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

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

2019 has seen the publication of a book I co-edited with Michael Lobban and Adrian Green in memory of Christopher Brooks, a major legal historian, who very sadly died in 2014. We all had worked with Chris and wanted to bring together leading scholars to reflect on his important contributions to the history of early modern England. Indeed the volume’s title reflects these major works of scholarship: Law, Lawyers and Litigants in Early Modern England: Essays in Memory of Christopher W. Brooks.

Check out the contents page, which shows the diverse range of topics we cover. My chapter in the collection stems from work that I did as Chris’s PhD student when I worked on marriage and marital conflict in England, 1660-1800. This blog post is taken from the chapter and tells the story of the making of marriage and clandestine unions in the north-west of England in the first half of the eighteenth century. An elaborated version of the argument is in the book, but I think this gives a sense of the fascinating case on which it is based.

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

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

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

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

Christopher Bulcock: the ‘mad’ Vicar

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

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

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

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

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

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

The clandestine marriers’ motivation

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

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

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

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

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

Couples’ accounts of being remarried by another clergyman are also revealing. Many did so for pragmatic reasons rather than because they felt the clandestine union was inadequate. William Hindle remarried his wife at the advice of John Smith, the Curate of Harwood, the Sunday following the Whit Sunday after his marriage. Reading further, it becomes clear that at the time of his marriage, William’s wife was under age. Her ‘friends’ in Yorkshire refused to release her portion to him when he visited them following the clandestine ceremony. They stipulated that he would only get part of her fortune if they were remarried in Church. Thus they wed regularly.

Tamor Crossley was married three times in total, twice to her first husband. She remarried him after her wedding presided over by Bulcock for pugnacious reasons. Having married outside their own parish, its parson Fishwick still demanded his costs for the wedding. Tamor’s husband indignantly informed the reverend that

‘if he would have his dues he must do the work for it for which reason only they were married again for she thought nothing to the contrary but that she was well married by Mr Bulcock’.

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

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

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

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

So now you are wed enough.

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

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

Clogs, Andy-Capp, and wife-beating

My experiment with putting my presentation slides on Slidehsare continues with this paper on marital violence. I’ve given it a couple of times in the last few months and it is a topic that I am beginning to think more about: why was there an association in British society between working-class men and physical violence against wives?

Andy Capp





I am simply raising questions at the moment and feel some trepidation in doing so, since I am by no means an expert in nineteenth- and twentieth-century class-identity, labour patterns, and living conditions – all of which I’m sure inform the issue. Nonetheless, I would like to open up the stereotype and its longevity to more discussion. So here goes ….

Historical research and its impact!

This week I’m writing about social media and its uses for history. As part of this, I’ve been trying to establish how far my own work has been cited through social media. I’ve been trying to use impactstory as one tool for doing so.

Screenshot 2013-11-26 10.17.50

I am surprised, then, to find that a reference to one of my articles has turned up on a blog called ‘Secular Patriarchy’ whose stance is: Anti-Feminist, Anti-MRA, Pro-Traditional Women’s Rights Traditional Family Activist (TFA).  My article is on married women’s status under the legal doctrine of coverture. This post on the site links to it in order to explain coverture. The post’s overall argument is that marriage has lost its way since coverture has been undermined. It concludes that :

Marriage is masculinity, marriage is coverture, marriage is the man providing for the woman thereby enabling the woman’s feminine purpose and expression.  Marriage is a male institution; the means by which men provide to women the environment a woman needs to function best as a woman.

Ironically the link to my article no longer works, which is probably just as well, as I don’t agree with the blog’s views about marriage today or in the past.

Here is a quick explanation of coverture and the law of agency in the long eighteenth century (you can access my article here). At marriage women became feme coverts, which meant that they lost ownership of the movable goods that they brought to marriage and transferred the profits and management of any land they owned to their husbands during marriage. Coverture also removed married women’s legal identity by subsuming it under their husbands’ and therefore removed their right to enter any commercial contracts. The reality, however, was that women needed to purchase goods for the household and for family businesses in a world which relied heavily upon credit rather than cash.

