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Chapter 26. Fleet Marriages. - John Ashton 1888

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There is no doubt that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Marriage laws, as we now understand them, were somewhat lax, and it is possible that it was so long before that time, for in Edward VI.'s time an Act was passed (2 and 3 Ed. VI., c. 21, s. 3) entitled "An Act to take away all positive laws made against marriage of priests." Section 3 provides that it shall not "give any liberty to any person to marry without asking in the church, or without any ceremony being appointed by the order prescribed and set forth in the book intituled "_The Book of Common Prayer, and administration of the Sacraments_, &c." Mary, of course, repealed this Act, and it was revived and made perpetual by 1 Jas. 1. c. 25, s. 50.

It was only after the Council of Trent, that the offices of the Church were considered indispensable, for that Council decreed that a priest, and two witnesses were necessary for the proper celebration of the Nuptial tie. Still, the law of England, like the law of Scotland, allowed the taking of a woman as wife before witnesses, and acknowledging her position, which constituted at common law a good and lawful marriage, which could not be annulled by the Ecclesiastical Court. That many such took place among the Puritans and Sectarians of the time of Charles I. and the Commonwealth is undoubted, for it needed an Act of Parliament (12 Chas. II. c. 33) to render such marriages legal. This enacted "That all marriages had, or solemnized, in any of his Majesty's dominions since the first day of _May_, in the year of our Lord, one thousand six hundred forty and two, before any justice of the Peace, or reputed justice of the Peace of _England_, or _Wales_, or other his Majesty's dominions,... shall be, and shall be adjudged, esteemed, and taken to be, and to have been of the same, and no other force or effect, as if such marriages had been had, and solemnized, according to the rites and ceremonies established, or used in the Church or kingdom of _England_; any law, custom, or usage to the contrary thereof notwithstanding."

This short synopsis of the Marriage law in England is necessary, in order to understand the subject of Fleet Marriages, which, however, were not all disreputable. The Fleet, as we have seen, had a Chapel of its own; and in old times, a Chaplain--so that Marriages might well be celebrated there, in as proper and dignified a manner as elsewhere. And, we must bear in mind that early in the seventeenth century, the prisoners were of a very different stamp to those of the latter half of the eighteenth century, until the demolition of the prison. Therefore we see no impropriety in the first Marriage known on record--which is that of Mr. Geo. Lester, then a prisoner in the Fleet, to a woman of fortune one Mistress Babbington. This is mentioned in a letter of September, 1613, from Alderman Lowe to Lady Hicks, and may be found in the Lansdowne MSS. 93-17. He writes: "Now I am to enform you that an ancyentt acquayntence of y^e and myne is yesterday marryed in the Fleete, one Mr. George Lester, and hath maryed M^{ris} Babbington, M^r Thomas Fanshawe mother in lawe. Itt is sayd she is a woman of goode wealthe, so as nowe the man wyll be able to lyve and mayntayne hymself in pryson, for hether unto he hath byne in poor estate. I praye God he be nott encoryged by his marige to do as becher doth, I meane to troble his frynds in lawe, but I hope he wyll have a better conscyence and more honestye than the other men hathe."

Towards the middle of the seventeenth century clandestine, and irregular marriage was prevalent, and it is easily accounted for. A public marriage had come to be a very expensive affair. There was a festival, which lasted several days, during which open house had to be kept; there were the Marriage Settlements, presents, pin money, music, and what not--so that the binding of their Children in the holy Estate of Matrimony was a serious matter to parents; who probably preferred giving the young couple the money that otherwise would go in useless waste and profusion. So they used to get married quietly: a custom which Pepys reprobates in the marriage of the daughter of Sir William Penn to Mr. Anthony Lowther. "No friends, but two or three relations of his and hers." The bride was married in "palterly clothes, and nothing new but a bracelet that her servant had given her." And he further says, remarking on the meanness of the whole affair, "One wonder I observed to day, that there was no musique in the morning to call up our new married people, which is very mean, methinks."

Misson, who visited England in the reign of William III., speaks of these private marriages.

"The Ordinary ones, as I said before, are generally incognito. The _Bridegroom_, that is to say, the Husband that is to be, and the _Bride_, who is the Wife that is to be, conducted by their Father and Mother, or by those that serve them in their room, and accompany'd by two Bride men, and two Bride Maids, go early in the Morning with a Licence in their Pocket, and call up Mr. Curate and his Clerk, tell them their Business; are marry'd with a low Voice, and the Doors shut; tip the Minister a Guinea, and the Clerk a Crown; steal softly out, one one way, and t'other another, either on Foot or in Coaches; go different Ways to some Tavern at a Distance from their own Lodgings, or to the House of some trusty Friend, there have a good Dinner, and return Home at Night as quietly as Lambs. If the Drums and Fiddles have notice of it, they will be sure to be with them by Day Break, making a horrible Racket, till they have got the Pence; and, which is worst of all, the whole Murder will come out."

