Sex and the marital relationship in the eighteenth century

Sex and the Church: Religion, Enlightenment and the Sexual Revolution, a book that I co-authored with William Gibson, was published in hardback two years ago. Hugely busy, neither of us had much opportunity to promote it. It has done quite well since, thankfully, and has just been published as a paperback this month. It is now reasonably affordable at £28 (and currently has a 10% saving on promotion), so I think it is a good time to talk a little more about it! I’m starting with something on sex within marriage – which I write about in chapters four and six of the book! So here is in an introduction to those chapters.

Why are historians interested in marriage in the long eighteenth century? Well, along with the church and state it was one of the most fundamental social and cultural institutions in this period. This was a century when rates of what historians call the ‘never married’ reduced and most people got married; by the end of the century they were getting married at earlier ages than before. So marriage was critical to the orderly functioning of society and its reproduction. The key components for its success were simple. You needed stable unions that conformed to patriarchal hierarchies with masterful men, dutiful wives, and disciplined children and servants. In turn, such unions facilitated chains of credit, ensured children were born into households that could support them (saving poor rates), and provided a workforce and protection for the nation (critical in an era of industrialisation, expanding colonisation and commerce, and – thus – war). It is no coincidence that the supposedly ‘unwanted’ babes left at the Foundling Hospital, often born outside wedlock, were destined for domestic service and the navy. Given the significance of matrimony to national success, it is equally unsurprising that marriage was the only legitimate way to have a sexual relationship and bear children in an age before reliable contraception. Illicit sex was deemed sinful and punished by the Church Courts, and divorce with re-marriage was unavailable to the majority of the population until 1857. Thus, for the individual, family, community and nation getting marriage right mattered – and as I’ll show, sex was central to that project.

Yet, if you read histories of marriage you will see that sex within marriage is rarely discussed. While the policing of extra-marital sex is investigated (usually fornication and adultery), sexual relationships between spouses are on the peripheries of this scholarship, usually only coming into view when sex was problematic – for example, a wife refusing to have sex with her husband might be inferred to be a cause of marital violence. Now, this is understandable in many ways, since such evidence originated in courts that presented or prosecuted cases of bastardy, fornication, and infidelity, leaving relatively detailed accounts of sexual activity. Couples, on the other hand, were far less likely to explicitly discuss their sexual experiences or desires in diaries or correspondence; though it should be said that they alluded to the pleasures of marital sex.

For example, in 1816 Elizabeth Shaw wrote from Wolverhampton to her husband John, a commercial traveller, a long and chatty letter appended to a report on an ironmongers account and update on his business. She ended it:

with what a light heart I should have come after an absence of 10 weeks to meet & bring you once more to your belov’d home. Oh my dear John I lay in bed thinking how I shall enjoy clasping you to my bosom calling you by all those fond names my affection can in(vent). I think of it till I almost imagine it a reality sometimes I feel as if I never should be satisfied with kissing & embracing you so you must prepare yourself for it. Nay I even talk of eating you – but at this rate I shall frighten you so I had better hold my tongue till I have you safe here.[i]

For all the relative silence in some sources, I think it is possible to recognise that marital sex was a primary dynamic in shaping matrimony at all levels; if we neglect its role we paint only a partial picture of marriage in the long eighteenth century. The rest of this post explains the place of sex in making, sustaining, and ending matrimony.

Making marriage

Historians have explored the making of marriage in various ways. Some have attempted to define the reasons why people married. For those who study the elite and landed gentry, this is a way to understand how personal and familial relationships shaped political patronage, the acquisition and maintenance of power, land, and influence. As you’ll guess, in these studies marital sex is predominantly understood as a tool for reproduction, determining lineage, advancement, inheritance, and status. Other scholars have explored the motives for labouring and middling-rank couples to marry, from what we might call ‘interest,’ by which I mean economic reasons and professional advancement, to security (through combining labour and household contributions and income), to shared values (often religious faith), and – for us, the missing component so far – love. Indeed there has been a somewhat tedious area of debate in the last few decades over whether people married for money (interest) or love and – if so – at what point in time couples moved from the former to the latter. Of course the answer to this is that the two are not mutually exclusive and people have always married for a range of factors, determined as much by contemporary cultural understandings of emotions like love as by the circles in which they moved and met potential spouses. Sex plays no part in these debates, except when historians note contemporary warnings that couples should not to marry purely for lust. The Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy for ‘The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony,’ for instance, began with the statement that marriage is:

honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God, duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.[ii]

All in all, sexual desire was understood to be overwhelming at first, but potentially transitory – and thus was not seen as a stable basis for a long and successful union. No wonder that Dudley Ryder (1691-1756) declared that he wanted to marry ‘not from any principal of lust or desire to enjoy a woman in bed, but from a natural tendency, a prepossession in favour of that married state.’ Like Amanda Vickery, who has written more extensively about Ryder in Behind Closed Doors, I can’t help but think he protested a little too much.

