Act 1857) divorce has been available in England and Wales.  From the perspective of the husband, the only ground for divorce is adultery, which in this case can easily be proven.  On the other hand, petitioning for divorce is far too costly for a labouring man, newly released from prison.  It is out of the question.

*****

What James actually does
14th February 1872: James marries Margaret.  Given the time lapse since his release from prison, they cannot have known each other more than a few weeks.  James gives a false name for his father.  The address given for both on the marriage certificate is Mary Elizabeth’s, where little George, now aged five, also lives.  No doubt James is aware of George’s true identity.
After the ceremony James and Margaret move to Manchester.

Analysis: What crimes has James now committed?
Legally, James has not remarried; rather he has ‘gone through a second marriage ceremony’.  It is that which is the definition of bigamy.  The ‘marriage’ to Margaret has no legal standing at all, and children born of that marriage will be illegitimate.

However, in ‘going through a second marriage ceremony’, James has not only committed the crime of bigamy; he has also violated the conditions of his Licence, which stipulate that he ‘abstain from any Violation of the Law’.  Any violation would result, in addition to any new sentence, in reimprisonment for the remaining months of the original sentence.

*****

The story continues next week…

Marriage Law for Genealogists

Last month I reviewed Rebecca Probert’s book Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved.  Today’s book, Marriage Law for Genealogists, is by the same author.  The contents are pretty much summed up in the subtitle: ‘What everyone tracing their family history needs to know about where, when, who and how their English and Welsh ancestors married.’  Dealing with marriage law from 1600 to the present day, it applies to our English and Welsh ancestors only because English law doesn’t extend to other parts of the United Kingdom.

The first edition of this book pre-dated Divorced, Bigamist and Bereaved, and you might think it would have made sense for me to read and review them in that order too.  However, I had urgent divorce and bigamy knowledge requirements (which I will outline in next week’s post, a sort of marital relations masterclass provided courtesy of my natural GG grandparents…)

Rebecca Probert is a rare thing: a Professor of Law, the leading authority on the history of the marriage laws of England and Wales, and also a keen genealogist.  She is therefore able to debunk a number of common misunderstandings relating to marriage that have been published in other genealogy texts, and she does that in the first chapter.

One of the most important things I’ll take away from this book is the central point that the authorities actively wanted couples who wished to marry to be so.  There were indeed severe punishments for ‘fornication’, including excommunication (not to mention the eternal punishment in the hereafter), fines, the stocks and whipping. Marriage was also central to the operation of the Poor Law, in the sense that a wife and all legitimate children took their father’s settlement rights at birth.  Illegitimate children, on the other hand, took the settlement not of their mother, but of the parish in which they were born.  A destitute, unmarried family, therefore – even if the father were present – could be resettled in (i.e. sent back to) several different parishes – the father to his, the mother to the parish of her birth, and the children each to the parish in which they were born.  Legitimacy of children was also an important factor if there was property to be shared out after the death of the parents: illegitimate children (even if the parents remained together) would not inherit.  Younger, legitimate offspring would easily succeed in an action preventing the passing of a share of an inheritance to an older child born before the parents’ wedding.  It wasn’t until 1926 that children could be legitimised retrospectively by the eventual marriage of their parents.

So they are the downsides of not marrying; but what I hadn’t realised was that the Law would bend over as far backwards as possible to ensure that those who did go through a marriage ceremony would indeed be considered married, even if the ceremony fell short of certain statutory requirements.  These are dealt with over four chapters:
Who your ancestors married – including mental capacity, bigamy, divorce, same-sex marriage and the ‘prohibited degrees’;
How they married – including banns, licences, civil marriages and non-Anglican religious marriages;
When they married – including age restrictions, parental consent, and restrictions/ preferences for time of day, year and days of the week;
Where they married – including ‘clandestine’ marriages, with reasons for marrying in another parish, marriages at The Fleet, and marriage of English/Welsh nationals in other parts of the world.

