‘”Mr Bulcock could no more marry you than that Dog”: making marriage in Lancashire

In 1758 Thomas Whitaker, gentleman, brought a cause of ‘Jactitation of Marriage’ against Ann Lee. In a Jactitation case, the plaintiff tried to stop the defendant from claiming that they were married to each other. Ann Lee’s defence depended upon proving that she was married to Thomas Whitaker. Once the case came to court, we find that Ann Lee claimed that, on 11 May 1737, twenty-one years earlier, she had married Thomas Whitaker of Symonstone, in the parish of Whalley, a large parish on the Western edge of the Pennines, situated in the diocese of Chester. At the time she was a servant in Thomas’s father’s household. Thomas was around 35, Ann 22 and pregnant when they wed. Ann claimed that they were married in front of credible witnesses by Reverend Christopher Bulcock, priest, at the public house of Allen Edmundson, in Pendle Forest, Lancashire. Although they did not cohabit, she said that the community knew they were husband and wife and that she bore him two daughters.

Thomas denied that he had married her, but confessed that he had kept her as his mistress and given a bond for £40 as security for the maintenance of their first child, born illegitimately. The arrangement seems to have been that he paid £4 per annum to the child’s upkeep. He admitted that he had promised to marry her, but only to pacify her father, a miller in Padiham, a village a mile from Symonstone, who discovered the relationship and threatened Thomas that if he didn’t marry his daughter, he would expose him to Whitaker Senior.

The Cross GatesThe Jactitation case turned on proving whether Ann Lee and Thomas Whitaker were married. The fact the alleged ceremony was clandestine did not invalidate the union: as long as the ceremony was performed by a priest of the Church of England, the venue, the means, and the absence of banns and licence did not invalidate it. Thus it was the status of the clergyman Christopher Bulcock who had wed them that came under scrutiny. And this scrutiny revealed an amazing local situation. Thomas stated that the parson was an ‘idiot’ and incapable of performing a wedding ceremony. The court focused on uncovering the extent to which Bulcock was able to read the marriage service without assistance and whether there was a pattern of couples having to remarry after he conducted their wedding ceremony.

And Bulcock does seem to have been a busy man. He performed the marriage ceremony for couples from the 1720s through to the 1750s. The numbers may well have been substantial; one deponent estimated that he officiated at over 100 marriages over the course of thirteen years, so one could speculate that Bulcock married two hundred or more couples in his time. These marriages were fairly conventional in some respects.. Christopher Bulcock wore a clerical band and used the Book of Common Prayer to conduct the ceremony. The spouses received a certificate of marriage following the ceremony. However, some things were very different about these marriages. First of all they were not conducted in a Church, but in a public house, the Cross Gaits (still standing as the photograph shows), and therefore were deemed clandestine. Secondly, the parson was highly unusual.

Christopher Bulcock: the ‘mad’ Vicar

Deponents for both litigants agreed that Christopher Bulcock was a clerk in holy orders, licensed around 1712. He did not have a conventional career, however. William Robinson, a gentleman of Newchurch-in-Pendle, remembered Bulcock returning from university and going into orders. However, he said Bulcock only officiated three or four times before he went ‘crazy’. Most of the witnesses agreed about the state of Christopher Bulcock’s mind, many calling him an ‘idiot’, but the extent of his infirmity was disputed.

Witnesses for Thomas declared that Bulcock was unfit for the duties of a minister. They said that Bulcock had to be led through the marriage service in order to complete it by his father or brother, and later, after his father’s death, his nephew (clearly he made his family a good living from him). John Sutcliffe remembered witnessing the marriage of one couple in 1730, at which Bulcock was fed ‘Wynburys and Milk and Gingerbread’ and coaxed like a child to say the service. Following the treat, his father then handed him the prayer book, said some words and asked him to repeat them. Christopher would repeat one word, then ‘immediately fly of[f] into some rambling expressions’, laughing, so that it took two hours before they could finish. Bulcock’s neighbours in Padiham gave more colourful accounts of his general condition. Susanna Sutcliffe declared he ‘had not sense to keep from doing his necessarys under him.’ He was, they said, often ‘badly beshit’ and stole food from them. Neighbours of the Bulcocks also reported that Christopher would chase women and children around the fields with his ‘yard’ hanging out.

