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

‘she drew me for her Valentine’: what was the meaning of love in 18th century England?

What does Valentine’s Day mean for you? Commercialised excess? A symbol of love embodied in hearts, chocolates, teddy bears and flowers? A chance to celebrate physical intimacy (after all, the movie Fifty Shades of Grey opens on 14 February!)?


Heart-shaped valentine card at Metropolitan Museum of Art

 As I’ve discussed in another blog post, romantic and sexual love in the eighteenth century were firmly situated in the context of marriage. A Valentine-love was a potential marriage partner, as William Hutton’s memoir shows. William (bookseller, paper warehouse owner, and historian and writer) was born in 1723 and wrote his autobiography in his old age at the end of the century. He organised his life according to the year, and thus we see his romantic relationships bud – and in several cases wither. Indeed as William explained:

I found that love, like a common flower in the garden, would spring into existence, rise to maturity, and die away.

William says that in 1743:

I began to make a small figure in dress … a young woman chose to fall in love with me, daily sought me out, drew me for her Valentine, talked of matrimony, lamented that I had two years to serve [of his apprenticeship] , mentioned several such-a-ones who solicited her hand, and with what eagerness she had said no. I never answered any of these remarks. At length she asked me to marry her, in plain terms. Thus she took a liberty totally forbidden to her sex, however unreasonably. I asked her “What prospect there could be of future life?” She replied, in the low phrase of her sex, “I will please my eye, if I plague my heart.”

Clearly some young women were more swayed by a fine figure than good prospects! In telling William, though, she frightened him off.

Romantic love was also important and visualised as uniting hearts, that other common symbol of the Valentine; William reflected in 1749:

I became acquainted with another girl; but we were so indifferent to each other, that it was easy to see love never cemented our hearts.

Like so many of his peers, romantic love went hand-in-hand with his ability to provide. He went on to outline his worries:

I had observed such severe penury among the married stockingers, that the thoughts of a wife were horrid, unless I had been in a situation to support one.

Yet, for all the pragmatism, deep feelings were essential – and William obviously sought some passion himself. So he explained that another potential suitor fell by the wayside in 1751 because they didn’t take fire:

I pursued business in a more elevated style, and with more success. In August, my sister came to see me, and brought a young lady, as an intended wife. They staid a few days. She was tolerably handsome, and appeared agreeable. But love is a delicate and shy bird, not always caught at first sight; besides, every thing formal operates against it. We behaved with civility, but neither of us taking fire, the matter died away.

1753 saw his prospects improving and his courtship (if one can call this steady growth of feelings thus) with his wife unfolded:

In November, my friend and next door neighbour, Mr. Grace, being a widower, took his niece, Miss Sarah Cock, from Aston, near Derby, to keep his house. I saw her the night she arrived, and thought her a little, neat, delicate creature, and rather handsome. It was impossible, situated as we were, to avoid an intercourse. Without my having the least idea of courtship, she seemed to dislike me, which caused a shyness on my side, and kept us at a distance.

This was a slow developing love from late 1753 through 1754 and he described it in terms of in respect and honesty at first, rather than valentines and heat:

While conversing with my next-door neighbour, Miss Cock, in November, I remarked that I perceived a growing affection for her, and should take no pains to check it. She did not receive this short declaration with the least disrespect. Our intimacy increased.

By the time Christmas arrived, our hearts had united without efforts on either side. Time had given numberless opportunities of observing each other’s actions, and trying the tenor of conduct by the touch-stone of prudence. Courtship is often a disguise. We had seen each other when disguise was useless. Besides, nature had given to few women a less portion of deceit.

Still romance and heat were combined with the endurance of their love which, crucially, was mutual:

I never courted her, nor she me; yet we, by the close union with which we were cemented, were travelling towards the Temple of Hymen, without conversing upon the subject. Such are the happy effects of reciprocal love.

They married in 1755 and his words here are both moving and delightful; perhaps capturing many people’s idea of love:

Thus was that pure flame kindled which, forty-one years after, gave rise to the following remarks: three months before her death, when she was so afflicted with an asthma that she could neither walk, stand, sit, or lie; but, while on a chair, I was obliged to support her head, I told her that she had never approached me without diffusing a ray of pleasure over the mind, except when any little disagreement had happened between us. She replied, “I can say more than that. You never appeared in my sight, even in anger, without that sight giving me pleasure.” I received the dear remark, as I now write it, with tears.

Is that the meaning of a true Valentine?

Sex and dating: 18th and 21st century style

Is there a rule to when you have sex for the first time with a new partner?

A ‘study’ of 2000 couples pronounced the existence of a ‘five date rule’ (here), in which it found that women will have sex after about five dates. More specifically a woman requires:

  • Two gifts or tokens of affection
  • Five social media messages
  • 12 text conversations
  • Five phone calls
  • Three DVDs watched
  • Seven passionate kisses
  • Five heart-to-hearts or meaningful chats
  • Four meals together
  • One bunch of flowers

Okay, so this was a Daily Mail report, which doesn’t give one confidence in its claims. However, it is perhaps revealing about the way in which gender continues to shape discussions about sex. At first sight it gives agency to women in their decisions about their sexuality. It certainly places women as the gate-keepers to sex in a new relationship. Indeed, the article ends with the comment: ‘women are getting to realise they hold the upper hand in making the decision to sleep with someone or not.’

Yeah, well thanks for that.

Actually, of course, this article is reductive in tone and totally ignores the plurality of experience. This is hardly sexual liberty for women since all the requisite factors leading to sex are provided by men – the initiative remains in men’s hands. As a historian, I’m used to seeing various dates offered for the sexual revolution which freed women. The Enlightenment, for example, is seen as facilitating sexual liberty for elite men, and according to Faramerz Dabhoiwala, for some higher-ranking women.

Before_hogarthThe eighteenth century is often seen as the century of revolution, and sex is one of the huge shifts to add to those in economics, politics, and thinking. Faramerz’s book The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution argues that there was a ‘radical transformation’ in the eighteenth century that saw the growth of sexual liberty, the view that sex was a private matter, the loosening of sexual policing by state and church, and the foundations of a modern sexual culture.

I’m now working on a book with Professor William Gibson about the relationship between sex and the Church of England in the long eighteenth century, and it is clear that the sexual culture of England was changing in the eighteenth century. I discussed this last year when I took part in a panel on Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme exploring how the eighteenth century changed ideas about sex in the eighteenth century, with Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Judith Hawley, Hallie Rubenhold, and David Turner.

The century was one in which sex was discussed more widely outside the bounds of scripture and without the language of sin. Judith’s work on fiction illustrates how sex was characterised as seduction and desire as much as bodily acts and David’s research reveals how ordinary people began to discuss their sexual behaviour in the new ‘problem pages’ of periodicals like the Athenian Mercury at the end of the seventeenth century. Even the sex trade was commoditised far more openly as a form of literature, as Halle Rubenhold’s investigation of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies (prostitutes) demonstrates. All this opened up discussion and showed the plurality of sexual behaviour, implicitly questioning universal rights and wrongs by revealing the diversity of motivation and feelings. Thus sex was on the road from being a sin to moral concern.