The Common law recognised this need, through a technical device called the ‘law of agency’. The law of agency allowed women to purchase necessaries – that is food, medicine, clothing and lodgings – in their husbands’ name. (This is probably why wives took their husbands’ surname). Husbands could, however, deny them this right for a number of reasons including claiming that they had already supplied the household with necessaries, or paid the wife enough money to purchase goods without using credit, or by claiming that the goods purchased were far beyond the couple’s social status.

Husbands therefore made public announcements that they refused to pay the debts their wives had accumulated. In the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century we only have indirect references to this practice. So there are reports that husbands had their wives cried down by the town crier in the market place or on a Sunday after church. From the 1730s, however, these announcements were regularly placed in local provincial newspapers.

A number of the husbands complained about their wives’ extravagance and financial mismanagement. This complaint was mentioned in the adverts placed by husbands, as an explanation for their denial of their credit to their wives. William Sampson who was a tallow chandler and soap boiler in Pontefract, for example, advertised in 1756 in the York Courant that he would not pay his wife’s debts, because she ‘seems entirely bent to ruin her said Husband’.

Having analysed a large number of such advertisements I concluded that rather than displaying wives subordination under the law, they revealed that men’s economic autonomy was vulnerable. I used them to show that spouses did not necessarily see property that women brought to the union as shifting in ownership to the husband, but often continued to identify it as belonging to the wife, and more frequently simply pooled as family property. Moreover they demonstrated that women also felt that they provided for their families alongside their husbands and that while manhood was certainly about the ability to provide, this did not exclude wives/mothers from also feeling the same sense of obligation in terms of their womanly status. (See here and here for some excellent new research on coverture and here for women and the law)

For me, coverture at once implied a degree of female legal and economic ‘invisibility’ but enabled wives to carry out their necessary economic functions within marriage; activities that brought with them a sense of authority and identity, not subordination. There is no sense in which this evidence of economic activities under coverture supports the blog post’s claim that the function of marriage is:

The man takes control and the man then executes his plan and mission for the family.

All in all, I’m fascinated by the unpredictable uses to which historical research is being put. Is this evidence of impact? Hmm. Not the impact I’d expect, or want – but certainly proof that there is dissemination of my research!

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

A Bottle, a Witch and several Banshees

The readers of my blog will know that I have recounted the unhappy marriage of William and Catherine Ettrick which ended in separation in the 1760s. The Ettricks had two children who were old enough to be aware of their parents’ troubled union, and their father’s aggressive, sometimes violent actions towards their mother. Nowadays we want to know how children are coping when their parents are fighting and we know that domestic violence is a psychologically damaging environment in which to grow up. It is very difficult to ask how children in the past felt in this sort of family life. The records simply don’t offer the kind of evidence we need to discover how children viewed their situation, though it is very clear that family members and servants always acted promptly both to save and remove children from violent scenes.

I did manage, however, to find out something about the Ettricks’ two children when they grew up. There is far more information about the youngest child, William Ettrick junior, born in 1757, because he left a diary. Although I am unable to say that he and his sister were damaged by their childhood, they were certainly as eccentric as their father.

Even the means by which we know about William junior’s life is strange. His diary was sealed into a glass bottle and bobbed through the waves of time, hidden somewhere in the Ettrick family’s possession, until it was rediscovered in 1912. It came into their solicitor’s possession when their line ran out and he dealt with their estate in the early 20th century.  His papers and correspondence are in Dorset and Tyne & Wear record offices now and would make fantastic sources for anyone interested in the period.

After his parents separated, William junior was sent off to school in York and Newcastle. In 1778, as soon as he turned 21, he left home for University College, Oxford. As he described it, he ‘decamped from Barnes, the cave of despair, penniless – friendless’. Essentially, he was running away from his father. He was ordained and elected a fellow and tutor in 1785. He took up the rectorship of Affpuddle and Tonerspuddle near Dorchester. William refused to talk to his father in this time, and sent his mother a substantial proportion of his stipend every year. She died in 1794 and William Senior contacted his son, spending the next few years trying to persuade him that he should marry and produce heirs. William was now 38 years old after all! William Senior seems to have been senile in his last years, and when his son visited to show him his grandchildren, he recorded with dismay that ‘the tyger revived as if it had never slumbered;’ indeed, he noted, their grandfather ‘cast them out like live toads’.