I must admit that as I was reading this, at times I wondered what to do with the information I now had.  My concern is with the life and times of my ancestors, not with the impropriety or voidability of a happy union.  Take as an example the section on ‘prohibited degrees of kinship’ (chapter 3).  Contrary to popular belief, English Law has never forbidden marriage between cousins.  However, other close relatives have fallen within the ‘prohibited degrees’, and of course some still do.  These include siblings, parent/child, grandparent/grandchild and marriages between uncle/aunt and nephew/niece.  But prior to the first half of the 20th century the rule didn’t stop there: historically in the eyes of the church, upon marriage a husband and wife became ‘one flesh’.  Consequently, the in-laws were as much a part of one’s family as one’s own parents, siblings, etc.  Therefore in the event of the death of a spouse, remarriage to one of the in-laws from the above categories was also considered incestuous.  Whether such a marriage would be void, voidable or even valid, depended on the year in which the marriage took place – the rules changed several times over the centuries.  As it happens I do have at least two marriages in my tree that fall within the prohibited degrees on account of remarriage after the death of the first spouse to an in-law.  In one of these, I took the fact of being prepared to marry for a second time within the same family as evidence of a good relationship between my great grandmother and her mother-in-law, particularly as my grandmother was named after that mother-in-law (my GG grandmother).  So a happy thing.  I now understand that legally these marriages were void – as though they never happened, and any children of the union were illegitimate.  However, it seems no-one realised, and they died still ‘married’ and probably blissfully unaware that they had been living in sin these past decades.  Really, then – what difference does it make, other than as a saucy bit of gossip – which doesn’t interest me anyway?

I then realised I was looking at this the wrong way.  The usefulness of knowing about such rules is to help us to troubleshoot.  Yes, these two couples in my tree ‘got away with it’ and no harm was done.  But what if your 4xG grandfather Robert marries Sarah and then six months later marries Mary?  No possibility of divorce, no burial record showing for Sarah.  Is Robert a bigamist?  He may be, and it’s also possible that Sarah’s burial record has been lost or mis-transcribed.  But this book gives us the information to be able to think of other possibilities – an annulment, perhaps?  If we know of the rules around void and voidable marriages, when we see something that doesn’t sit easily, we can use our knowledge to start to explore what might have happened.  In this example we could look to see if the marriage might have been within the prohibited degrees, or perhaps there was another reason for an annulment.

One thing I’ll now be exploring is the possibility that some of my missing marriages may have taken place in a different part of the country.  Evidence presented in chapter 6 shows that a surprising number of couples married out of their county of residence, or at the very least in a different parish, perhaps because of a family connection with that parish.

So, to conclude, this is a very useful book, but one you have to work at, and not aimed at beginners.  Not only is it a harder read than Divorce, Bigamist, Bereaved, but also following through on the information presented will require a fair bit of research and thinking outside the box.  That said, it has already resolved a few questions for me; and with an idea of what to look out for, it will be a useful addition to my bookshelf when I need to consult for the detail.

Click the book cover image to find the book on Amazon.co.uk
(Affiliate link)

1752: the year the calendar changed

The Julian calendar was introduced in 45BC by Julius Caesar.  Based on a solar year, it had twelve months, but a miscalculation of 11 minutes resulted in a leap year formula that overcompensated to the extent that every 128 years, a whole day was added.  By the 16th century, astronomical events such as the equinoxes and solstices were falling ten days early, and since the timing of Easter was linked to the vernal equinox, it was increasingly becoming removed from its proper season.  To overcome these problems, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the ‘Gregorian’ or ‘New Style’ Calendar.  Not all countries followed suit immediately.  In fact it wasn’t until 1927 when Turkey finally made the switch, that everyone was on board.  However, since the change-over involved cutting ten days from one month in the first year of adoption of the new calendar, countries that didn’t change over were ten days ahead of those that did.

It was in 1751-52, following the Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750, that the UK (and British dominions) adopted the Gregorian calendar.  By this time the UK calendar was eleven days out of sync with the astronomical events and seasons, and these days were removed in one fell swoop in September 1752.  In that year, September 2nd was followed by September 14th.  Many of our ancestors were distinctly unhappy about the loss of eleven days.  There was a genuine fear that their lives would be shortened by that number of days.  They were also concerned at the interference with the Church calendar, particularly with the moving of Easter, and on top of all that they objected to the imposition of what they viewed as the ‘popish’ calendar.  This may or may not have resulted in the ‘English Calendar Riots’ of 1752.  Many historians today view them as a sort of Georgian urban myth.