I am struck, however, by how much stayed the same for a lot of men and women in the long eighteenth century. Eighteenth-century women and men would not have been shocked by the idea of sex before marriage and they certainly considered that a number of things needed to be in place before embarking on a sexual relationship. But this was for very different reasons, because for most people, sex was part of the marital relationship. This is not to say that sex didn’t occur before marriage. It did. But it was usually when a couple had agreed to marry that they then had sex; in short they intended to wed thereafter, and a sizeable proportion of brides were pregnant at the ceremony. So perhaps fear underpinned sexual activity before matrimony because the failure of  a wedding to take care would likely result in an illegitimate child. Illegitimacy, after all, was a huge burden for the child and its parents who struggled to rear it outside a family unit.

And yet, as Tim Hitchcock’s and Emma Griffin’s (free access to Emma’s article) research shows, this link between sex, reproduction, and marriage was being loosened for the first time by the later eighteenth century. For a mixture of reasons, including different sexual practices and greater work opportunities in industrialising parishes for single women, some couples were having sex without the secure promise of a wedding. This is identifiable in the rates of illegitimacy and bridal pregnancy. At the start of the eighteenth century about 2 percent of babies born were illegitimate and 20 percent of brides were pregnant; one hundred years later 6 percent of babies were illegitimate and 40 percent of brides pregnant.

These are powerful figures. Nonetheless, it seems to me that even if these figures reveal a degree of sexual liberty it was for men rather than women. With the prospect of paid work to pay for a child, a single woman needed her mother or siblings to look after the baby while she earned their living. I’m still convinced that it was only effective contraception in the twentieth century that broke this link so that four dates, some texting and several kisses might enable women to have sex according to their own desires.

Ironically, though, while the Daily Mail’s report on the rules about when to have sex when dating might suggest that women have gained the sexual freedom that was lacking in the eighteenth century, it is disappointingly obvious that this ‘liberty’ is still culturally constructed by ideas about gender and sex. Basically, it assumes that sex is a one-sided exchange (favouring men) and that men are ready for sex at any time in the relationship but have to woo women. In fact this view of male sexuality seems to more readily evoke the understandings about male and female sexuality which emerged during the long eighteenth century.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries women were seen as the lustful sex whose ravenous wombs made them desire sex, but whose lack of reason make them less able to control their desires. As Faramerz points out, by 1800:

Now it was believed that men were much more naturally libidinous, and liable to seduce women. Women had come to be seen as comparatively delicate, defensive, and sexually passive, needing to be constantly on their guard against male rapacity (142).

You can see this in Hogarth’s Before, above where as the Tate’s description observes ‘the woman is cast as a reluctant prey and the man as a heartless predator’.

This view seems to underlie ideas about gender and sexual relationships to this day. Though the ‘everywoman’ in this Mail Online report is not sexually passive, and has more agency, perhaps, she is still keeping up her defences against ‘ever-ready’ man until he’s ticked the necessary boxes! And, finally, best not to google ‘sex on the first date’ because it is depressing and reveals that sexual liberty is still represented as a male privilege even in the twenty-first century.

Embodying marital behaviour in the eighteenth century

This post is an experiment because it is a paper I wrote in 2003 just after my book on marriage was published. I came across it today while searching for useful things for a chapter I’m writing on marriage conflict that did not come before the courts. I’ve decided to put this paper on my blog. It is too long for a post and not written as a post – hence it is in a formal tone. Still, readers, you might find it interesting to scan as there are some nice bits of evidence in there and – unusually – some examples of wives’ violence towards husbands.

Historians of marriage, body, sexuality will note that it is a wee bit out of date as I’ve not updated the references. For me it is a bit disheartening. I thought my current interest on the body and embodiment was fresh. Seems like I’ve been body-conscious for some time already. Damn, I can even fool myself!

The body was a way to express hate as well as love in marriage in eighteenth-century England. Late in 1739, William Knowles, a weaver in CountyDurham, searched for his wife after she had run away during a violent quarrel. On failing to find her, ‘he damned her body and soul to eternity’ and swore he would kill her when he found her.[1] The body held such symbolic status because it was integral to marriage, as conveyed by the husband’s promise in the wedding ceremony: ‘with my body I thee worship’.[2] In cases of marital violence, spouses’ bodies took centre stage both as the objects and weapons of cruelty. Descriptions of savage and disrespectful acts upon a spouse’s body were thus graphic ways to express the negative experience of marriage and to criticise the other spouse’s behaviour. For the historian, these images are also fascinating because they reflect changing notions of gendered violence which were influenced by shifting ideas about gender difference.

Historians of the body show that over the course of the long eighteenth century men were increasingly viewed as the naturally aggressive sex and thus in need of reformation and control, whereas women, traditionally seen as irrational and potentially sexually uncontrollable, were recast as victims in need of protection from men.[3] Ideas about sexual difference helped shape dominant notions of masculinity and femininity. Historians of gender have traced the evolution of the ideal eighteenth-century man who followed more genteel pursuits than his early modern predecessor, was socially at ease with women, less inclined to drink himself senseless and more inclined towards self-restraint.[4] His ideal female counterpart was naturally physically weak, but spiritually and morally strong, an upholder of virtue, an agent of moral and social change and an example to her menfolk.[5] As ideas about gender difference evolved, those about men’s and women’s capacity for violence seem to have been modified.

Martin Wiener has traced this through popular publications, newspaper reports and accounts of the trials of notorious spouse and lover murderers to show that ‘cultural nightmares’ of ‘intimate violence’ changed entirely from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.[6] In other words, until the mid-seventeenth century, while men were always the sex most likely to murder, popular imagination perceived women to be the most dangerous sex.[7] Thereafter anxieties about the wife-killer increased, though the image of the frightening wife who killed her husband was not surpassed in the public mind until the second half of the eighteenth century. After this, as we have seen, women were more likely to be defined as victims and even those who were prosecuted for the murder of their husbands were portrayed with some sympathy, often as seduced and fallen women who turned on their oppressors. By the early nineteenth century, male murderers of their lovers and wives overshadowed female murderers in the popular imagination.[8]

This paper addresses two issues that are raised by these fascinating accounts of cultural transition in gender difference. First is to ask how far these images were used by the wider population. This paper provides evidence that the use of gendered images of violence was not restricted to the realm of fiction, but was employed by men and women themselves.

