Marriage was a serious business in the regency. Divorce was nearly impossible to obtain, but what about annulments?
What happened if a young person ‘married in haste’ but then repented of his or her decision? Annulment, when possible, was the best option to end a marriage since it did not carry the social stigma of a divorce (which was nearly impossible to obtain).
Unlike a divorce, an annulment voided a marriage, making it as if it had never happened. Of course, that meant that if there were any children, they were declared illegitimate since their parents had effectively never been married. Fun that.
Annulment suits took place in an ecclesiastical court, presided upon by the bishop of the see containing the couple’s parish. In general, the bishops were biased toward keeping marriages together, so they were unlikely to grant annulments for small technicalities like misspellings. They reserved the alternative for real issues.
What constituted a ‘real issue’?
Reasons to invalidate a marriage
Violations of the Hardwicke Marriage Act were grounds to void a marriage. So if a couple was within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, a marriage could be voided. The most likely scenario for this was when a man married his deceased wife’s sister.
Bigamy would also void a marriage. If a person was already married to another, the first marriage held and the second was voided.
In addition, a marriage was considered voidable under conditions of fraud, incompetence or impotence.
Fraud could take two forms.
If the wedding license or the banns contained fictitious names, an annulment might be granted. Since the purpose of the banns was to allow people to speak out if they knew a problem that would prevent a wedding, correct names were essential. Names used had to be the participant’s name or a name that they had been widely known by. Inadvertent mistakes and spelling errors didn’t count. In those cases, the bishop would correct the official records and disallow the annulment.
A far less common form of fraud occurred when one party could not fulfil promises they made in the marriage contract. So, if the groom did not have property he claimed to have —as might have happened when Edward Ferrars lost his inheritance in Sense and Sensibility— or a father could not deliver on a promised dowry—as might be the case of someone like Anne Elliot of Persuasion—breach of contract could be claimed and a marriage voided.
Forced marriage, where one or the other was coerced and did not give willing consent to the marriage, would also constitute fraud.
Legal incompetence of either party rendered a marriage voidable. This could come in two forms.
If one were underage to enter into a legal contract, they were considered incompetent in the eyes of the law. So if an underage person did not have a guardian’s permission to marry, the marriage might be annulled.
In reality though, a father rarely would insist that a wayward daughter’s marriage be annulled as her reputation would be ruined and it would be difficult or impossible to see her married off thereafter. Thus, sixteen-year-old Lydia Bennet of Pride and Prejudice could be reasonably certain her father would not insist her marriage to Wickham be annulled.
Insanity would also render one legally incompetent. But being proved insane, generally meant a person would be locked away for the rest of their lives, with all their possessions under the control of a guardian. Even worse, it tainted the entire family. Think of Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre. The wife of a man declared insane would be considered ruined. So this was not an attractive option for a family who disapproved of a marriage.
If insanity was not an attractive option for gaining an annulment, then impotence was even worse.
Proving impotence meant a man must (faithfully) share a bed with his wife for three years and prove she was still a virgin. The mind boggles at how this might be accomplished to satisfy a court. But wait, there’s more. After that, with the help of a couple of court appointed courtesans, he must prove he cannot achieve an erection. Seriously. Then he might be declared impotent—and utterly humiliated.
What about non-consummation?
Though a convenient plot device for romance writers, non-consummation of marriage was not considered a reason for annulment. Only the possibility of consummation was required.
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