However, the removal of the eleven days was not the only important change to flow from the Act of 1750, and it is this other aspect that impacts upon us as genealogists.  Prior to 1752 the English year began on 25th March.  This was Lady Day, one of the four Quarter Days, the others being Midsummers Day (24th June), Michaelmas Day (29th September) and Christmas Day (25th December).  I first learned of Lady Day while studying Tess of the d’Urbervilles for English Literature A-level – it was the day tenancies changed and rents were due; and Tess, with her recently widowed mother and siblings, were evicted from their cottage.

Before 1752, then, December 31st and the next day, January 1st were in the same year.  The year continued until March 24th after which, on March 25th, the new year would begin.
The 1750 Act provided for a changeover involving the following series of steps:

  • 31st December 1750 was followed (as usual) by 1st January 1750, and 24th March 1750 was followed by 25th March 1751.
  • 1751 was a short year, running from 25th March to 31st December, then December 31st 1751 was followed by January 1st 1752.
  • Finally, with the removal of the eleven days in September 1752, September 2nd of that year was followed by September 14th.

For us as genealogists it’s the period between 1st January and 31st March in each year before 1752 that can confuse.  If you look at any parish register before this time you’ll see for yourself that the recording year did indeed start on 25th March and end on the 24th.  So if your ancestors married on 1st April 1632 and their first child was born on 1st February 1632, that child was born ten months after the marriage, not two months before it!  You might also have come across unlikely coincidences in record sets such as the birth of Elizabeth to parents James and Mary on 15th January 1732, and another Elizabeth to the same parents on 15th January 1733.  What really happened is that one transcriber amended the date to the Gregorian calendar and the other didn’t.

Historians and genealogists can get around this confusion by using a technique called ‘double dating’.  Any date after 25th March is recorded as usual (e.g. 1st April 1632).  However, any date from 1st January to 24th March is recorded in a way that recognises its position both within the Julian and the Gregorian calendars: e.g. 1st February 1632-33, or 1st February 1632/3.  If you’ve already got your research back to these earlier parish registers, you may decide to use this system.  However!!!! the online trees find it difficult to cope with.  After asking you repeatedly if you’re sure this date is correct, it will accept it but only show the earlier of the two years in the person’s profile.  Be strong!  It’s your tree!  😀

One final aside….
There’s another important side-effect of these changes, and one that remains with us today.  Formerly, being the start of the year as well as the first Quarter Day on which rents were due, Lady Day was also the start of the English tax year.  However, with the loss of the eleven days in September 1752, it was deemed appropriate to delay the collection of taxes to April 5th, thereby avoiding the loss of eleven days of tax revenue. That’s why, following another tweak to the calendar in 1800, the UK tax year starts on the surprising date of 6th April.  And after a quick revision online, I now see that the date in Tess of the d’Urbevilles is ‘Old Lady Day’: 6th April.  Is this an indication that a hundred years after the event, rural England hadn’t fully embraced the new calendar, or did landlords move the day rents were due to coincide with the new tax year…?

Finding Registration Districts and Parishes

In my last post I wrote about the different records produced by parishes and Registration Districts (RDs) in relation to births/baptisms, marriages and death/burials.

We’ve talked about parishes in recent posts, and the importance of their secular role alongside the spiritual.  We’ve also noted the existence of RDs in several past posts.  But what exactly is a Registration District?

In England and Wales, RDs came into being on 1st July 1837.  Until 1930 they were responsible for the registration of births, marriages and deaths.  The RDs didn’t always coincide with county boundaries, so they were grouped into ‘Registration Counties’.  This 1888 map of England and Wales shows counties, Registration Counties and Registration Districts.

If your ancestor lived in a big town or city, the RD might be quite obvious, e.g. Norwich.  However, some very large towns and cities were too big for just one RD.  What we think of as Leeds, for example, comprised several RDs over the period 1837-1930.

Since the introduction of civil registration closely followed the creation of Poor Law Unions, established by the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, it was the boundaries of the Unions that became the boundaries for the Registration Districts.  For a while the RDs even included the word ‘Union’, so you may come across an ancestor’s BMD registration at e.g. ‘Sevenoaks Union’ or ‘Dudley Union’.  This does not mean your ancestor was born or died in the workhouse. The ‘Union’ part was dropped in relation to civil registration around 1860.  In fact this apparent link to the ‘Poor Law’ had deterred many people from taking advantage of the new possibilities for civil marriage in the Register Office.  RDs and Poor Law Unions were all abolished in 1930, by the Local Government Act 1929, and their responsibilities transferred to the county councils and county boroughs.