The second issue arises from studies of masculinity. Recent research shows that eighteenth-century men were advised and trained to use a range of techniques to avoid succumbing to their dangerous inclinations towards physical violence, primarily self-control, superior reason and forgiveness; however Elizabeth Foyster is still unusual in exploring how this affected eighteenth-century men’s role in marriage.[9] In most cases it is historians of the Victorian era who study the impact of masculinity on men’s behaviour as husbands. They have examined the ways in which the concept of domesticity ‘promoted the disciplining of men’ from the 1840s and introduced social and cultural condemnation of husbands’ treatment of their wives.[10] One vehicle for this, as Martin Wiener shows, was publicised cases of wife-murder which were held up to show the dangers of husbandly power in the second half of the nineteenth century. This paper suggests that this was already developing in the second half of the eighteenth century, when men’s role as husbands came under increasing scrutiny, primarily through descriptions of their treatment of their wives’ bodies.[11]

I am going to use cases of marital violence that came before the church courts in the north of England between 1660 and 1800 to show that representations of wives’ and husbands’ bodies shared the same basic ideas about the sexes’ propensity for violence as are evident in popular literature.[12] Spouses’ representations of gendered violence were not simply the result of institutional requirements and the legal profession. I have shown elsewhere that the records generated by church court cases were collaboratively produced by litigants and court officials. Indeed informal documents, such as correspondence, reveal that litigants shaped both the process of a case and the information used in the formal record.[13] Moreover the use of the body by individuals as a crucial way both to express marital distress and condemn a partner was not restricted to public records. The Reverend Percival Stockdale, vicar of Lesbury and Long Houghton, wrote to his attorney in 1786 after the return of his wife from whom he had separated some years previously, explaining:

‘the powers of my stomach have been almost destroyed; I have been long afflicted with indigestion and dreadful pains, in that region. This malady was occasioned by my wife’s infamous invasion of me; by my foolishly suffering her to continue ten weeks in this house, and by the want of sleep, loss of appetite, and agony of mind which during that time, I suffered’.[14]

Elizabeth Shackleton catalogued her husband’s disgusting bodily habits when drunk in her diary in order to emphasize his utterly unacceptable behaviour as a husband.[15]

The use of the body and physical experience as a way to express a state of marriage and emotion and to criticise or judge a spouse is also not surprising, given that word portraits of the body were common. For example, people’s appearance and bodies were routinely described in very detailed ways in newspaper advertisements that sought individuals who had absconded, such as criminals, militia men, apprentices, servants, deserting husbands and eloped wives. In order to improve the chances of finding the runaways, highly intimate verbal portrayals of the body were employed. Moreover, visual prints that represented character, morals, politics, social status and intelligence through images of bodies were increasingly available through the eighteenth century.[16]

Women’s separation cases on the grounds of cruelty placed much emphasis on women’s bodily sufferings. In many of the cruelty separations husbands used their own bodies as weapons. John Smith, an attorney, came to his wife in bed and ‘set his knees on her breast, and by pressing on her with his knees, and resting his body on her mouth, with both his hands fastened in her hair, endeavoured to stifle her’.[17] Even the weapons they used were readily to hand implements that simply increased the painful impact of their own fists and feet. Men’s verbal threats to their wives were also gorily steeped in the body. In 1721, Elizabeth Laughton’s husband told her that ‘he thirsted for Blood’. Another husband told his wife that sooner or later he would have ‘his fist in her Heart’s Blood’.[18] The body also took symbolic form in marital cruelty. One theme was that wives’ mouths were stopped up. In 1717 in the town street of Walkerfield, Staindrop, County Durham, Jonathan Bowes picked up ‘a turd and put itt into her Mouth saying Dam thee Bitch Ile use thee as I would doe the Devil’.[19]

Women’s clothes also seem to have been viewed as extensions of their body and husbands were described tearing the clothes off their wives’ backs. Samuel Finch denied trying to fling his wife on the fire, but admitted that on 29 December 1778, during a quarrel about her ‘intolerable Pride’, he pulled ‘off her Cap and false Curls which were improper for one of her age and of her Rank and Situation in Life and did threaten or declare that he would burn the same’.[20] Wives’ clothes stood in for them in their absence. Ann Watson ran away from her husband when he attacked her in 1800 and so he tore as many of her clothes as came his way.[21]

The explicit use of the body to express marital misery was due in part to the nature of requirements of proof in cruelty separation cases. The violence committed on women was described in ways that illustrated its debilitating effect on their bodies, such as lameness, and temporary blindness, since cruelty had to be shown to prevent them from going about their normal daily business.[22] The visible signs of bruises, swellings and blood had a two-fold function.[23] Firstly, to be ‘all over blood’, as Ursula Knowles was in 1740, was to show the excessive savagery that she endured from her husband.[24] Deponents also described the extent of bodily damage in their own statements in order to define the extremity of violence.[25] Secondly, bruises and blood also served as signs of the women’s sufferings to be displayed to neighbours, family and friends in the absence of witnesses. For example Thomas Wright in 1745 beat his wife at night to avoid witnesses, so she showed her bruises to neighbours as soon as she conveniently could.[26] [27]

Beaten wives’ vivid descriptions of bodily harm in their separation cases were not just in response to legal formulae, for some wives had an active role in the way that evidence was phrased and presented in court.[28] A surviving letter from Elizabeth Harding to her proctor, in 1742, shows that she used her bodily sufferings to powerfully emphasise the ferocity of the acts of cruelty that she experienced and thereby condemn her husband’s actions.  Her list describing how her husband pursued her through the house with a bell knife, abused her with his hands, threw fire shovels of hot coals into her bed at her and threatened to dash her brains out, culminated with: ‘maney a tim I have ben nothen but blod and brouess (bruises)’. Significantly, this letter provided the opening information for her separation case that followed in Durham consistory court.[29]

The images of bodily violence in cruelty separation cases changed over the course of the period 1660 to 1800. Up to the second half of the eighteenth century, husbands’ bodies were also the objects of physical hostility. This usually arose in matrimonial litigation when husbands defended themselves against allegations of cruelty by counter-accusing their wives of marital violence. There is no doubt that this was a problematic complaint for men to make throughout the period, for fear of undermining their manhood.[30] Indeed some of the men who did so claimed that they disguised the results of their wives’ violence by staying out of the public eye. Charles Allenson covered up his wife’s scratches with patches in the 1670s and took to his bed for ten days.[31] One of the latest cases was in 1765 when a husband claimed his wife had struck him with a poker and a brush, which caused swellings and bruises and meant that he ‘was ashamed to go to Church’.[32]

hen peckt husband

Though the numbers of wives who were accused of such violence were far smaller than the numbers of their male counterparts, it is clear that men were able to claim that their wives were belligerent up to the second half of the eighteenth century, when it was still accepted that the female sex were naturally combative.[33] Interestingly, husbands did not use these accusations in a straightforward fashion to explain that it provoked them into reasonable chastisement. Indeed most accused husbands denied the allegations of cruelty or side-stepped them.[34] Using images of their own bodily indignities, however, gave husbands scope to build a picture of an unhappy marriage that was their wives’ fault rather than their own and signified the disorder at the centre of their household.[35]

The descriptions of female marital violence in these cases was always far less systematic and brutal than equivalent male violence. In fact, they echo portrayals of the scold, a caricature that was prevalent when female violence was considered a natural trait. For example, Poor Robin’s True Character of a Scold Or the Shrews Looking-glass (1678) explained that the scold’s tongue was not her only weapon ‘for she has Hands to Clap with, and Nails to Scratch with, and Teeth to Bite with’.[36] Of course the difference in types of violence also reflected the strength differential between the sexes, so that women’s physical aggression was often directed at damaging their husband’s status and dignity rather than their body. Thus counter accusations described wives spitting at and biting their husbands to convey contempt. Again, since clothing was intimately bound up with the body it was therefore subject to hostility. In 1697, John Pighells, a Yorkshire rector, claimed that his wife dragged his wig and band off him. One of John’s witnesses claimed that Elizabeth Pighells also hid her husband’s gowns and cassocks so that he was forced to perform divine service in his night gown.[37]