Those who deposed for Ann Lee, however, were more circumspect. They said they had heard him called the Vicar of Blacko, but not the ‘mad’ vicar. They denied that he was completely irrational or impaired. Typical was Richard Slater who had been married by him 28 years earlier, who admitted that he was ‘a little disordered in his senses’ though capable of reading the ceremony.’ They also stated that they were not aware of couples remarrying after one of his ceremonies. This was in contrast to Thomas’s witnesses who reported that many of the marriages were carried out again. Some of these were couples themselves married by the Reverend Mr Bulcock who said they remarried because they felt Bulcock was too ‘crazy’.

There is also plenty of evidence that couples were obliged to remarry after the first clandestine ceremony performed by Christopher Bulcock because their own local clergyman thought the service irregular. The Batesons were married by the mad parson in April, 1738 but they were ‘immediately asked in Church at Gisborn on the Sunday next following and twice after successively’ and therefore were married in their own church on 10 May. Margaret Bateson stated that they hadn’t felt married after Bulcock’s service so they only lived and lay together after the Church ceremony. Some took longer to be persuaded. Four years after his marriage, John Sutcliffe said he was married a second time by James Fishwick, Padiham’s curate from 1740, because he was worn down by the Reverend Mr Fishwick frequently telling him that he and his wife lived like rogue and whore. On one memorable occasion the Curate pointed at a nearby dog and declared:

‘Mr Bulcock could no more marry you than that Dog.

Fishwick blamed this incapacity on Bulcock’s want of understanding. More confusingly, however, parson Fishwick was actually a witness on behalf of Ann Lee. Contradicting his reported haranguing of Sutcliffe and others, he supported Lee’s good character and claimed to have never seen Christopher Bulcock or know anything of him personally. He admitted only to hearing that Bulcock had preached well when first appointed curate at Accrington, but then became affected in his head, possibly by intense study.

The clandestine marriers’ motivation

Why were so many couples happy to be married by a parson who was clearly not capable of performing the ceremony? They certainly knew of his reputation. James Folds said that when someone had done something foolish, it was common to tell them, ‘thou art as mad as the Vicar of Blackow’. This appellation was common, Susanna Sutcliffe recalled ‘the mad Vicar’ preaching forty years earlier at Newchurch-in-Pendle Chapel [would be 1721]. Even at that point, she said, he would stop in his sermon so that people thought him ‘crazy or short of learning’. Indeed what is perhaps remarkable is that the couples who chose to use Bulcock did so in the full knowledge of his mental impairment. John Sutcliffe, for instance, witnessed one of Bulcock’s weddings and then used Bulcock for his own marriage two years later. Thirteen years after this, having been widowed, he married again, once more happily using Bulcock who was encouraged to say the service by his nephew offering him a piece of pie. Susannah, John Sutcliffe’s second wife, had also seen Christopher struggle through wedding ceremonies persuaded once by sweet tea and once by roast beef. William Edmundson, a husbandman, refused to be married by ‘such a fool’ in 1720 but was eventually persuaded by his young woman to proceed. This young woman went on to be a servant to the Bulcocks for two years up to 1730, with the duty of washing the clergyman like a child and changing his dirty bed.

Early research into clandestine marriage argued that couples sought clandestine unions because they were secret: so they might be hiding a ceremony from one of the spouse’s parents because they were under age, or were shielding a pregnant bride. Rebecca Probert’s study of the Clandestine Marriages Act of 1753 suggests, however, that most couples who married clandestinely were not particularly deviant in their behaviour. The majority of clandestine marriers were married in a church, by a Church of England clergyman, and only fell into the category of ‘clandestine’ simply because they married in a non-home parish.