You can find Registration District boundaries very easily, on the UKBMD website.
Click on the county of interest, e.g. Yorkshire West Riding.
Then on the RD, e.g. Hunslet.
At the top of the page you’ll see information about when this RD was created, the area it covers and where the registers are now held.

I’ve chosen Hunslet for a reason…  It has to be said that some of the boundaries appear to have been drawn up by crazy people!  For a brief period, from 1845-1861, Hunslet seems to have been created as a sort of ‘miscellaneous Registration District’, including many unlikely villages that were later thankfully reorganised to more suitable RDs.  You can see all the changes in a table at the bottom of the page.  I was completely thrown on one occasion by a birth that seemed to have taken place simultaneously in Hunslet and Horsforth.  Shortly after the time of that birth, Horsforth was, very sensibly, passed to the Wharfedale RD.  It was this UKBMD web page that helped me untangle it all.

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So now you know where to look for RD boundaries, you might also appreciate a similar resource for parish boundaries.  There’s an excellent map resource available through FamilySearch.
Enter a location in the search box, e.g. Bilston
If there’s more than one place of that name, all will appear.  Click on the one you need, e.g. Bilston Staffordshire.
The parish will be pinpointed on the map, showing its boundaries, and an Info box lists other places within that parish, the dates from which Parish Registers and Bishop’s Transcripts are available, etc.
Jurisdictions provides information relating to the County, Diocese, ecclesiastical Province, etc that Bilston falls/ has come within.  You’ll also see that the RD and Poor Law Union are shown, which in this case are Wolverhampton.  So we now know that BMDs will be registered there in Woverhampton, not at Bilston.
Options suggests other things you can do on this page, e.g. obtain a list of neighbouring parishes.

A very useful source, I think you’ll agree, particularly as our research takes us further back in time.  Note though, that the jurisdictions given are as at 1851.  We already know that some RDs changed their boundaries after this time (e.g. Hunslet).  Other changes included the creation of new parishes as populations increased.  E.g. Killingworth, mentioned in my last post as the burial place of Jonah Shepherd, was still part of the parish of Longbenton in 1851, only becoming a parish in its own right in 1865, following the development of the local coal mining industry.  So always remember – Google is also your friend!

Untangling places, parishes and Registration Districts

Jonah Shepherd was born in Yorkshire but in the late 1850s moved with wife Alice and daughter Jane to Germany.  They were still in Germany in 1872 when Jane married.  However, around 1873, Jane and her new German husband moved, first to London and then to Northumberland, after which their lives are well-documented.  Jonah’s German-born son, Christopher, is also to be found in Northumberland, in records from 1881 onwards.  But Jonah and Alice seem to disappear.  The only (online) indication that Jonah may have returned to England is several death records in Northumberland in 1889.

Bearing in mind that the last positive placing of Jonah was 17 years earlier in Germany, my only reason for thinking he may be in Northumberland is that his adult children are there.  The search is complicated by the fact that the series of death records I see are all in the same year but in different places: Tynemouth, Killingworth, Longbenton.  Could any of these be the man I was looking for, and if so, which one?

The answer is that they are all correct.  Killingworth (St John) is the church where Jonah was buried.  Before 1837 (pre-civil BMDs) the parish would have been the only place where his death (burial) was recorded.  But since 1837 the death is officially recorded at the relevant Registration District, and in this case that was Tynemouth.  Longbenton was the actual place of death given on public online trees by other people researching this family, but without further information I still couldn’t be sure this was my man.  Hoping that a known family member would be recorded as the informant, I sent for the death certificate, and I was in luck: Jonah’s son Christopher registered the death.  But I had another surprise too: Jonah actually died in yet another place: Dudley, which falls within the Longbenton sub-Registration District (where the death was actually registered), the Killingworth ecclesiastical parish and the Tynemouth Registration District!

One person, one death, four places of death; and all of them correct, depending on the focus of the record.

You may be absolutely certain that your ancestors lived in Village ‘X’, but the actual parish may be centred on an adjacent village ‘Y’, and it is here that, prior to 1837, the main BMB (Baptism, Marriage, Burial) record will be recorded.  Of course, even after 1837, people were still baptised, married and buried in churches, so you’ll still need to be aware of the connection between your ancestor’s abode and the nearest parish.  However, any such religious rites will now form a (very useful!) secondary record: since 1837 the introduction of civil BMDs means that the official record of all Births, Marriages and Deaths will be under the Registration District within which the event took place.