Violent wives were accused of attacking their husbands when they were ill or asleep, partly to counteract men’s greater strength as well as to highlight that these women abused their wifely role as carers.[38] James Currie a curate in Carlisle counter accused his wife of cruelty in the late 1720s by describing how ‘when in Bed with him … when He … has earnestly desired peace and quiet that He might enjoy his natural rest, She wou’d then disturb him the more, and whensoever She found him inclined or disposed to Sleep, She wou’d suddenly grasp her Hands and arms round his neck and throat and setting her Knees to his back pull with such violence as if she had designed to strangle or choak [sic] or else to break the Back of [him]’. On another two occasions she tried to hit him with a large poker and hurled two brass candlesticks with burning candles at him when he was in bed. Jane Currie did not restrict her violence to when her husband was weakened by sleep or illness.[39] According to James, she also punched him in the eye so that it bled and a deponent remembered seeing Jane mounted on a horse call James a ‘Scotch Curry-comb’ and kick him in the face when he tried to mend her pillion.[40]

There are far fewer examples of men’s counter accusations that wives were violent to be found from the second half of the eighteenth century. This paralleled the cultural shift that viewed women as naturally passive and gentle, so that by this time women’s violence was no longer a viable claim for husbands to make in matrimonial litigation. The references to wives’ violence in the later part of the eighteenth century are also different in nature. Earlier husbands described their wives’ violence as a conscious attempt to physically damage their bodies and their status. Later cases described a wife’s violence as a response to a specific situation, such as being ordered to leave the house because of alleged adultery or occasionally in retaliation to being beaten.[41] Sir Cuthbert Shafto of Northumberland informed York Dean and Chapter Court that his wife, Dame Mary, had come to his home on 22 May 1797 during a period of separation and struck him on his face, kicked him on his ‘private parts’ and almost strangled him with his neck-cloth. This statement was, however, to introduce a long-winded explanation about why he then left Barrington Hall to live in Edinburgh. Mary claimed that he had done this in order to escape the jurisdiction of the Dean and Chapter in which she had initiated a suit for separation on the grounds of adultery and cruelty in November 1797.[42]

It is debatable whether the broad range of behavioural traits seen as belonging to women in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries may have allowed them a wider scope for self-representation. My impression is that wives were able to portray themselves as more active in earlier cases.[43] What is clear, however, is that when women were seen as ‘naturally’ the gentler sex, their self-representations and their deponents’ supporting statements emphasised their passivity in response to their husbands. Margaret Lees described herself as of ‘mild and peaceable temper’ in 1803. Her servant Mary Ball explained that when Mr Lees quarrelled with Margaret her only response was to say ‘pray God in Heaven turn your Heart’.[44]

Nonetheless, women gained a broader range of ways to criticise their husbands’ tyrannical behaviour in the second half of the eighteenth century, because changing ideas about women’s capacity for violence were matched by those envisaging men as inclined towards violence.[45] The ensuing drive for the reform of male manners led to reassessments of what constituted violent acts. Elizabeth Foyster has shown that polite codes of behaviour empowered wives, providing them with the means to redefine aspects of male behaviour as violent, particularly confinement and verbal abuse.[46] The concern that men’s natural aggression needed to be controlled also encouraged more categories of male conduct to be labelled as violent.[47] Thus, in the second half of the eighteenth century, women increasingly brought cruelty separation cases in which the degree of violence was less severe and where other male acts of aggression were included, which though still centred on women’s bodies, were far less extreme and debilitating than in earlier cases of wife-beating.[48] In 1765 Jane Allison categorised as an act of cruelty her husband’s insistence that she get out of bed and stand in a cold passage for half an hour without any clothes at 11 o’clock at night.[49] In the same year Catherine Ettrick alleged that William Ettrick refused to treat her with due care when she was pregnant and denied her immediate access to a midwife when she went into labour.[50] [51]

In the second half of the eighteenth century, beaten wives also turned their husbands’ demands for utter submission into weapons against them. Catherine Ettrick pointed out that after returning from the East Indies her husband ‘cursed and Damned [her] … and insisted Wives should and ought to be nothing but Vassalls and Slaves to their Husbands’. She finally left him without announcing her intention, ‘knowing what his Sentiments were as to the power a Husband has over his Wife she having heard him Argue and declare that a Husband had a right to Lock up and confine a Wife to Live upon Bread and Water’. She also reported his view that ‘every Husband had a Right to Beat his wife’.[52] Catherine assumed that everyone would agree that her husband’s opinions about his rights over her body were outrageous and unacceptable. She was probably right. Although witnesses tended to condemn husbands’ ‘anger and passion’ when ill-treating their wives throughout the period, by the second half of the century, witnesses were far more explicit and unequivocal in denouncing husbands’ tyrannical demands.[53] Men were simply not able to claim that they could use their wives’ bodies as they wished by the later eighteenth century.

The cruelty separation suits reveal that men’s rights to moderately correct their wives had been replaced by an insistence on male self-control in the face of wifely provocation.[54] Most men seem to have aspired or paid lip-service to the idea that self-control and reason were the most appropriate behaviour for men and used this in their self-defence.[55] They did not wish to risk their manhood by admitting to wife-beating, now the antithesis of manliness. Nonetheless, competing masculinities existed, rooted in fraternal rather than patriarchal standards and centring on the pleasures of drinking and fighting. The church court records illustrate that these alternative sub-masculinities won over some married men.[56] Such men rejected polite or genteel behaviour.[57] For example, at the turn of the eighteenth century, James Lees clearly did not aspire to the solid respectability and domesticity that his position as a wealthy cotton manufacturer of Manchester might suggest.[58] He stayed out all night at bawdy houses; he retired to bed with a young single woman on one occasion and on several others met married women who were prepared to sell sex in order to supplement their income.[59] He made no attempt to disguise this from his wife. The Lees’ servant from July 1798 to September 1800 recalled that James once returned at 4am in the morning ‘in liquour’ and since he claimed that he was ill, his wife Margaret got out of bed to go to him. When she asked him: ‘where have you been till this time of Morning?’ he damned her and replied that he had been whoring and drinking.[60]

The battered wives’ of such men focused their case on the men’s drunkenness and adultery. In 1800 Margaret Lees’ libel stressed her husband’s ‘abandoned’ and ‘lewd and debauched life and character’. Her article alleging that James Lees took the married Ann Dimello to a house of ill fame for sex in 1797 no doubt stirred the judge’s patriotic sensibilities as well as emphasising her husband’s unmanliness, since it stressed that James selected the days to meet Ann according to when her husband William Dimello was out with the Manchester volunteers (a civil defence force, raised to defend Britain during the war with Napoleonic France).[61] James had not just betrayed his wife; he also failed the tests of middle-class manhood and his patriotic duty.[62]