This senseless custom survives, in a modified degree, in our times, when on the marriage of a journeyman butcher, his companions treat him to a performance of the "Marrow bones and Cleavers," and also in the case of marriage of persons in a superior station of life, in the playing, on the Organ, of a Wedding March.

The oldest entry of a Marriage in those Registers of the Fleet which have been preserved is A.D. 1674, and there is nothing to lead us to imagine that it was more irregular than that of Mistress Babbington; on the contrary, it is extremely probable that, previously, prisoners were married in their chapel, with the orthodox publication of banns, and by their own Chaplain. But marriages were performed without licence or banns in many churches, which claimed to be _peculiars_, and exempt from the Visitation of the Ordinary: as St. James', Duke's Place, now pulled down, denied the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London because the Mayor, Commonalty, and Citizens of London, were Lords of the Manor, and Patrons of the Church: but the Rector found that the Ecclesiastical Law was stronger than he, and that its arm was long and powerful, and the Rev. Adam Elliott was suspended (Feb. 17, 1686) for three years, _ab officio et beneficio_, for having married, or having suffered persons to be married, at the said Church, without banns or licence. He did not suffer the full term of his punishment, for he managed to get re-instated on May 28, 1687, and began his old practices the very next day.

The Chapel of Holy Trinity, Minories, pleaded privilege, on the ground that it was a Crown living, and as much a _peculiar_ as Westminster Abbey, or the Deanery of Windsor; while the Chapels of the Tower and the Savoy sought exemption because they were Royal Chapels, and therefore the Bishop had no jurisdiction over them. Besides these, there were very many more chapels scattered over the Metropolis where irregular marriages were performed, a list of about ninety having been preserved.

These Marriages so increased that it was found necessary to legislate about them, and, in 1689, an Act (6 and 7 Will. III. c. 6, s. 24) was passed making it compulsory, under a penalty of One Hundred pounds, for every parson to keep an accurate register of births, Marriages, and deaths. Another Act was passed in 1696 (17 and 18 Will. III. c. 35, s. 2-3) whereby a penalty of L100 was imposed on any Clergyman who married, or permitted another to marry, couples, otherwise than by banns or licence. This was enforced by another Act in 1711 (10 Anne c. 19, s. 176), which confirmed the penalty, and moreover, this section shows that irregular marriages were getting to be common in prisons, for it provides that

"if any gaoler, or keeper of any prison, shall be privy to, or knowingly permit any marriage to be solemnized in his said prison, before publication of banns, or licence obtained, as aforesaid, he shall, for every such offence, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds," &c.

Of course, this did not stop the practice, although it prevented Marriages in the Fleet Chapel. Yet there were the _Rules_, and real and pretended clergymen for many years plied their illicit vocation with impunity.

But there seems to have been some compunctions of conscience even among this graceless lot, for one of them, Walter Wyatt, has left behind him, in a pocket-book dated 1736, the following moral reflections.

"Give to every man his due, and learn y^e way of Truth. This advice cannot be taken by those that are concerned in y^e Fleet Marriages; not so much as y^e Priest can do y^e thing y^t is just and right there, unless he designs to starve. For by lying, bullying, and swearing, to extort money from the silly and unwary people, you advance your business and gets y^e pelf, which always wastes like snow in sun shiney day."

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The Marrying in the Fleet is the beginning of eternal woe."

"If a clark or plyer[154] tells a lye, you must vouch it to be as true as y^e Gospel; and if disputed, you must affirm with an oath to y^e truth of a downright damnable falsehood--Virtus laudatur et alget."

That this custom of swearing prevailed at Fleet Marriages is borne out by contemporary evidence. The _Grub Street Journal_ July 20, 1732, says: "On Saturday last, a Fleet Parson was convicted before Sir Ric. Brocas of forty three-oaths (on the information of a plyer for weddings there) for which a warrant was granted to levy L4 6s. on the goods of the said parson; but, upon application to his Worship, he was pleased to remit 1s. per oath; upon which the plyer swore he would swear no more against any man upon the like occasion, finding he got nothing by it."

And an anonymous Newspaper cutting dated 1734, says, "On Monday last, a tall Clergyman, who plies about the Fleet Gate for Weddings, was convicted before Sir Richard Brocas of swearing 42 Oaths, and ordered to pay L4 2s."

There were regular Chaplains attached to the Fleet Prison to serve the Chapel there, and, as we have seen, the Warder made every prisoner pay 2d. or 4d. weekly, towards his stipend. Latterly the Chaplaincy was offered to a Curate of St. Bride's Church--as is now done in the case of Bridewell.

A complete list of Chaplains cannot be given, because all documents were destroyed when the Fleet was burnt by the Lord George Gordon rioters; but Mr. Burn in his "History of Fleet Marriages" (a book to which I am much indebted, for it has all but exhausted the subject) gives the names of some, as Haincks in 1698; Robert Elborough, 1702; John Taylor, 1714; Dr. Franks, 1728; 1797, Weldon Champneys; 1815, John Manley Wood, and John Jones: and in 1834, the date of the publication of Mr. Burn's book, the Rev. Richard Edwards, was the Chaplain.