So which place should we record?  I record them all, but in slightly different places.  This is how I do it:

For civil birth and death registrations after 1837:
I copy the information directly from the General Register Office website. I then paste this into the notes section of the birth or death event on that person’s profile page, amending it by inserting the word ‘age’ for deaths, and the phrase ‘mother’s maiden name’ for births.  So this is what it says for Jonah:
SHEPHARD, JONAH, age 60. GRO Reference: 1889  M Quarter in TYNEMOUTH  Volume 10B  Page 147

However, if I do buy the certificate or if, through any other means (e.g. cemetery record, family documents), I know the actual residence at time of birth/death, I record that as the person’s place of birth/death.  For Jonah this is ‘Dudley’, or ‘Dudley, Longbenton’.

Parish records:
These generate a new event relating to a religious rite:

  • a baptism, which is not the same as the birth,
  • a marriage (plus banns),
  • a burial, which is not the same as death.
  • (Note: If you’re lucky, the vicar will also have recorded the actual date of birth or death, and you can insert these into the appropriate place on your ancestor’s profile.)

For these BMBs, I record the place where the event took place, and below that, in the event notes, I record any other information to be found on the relevant record.  For example:

Joseph Lucas was baptised at Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds in 1754.  That’s the place I record on the baptism event, and it would be tempting to record ‘Leeds’ as place of birth.  However, the record itself reads: ‘Joseph ye son of Nathaniel Lucas and Sarah, of Woodhouse’.  I transcribe this and add it to the notes for the baptism. This now also becomes evidence for Joseph’s actual place of birth, which is not Leeds as the baptism record set might have us believe, but Woodhouse (now very much part of Leeds, but in 1754 this was a separate village).  Woodhouse and Leeds are less than a mile apart, and some might think this is splitting hairs, but having this exact place of birth information for Joseph helped me solve a mystery relating to his origins and later apprenticeship and marriage.

All this applies whether the parish record is dated before or after 1837.  After that year you might use a combination of these parish and civil records to end up with several places, as I did with Jonah, but the basic fact remains that they can all be separated out:

  • Joseph’s place of birth was Woodhouse, and his place of baptism was Leeds, Mill Hill Chapel.
  • Jonah’s place of death was ‘Dudley’ or ‘Dudley, Longbenton’, his place of burial was Killingworth Saint John, Northumberland, and his death was officially recorded at Tynemouth.

In my next post I’ll share some really useful online resources to help you find parishes and Registration Districts, and to work out their boundaries.

Norwich’s medieval churches

Highly decorative medieval church

St Stephen  (Shame about the wheelie bin)

In a previous post we looked at why some of our historic English towns/cities had so many churches, and some of the implications of that for our family research.  I explained then that it was a chance entry on the 1861 census about one of the parishes within the city of Norwich that had brought all this to my attention.

Since discovering my Norwich ancestry, I’ve had several opportunities to visit the city and to photograph all the churches of interest in my family research.  On my last visit my trusty camera and I covered about 40km on foot, so I think by now I’m quite familiar with the lay of the land!  I can personally attest to (a) the beauty of these churches, and (b) the fact that often they’re situated literally paces from each other.  (How I came to cover 40km, then, in this area of a little over one squre mile, I can’t explain.  But the iPhone Health App doesn’t lie….)

Why were so many of these churches such fine buildings?

To answer that we must travel back in time to the origin of the English textile trade.  A significant part of this trade was based in Norwich and the surrounding lands, from where large quantities of woollen cloth were exported to Flanders in exchange for the finer and better finished cloth produced by the Flemish weavers.  Norwich’s geographical location was an important factor in its success.  Not only did the city’s proximity to the North Sea coast facilitate easy export of goods to the continent, but also Norwich benefited from several waves of migration, initially from the Low Countries, later also including Huguenot silk weavers from France.  There is evidence of the presence of migrant settlers in nearby Worstead as early as 1134.  However, it was the second wave of migration, dating from the 14th century, when Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, invited the ‘goode and trew weevers’ of Flanders to come over in large numbers, that helped to establish Norwich as England’s second city.  Thanks to these people, who became known as the ‘Strangers’, the early, primitive manufacture of woollen cloth in England was gradually transformed, with new techniques and higher quality standards.  Eventually, the manufacture of linen and woollen textiles in England would reach such a level of perfection that it was acknowledged throughout Europe as the best available, preferred to that of any other country.  Textiles woven in Norwich were considered the crème de la crème.