William junior now exerted his independence from his father even more. He married a local woman, Elizabeth Bishop, on 17 April 1800. Their daughter was baptised on Christmas day 1800, and a boy (yet another William) was born the following summer. In marriage, he and his sister Catherine acted very similarly. Catherine offended her father by marrying William Budle, a ‘common brewer’ in Sunderland, in 1788, leading her father to disinherit her so that her brother gave her a life annuity of £300 from his inheritance. William also went against his father’s wishes by marrying his servant. It is likely that Elizabeth was pregnant when he married her and he also got himself into great difficulties because he was trying to retain that year’s stipend from his Oxford Fellowship, which depended upon him being a bachelor. He needed both to convince locals they were married, while not marrying until after he got his stipend paid. It didn’t help that William then performed his own wedding ceremony! After several more children, the couple had to get married again in 1806 to ensure they were properly wed and their children legitimate.

When William Senior died in 1808, his son returned to his natal home, family in tow. The family grew to ten children (born in William’s middle-age) and lived in some happiness at High Barnes, although William and Elizabeth retired to Bath in their late years, only occasionally visiting Sunderland. William seems to have been happy with Elizabeth until her death in 1837 – a 37-year marriage in all. He had problems with his own children. The eldest son died in 1806, and a younger son was bankrupt twice before he was 21. Still, he seems to have remained in contact with all his offspring, though he disapproved of various husbands, and in 1827 deplored his daughter Kitty naming his granddaughter Rominetta. As he told her, that was alright while she was a baby, but she’d be ridiculed as an old woman called Rominetta! William’s favourite daughter, Mary, died in 1836. Like his father, William lived an astoundingly long life, dying at 90 in 1847. His heir was his son Anthony, who never married.

He diverted himself in his years in the North-East by writing theological tracts, often on the apocalypse, and pursuing a number of quarrels and grudges with his neighbours, and his boys’ schoolmasters. His vendettas included his sister. He recorded being offended that their conversations were largely about when her money would be paid. In 1817 he referred to her ironically as a ‘kind & grateful Creature!’ At the end of that year she wrote to him announcing that her husband had died. William disliked her tone and complained that she was a ‘woman of … draconic spirit, who has no heart or affections or religion at all, is beyond all things disgusting’. In May 1823 he recorded a dream where he was walking in the garden when scorpion-like creatures rose out of the ground. He interpreted them as the ‘root of evil’ and wondered if they foretold anything. Perhaps they heralded the death of his sister, since he was discussing administering her will in September that year.


Image courtesty of Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, William was a surprisingly superstitious man for a clergyman. While living in Dorset, William and Elizabeth employed Sarah Woodrow who worked on their garden and later as a nurse to one of the baby girls. In 1804 William recorded in his diary that the family was suffering calamities. Their horse died, their potato crop failed and their infant daughter was taken very ill, crying for several nights. William decided that Sarah was the problem: she was a witch; she made the other children cry if she passed them, she caused William nightmares, and she’d made his infant ill. He took charge and fought his child’s ‘demonical possession’ by writing sacred words on a ‘phylactery’ and tying it round her body, after which she suddenly improved. In January 1805 he dismissed Sarah since her ‘crimes’ were ‘all works of darkness’.