It is the scholarship on the labouring ranks’ route to the wedding which pays some attention to sexual relationships. As Emma Griffin notes, research into parish registers has revealed that sexual activity in advance of marriage was extremely common throughout the early modern period. In the early eighteenth century, 20 per cent of all women walking down the aisle were pregnant when they did so, and by the century’s end that had risen to nearly 40 per cent.[iii] There is evidence that couples only embarked on a sexual relationship when they intended to marry and at some time before or when the woman became pregnant they would wed.

In the early eighteenth century Joanna Stephens responded to the customs excise officer John Cannon’s attempts to have intercourse, by setting out what she required in exchange. She offered John ‘absolute command’ over her body, short of ‘deflowering or debauching’; in return, John must ‘be constant to me above all others & in due time to make me your lawful wife’.[iv] John adhered to these rules and in fact the couple engaged only in sexual play, not penetrative sex, and did not marry.

This scholarship is very insightful into the way in which wider society accepted sexual relationships before marriage (when the correct order was followed and marriages successfully made). However, because these are studies of demographic patterns of behaviour and demography, the focus is often on the broader mechanisms by which populations grow or how society regulated people. There is little sense of personal desire or sexual compatibility in these accounts. This is because they use evidence from court cases centred on marriage contracts that went awry and bastardy or paternity suits, which collectively indicate that men and women saw sex as part of the marriage process. The court cases represent instances when the union did not go ahead and one of them sued the other for not fulfilling the contract to marry or were brought before the authorities for bastard bearing. These court cases can give the impression that courtship was a time of sexual coercion with men promising to marry women only in order to have sex and then proving reluctant to carry out their promise.

To some extent this is upheld in personal accounts of courtship. A relatively rare and somewhat complex insight into male sexual desire and the making of marriage is glimpsed in John Cannon’s diary.  John Cannon was born in 1684 and worked initially as an agricultural labourer and later a customs-excise officer. He recorded his relationships and a pattern of sexual activity which – as we have seen – tended to avoid penetrative sex with women he did not intend to marry or was unable to marry because he did not have financial stability. One exception, however, was a maid in a household in which he lodged, who had sex with him thinking that if he became pregnant he would marry her. He chose instead to financially support the illegitimate child, not wed her.[v]

It is all too easy to see pre-marital sexuality largely as a matter of calculation:  with women forced to have sex or using it as a tool to secure a husband; men always holding the upper hand and lower-class women shamed and punished when the union was not secured. Yet there is evidence which offers a more nuanced picture. John Cannon faced considerable damage to his credit as a result of the scandal which followed fathering an illegitimate child. Emma Griffin has used late eighteenth-century plebeian autobiographies to offer a more personalised account of couples’ decision-making processes. She argues that the interplay between sexual practice and economic opportunities changed over time and place and was related to the development of new sexual cultures. Until the later eighteenth century, women had managed their sexual activity by refusing to have sex until they were certain that marriage was within their grasp. In the factory districts of the later century, however, such vigilance was less necessary thanks to a combination of abundant female employment at relatively good wages and a dense family network. Although lone mothers were still unable to raise large families on their own, with family help they could have one, or possibly two, children outside marriage, and this knowledge fostered new patterns of sexual behaviour. All in all, this clearly demonstrates that throughout the long eighteenth century, women and men were motivated by numerous factors in forging relationships and desire was one of them.

Being married

So what happened once couples exchanged vows at the Church Porch? Sex was what sealed a union and made it indissoluble. In the eyes of the law a few things were essential: a wedding ceremony (carried out in the right place, by the right person, at the right time), spouses free from any legal impediment, and sexual intercourse. Indeed, when proving a union had occurred in matrimonial litigation in church courts, recording the date of the wedding was insufficient. The documents went on to state that the couple had consummated the relationship by ‘carnal copulation’ following the wedding ceremony, and cohabited with each other as lawful husband and wife. By the 1842 edition of Richard Burn’s Ecclesiastical Law, in the section on marriage contracts, Phillimore saw it necessary to clarify that: ‘A mere casual commerce, without the intention of cohabitation and bringing up children, would not constitute marriage under any supposition’. However, if two persons ‘have that commerce for the procreation and bringing up of children’ with lasting cohabitation, in the absence of civil and religious institutions, this could be called a ‘marriage in the sight of God’. Though as Phillimore was careful to point out, in anything other than a state of nature, a wedding ceremony performed by a clergyman was still essential.[vi]