Fine medieval great church overlooking colourful market stalls

St Peter Mancroft, Norwich’s ‘Greater Church’, overlooking the market square which has been in continuous use for almost 1000 years

It was the wealthy cloth merchants who built the churches, clearly as a demonstration of their social standing and wealth; and as a reflection of the size, wealth and importance of the city; but also undoubtedly as a means of easing the way to heaven when the time came.  The distinctive feature is that most of the churches were built from locally found flint.  Several combine this with highly skilled, elaborate limestone flushwork.

Inside, too, the wealth of the merchants was amply demonstrated.  By the second half of the fourteenth century, an inventory of the ornaments of all the churches in the archdeaconry of Norwich shows the abundance of silk vestments and high altar palls owned by 46 of the churches.  By the time of the Reformation these treasures had increased many times over.  Norwich’s civic and ecclesiastical records show that following the decision of Parliament in 1643 to rid the nation’s churches of the last vestiges of Roman Catholicism, many fine paintings, crucifixes, statues, stained glass, seating, vestments and organ pipes were removed, smashed, destroyed and publicly burnt.  For the most part, though, the churches themselves remained standing.

Baptismal font with highly decorative wooden canopy

Baptismal font inside St Peter Mancroft where my 3xG grandfather was baptised. The highly decorative wooden canopy is an 1887 reconstruction

T. Kirkpatrick’s sketch of the North East Prospect of the City of Norwich gives an idea of what the city looked like in 1723.  Although several of the 63 original churches had been demolished in the 16th century, and a further one would follow in 1887, Hochstetter’s map demonstrates that by 1789, 36 churches remained.  That was also the year my 4xG grandparents were married at St Peter Mancroft.  Their son, my 3xG grandfather, would be baptised there six years later.

During the Second World War, Norwich’s beauty and historical significance, as highlighted in Baedeker’s guide, marked it out as a target for the Luftwaffe High Command.  The raids on the city that took place between 27th April and 19th October of 1942, continuing sporadically until 6th November 1943, became known as the Baedeker raids.  Accounting for 60 per cent of lives lost through air raids in Norwich during the war, and causing damage then requiring £1,060,000 worth of repairs, the raids were also responsible for the loss of five of the medieval churches, although St Julian, of particular historical significance as the late 14th century residence of Dame Julian of Norwich (whose work The Revelations of Divine Love is the first known book to be written in English by a woman) was rebuilt.

Today, then, 31 of the historic churches remain within the ancient, crumbling city walls, and Norwich can claim the largest collection of urban medieval churches of any city in Western Europe north of the Alps.  However, the majority of them no longer serve as chuches.  Three are under the care of The Churches Conservation Trust (search for ‘Norwich’ to find them) and one is in private ownership.  Since 1973, a further eighteen, managed by the Norwich Historic Churches Trust, have been brought back into use as community, cultural and arts centres.

St Michael Coslany church, showing richly decorated facades

Nicholas Groves has written an excellent book about The Medieval Churches of the City of Norwich, which has accompanied me on all my meanderings across the city.  It’s widely available in Norwich bookshops.  I bought my copy in the little bookstore within St Peter Mancroft.

Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved

I bought this book primarily because I was confused by the historic application of the law on bigamy.  I knew of a ‘seven-year rule’ for spouses living apart and a ‘presumption of death’ if there had been no contact during this seven-year period, but I also knew there was more to it than that.  What, exactly, were the rules for remarriage without divorce in our ancestors’ times?  As confusing as this might be for us, I quickly learned that it was frequently misunderstood by our ancestors too.

The full title of Rebecca Probert’s book is Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved: the family historian’s guide to marital breakdown, separation, widowhood and remarriage: from 1600 to the 1970s.  In it, she sets out the law, including changes over this period, in five chapters: Divorced, Separated, Bigamist, Bereaved and Remarriage to the Same Person.  The rules are illustrated with actual cases and contemporary newspaper stories, as well as question and answer sections.

