“I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery”. These very wise words, addressed to a friend, were written by George Washington in 1795. That same year, one of my ancestors -my 5x great-grandmother Elizabeth- passed away thousands of miles away from where the first President of the United States was putting pen to paper. But I am sure she would have agreed with him, particularly as Elizabeth spent most of her life as a married woman.
Elizabeth was born Elizabeth Symonds in 1739 in the village of Colwall, on the Malvern slopes of Herefordshire. She was baptised, probably soon after birth, with her sister Catherine, who may well have been her twin. Baby Elizabeth was named after her own mother, who gave her husband, Robert Symonds, five children in just under eight years of marital bliss.
Elizabeth grew up surrounded by her siblings in Colwall. It was there that she married a local man, 29 year-old William Allen, who in turn belonged to an extended family which traced its ancestry back to the reign of James I. The date of the marriage is recorded as 9th October 1751 (according to the new calendar, enforced some months previously); a simple deduction of years reveals that Elizabeth was, at the time of her marriage, a mere child of 12 years! Could this be possible? Could a 12 year-old child legally become someone’s wife? Well, a bit of research revealed that indeed it seems that from a legal point of view William and Elizabeth were acting completely above board, though things were to change in the marriage field shortly afterwards.
Before the Marriages Act of 1753, canon law required that marriages performed according to the rites of the Church of England needed banns to be called or else a marriage licence had to be obtained prior to the celebration of the marriage, which could only take place in the parish where at least one of the spouses was resident. Nevertheless, these rules were directory rather than mandatory, which meant that in practice the absence of banns, of a marriage licence or even of a marriage ceremony did not necessarily render a marriage void. The only real requirement that was absolutely necessary was that the wedding had to be performed by an Anglican clergyman. A simple exchange of consent could be sufficient to declare a union valid and legal.
The lax rules regarding the celebration of marriages made it necessary to revise marital laws. This also affected the minimum legal age for men and women to marry. Up until 1753, people who were 12 were considered of age and, consequently, needed no permission from their parents or legal guardians to marry. This naturally caused great problems. For instance, in a time when marriage could imply the shift of a family property from a parent to a son-in-law, fortune hunters could well seduce wealthy young heiresses and lure them into marriage, and everything could be done legally without the intervention of the bride’s unsuspecting parents. It became clear that the rules had to be changed. Thus, the minimum required age for a person to marry was raised from 12 to 21 for both parties; people under the age of 21 could marry, but paternal consent was required.
The Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage, which was carried out thanks to the efforts of Lord Hardwicke, made it compulsory to have banns published or else to obtain a marriage licence before celebrating the wedding in a church; Quakers, Jews and the British Royal Family were exempted from these requirements, which only applied to England and Wales anyway; thus, they did not become compulsory in Scotland, the Channel Islands or any of the overseas territories and colonies. “The Act was highly successful in its stated aim of putting a stop to clandestine marriages, i.e., valid marriages performed by an Anglican clergyman but not in accordance with the canons […]. However, some couples evaded the Act by travelling to Scotland. Various Scottish “Border Villages” (Coldstream Bridge, Lamberton, Mordington and Paxton Toll) became known as places to marry. And in the 1770s the construction of a toll road passing through the hitherto obscure village of Graitney led to Gretna Green becoming synonymous with romantic elopements.”
For William and Elizabeth, of course, the Marriage Act arrived too late. They were married, perhaps not unhappily, in 1751, and soon began welcoming children into their household. Five sons and two daughters completed the family picture; two of those children married second cousins, while another son, my 4x great-grandfather Thomas Allen, married aged 40 a woman half his age. The Allens were obviously fond of colourful marriages.