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Wedding Bell Blues (And Bigamy)

Updated: Jan 24

By Jan Ashton, author of A More Agreeable Man

“He is as fine a fellow,” said Mr Bennet, as soon as they were out of the house, "as ever I saw. He simpers, and smirks, and makes love to us all. I am prodigiously proud of him. I defy even Sir William Lucas himself to produce a more valuable son-in-law.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter XI, Volume III

In Pride and Prejudice, George Wickham makes a good first impression as a handsome, charming conversationalist. Later on, he is exposed as a liar, libertine, debaucher, cheat, and debt-ridden gambler. When he and Lydia go off to join his garrison in the north, does any reader believe he will be a good and faithful husband? What might happen to the marriage?

Well, the Church of England held that a legal and consummated marriage was indissoluble except by death. Formal separations were allowed, but remarriage was prohibited until one party died. Divorce was rare, and achievable only through a private Act of Parliament—an expensive and difficult process available only to the very wealthy (and well-connected), and only when adultery or abuse could be proved. A mere 276 divorces occurred between 1765 and 1857—and only four of them were granted to women, the first in 1801. A separate bill of divorcement was necessary to permit remarriage.

So what were the unhappily wed to do if they wanted a new partner in life?

In the days before divorce and remarriage were relatively easy and affordable, marital desertion and bigamy were not uncommon. England has a rich history of married men (and women) who were so devoted to the idea of marital felicity that they wed a second or third time while their first spouse was still alive and wearing their wedding ring.

To some extent, many bigamists were the victims of circumstance, accidentally separated from their first spouse and assuming after a year or so that he or she was probably dead. Others (predominantly men) deliberately abandoned a spouse, wed a new one, and hoped their first, legally binding marriage would go undetected. was considered a spiritual offence and prosecuted in church courts. In 1603, Parliament passed an ‘Act to restrain all persons from marriages until their former wives and former husbands be dead’, classifying ‘premature remarriage’ as bigamy and declaring it to be a felony and punishable by death. (In 1828, punishment was reduced to hard labour not to exceed two years, or transportation to a foreign land for up to seven years.)

Some aggrieved husbands resorted to publicly selling their wives (Thomas Hardy features a wife sale in his novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge) as though they were livestock. Because these occurred outside the rule of law, they were meaningless charades, but wife sales were rarely prosecuted since all parties were supposedly willing and no statute prohibited the practice—unless, of course, a bigamous marriage resulted.

Taking on a second husband or wife was a dangerous gambit if an abandoned husband felt vindictive, as in the case of Susanna Moore, who was pursued by her first husband:

Last Tuesday Susanna Moore, who had eloped from Mr Moore of Harwich, her Husband,
and was advertised in the Ipswich Journal, and is since married to one John Game, with
whom she has lived in this City for some Time, was committed to the City Gaol, on
the Oath of her said Husband Moore.
-- The Ipswich Journal, 15 April, 1749

Although the Bill for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage in 1753 was partly designed to prevent rich heirs from being seduced into marrying their social and economic inferiors, it also was intended to help reduce the incidence of bigamy. The Act even decreed that any clergyman who performed clandestine marriages would be transported to America for 14 years.

According to records at the Old Bailey, more than a hundred men and women in England were charged with bigamy between 1750 and 1800. More than 50 of the 86 accused men were found guilty, but rather than being sent to the gallows, 30 were sentenced to prison, 15 were branded, seven were transported, and two were fined. Ten women were found guilty of bigamy during this same period. Three were sent to prison; two were branded.

While fewer women were charged, they provide some of the more colourful stories of bigamy and betrayal. Elizabeth Chudleigh’s love life is a particularly rollicking tale. Born in 1720 to a well-connected family, she became engaged to the future Duke of Hamilton just before he left on his Grand Tour. She soon captured the heart of Captain Augustus John Hervey, son of the Earl of Bristol. She married Hervey in 1744—keeping it secret from the royal court and their families—but it was an unhappy match and they separated in 1749.

When Hamilton returned to England and pressed for a wedding date, Elizabeth smartly (and likely painfully—she’d given up a duke!) refused him. Frustrated at being legally tied to Hervey, legend has it she tore the leaf out of the church register where the marriage was recorded and bribed the clerk; when Hervey unexpectedly became Earl of Bristol, she bribed the clerk again and returned the page to the register. Despite all these machinations, Elizabeth didn’t return to the marriage and became the mistress of the Duke of Kingston. Although the new earl apparently agreed to relinquish any claim to Elizabeth, legally he remained her husband, a fact which didn’t keep ‘Miss Chudleigh’ from marrying the duke in 1769. All was fine until 1773, when Kingston died and she was accused of bigamy by his nephew and heir. The case quickly reached the press, and in what seems a modern-day parallel to Fleet Street tabloids, the June 1775 issue of The Matrimonial included a five-page article entitled ‘Memoirs of the Married Maid of Honour; or, The Widow’d Wife’. It recounted details of her scandalous life and featured ‘an elegant Engraving’ with portraits of her with both her ‘husbands’.

In 1776, the ‘Duchess of Kingston’ was put on trial and found guilty of bigamy. Her punishment? The ever-resourceful Elizabeth claimed the privileges of a peeress and was discharged without sentence. When the duke’s family pursued her for the property she had acquired upon his death, she fled to France.

In an 1816 case Jane Austen might have read about, Captain George Harrower of the East India Company stood trial for bigamy at the Old Bailey. It was claimed that he had married Mary Usher in Bombay in February 1794, and that he had been married for a second time in October 1812—this time in London to Susannah Ann Giblet—despite knowing that his first wife was alive and well in India.

A chaplain who in served in Bombay for the company in 1794 testified as to the validity of the first marriage and about his 1813 visit to Mrs Harrower in Bombay. But Captain Harrower’s testimony made no mention at all of his first wife. Instead, he accused his ‘father-in-law’, Mr Giblet, of extortion, claiming he had stolen £10,000 that had been settled on his daughter as part of the marriage agreement in 1812.

Harrower was found guilty of bigamy but received the relatively light sentence of six months in Newgate Gaol. Upon his release, he returned to his second ‘wife’ and began petitioning for his conviction to be overturned. His pleas were turned away, even when he became a widower upon the death of Mrs Mary Harrower in Bombay in January 1826.

In the cases of Elizabeth Chudleigh and Captain Harrower, it seems that even if one were not physically branded (or even punished) for committing bigamy, it was a stain on one’s reputation that could not be wiped clean. But it did make them memorable in history.


Bigamous Marriage in Early Modern England, by Bernard Capp

The Historical Journal, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Sep., 2009), pp. 537-556

Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth Century, Pen & Sword History, 2019

Lawrence Stone, The Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987 (1990), Oxford Press

Joanne Bailey, Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marital Breakdowns in England, 1660-1860, Cambridge Press

The Life and Memoirs of Elizabeth Chudleigh, Afterwards Mrs. Hervey and Countess of Bristol, Commonly Called Duchess of Kingston. Written From Authentic Information and Original Documents, Gale Ecco. 2018

Image Sources:

William Hogarth, Marriage a la Mode, The Tete a Tete, 1743, National Gallery, Public Domain

Thomas Rowlandson, Selling a Wife (1812–1814). Public Domain

BBC 1995

Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, attending her trial. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Etching 1776 by John Hamilton Mortimer. Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Author unknown. A satirical engraving of the English custom of "wife-selling", 1820 English

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Interesting. I am reading this book now...about 80% through it.

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