It’s as well to start with the law on divorce, since it was the inaccessibility of that for most people that forced many to resort to the alternative, non-legal options.  In England and Wales, the Reformation hadn’t changed the central tenet that marriage, once validly entered into, was indissoluble except by death.  However, from the 1660s, wealthy men were able to secure private Acts of Parliament allowing them, on the grounds of adultery of the wife, to consider the marriage at an end, and to remarry as if their erstwhile spouse were ‘naturally dead’.  Even at the time it didn’t go unnoticed that the rich could effectively buy their right to the freedom to remarry, while the poor faced serious criminal charges and severe punishment if they did the same.

It wasn’t until 1858 that the possibility of divorce was opened up to all.  Even so, the court and legal costs, travel expenses to London to the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, and the travel and accommodation expenses of all witnesses if the petition was contested, would clearly put this remedy out of reach for the vast majority of people.  And even then, prior to 1937 the only ground on which a man could divorce his wife was adultery; while until 1923 a woman could bring an action for divorce only on the grounds of adultery combined with an aggravating factor, being: incest, bigamy, cruelty, desertion, rape, sodomy or bestiality.

Little surprise, then, that so many of us come across ancestors who seem to have remarried without having divorced the original spouse.  Of course they are easier for us to spot in the censuses than before 1841.  We find them ‘married’ with a new spouse, although we can clearly see their original spouse, still very much alive, a few streets away, ‘widowed’, ‘unmarried’ or perhaps also ‘married’ to someone new. Whatever the circumstances, any such marriage is bigamous, and in earlier times the punishment would have been death, transportation, imprisonment or branding.  In the absence of a divorce / private Act of Parliament dissolving the former marriage, the only airtight ground for remarriage was the confirmed death of the original spouse.  However, by the early 19th century the courts developed a presumption that a spouse who had not been heard of for seven years could be presumed dead.  This, then, is the origin of the much-misunderstood ‘seven-year rule’.  However, even then, there was an expectation that the remaining spouse genuinely believed their husband/wife to be dead, and had made efforts to find them.  Simply living apart for seven years did not qualify.  And even after an absence of many, many years, if the absent spouse turned up alive, the marriage would once more be valid, any interim marriage void, and any offspring of that second marriage retrospectively illegitimised.

Alongside situations like this there are of course cases of bigamy where the perpetrator’s behaviour is blatantly criminal – bigamy with intent to defraud the new spouse out of her inheritance; ‘spontaneous’ bigamy (speeded up by obtaining a licence) designed purely so that the perpetrator could have his wicked way, with the full intention of leaving her the next day…  In time, the courts would come to distinguish between those acting with such criminal intent and those who simply didn’t understand, or who at the very least were just trying to move on with their lives after a failed union.  The latter would still be found guilty, the second marriage still void, but the actual punishment much reduced.

Rebecca Probert cites letters in newspaper advice columns requesting guidance on whether remarriage in certain situations would be legal.  There’s no doubt that people didn’t understand the law; or if they did, they saw little to respect in a system so absurd that different rules regarding the sanctity of marriage applied to the haves and the have-nots.  Gradually, this came to be understood even by the courts, and after World War I the law started to move towards the divorce provisions we have today.  (Incidentally, if you watched the final episode of A House Through Time series 2 (Newcastle), the expert who talked to David Olusoga about the post-WW1 bigamy and divorce situation was Rebecca Probert.  Perfect timing! 😊)

It definitely helps to understand the context when we come across questionable behaviour by our ancestors.  It’s easy to have this mental picture of a bigamist as the person in the driving seat – the one who decides to marry twice (or more), stringing all other parties along and leaving havoc in their wake.  But this book introduces us to those who married bigamously because they were the ones who had been deserted, when finding a new partner was their own best chance at survival.  Take as an example a woman whose husband has deserted her and her young children.  With little chance of being able to support her family long-term, she has the choice of relying on the charity of the parish Guardians – which may lead to admission to the workhouse or at the very least having the children taken away and sent as ‘parish apprentices’ to the northern textile mills (see previous post about Robert Blincoe); or marrying again.  And yet in marrying again – probably the preferred option from the persepctive of the local parish Guardians – she would be committing bigamy.

Although I started this book wanting to understand more about the law surrounding bigamy, it has helped several other puzzles fall into place.  In particular, I’ve made my peace with my natural 2xG grandmother whose divorce petition was… not absolutely truthful.

This is an easy and enjoyable book, to read through once to get the overview, and then to keep on your bookshelf to consult when you need the detail, as new ancestral marital situations come to light.

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