This paper suggests that eighteenth-century men were coming to find that their actions as husbands were open to criticism and scrutiny by their wives, families, dependents, neighbours and friends in the eighteenth-century, before the ‘high noon’ of Victorian domesticity.[63] The body seems to have served as a way to express this criticism. By focusing on the corporeal evidence of damage to women’s bodies, servants, neighbours and families were able to voice criticism of its perpetrator. Alice Barber, a servant to James and Margaret Lees in the last years of the eighteenth century, recalled entering the parlour after hearing a loud noise and finding a quantity of hair on the floor. She asked ‘what’s to do what’s all this hair upon the floor’. Mr Lees replied that his wife had pulled it from his head, but Alice said ‘no Sir it is not your hair’ and, when he ordered her out of the parlour, called to her mistress ‘telling her that if he offer’d to use her ill again she was to ring the Bell and she would come to her assistance’.[64]

What is more, this was also reinforced in the public domain where, for example, accounts of marital violence were on offer to the public through publications of cruelty separations.[65] The adverts publicising them in provincial newspapers explicitly described the types of violence found in them. The ‘Trial of Isaac Prescott, captain in the royal navy’, available at 2s 6d, was advertised in the York Chronicle in 1785 under a heading ‘Matchless Barbarity’, which summarised the incidents of brutality and tempted buyers with details that it was ‘embellished with a curious frontispiece, representing Capt. Prescott cramming a handful of Mud and Cherries in his Wife’s Mouth’.[66] Readers of provincial newspapers were also confronted with fairly regular factual reports of wife-beating as well as wife-murder. While some accounts contained no ‘editorial’ judgement, husbands were condemned in many.[67] They were described as inhuman and barbarous and the deserving subject of popular and genteel retaliation.[68] The drive to reform men clearly included their role as husbands. The same press printed advice to husbands, like the Newcastle Journal, which informed men in 1760 that the ‘husband who resolves to be feared, cannot expect to be loved’.[69] When the York Chronicle defined ‘The Man of Feeling’ it did so by explaining who was not a man of feeling. Gamesters, rebels, seducers, swindling traders and those too interested in their own honour could not be such a man; nor could the husband ‘who beats and abuses’ his wife.[70]

To sum up: ideas about men’s and women’s capacity for violence were strongly gendered and undergoing change in the eighteenth century. When presenting their cases of marital conflict in public, middling sort husbands and wives situated their accounts within these broader cultural developments. Furthermore, in the changing context of ideas about gendered violence in the eighteenth century, men’s use of women’s bodies was a graphic way to open up the issue of men’s role within marriage.

[1] University of Durham, University Library, Palace Green section [hereafter UOD], DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1740/8, Knowles c. Knowles.

[2] The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony (1662). Also see the suggested sermon to follow the ceremony, which explains what the Scriptures say about the duty of husbands towards wives: ‘So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself: for no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it.’

[3] For an overview of the models of change see T. Hitchcock, English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (London, 1997), pp. 42-57. Gender historians’ unquestioning incorporation of theories about eighteenth-century transforming understandings of the body and sexuality into models of change in gender difference has been recently critiqued by K. Harvey, ‘The Century of Sex? Gender, bodies and sexuality in the long eighteenth century’, The Historical Journal, 45, 4 (2002) pp 899-916. Harvey shows that understandings of the body did not shift in a linear fashion from one-body to two-body, but were more likely to have been a series of short-term shifts, with a great deal of continuity. K. Harvey, ‘The Substance of Sexual Difference: Change and Persistence in Representations of the Body in Eighteenth-Century England’, Gender and History 14, 2 (2002) 202-223.

[4] P. Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, A. Fletcher, Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800 (London, 1995), pp. 322-346; E. A. Foyster, Manhood in Early Modern England. Honour, Sex and Marriage, London, 1999; For Wales see M. Roberts, ‘”More Prone to be Idle and Rioutous than the English? Attitudes to Male Behaviour in Early Modern Wales’ in M. Roberts and S. Clarke (eds), Women and Gender in Early Modern Wales (Cardiff, 2000).

[5] F. A. Childs, ‘Prescription for Manners in English Courtesy Literature, 1690-1760 and their Social Implications’ (unpublished DPhil, University of Oxford, 1984), pp. 248-287; M. Legates, ‘The Cult of Womanhood in Eighteenth-Century Thought’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 10 (1976), 21-39; Fletcher, Gender, Sex, pp. 376-499; L. Davidoff and C. Hall, Family Fortunes. Men and women of the English middle class, 1780-1850 (London, 1987), pp. 155-192; B. Caine, English Feminism 1780-1980 (Oxford, 1997), 13-23, 82-7.

[6] Building on important work by F. E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars, Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700 (New York, 1994).

[7] For a critique of historians’ use of pamphlet accounts of murder as representations of societal attitudes towards criminal women see G. Walker, ‘”Demons in female form”: representations of women and gender in murder pamphlets of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries’ in W. Zunder and S. Trill (eds), Writing and the English Renaissance (London, 1996), pp. 123-39.

[8] Wiener also traces shifts in prosecution and conviction to show that the criminal justice system followed the same evolution. M. J. Wiener, ‘Alice Arden to Bill Sikes: Changing Nightmares of Intimate Violence in England, 1558-1869’ Journal of British Studies 40 (2001) 184 -212.

[9] For a transitional phase, with the use of public insult as an alternative to violence see R. Shoemaker, ‘Reforming Male Manners: Public Insult and the Decline of Violence in London, 1660-1740’ in T. Hitchcock and M. Cohen, English Masculinities 1660-1800 (London, 1999), pp. 133-150. For forgiveness, see ibid, pp. 147-9 and J. Gregory, ‘Homo Religiosus: Masculinity and Religion in the Long Eighteenth Century’, in Hitchcock and Cohen, English Masculinities, p. 92. For self-control see E. Foyster, ‘Boys will be Boys? Manhood and Aggression, 1660-1800’, in Hitchcock and Cohen, English Masculinities, pp. 151-166; E. Foyster, ‘Male Honour, Social Control and Wife Beating in Late Stuart England, TRHS, 6 (1996), 215-224

[10] For a definition of domesticity see J. Tosh,, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (London, 1999), p. 4. Hammerton sees this in the later 19th century, while Wiener moves it back to the 1840s. A. J. Hammerton, Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in nineteenth-century married life (London, 1992), pp. 164-9; M. J. Wiener, ‘Domesticity: a legal discipline for men? In M. Hewitt (ed), An Age of equipoise? Reassessing mid-Victorian Britain (Aldershot, 2000, pp. 155-6

[11] For changing ideas about violence as a context to marital violence see J. Bailey, Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, 1660-1800 (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 110-2. Incidents of marital violence which did not result in murder have been used to show how new ideas about manhood influenced ideas about wife-beating in the late Stuart period and how politeness offered wives new ways to respond to their husbands’ violence. E. Foyster, ‘Male Honour, Social Control and Wife Beating’, 215-224; idem, ‘Creating a veil of silence? Politeness and marital violence in the English Household, TRHS 12 (2002) 395-415.

[12] For a detailed assessment of domestic violence, see Bailey, Unquiet Lives, chapter 6.

[13] J. Bailey, ‘Voices in Court: Lawyers’ or Litigants’?’, Historical Research, 74, 186 (2001), 392-408.

[14] Cited in ‘The Diary of Nicholas Brown’ in J. C. Hodgson, (ed.), Six North Country Diaries. The Surtees Society (Durham, 1910), vol. 118, p. 267.

[15] A. J. Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (London, 1998), p. 216.