William grew even more concerned with the supernatural as he aged. When Mary died in 1836 he recorded in his diary: ‘the wailing of the Banshees have visited us for some months past and more strongly as the evil grows near’. In fact more was to follow as his wife Elizabeth died 6 months after her daughter. The Ettricks seem to have had a mobile banshee, for when Anthony inherited he did not live at High Barnes, but in a small farm near Sunderland. Nonetheless, when he died in 1883, the village populace apparently heard the Banshee wailing round his house, and after he died a spectral chaise and horses were heard driving to his farmhouse door! A grandson of William Junior died in 1902 and the family recorded that a noisy poltergeist attended his death, almost driving the doctor and nurses out of the house; a great grandson declared the banshee scared him more than the tomb. A writer who wrote up their history in the 20th century declared that the whole family record consisted of ‘dreams, spooks, bordering on insanity’!

Some of this biography is based on Mrs Sherwood’s Account of William Ettrick’s Life (1980) D1854/3, Dorset Record Office. The rest is from the collection of Ettrick papers held in Tyne & Wear Record Office.

The least likely account of 18th century adultery?

Until recently I have tended to blog about marital cruelty, so kind readers of my blog will perhaps think that doing research into marriage is very depressing and sad. Well, some of it is, for sources on domestic violence are awful to read.

But I also study adultery, and to be honest some of those separation cases are just laugh-out-loud hilarious. So for a little light relief, here is a brief retelling of the separation of Elizabeth and George Surtees.

Gillray card playing

Wikimedia Commons: Gillray 1796

George was a gentleman who sued his wife for separation on the grounds of adultery in 1745 before Durham Consistory Court. He claimed that after being married for four years Elizabeth committed adultery with John Thompson. Practically all of the case turned on the evidence of George’s 28 year old servant, Margaret Crow, who testified to seeing Elizabeth and John in the act of adultery three times.

Margaret’s testimony was very detailed, ranging from John’s bare backside, and Elizabeth’s naked thighs, to describing the beds: a yellow bed in the marital chamber, and a blue Russell bed in the chamber hung with blue paper. On one occasion, she said, John was visiting Elizabeth so she made coffee to take to them in the yellow bed chamber. Margaret says that she later returned to the room to take away the coffee things. The door was open and so she looked in and saw John

with a Coffee Cup in his Left Hand and his Privy Member in his Right Hand, and naked (and erect to this Deponent’s apprehension) and in that Position and his Breeches down went to the yellow Bed

upon which Elizabeth lay. And you can imagine the rest.

When I read this, I giggled, naturally, but also was struck by the oddness of the scene. It was not like the other adultery cases, nor like criminal conversation suits where the lover was sued by the husband for financial damages. I kept asking myself, would an unfaithful wife keep leaving her chamber door open to have sex with her lover? Once by accident perhaps, but not several times when the maid kept walking by! Would a man really have his coffee cup in one hand and his member in the other?

I was not surprised to find that Elizabeth defended her case, which dragged on in Durham’s court until she appealed the case to York in 1748 claiming that Margaret Crow was a ‘Common Lyar’. I haven’t yet tracked down whether Elizabeth’s appeal was successful. It is unlikely to have been as most husbands in these situations got their separation.

I did look up George Surtees’ will, however, He made his will in March 1757 and it was proved the following year in 1758 when he died. He left all his estate to his son Anthony who was 17 and thus still a minor. Anthony’s guardian was not his mother Elizabeth but George’s relation Cuthbert Surtees.

What jumped out as I was reading his will was that George also left a thatch house to Margaret Crow, his servant, free for her to live in for the rest of her life, plus £10 per annum. Was this, I still wonder, for services rendered?

Beds, marital sex, and adultery

In our last post Angela and I talked about the different functions of the early modern bed and how it literally shifted its uses from the marital bed to the child-bed, to the sick-bed, to the death-bed as family needs dictated. In my post on the different nature of the understandings and experience of privacy in the past, I pointed out that people often shared rooms at night. As the ubiquity of the truckle bed indicates, children and servants frequently shared the chambers in which spouses slept and it was not uncommon for visitors to be put up for the night too (read Sasha Handley’s great work on sleeping for insights into this).[1] So in this post we talk about the marital bed and its uses and meanings in relation to marital affection and marital sex.

