“If any persons or persons within his Majesties Dominions of England and Wales, being married, or which hereafter shall marry, do at any time after the end of the session of this present Parliament, marry any person or persons, the former husband or wife being alive … then every such offence shall be felony. Provided always, that neither this Act, nor anything therein contained, shall extend to any person or persons whose husband or wife shall be continually remaining beyond the seas by the space of seven years together, or whose husband or wife shall absent him or herself the one from the other by the space of seven years together, in any parts within his Majesties Dominions, the one of them not knowing the other to be living within that time.”1
This Act of Parliament, more commonly known as the Bigamy Act of 1603, made the crime of bigamy punishable by death. With the passing of the Offences against the Person Act of 1828, the crime was instead punished by hard labor not to exceed two years, or transportation to a foreign land for up to seven years.2 Throughout the time of the Act’s enforcement, many cases were brought before the courts which reveal the sometimes fragile state of marriages in early modern England.
Between 1674 and 1678, nine trials for bigamy were brought before the Old Bailey, the central criminal court of London during that era.3 Of those nine trials, six defendants were found guilty, with three being sentenced to death, two to branding, and one being pardoned of his sentence.4 These cases were often strange and captivated the public. The proceedings of trials at the Old Bailey were published regularly with each court session beginning in 1678, and therefore, they brought the crimes tried at the court into the public eye.
Perhaps the most sensational of these cases was one brought before the court on 10 May 1676. A man, who was not named, was “charged by common fame with having seventeen wives.” The record continues, however, that the defendant was only indicted for four marriages with living wives. According to the proceedings of this trial
“…for about five years last past or more he has made it his business to ramble up and down most parts of England pretending himself a person of quality, and assuming the names of good families, and that he had a considerable Estate per Annum, though in Truth he was old sutor ultra Crepidam, a Knight of the Order of the famous Crispin, being originally by profession a Shomaker, and not many years since a Journyman; but on the pretensions aforesaid, where ever he came if he heard of any rich Maid, or wealthy widow at their own disposal, he would very formally make Love to them, wherein being of handsome taking presence, and Master of a voluble insinuating tongue, he commonly succeeded to engage their easie affections. And having inveigled them to marry him, and for some small time injoy’d their persons, and got possession of their more beloved Estates, he would march off in Triumph with what ready mony and other portable things of value he could get, to another strange place, and there lay a new plot for a second Adventure, but was at last discovered in the West, and apprehended, and at the great charge of the Prosecutor brought up by Habeas Corpus hither.”5
The defendant plead guilty upon his arrest, and at the trial, the officiating ministers of his marriages provided proof of his deceit. The man was sentenced to be hanged shortly thereafter.6
Another trial saw “a County-fellow” charged with having two wives. During this trial, the man’s “two pretty children” were brought into the court “to see the wickedness of their father.” This man was also found guilty and sentenced to death.7
The court proceedings occasionally used the fates of the condemned to offer a lesson. Such was the case of Richard Hazelgrove. Hazelgrove, accused of having two wives, was condemned and executed after being unable to read his rights.8 The proceedings follow up this summary by saying “A Case that seems a little severe; but so the Law directs: which may admonish Parents to bestow, and Children to study at least to read well, since sometimes a man loses his life meerly for want of it.”9
Cases for bigamy continued well into the nineteenth century. Just prior to the repeal of the Bigamy Act of 1603, a man named Thomas Riordan was found guilty of having two living wives. In the case of his second marriage, he had assumed the name of Thomas Reading.10 In the Old Bailey alone from 1674 to 1913, 2,384 bigamy cases were heard, showing how common an issue it was.11
Cases such as these can present challenges for genealogists, as they can lead to questions regarding parentage and legal marriages, particularly for cases where a defendant assumed a different name. For more information to see the full archives of Old Bailey court proceedings, visit http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/.
1. Hawaii E-Book Library, “Bigamy Act, 1603,” http://www.hawaiilibrary.com/articles/Bigamy_Act_1603.
4. Proceedings of Old Bailey, 1674-1913, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/.
5. Old Bailey Proceedings, 10 May 1676, Reference Number: t16760510-1.
7. Old Bailey Proceedings, 28 June 1676, Reference Number: t16760628-6.
8. Old Bailey Proceedings, 11 July 1677, Reference Number: t16770711a-6.
10. Old Bailey Proceedings, 21 February 1828, Reference Number: t18280221-231.
11. Proceedings of Old Bailey, 1674-1913, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/.