[16] For the corporeality of English satirical prints in the 18th century and its symbolism see M. Craske, Art in Europe 1700-1830: A History of the Visual Arts in an Era of Unprecedented Urban Economic Growth (Oxford, 1997), pp. 235-8.

[17] UOD, DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1743/12, Smith c. Smith.

[18] Borthwick Institute of Historical Research [hereafter BIHR], CP.I/631, Laughton c. Laughton; UOD, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1801/15, Watson c. Watson. The use of the heart in such threats might be significant since it was still seen as the source of life and emotion. Though medical science came understand the brain as the site of mental and emotional activity in the 17th century, liturgical practice saw the heart of Jesus as the centre of Christ’s humanity. See D. Hillman and C. Mazzio (eds) The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe (London, 1997), p. xxiii.

[19] UOD, DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1717/2, Bowes c. Bowes.

[20] Personal answers to allegation 23 April 1779, BIHR, Trans.CP 1779/1, Finch c. Finch. Early modern society saw headgear as an embodiment of honour and social status, so any attack on it was envisaged as a dishonouring gesture. F. Egmond, ‘Execution, Dissection, Pain and Infamy – A Morphological Investigation’ in F. Egmond and R. Zwijnenberg (eds) Bodily Extremities: Preoccupations with the Human Body in Early Modern European Culture (2003), p. 107.

[21] UOD, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1801/15, Watson c. Watson.

[22] J. P. Bishop, Commentaries on the Law of Marriage and Divorce and Evidence in Matrimonial Suits (London 1852), pp. 452-92; H. C. Coote, The Practice of the Ecclesiastical Courts (London, 1847), pp. 349-50. For the development of the concept of cruelty see J. M. Biggs, The Concept of Matrimonial Cruelty, University of London Legal  Series (London, 1962), vol. VI. The accounts of marital violence in the church court records do not describe the pain that women suffered during or after the violence. For the study of the expression of pain see E. Cohen, ‘The Animated Pain of the Body’, American Historical Review 105 (2003), 36-68 and F. Edmond and R. Zwijnenberg (eds), Bodily Extremities: Preoccupations with the Human Body in Early Modern European Culture (Aldershot, 2003).

[23] Blood was mentioned slightly more often in cases of wife beating than in other types of assaults in cases that came before the quarter sessions of Portsmouth. Bruising was described in 47 of 356 wife-beating cases, which was higher than other assaults. See J. Warner and A. Lunny, ‘Marital Violence in a Martial Town: Husbands and Wives in Early Modern Portsmouth, 1753-1781’, Family History 28, 2 (2003), 266.

[24] UOD, DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1740/8, Knowles c. Knowles.

[25] Isabella Jones deposition, BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees.

[26] UOD, DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1745/9, Wright c. Wright.

[27] Husbands sometimes claimed these marks were not the results of wife beating. James Currie alleged that his wife would run ‘from House to House in the Neighbourhood with the most vile, false and grossest Lyes … that … [he] had been beating of her’ and she ‘has shewn black Spotts in her Arms and other parts of her Body to gain credit for her false accusations, but … [he] knows not who occasion’d those Spots or marks … but stedfastly believes that she cared not what torment or pain she inflicted on herself so long as She could but make it to be believed and reported that … [he] had caused … them to her by beating’. Personal response to libel, 14 November 1729, BIHR, Trans.CP 1730/6, Currie c. Currie.

[28] Women also stressed the way that husbands refused to contribute to their wives and children’s bodily needs through refusal to contribute to their provision. J. Bailey, Unquiet Lives, chapter 4.

[29] Indeed she sent another letter to her proctor, which was clearly in answer to his more detailed questions, in order to provide the dates of the violence and potential witnesses. Both her letters formed the libel that was presented to the court. UOD, DDR/EJ/PRC/2/1742/5, Harding c. Harding. For another case study of one wife’s influence on her own matrimonial litigation see Bailey, ‘Voices in Court’, 400-6.

[30] For a proposed impact of this on female marital violence in the quarter sessions, see Warner and Lunny, ‘Marital Violence in a Martial Town’, 268.

[31] BIHR, CP.H/3264, Allenson c. Allenson. For patches see P. Wagner,

[32] UOD, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1765/2, Allison c. Allison.

[33] For a breakdown of 600 incidents of marital cruelty by sex see Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 110, 128-9, 131.

[34] Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 120-2.

[35] For women’s use of legitimate and illegitimate violence within the household see F. E. Dolan, ‘Household Chastisements: Gender, Authority and “Domestic Violence”’ in P. Fumerton and S. Hunt, Renaissance Culture and the Everyday (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1999), 204-225.

[36] Poor Robin’s True Character of a Scold Or the Shrews Looking-glass (London, 1678). Physical violence and scolding were often linked in people’s minds in the first part of the period. John Thomlinson, a curate in Rothbury in 1718 recorded in his diary: ‘Cousin Jackson’s wife beats him, or at least scolds him abominably’. ‘The Diary of the Rev. John Thomlinson’ in Hodgson, Six North Country Diaries.

[37] BIHR, CP.H/4505, Pighells c. Pighells. The wig was identified with masculinity and therefore in literature the removal of the wig was symbolic of exposure and the breakdown of social order. See M. Pointon, ‘The case of the dirty beau: symmetry, disorder and the politics of masculinity’ in K. Adler and M. Pointon (eds), The Body Imaged. The Human Form and Visual Culture since the Renaissance (1993), pp. 175-188.

[38] BIHR, CP.I/154, CP.I/241, CP.I/2735, Idelle c. Idelle.

[39] For other occasions of severe female marital violence see Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 129-30.

[40] BIHR, Trans.CP 1730/6, Currie c. Currie.

[41] add example

[42] BIHR, D/C.CP.1798/3, Trans.CP.1798/1, Shafto c. Shafto.

[43] For a discussion of women’s self-representations in church court matrimonial litigation see Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 135-7.

[44] BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees.

[45] For the variety of ways in which wives characterized violent husbands, see Bailey, Unquiet Lives, p. 115.

[46] See also the way that the culture of sensibility gave genteel wives a new way to highlight their husband’s inappropriate behaviour through hysterical fits. Foyster, ‘Veil of Silence?’, 401-6, 409-12.

[47] Biggs, Matrimonial Cruelty, pp. 21-6; Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 124-8.

[48] Definitions were not expanded to include mental cruelty until the very end of the 18th century.

[49] BIHR, CP.H/3264, Allenson c. Allenson

[50] Also he would not let the baby be baptised nor allow it to be brought to their home until it was nine months old, sending it out to nurse. See Catherine’s Libel, BIHR, Trans.CP 1765/4, Ettrick c. Ettrick. There are several instances where men’s violence towards their children was stressed in order to show the extreme nature of the men’s character.

[51] In 1799 Catherine Warburton of Pontefract sued her husband for separation after he tried to force her to transfer some of her separate estate to him, through means such as dismissing her servants, insisting that she live in a farm house for six months, refusing to sleep with her for five weeks, treating her with ‘Indifference, Inattention and Disrespect’ and finally, when all else failed, locking her up in their attic in a house in Pontefract for a week in winter. BIHR, Cons.CP 1800/3, CP.I/2503, Warburton c. Warburton.