Most of these Lancashire couples were married outside their home parochial chapel, though in a public house rather than in a Church or chapel. Whalley was a large parish divided into chapelries; it had one parish church and seventeen chapels of ease. Michael Snape’s examination of the parish shows that many of the population were not in reach of the chapels and several chapels of ease were unable to provide a full range of services, so even people who resided close to them had to go elsewhere for important services. So did couples use Bulcock because he was convenient and there were few alternative regular options? The pub where he performed weddings seems to have been a convenient location to other villages – at the intersection of three roads.

Cost was also clearly a factor. Marriage by banns incurred parish fees and ancillary costs. The description of costs charged by Bulcock ranged from 6d in the 1720s, to 2s, to 5s in the 1750s. Edmundson, the landlord of the pub where some of the ceremonies occurred remembered that a couple paid Bulcock 6d for the service, several decades earlier. This was far cheaper than marriages by banns tended to cost at least 3s 4d to 5s and more.

Yet those who explained their behaviour to the Clerk of Court often reveal more complex motivation. For some, privacy, in the sense of secrecy, was crucial. Most deponents referred to Bulcock’s business as privately marrying couples. For Thomas Whitaker and, perhaps less willingly, Ann Lee, marrying clandestinely kept their union secret. Secrecy was essential because his father had discovered the relationship between his son and his servant and he warned him he would disinherit him and his offspring if they wed. One of the witnesses, William Edmundson, simply stated that the young woman he courted agreed to have him ‘but would be married privately’. Thus they went to an alehouse in Pendle where this service was available.

Couples’ accounts of being remarried by another clergyman are also revealing. Many did so for pragmatic reasons rather than because they felt the clandestine union was inadequate. William Hindle remarried his wife at the advice of John Smith, the Curate of Harwood, the Sunday following the Whit Sunday after his marriage. Reading further, it becomes clear that at the time of his marriage, William’s wife was under age. Her ‘friends’ in Yorkshire refused to release her portion to him when he visited them following the clandestine ceremony. They stipulated that he would only get part of her fortune if they were remarried in Church. Thus they wed regularly. Tamor Crossley was married three times in total, twice to her first husband. She remarried him after her wedding presided over by Bulcock for pugnacious reasons. Having married outside their own parish, its parson Fishwick still demanded his costs for the wedding. Tamor’s husband indignantly informed the reverend that ‘if he would have his dues he must do the work for it for which reason only they were married again for she thought nothing to the contrary but that she was well married by Mr Bulcock’.

Even parish authorities seem to have used Bulcock’s services. For some parish officers clandestine marriage was a quick solution to longer-term financial problems. William Cowper, Doctor in Physic, who lived in Colne, three miles from Blacko, fand had been in the Commission of Peace for the West Riding of Yorkshire, was angered that parochial officers frequently applied to bind over putative fathers (the name given to men who had fathered an illegitimate child) to appear at court, but would then re-apply to have the recognizance superseded because they had since prevailed upon the man to marry the pregnant woman at Blacko. When Cowper complained that they should not be aiding and abetting ‘illegal and clandestine pretended nuptials,’ the officials informed him

that it was done for expedition and cheapness for that if they could get the Old Parson or Old Vicar who married what marrying there was, in a good humour he was then moderate in his demands and would treat them with drink out of the fees either at the Hole or the Cross Gates.

All in all, these parish officials saw a clandestine marriage as a solution to the risk of a man refusing to pay for the upkeep of his bastard child.

So what are we to make of couples who chose to be married by a mentally impaired man assisted for many years by his father?  Perhaps the clue is in the phrase with which the clergyman’s father concluded ceremonies:

So now you are wed enough.

Though a clergyman was obviously considered crucial, marital conformity to some aspects of canon law did not necessarily translate into individual, family, or community conformity. In this remote part of the north-west England, Whalley, the biggest parish in the country, and therefore the least well served by clerical officers, marriage, like beauty, was in the eye of the beholder. For many couples to be ‘wed enough’ was sufficient.

Case: Borthwick Institute of Historic Research Whitaker v. Lea/Lee


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