Popular rituals reinforced the centrality of sex to making the marriage through the lively bedding ceremony. This was the culmination of the wedding celebrations where the guests escorted the newly married couple to bed – with lots of ribaldry – often they were separately undressed – to witness the couple go to bed together.  The room was decorated with flowers, stockings were thrown, bawdy jokes made. But it was purely symbolic – no one watched the couple have sex! As Katie Barclay points out, this marked not only the sexual consummation of marriage and the community’s endorsement of the marriage, but also highlighted the extent to which this marital sexual intimacy was not something ‘private’ for the couple, but a form of intimacy that the community is invested in as well. This is of course partly why members of communities also believed they had the right to regulate the sexual lives of others’.[vii]

Once marriage was made, then of course sex played a major part in reproducing the family. Christian scripture was quite clear about the reasons for marriage: first, the procreation of children and to bring them up in the fear and nurture of the Lord; second as a remedy against sin and fornication for those people without the gift of continency; and thirdly for the mutual help, society, and comfort of the couple.[viii]  As such, conceiving, bearing, and raising children were considered the central function of marriage; a societal norm that we think was likely to be adhered to by couples. There is little explicit evidence of family limitation being practised in this period, when condoms were primarily used to avoid STIs, and abstinence was the only reliable form of contraception, along with abortifacients.  Although there is evidence in spouses’ correspondence that a miscarriage could occasionally be seen as a blessing, if wife was older or her health might be compromised by another pregnancy. Dudley Ryder, who eventually became both a judge and a member of parliament, formulated his worries about the consequences of not marrying in this way: ‘I cannot but be uneasy to think that my life shall terminate with myself’ of he did not wed. since ‘The having of children is a kind of continuance and prolonging life into future ages and generations.’[ix] Indeed the inability to have children could be personally and reputationally damaging.

Thanks to the centrality of reproduction to concepts of marriage, children were perceived as expressions of sexual love. This is represented by the rather charming expression of offspring as ‘pledges of love’. One tale in The Lady’s Magazine, 1782, described children as ‘the dearest pledges of our mutual attachment’.[x] Children were proofs not only of a loving marriage, but of a satisfying sexual relationship too since both were linked with successful conception. Seventeenth-century midwifery texts, for instance, explained that marital love improved chances of bearing children, no doubt influenced by an earlier idea that women as well as men needed to orgasm in order to conceive, and in turn the want of love caused barrenness. In some cases, therefore, lack of children indicated marital failure. Lawyers even took up this motif when defending husbands who sued their wives’ lovers for criminal damages. The wonderfully emotive Counsel for Captain Parslow, 1789, Thomas Erskine, declared that ‘There was every reason to believe, that but for the intrusion of this defendant (Francis Sykes), many children would have blessed the parents, and adorned the family – Children at once the care and happy fruits of the nuptial bed’. Clearly the seducer was being held culpable for the cessation of marital sex and love.[xi]

Another example is seen in Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s La Mere bien-aimee 1769, which Emma Barker describes as an eroticised vision of family life. The father returns from hunting to be a spectator (along with the male viewer) of his wife’s overwhelming maternity – depicted by her open bosom (this was when maternal breastfeeding was being relentlessly promoted) and her numerous offspring tumbling over her.[xii] Daudet de Jossan responded to the exhibition of this painting in 1769 by imagining that it would seduce men, observing that there was ‘nothing more seductive than to see her with her cortege … it makes one’s mouth water to be a father, and especially with such a mummy’.[xiii] Of course fertility itself was seen to be sexually attractive with the pregnant body depicted as sexually enticing. This image of the man-midwife shows society’s anxieties about men taking over the process of childbirth, by depicting the male professional’s intimacy with his clients through the woman’s eroticised pregnant body. And of course, pregnancy was one period in which sexual activity could be more frequent, since conception had already occurred.