[52] Answers to William’s Allegations, 10 April 1767, BIHR, CP.I/1503, Ettrick c. Ettrick

[53] John Goldsbrough deposition, BIHR, CP.H/3264, Allenson c. Allenson,; deponents in BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees., p. 9 and in UOD, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1801/15, Watson c. Watson.

[54] To get a sense of the evolution of this notion, see attitudes to correction demonstrated in B. Hanawalt, ‘Violence in the domestic milieu of late medieval England’ in R. W. Kaeuper (ed), Violence in medieval Society (Woodbridge, 2000) 197-214, L. Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford, 1996) and E. Foyster, ‘Male Honour, Social Control’.

[55] Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 121-2.

[56] For the increased tensions between ‘competing models of behavior’ in seventeenth-century Wales see Roberts, ‘”More Prone to be Idle”’, pp. 271-4. For one man’s adoption of multiple manly personae, see P. Carter, ‘James Boswell’s Manliness’, in Hitchcock and Cohen, English Masculinities, pp. 11111-130. More research needs to be done on some men’s rejection of polite behaviour.

[57] For 16th and 17th century sub-masculinities see A. Shepard, ‘Manhood, Credit and Patriarchy in Early Modern England c. 1580-1640’, Past & Present 167, (2000); for late 18th century versions see A. Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (London, 1995), pp. 30-4.

[58] For the fragility of early 19th century middle-class identity and for the relationship between manhood and enterprise see, L. Davidoff and C. Hall, Family Fortunes. Men and women of the English middle class, 1780-1850 (London, 1987), pp. 229-71.

[59] He seems to have been prepared to pay half a guinea for their company, which was a sizeable sum when one of the women’s lodging’s rent for a year was a guinea. BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees.

[60] His drunkenness was in the company of social inferiors. Also see Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter, p. 215, for John Shackleton, whose rejection of civility in the 1770s and ‘80s was recorded in detail by his long-suffering wife Elizabeth.

[61] For example, on the day when the corps received their uniforms and arms and days when they were mustered. BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees.

[62] See L. Colley, Britons. Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (London, 1992), pp. 283-319.

[63] It is possible that the increasing rejection of wife beating is evident in quarter sessions records. See J. Bailey, Unquiet Lives for one approach and Warner and Lunny, ‘Marital Violence in a MartialTown’, 272 for another.

[64] See also Hannah Pritchard’s deposition, BIHR, Chanc.CP 1803/3, Lees c. Lees.

[65] Politeness did not silence public discussion about marital violence. Foyster, ‘Veil of Silence?’ 399-401

[66] York Chronicle, 1785

[67] add examples

[68] The attendants of an Assembly punished one husband (details), Jackson’s Oxford Journal, May 1761; riding the stang in another paper.

[69] 6 Sept – 13 Sept 1760

[70]14 January 1785

He ‘Beat his Daughter in such a Manner that the flesh did rise in Several Parts of her’

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 8: How harsh was parental discipline in the eighteenth century?

Catherine Ettrick’s separation suit against her husband William, on the grounds of cruelty, also attacked his fathering skills.

One of her criticisms was his lack of demonstrative affection towards his two children. By the mid eighteenth century it was expected that a father should show his love for his children through kisses, hugs, and play, like the father below playing peek-a-boo with his infant.

V0038681 A tight-knit family group with the father playing a game of

Catherine therefore knew the court would be shocked by her claim that William would:

frequently Threaten to Spitt in their [the children’s] Mouths forcing them open, and he frequently Spitt upon their faces and Necks but more frequently upon his Daughter.

A witness, George Applegarth, recalled that when the children had followed William’s instructions in front of guests,

some of the Company did say Mr Ettrick shou’d kiss them upon which he said if the Children wou’d come to him he wou’d Spitt in their Mouths and that was the way to kiss them.

Catherine also attacked William’s capricious and unpredictable exercise of physical punishment against his son and daughter. When William was in a ‘good humour,’ she reported, he would often lay his daughter across his knee and tickle her about the waist. However, when he was in an ‘ill humour’, whether she was guilty of any fault or not, he would:

suddenly Curse her, Beat her, throw her upon the Ground and Kick her about the Floor, Telling her he knew she would be a Whore and that she wou’d be Hang’d and once he Kick’d her with so much Violence upon the Belly that some Blood came from her and she complained of being in Great Pain.

It was evident that Catherine and the servants thought the physical correction William applied to his children was far too severe. Sarah Beadnell, a servant, explained that Catherine Junior insulted Sarah’s mother, Mary Beadnell, by telling her she was an ‘ugly Bitch and that her Father had said so’. She was shocked, nonetheless, that William took

a Hazel Rod and Beat his Daughter in such a Manner that the flesh did rise in Several Parts of her Sides, Back and Arms to thickness of one’s Little finger

as punishment. In describing the wounds he left on his child, she showed that the correction was too severe. Another maid emphasised the disproportionate nature of William’s correction when she recalled that when his daughter’s reading did not please him, William ‘with his hand Struck the Child and knock’t her down to the Ground.

Unfeelingness - Advice to a man on venting his temper on the least guilty, from the series 'The Necessary Qualifications of a Man of Fashion', 1823 (hand-coloured aquatint)

Actually, the servants emerge as something of heroes in the Ettricks’ awful family life. They regularly intervened to try and prevent William’s ill treatment of his wife and children and monitored it amongst themselves. Mary Reevely disapprovingly explained that she once saw Mr Ettrick give his fifteen month old daughter

a Blow upon the Buttocks with the flat of his Hand with such force that it left the Marck [sic] of his hand upon the Buttocks of the Child and saith that the Mark was not gone of[f] in a Day or two afterwards when she show’d the same to Jacob Trotter … [her] Brother and Robert Calvert, an acquaintance…

It is clear from this that she checked on the child’s injuries and was obviously quite ready to report her master’s behaviour in front of people outside the family.

The servants also directly tried to mediate ill-treatment. George Applegarth set William Junior off to school on Mondays. He recalled taking the boy’s breakfast for him when his father had ordered him out of the house in such haste that he missed it at home. Similarly, Isabel King took boiled milk to the boy when he walked to school ‘down the park on the back side of the house where Mr Ettrick could not see him’. She and another servant brought in Catherine when William locked her outside in the dark and put the frightened child to bed ‘in the nursery unknown to the said William Ettrick’. Thus all these servants supervised the standards of parenting in the household, even while outwardly conforming to patriarchal forms of discipline.

These glimpses of genteel household life might reveal the unpleasantness of one man’s family behaviour, but they also illuminate the individuality and agency of domestic servants who, like women, are still too often cast in the role of victims by some scholars.

In the next post I shall reveal another aspect of William’s odd ideas about fatherhood, and offer some reasons for them.

What went on in beds?

Historical beds are very much in view at the moment. There is an exhibition at Hampton Court Palace called ‘Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber’ with an accompanying BBC4 TV programme with Lucy Worsley called ‘Tales from the Royal Bedchamber’.

What is probably the Paradise State Bed, Henry VII’s bed, jas just gone on display at Bishop Auckland Castle until the end of September 2014. Jonathan Foyle revealed the wonders of this 572 year old bed on BBC4 in the documentary, Secret Knowledge: The King’s Lost Bed.


