‘I will never marry you, you nutjob,’ I spit, but it doesn’t have the desired effect.
‘Luckily, I don’t need your permission.’
‘Yes you do.’
He grins. All I need is my friend, a minister at Fleet, to do the honours. And we are on the way there now.’ He leans I again. Once it’s done it can never be undone. That’s the law.’
Oh dear, that sounds grim, doesn’t it. Yet in the 17th century, marriage cost a lot of money, and it was the girl, or her father, who paid. In effect, it was a deal or business transaction, organised by the father and the prospective groom. A young girl who’s father was able to provide a big enough dowry on her behalf would be married – though not necessarily to a man she loved. And worse still, if the groom thought that the payment was not enough then he could change his mind and conduct his ‘business’ elsewhere. The prospective wife, usually a girl of no more than fourteen or fifteen, had little or no say.
Still, the phrase “until death do us part” meant a lot more then. Divorces were difficult to obtain and besides, they were not really necessary. This was not because Londoners in 1685 were better at making marriages stick. Thanks to the high mortality rates, particularly in childbirth, and life expectancy hovering at around 35 to 40, married couples would not stay married for long. Nevertheless, the women at the time managed to encounter many problems during their short married lives.
The society was hierachical and men made the rules and subsequently enjoyed all the rights.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature tells us that this power was claimed as it related to God and King (both being male) and their respective rule over their kingdoms. A husband’s position of power was obvious from the get-go, reflected in the vow “Love, honour and obey.” Nowadays, we have a choice whether or not to recite this vow, but for the 1685 woman, it was a legally binding agreement. Obey applied to all areas of marriage, including the bedroom, where a woman’s “I do” was an implied consent for the man to do whatever pleased him.
Even worse, women of the time had no right to property, money and or even to her own children. Everything that she owned prior to marriage became the property of her husband. The only way a woman could have some say in how she lived her life would be if she became a widow – as long as her husband’s heirs didn’t throw her onto the street.
As I’ve said, divorce was available, in the form of an annulment, but only the very rich were able to have their marriages annulled, because proving to the church and court that a marriage was not legal in the first place was both expensive and time-consuming. A man’s infidelity was not a reason to divorce, but not surprisingly, a woman’s was. According to The History of Women, a woman found guilty of adultery, or the deliciously named ‘criminal conversation’, would promptly be stripped of her status, money and children, without recourse.
And if that seems unfair, read on. Another way of getting a rid of a woman was to sell her. Click on this link to see an image of woman on a platform with a noose around her neck held by her husband. Although the image is from 200 years later than my story, the ritual began far earlier. The act of selling involved the man paying a toll to sell merchandise in the market, following which he would parade his spouse around and sell her off to the highest bidder. Check out this website
for news clippings, one dating back to 1692, of market sales of women. Supposedly these were carried out by a mutual consent, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that it became socially unacceptable to sell a woman at market.
Have a great week, thanks for tuning in.