Jan Steen bed with curtains

Jan Steen, The Morning Toilet, 1663 (Wikimedia Commons)

Married couples shared a bed, which was seen as the prime site for the sustenance and negotiation of marital relations. After all, conjugal affection and sex were seen as building a harmonious relationship. So how was this achieved in a small or busy household with shared rooms? We think that the bed hangings and curtains were crucial because they acted as a boundary or a ‘threshold.’ In other words, opening or closing the curtains on a tester bed, or indeed the doors on a bed that was built into the house, marked a transition between different types of spaces. It made the space of the bed part of the room or closed off from the room. You can see this above in the Jan Steen painting where one of the curtains is partially closed. The drawn curtain therefore indicated that the bed-space was closed to view – ‘locked’; whereas the open curtain (or absent curtain) allowed an open view – and therefore a different use. This was meaningful enough for early modern people to be used in the theatre for dramatic ends with the curtains of the stage bed signifying ‘secrecy, surprise, revelation, and dramatic irony’.[2]

This notion of the marital bed as the site for legitimate sexual relations was so strong that it shaped people’s language and actions. As the paramount site for beneficial ‘good’ sex, ‘bad’ sex – in other words adultery – was a betrayal of the marital bed. Indeed ‘forsaking the marital bed’ was used as a metaphor for a failed marriage in separation cases. The main bed of the household was so fundamentally associated with marital relations that any other kind of sex in it seems to have been taboo.

Interestingly, cases of adultery that came before the courts reveal that adultery was rarely described as occurring in the marital bed. I recorded where witnesses or defendants claimed that it occurred and the most common places were on chairs, on floors, against doors, and out of doors. The engraving below of a couple using a chair for their dalliance is an example from the Trials for Adultery published in the late eighteenth century. Thus the most common sites of infidelity were the boundaries of legitimate spaces – or ‘liminal’ spaces as scholars call them. Essentially, this means that adultery was rarely committed in the marital bed. You might point out that the marital bed was too overlooked for any suspicious activities. But adultery often occurred in the family home, when husbands were away, so this can’t be the only cause of the reluctance to use this site! Indeed, when beds were cited in adultery trials, they were multi-use, household-neutral beds e.g. lodgings, inns, and not those that were emotionally or physically bound to the household.

Mrs Draper 1771

The bed was also a primary space in which emotional as well as physical bonds between spouses were cultivated, strengthened and maintained. Diaries show that spouses used the bed as a space for sociability, because its enclosure allowed couples to talk away from view. Given that the marital bed facilitated spouses’ discussions, it is not surprising that popular culture saw the bed as the place for wives’ nagging. This was encapsulated in the notion of the ‘curtain lecture’. Pamphlets such as Curtain Lectures: Or, Matrimonial Misery displayed (2s 6d, or 3s in calf) were published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, portraying wives nagging husbands. This common motif lasted well into the nineteenth century as the Victorian image below indicates. Husbands adopted the same conventions in court. In 1766 Charles Allison claimed that ‘after he had got into Bed … [his wife] still continuing to Provoke him with her opprobrious language he did cause and oblige her to get up and go down Stairs’ or to the maid’s bed. He also locked other rooms and pocketed the key to keep his wife out of them. These actions signified a reduction of his wife’s status – moving her out of the marital bed to a servant’s in lesser accommodation.


As these examples indicate, since beds were where married couples talked, it is no wonder bed were also where tensions led to quarrels and in some cases, sadly, violence, which will be discussed in the next bed-post.

[1] More more on sleeping and dreams see: and

[2] Sasha Roberts, ‘”Let me the curtains draw”: the dramatic and symbolic properties of the bed in Shakespearean tragedy’ in J G Harris and N Korda, Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama, Cambridge, 2002.


The bed and the emotional landscape of the household

Angela McShane and I have worked on beds (as it were) for quite some time now and one of the things that has increasingly fascinated us is that the main bed of the household – the marital bed – was a location for family and home that was both literal and figurative. So in this post we’ll think a bit more about this question: how did the bed and its dressings act as both a metaphor and stage for household and family relations?