These Clergymen, of course, married couples according to Law, and probably used the Chapel for that purpose. We know that it was so used, for the _Original Weekly Journal_ of Sept. 26, 1719, says:

"One Mrs. Anne Leigh, an heiress of L200 per annum and L6000 ready cash, having been decoyed away from her friends in Buckinghamshire, and married at the Fleet chapel against her consent; we hear the Lord Chief Justice Pratt hath issued out his warrant for apprehending the authors of this contrivance, who have used the young lady so barbarously, that she now lyes speechless."


But it is not of the Chaplains I would speak, but of the irregular Clergy, or Lay men, who performed the Marriages. One thing they all agreed in, the wearing of the Cassock, Gown, and Bands. They would never have been believed in had they not. The accompanying illustration[155] gives an excellent idea of the Fleet Parson, and it is taken from an Engraving entitled "_The_ FUNERAL _of Poor_ MARY HACKABOUT, _attended by the Sisterhood of Drury Lane_" and it has a footnote calling attention to the "wry-necked" parson. "_The famous_ COUPLE BEGGAR _in the Fleet, a_ WRETCH, _who there screens himself from the Justice due to his_ VILLANIES, _and daily repeats them._"

The lady holds a sprig of Rosemary in her hand, which in polite society was always presented by a servant, when the funeral cortege was about to leave the house:--In this case, a dish full of sprigs is placed upon the floor, and a child is playing with them. The Mourners carried them to the grave, and then threw them in, as we now do, flowers and wreaths of the same.

Perhaps one of the earliest notices of these irregular Fleet Parsons is in the first year of Queen Anne's reign, very soon after she came to the throne, as it appears, in the Registry of the Consistory Court,--that on June 4, 1702, the Bishop of London visited the common prison called the Fleet, London, and took Master Jeronimus Alley, clerk, to task, requiring him to exhibit to the Chancellor of the Diocese, before the 24th June instant, his letters of ordination, "and his Lords^p ordered him not to marry or perform any divine Office in y^e Chapell in y^e ffleet, or any place within y^e Dioces untill he has exhibited y^e same. Mr. Alley soon afterwards fled from y^e s^d Prison, and never exhibited his orders."

But if Alley fled, there were others left, and the practice of marrying without banns, or licence, brought forth the act of the 10th Anne, before quoted. It was probably before this, but certainly during her reign, that the following letter was written, which also is in the Bishop's Registry.

"SIR,--I think it my Duty to God and y^e Queen to acquaint you with y^e illegal practices of y^e Ministers and Clark in y^e Fleet Chappell for marrying Clandestinely as they do som weeks fifty or sixty couple. The Ministers that are there are as follows, Mr. Robt. Elborough, he is an ancient man and is master of y^e Chapple, and marries but very few now without Banns or Licence, but under a colour doth allow his Clark to do w^t he pleases, his name is Barth. Basset. There is there also one Mr. James Colton a Clergyman, he lives in Leather Lane next door to y^e Coach and horses, he hath bin there these four years to marry, but no Prisoner, he marries in Coffee houses, in his own house, and in and about y^e Fleet gate, and all y^e Rules over, not excepting any part of City and Suburbs. This Clark Basset aforesaid registers wherever Colton marries in y^e Fleet Register and gives him Certificates. Colton had a living in Essex till y^e Bishop of London deprived him for this and other ill Practices. There is also one Mr. Nehemiah Rogers, he is a prisoner but goes at larg to his P. Living in Essex, and all places else, he is a very wicked man, as lives for drinking, whoring, and swearing, he has struck and boxed y^e bridegroom in y^e Chapple, and damned like any com'on souldier; he marries both within and without y^e Chapple like his brother Colton. There was one Mr. Alley; he was a Prisoner, and ye benefit of weddings, but is gone to some other preferm^t. The abovesaid Basset rents y^e sellers of y^e Fleet, and pays for y^t and two watchmen 100 and L20 p. ann. but he him pays but L20 per ann. for y^e Clergy pay all y^e rest, and if they do not, they are threatened to be confined or outed. This Clark hath bin sworn in D^{rs} Commons not to marry any without Banns or Licence, unless it be such poor people as are recommended by y^e Justices in case of a big belly, but have married since many hundreds, as I and many can testifie who are confined Prisoners. The Chief days to marry are Sundays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays, but evry day more or less. The Clark Basset keeps a Register book, altho he told y^e Bishop of London he had none; he also antidates as he pleases, as you may see when you look over y^e Registers; he hath another at his son's; he does what he pleases, and maintains a great family by these ill practices. L200 p. ann. he hath at least. The Ministers and Clark bribe one Mr. Shirley, I think him to be Collector for y^e Oueen's Taxes. I hope, Sir, you will excuse me for concealing my name, hoping y^t you will inspect into these base practices.

For Dr. Newton Chancell^{rs} to My Lord of London at D^{rs} Commons These."