Historians of married life and gender relationships are also interested in what was considered to make a successful marriage in the long eighteenth century. Again, however, the role of sex is not often considered in this discussion. This is not due to lack of material on how to make a marriage work. The expansion of print culture during the period led to a boom in advice literature. Husbands and wives were told how to behave during matrimony to make the relationship work and avoid conflict. Much of this emphasised the gendered roles spouses should play, with husbands in the superior role, wives inferior. In 1759, Thomas Marriott’s Female Conduct: being an essay on the art of pleasing. To be practised by the far sex, before, and after marriage, declared:

Hence ev’ry Wife her Husband must obey,

She, by Compliance, can her Ruler sway;

Strong, without Strength, she triumphs o’er the Heart,

What Nature gives not, she acquires by Art;

Preeminence, herself debasing gains,

By yielding conquers, and by serving reigns.[xiv]

Since they held the dominant position, men were advised to be patient and loving towards their wives, while women were cautioned to choose a man they admired and loved. Indeed, as Ingrid Tague observes, ‘Love was essential in order to make women accept the natural order of marriage, which demanded their obedience to their husbands’. To some extent this alerts us to sex as well as love. As we have seen, the scriptural account of marriage talked of ‘mutual comfort’. This was the ‘marriage debt’ wherein spouses owed their bodies to each other. The works on marriage that were published following the reformation tended to state that mutual comfort extended to satisfying sex. If spades were no longer called spades by the eighteenth century, and polite writers, including clergymen, were less direct in advocating the pleasures of marital sex, they nonetheless alluded to it. The Reverend Wetenhall Wilkes, rector of South Somerscotes, Lincolnshire, 1742-51, discussed ‘conjugal love in all its native beauties and attractions’ as preferable to the single state in his Letter to Young Women (1740) for example.

Furthermore, the withdrawal of sex was seen as a clear marker that a marriage had failed. Ingrid Tague has analysed Lady Sarah Cowper’s writings to show her rather extraordinary conflation of the demands for female chastity with marital celibacy. Sarah wedded Sir William Cowper in 1664 after which, as Tague points, the couple went on to endure 42 years of wedded misery. Sarah had four children fairly quickly in the union and on securing a male heir she refused to have sex again – when she was 26 and her husband 30. What is intriguing is that this very pious woman justified her action, which clearly contravened scripture, by simply ignoring Protestant teachings that chastity meant being a faithful wife, and certainly did not mean withdrawing from sexual relations with a husband. In her mind she was a model wife. Her records of William’s faults and their fighting would suggest that he found this intolerable and argued with her about it.[xv]

Even the material culture of the marital household recognised the centrality of marital sex. Freighted with symbolic meaning, the marital bed – the main bed of the household was a location in which key family-cycle events occurred: conception; birth; lying-in; sickness; and death. In all except the first, the early modern bed was temporarily transformed into a space with a specific purpose imbued with profound familial meaning. Where conception was concerned, however, we glimpse the regular use of the bed for marital intimacy with the marital bed understood to be the site of both emotional and bodily intimacy. With its curtains drawn to close off a married couple from the business of household activities, marital beds provided privacy for talking and of course – sex. This was so obvious, perhaps, that it was the source of humour – numerous jokes centred on the nagging wife with her curtain or boulster lectures. No wonder, then, that there was a considerable taboo about a spouse engaging in adulterous sex in the marital bed. This was seen as a particularly heinous marital betrayal.

Unsurprisingly, one can also infer from the cases of wife beating where the violence was initiated in the chamber holding the marital bed that sex was sometimes the trigger for the man’s violence. For example, there are reports of husbands seeking out their wives in bed in the early hours of the morning– usually returning home after being out drinking – and beating their wives when they refused to admit them or – perhaps did not want to have sex. And in an era when marital ‘cruelty’ was mostly defined as physical violence, a husband who knowingly gave his wife a sexually transmitted infection through sex was understood to be acting cruelly. It was only in cases heard by the Victorian divorce courts that precedents were laid down in which husbands’ ‘wilful’, or intentional communication of venereal disease to their wives was counted as cruelty. Yet, for all that canon law did not clarify the issue the church courts entertained it as a context of dangerous marital behaviour, and husbands certainly deployed the communication of venereal disease as a form of violence and wives perceived it thus. In 1701 Dorothy Cunliffe counter-accused her husband of cruelty when he brought a suit against her in York consistory court accusing her of adultery. Listing his jealous outbursts of violence against her in front of their children, and his beating her on her back with his cane on a journey from Barnsley to Staincross Moor, she also claimed he had turned her out of the house and enquired for a whore that was infected with venereal disease and swore that he would get clap on purpose that he ‘might clapt [sic] his … wife as soon as she returned’.  The fact that the proctors retained this complaint in the libel suggests that the church courts were prepared to consider this as a form of abuse, or at least as defining the husband as abusive. After all, if life-threatening violence was defined as cruelty, then some sexually transmitted infections could lead to death.

Interestingly, the inability to bear children was not considered a valid impediment to marriage. So women past child-bearing age were able to marry, and being barren was no grounds for separation, divorce, or annulment. In effect a valid marriage could be childless while still sexually active; it was non-consummation due to sexual dysfunction that was at issue.  If a spouse could prove that their husband or wife was suffering from impotence or frigidity once the wedding occurred then s/he could seek an annulment of the union. In other words, marital sex was so essential to the function of marriage, that proving a partner’s incapacity to engage in it from the wedding meant the marriage was voidable.