This interest in the fantastic and fantastical beds of our monarchs is wonderful. But my good friend and colleague, Dr Angela McShane, and I have been looking at the meaning of more mundane beds from the past. We have been fascinated by the meaning of something that was fundamental to so many homes and families in early modern England.

As an item of furniture, the bed was at the centre of the domestic sphere. It was the most expensive single item of the household and many of the family’s key events happened in the marital bed. Marriages were made there, children were born, and people were nursed, and eventually died in its warmth and protection. Thus, the bed literally made the household.


But as a household space, it was not only a zone of domestic comfort  – we realised it was also a battle-ground for family tensions and breakdowns. Angela and I have brought our combined knowledge of the history of design and social historical approaches to a wide range of sources on beds, including popular literature, inventories and wills, beds and textiles, and court records covering theft, property dispute and family breakdown, in order to uncover some of those stories.

We’d like to share these stories with new readers, so please follow Joanne on this blog and on twitter to see our stories unfold.

First we’re opening with the story of a problematic marriage. In 1742 13 yr old Isabel Lowee, a fatherless heiress, and 12 yr old William Cashin were wed by marriage licence in a church with closed and locked doors on the Isle of Man. After the ceremony, there was a wedding dinner and dance at Isabel’s guardian’s house and then Isabel and William were taken to the guardian’s barn to be ‘put to bed’, the traditional ritual for fixing the marriage.

There were lots of signs already that this union was a wrong-un. The husband and wife were too young – the usual age of marriage was around the mid twenties. Instead of being a public ceremony, the church’s doors were closed to prevent publicity and the licence was questioned by Isabel’s family who accused the Cashins of coercing Isabel so that they could lay their hands on her inheritance. They claimed that William’s family took Isabel away from her friends and persuaded her to marry with fine clothes and a ‘babby’ or a child’s doll.

wedding bed

But a further concern, pointed out by witnesses, was the material inadequacy of the bedding ceremony. Where was their bed? The bedding had taken place in a barn on a straw ‘bed’ that was hastily made and set upon the ground. The crucial question for Angela and I: is why was this aspect noticed by the people of the time? The next post will explain more.

All images are from Wikimedia Commons:

  1. St James’s Palace, Old Bed Chamber,
  2. Bed photographed at Freilichtmuseum
  3. Woodcut from The Fair Melusina / 15th century: How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed / And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock

“every Husband had a Right to Beat his wife”

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 5: Marital cruelty in action

Catherine’s accusations against her husband are difficult to read, though they are by no means the most disturbing of the cruelty cases I have read. Society knew that men could be cruel, though it didn’t necessarily condone it, as this powerful image from the George Cruikshank’s series The Bottle (1847) shows, ‘Fearful quarrels, and brutal violence’:

L0007411 The bottle, by George Cruikshank

Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In fact, William Ettrick was not especially vicious or violent. This was a period when it was easiest to get a separation if your husband’s violence threatened your life and thus many cases detailed extreme abuse. William did not make Catherine fear she would die; but he wore her down with his consistent contempt, minor acts of abuse: a blow to the face and some rough outbursts where he hurled things at her. The abuse was far more what our society would describe as mental abuse.

Let me outline it here. But remember a few things about historical evidence like this. It is derived from Catherine’s Libel, which detailed acts of violence, but in addition described all the features that made William a bad husband. The courts were not just interested in extreme violence; they wanted to know what made a man impossible to live with. Like other litigation, this was an adversarial case. William denied the claims, or re-interpreted them for the court. We can’t know the truth. But the evidence tells us what was considered to be intolerable in married life.

Like other cases, the abuse fell into four broad categories.

So, first we learn that William was verbally abusive. He swore and cursed Catherine throughout their marriage. He told her she was lazy, ugly and old. The latter seems odd, since she was the same age as him and not yet 40 when she left him. Perhaps worse, he compelled their two children to call her these names and pull her by the nose. He declared that he would never be happy till she was dead. William admitted he sometimes got bad tempered but denied he verbally abused his wife.

Secondly, Catherine brought evidence that William did not provide for her. He wouldn’t give her money for clothes, necessaries or provisions) when she asked. He told her

he had a Right to Lock her up and Feed her on Bread and Water thro’ a Grate and that every Husband had a Right to Beat his wife

(Although, just to reiterate for now, husbands only had the right to correct their wives, not beat them!). He wouldn’t let her have a fire in her bed chamber during winter because he said coal was too expensive. In contrast, William said that he had indulged her in her desires and kept at least one maid and one man-servant to wait upon her.


Thirdly, like many other men in such cases, William denigrated Catherine’s status. Usually husbands took away their wives’ much prized autonomy over the household government by metaphorically and literally removing the home’s keys from them and handing them and the management over to servants. This really undermined married women’s sense of self.

William being William, attacked Catherine’s social status in a more unusual way. She accused him of stating:

Wives should and ought to be nothing but Vassalls and Slaves to their Husbands

Catherine also complained that he treated her like his servant. ‘Genteel,’ as her lawyer described her, yet William demanded that she run after his cows and horses in the fields when they were getting into the wrong place while being driven from area to another. This was NOT what a mayor’s daughter was bred to do! In defence, William said he sometimes asked her to provide this service, but never compelled her to do so.

High Barnes manor

Finally, there was physical violence. Remember here that William did not commit extreme violence in comparison with some other accused husbands, which offers us interesting insights into what contemporaries saw as men’s cruelty. Catherine said that if William fell into a passion (uncontrolled rage, something like madness) he struck her on the head. He admitted that he gave her a ‘box’ round the ears once.

One of his bouts of bad temper even entered neighbourhood lore. I’ve mentioned before that William had rather firm views about sociability, which were not one would expect of a polite gentleman. He grudgingly entertained, but expressly forbid the household to prepare any puddings because he said they were too expensive and the bane of social discourse. In August 1763 Catherine made custard for a dinner that they gave to entertain neighbours. On discovering this rebellion he flew into a rage and threw a very large wooden dish at her [she said it hit her head, he said it missed], then kicked her through the kitchen and the hall, and put the custard down the ‘necessary’ – the eighteenth-century toilet. All this was in front of the servants.

1764 was the turning point for Catherine. On 15 December he ‘forcibly got into her Bed’ though she strove to prevent him, knowing ‘his Cruelty and Brutish Behaviour would not cease’ but was obliged to yield herself to him’. This is clearly a claim of marital cruelty; though remember that was only criminalised in the 1990s in England. She says this made her realise he would never alter his barbarous behaviour and she was tired out with his

Barbarous Treatment of her she having done and submitted to more than could be expected from a slave.

On the 14th January she packed, told her husband she was going to visit her aunt, begged him to take care of the children, left and never returned again. She immediately had William bound over by the quarter sessions to keep the peace towards her. William, one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for County Durham, brought before the General quarter session of the peace in Durham city! Having obtained some legal peace of mind, she then initiated the separation case at Durham church court.

Several women who sued their abusive husbands, abandoned their cases fairly quickly, perhaps because the couple reached an agreement, or the husband felt threatened enough to promise to end his cruelty. For Catherine, though, thanks to William’s stubbornness and sense of self-righteousness, this was to be the start of more years of trouble.