Overall, the bed was a space whose use was directed by wider family and household concerns. Historians have become much more spatially aware recently, and what is important for those of us who study domestic space is that spaces obtain meaning mainly through the ways in which people use them. One of the things that struck Angela and I again and again was that the space of the bed in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century households was very mutable. The bed could hold different meanings at different times for different individuals because it was so intimately bound up with the form and function of the household. Just think about it – the bed regularly changed its use in a number of short-term, temporary ways. So a bed had different meanings according to whether a wife shared the marital bed with a female servant due to her husband’s absence, or when she lay with her husband. It changed again when it was given over to child care or nursing the sick.

L0019348 A Dutch birth-room, with a maid giving sweetmeats to gossips.

Many historians will know that there were times when the bed had a ceremonial role to play in key life-cycle events like ‘bedding’, childbirth and death, at which points its function would be symbolically transformed. Very often, the dressings on a bed themselves played a vital part in the reshaping of its use. The classic example of this is the way that the function of the chamber in which the bed was placed changed to a child-bed and lying-in space. This was done by blocking the key hole, and by using fabric to close off the light from any windows. The space was thus transformed into a secure, safe environment ready for the female-only experience of giving birth (The image above illustrates this: Wellcome Library, A Dutch birth-room, with a maid giving sweetmeats to gossips, seventeenth century).  Male midwives eventually caused a draft by entering this closed-off haven in the eighteenth century, of course!

Bed curtains c. 1690

As such, the bed and its textiles could become invested with emotional meaning for individuals and families. A great article by Janelle Jansted reveals that wealthy women, for example, had special hangings that were used during their lying-in, the period following child-birth when they received guests from their bed.[i] These textiles gained sentimental connotations and were shared between the aristocratic women’s family members.

We can see the emotional investment of parents in the quilts made for children’s cradles too. Made or commissioned for the birth of a child, some embroidered with the child’s name and date of birth, they represent the human capacity of hope in the face of adversity. In lots of autobiographies and print culture children were frequently referred to as the repository of parental hopes; precious conveyors of familial and personal qualities on to the next generation.


Wikimedia Commons, Two Women By a Cradle, 1670

Yet children’s lives were unbearably fragile. One demographer calculates that from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries around a third of all children died before reaching their tenth birthdays in England and Wales. Mortality for infants under a year old could be even higher. And the same memoirs are often full of the language of grief that testifies to the shattering blighting of parental hopes when a child died. Yet what astounded us was that in the face of this knowledge, parents did not fear marking the precarious arrival of their offspring through textiles that would be placed on cradles or beds, or indeed displayed nearby. In part the possibility of loss might itself have motivated parents to make permanent their children’s lives through a material object that could be passed on to future generations. As with family portraits, or written memories of family members, textiles offered another way to try and heal the irrevocable discontinuity caused by frequent and sudden mortality.

All this testifies to individuals’ interest in what scholars rather pompously call the ‘diachronic’ family – that is in situating themselves within the family as it stretched before and after them. And this too can be seen in some quilts and coverlets. One of the quilts which was displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Quilt Exhibition (2010) is a great illustration of this.


It is a cot quilt (held at the V&A), thought to date from 1690 to 1720 as most of the textiles used in it are late seventeenth century. Yet it has a particularly early textile at its centre, probably from the 1660s). The likely maker was Priscilla Redding, and research on this quilt by Claire Smith in preparation for the exhibition suggests she probably made it for her first born child Susanna. Priscilla herself was born in 1654, which means that the textile may have been from her own childhood (or could have been inherited from another family member). The fact that it sits at the centre suggests it has a particular emotional resonance for the maker. We don’t think it is unreasonable to speculate that it represents emotional lineage, the handing down of memories of family from one generation to another.

To read more about the quilts on beds you can read Sue Prichard (ed), Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories (V&A, 2010)

We’ll think more about the curtains around the bed in our next post.

[i] Janelle Day Jenstad, ‘Lying-in like a Countess: the Lisle letters, the Cecil Family, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34:2 (2004)