This observation about the centrality of marital sex to the existence and survival of marriage leads me to my conclusion. Historians of twentieth-century marriage and divorce propose that over time sex came to be considered much more central to marital relationships. Thus, attitudes towards infidelity became harsher, since it was seen to fatally undermined a marital relationship. This is contrasted with previous eras, including the eighteenth century, when adultery did not typically end a marriage. Of course, this – as with most chronological models – can be over-drawn. There is no doubt that marriages often continued following infidelity and that a sexual double-standard existed which gave greater license to men. In both law and society, men’s extra-marital sex was, if not condoned, then meant to be tolerated by wives. Adulterous wives, in contrast, were more harshly punished. There is some truth in this, though it should be noted that middle-rank men’s reputation suffered greatly from allegations of sexual misdemeanours. Nonetheless it is worth noting that a man’s infidelity was seen by wives as a form of cruelty, and, perhaps, acknowledged as such by the Church Courts, who permitted abused wives to include this complaint in their requests for separation on the grounds of cruelty. In 1687 Durham consistory court accepted Anne Fletcher’s libel alleging her husband’s cruelty, which stated that in order to grievously ‘disturb, or disquiet and vex the minde of’ Anne, her husband had several times bragged to her that he lay with Jane Snawdon and would keep, love, and maintain Jane as long as he lived.  One hundred and sixty years later in 1842 Judge Phillimore was vehement that a husband’s ‘attempt to debauch his own women servants is a strong act of cruelty’.  Indeed, for all a union might survive adultery, many wives found it enormously difficult to continue to live with a husband who had been unfaithful; they remained in the union because they had little alternative due to the absence of opportunities for lone women to support themselves and their families.

I have argued that it is important to analyse the significance of marital sex to lived relationships in order to explore embodied and emotional experience and the ways in which this was shaped by wider historical forces. Interestingly, there is still a tendency today to portray marital sex as a negative force rather than a positive one. Most television series and films show sex between unmarried couples.[xvi] Married couples are rarely portrayed having fulfilling sexual relationships with each other and instead sex is often seen as something of a battle ground and cause of unsatisfactory relationships. This remarkable coyness about married sex is perhaps the result of historical precedent as well as notions of sexual liberty.

[i] University of Birmingham: Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, SHAW 48B, Elizabeth to John, from Wolverhampton. For more on the Shaws see Andrew Popp, Entrepreneurial Families: Business, Marriage and Life in the Early Nineteenth Century (2012)

[[ii] The book of common prayer and administration of the sacraments, and other rites and ceremonies of the church, according to the use of the Church of England:  together with the Psalter, or Psalms of David, pointed as they are to be sung or said in churches, Cambridge: J. Burges, 1796.

[iii] Emma Griffin (2013) ‘Sex, illegitimacy and social change in industrializing Britain’, Social History, 38:2, 142.

[iv] Griffin (2013) ‘Sex, illegitimacy and social change’, 145

[v] Griffin (2013) ‘Sex, illegitimacy and social change’, 144

[vi] William Gibson and Joanne Begiato, Sex and the Church in the Long Eighteenth Century: Religion, Enlightenment and the Sexual Revolution, 112.


[viii] The book of common prayer and administration of the sacraments, and other rites and ceremonies of the church, according to the use of the Church of England:  together with the Psalter, or Psalms of David, pointed as they are to be sung or said in churches, Cambridge: J. Burges, 1796. For further discussion, see Turner, Fashioning Adultery: Gender, Sex and Civility in England, 1660-1740, pp. 54-55. For marriage practices in general see John Gillis, For Better, for Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present, Oxford University Press, 1985

[ix] Vickery, Behind Closed Doors, Chapter 3

[x] Bailey [Begiato], Parenting in England: emotions, identities and generations, 2012, 22.

[xi] Bailey [Begiato], Parenting, 26.

[xii] Emma Barker, Greuze and the Painting of Sentiment, Cambridge, CUP, 2005), 94-104.

[xiii] Barker, Greuze and the Painting of Sentiment, 95.

[xiv] Bailey [Begiato], Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, 2005, 134.

[xv] Tague, Errant Plagiary, 61-62

[xvi] J. M. Dempsey and Tom Reichert, ‘Portrayal of Marries Sex in teh Movies’, Sexuality and Culture, September 2000, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp 21–36


  1. Thanks for this succinct summary; it supports the background and character behavior in my current novel in progress. Enlightening and illuminating contribution to history and cultural memory.


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