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Thursday 31 March 2022

When could a marriage be annulled in the Regency?
The Wedding from The Dance of Death by T Rowlandson (1816)
Wellcome Collection used under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY 4.0)
I was recently asked whether non-consummation was the only reason a marriage could be annulled in the Regency era. It is a misunderstanding I have come across before.

A valid marriage could not be annulled just because it had not been consummated.

Impotency was grounds for annulment, but this was rarely claimed. Scroll down to the end of the post to see why.

In this post, I look at:
  • What an annulment was and how it differed from divorce.

  • When a marriage could be annulled.

What was an annulment?

An annulment of a marriage was, quite literally, reducing it to nothing. The marriage was declared invalid, and it was as if the marriage had never been.

The impact on the children of an annulled marriage was enormous. If a marriage was annulled, any children of that marriage were declared illegitimate.

It is really important to understand how this differs from divorce. If a titled couple divorced, the eldest son of that marriage was still the heir. If the marriage was annulled, the eldest son of that marriage would now be illegitimate and not able to inherit his father’s title and the estates that went with it.

When could a marriage be annulled?

A marriage could be annulled if it was void or voidable.

Void marriages

A marriage was void if it was against the law and it could be set aside.

A marriage was illegal if:
  1. It was a royal marriage undertaken without the King’s consent.

    When Prince Augustus, Duke of Sussex, one of George III’s sons, married Lady Augusta Murray in 1793, he did so without the King’s permission which contravened the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. The King had the marriage set aside or annulled in August 1794.

    Prince Augustus, later Duke of Sussex from The Lady's Magazine (1792)
    Prince Augustus, later Duke of Sussex
    from The Lady's Magazine (1792)

  2. Either party was already married. Bigamy was against the law.

  3. It wasn’t performed in the manner prescribed in Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753.

What were the requirements of this Act?

The 1753 Marriage Act stated that all marriages had to take place after the reading of the banns (a formal announcement of a couple’s intention to marry) or by common licence with the following rules:

After banns

  • Banns had to be read for three Sundays before the wedding, in the parish church(es) where the bride and groom resided.

  • The marriage could only take place in one of the churches where the banns were read.

Record of marriage banns for two of my ancestors at Newington St Mary in 1855.
Record of marriage banns for two of my ancestors at
Newington St Mary in 1855. Both were minors and though
the banns were read, there must have been some difficulty as
the couple did not marry until 1856, after the
banns had been read again in St Mary Lambeth.

Or by common licence

  • The marriage could only take place in the church of the parish where either bride or groom had resided for at least four weeks, as stated on the licence.1

  • If either party was under 21 years of age and previously unmarried, they had to have parental consent for the marriage.

The marriage had to be witnessed by two people in addition to the minister and entered in the register.

The rules did not apply to:

  • Those marrying by special licence (although parental consent was still required if either party was underage)

  • Scotland

  • Jews or Quakers

  • The royal family

You can read more about Hardwicke’s 1753 Marriage Act here.

All marriages except those by special licence had to take place in the parish church of bride or groom. This is St Nicholas, Steventon, Hampshire, where Jane Austen's father was once rector.
All marriages except those by special licence had to take
place in the parish church of bride or groom.
This is St Nicholas, Steventon, Hampshire, where
Jane Austen's father was once rector.
The residency requirement

One interesting thing to note is that the Act specifically prevented a marriage from being overturned if it was later found that the residency requirement had not been met.

Parental consent

A parent or guardian could not overturn a marriage by banns of underage parties that had taken place without their consent. They could prevent the banns being read, but they could not later have the marriage annulled.

Marriage by licence was a different matter. If the person applying for the licence had lied about receiving parental consent, the marriage was technically void. But—and it’s a big but—would the non-consenting parent want to set the marriage aside?

I think this is probably where the misunderstanding about annulment and the non-consummation of the marriage comes in.

Prior to the 1823 Marriage Act, someone had to take out a bond for a large sum of money which would be forfeit if it was later proved that the person applying for the licence had been lying.2 I have learned that very few bonds were forfeited, which suggests that in most cases, parents who had not given their consent were forced to accept the marriage in an effort to avoid scandal.

If the spouse was particularly undesirable or there was a lot of money involved, the non-consenting parent might demand an annulment. But if the marriage had already been consummated, it was less likely, particularly if it was the bride who was underage, as she would be ruined.  

You can read more about marriage of minors in the Regency here. 

An illegal marriage

Marriages did get declared illegal. Actress Harriot Mellon married wealthy banker Thomas Coutts at St Pancras Church on 18 January 1815. His family was furious, and investigated the validity of the marriage. In March 1815 an entry in the marriage register declared the ceremony illegal. No reason was given, but perhaps the second witness was added later. The couple were forced to remarry at St Pancras on 12 April.

Harriot, Duchess of St Albans (née Mellon; previous name Coutts) from Memoirs of Harriot, Duchess of St Albans by Mrs Cornwell Baron-Wilson (1840) and Thomas Coutts from Life of Thomas Coutts by EH Coleridge (1920)
Harriot, Duchess of St Albans (née Mellon; previous name Coutts)
from Memoirs of Harriot, Duchess of St Albans
by Mrs Cornwell Baron-Wilson (1840) and Thomas Coutts
from Life of Thomas Coutts by EH Coleridge (1920)

Voidable marriages

There was another category of marriage that could be annulled. These marriages were not automatically void, but voidable.

The Church of England had a table of kindred and affinity that prohibited marriages between people who were closely related. The list included the prohibition to marry a spouse’s sibling.

You can read more about this in an earlier post of mine here.

It should be noted that marriage between cousins was—and still is in the UK—allowed.

These marriages were voidable, but valid if unchallenged during the lifetime of the parties ie once one party had died, the marriage could no longer be overturned.

Consenting parties

A marriage had to be between consenting parties and could be annulled if either party did not know what they were doing, because of age or insanity.

The marriage between John Wallop, 3rd Earl of Portsmouth, and his solicitor’s daughter, Mary Anne Hanson, took place in 1814. After a lengthy enquiry, it was established that the earl had been insane since 1809, and the marriage was annulled in 1828.

Could a marriage be annulled on the grounds of impotency?

Theoretically, a marriage could be annulled on the grounds of impotency, but this was extremely rare. A woman had to prove her virginity, and if a man later fathered a child, the annulment could be overturned.

The inability to consummate the marriage was, however, a valid reason for annulment if a woman were deceived into marrying another woman, or she discovered she had married a eunuch.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian Regency era romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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  1. Some of the stipulations changed in the Marriage Act of 1823, which affected marriages after 1 November 1823. The residency requirement was reduced to 15 days.

  2. After 1 November 1823, either bride or groom had to appear in person to apply for a licence, and bonds were no longer required.

Sources used include:

An Act for amending the Laws respecting the Solemnization of Marriages in England (18th July 1823)
An Act for the better preventing of clandestine Marriages (1753) website
Foreman, Amanda, The Heartbreaking History of Divorce (Smithsonian Magazine, 2014)
Lambeth Palace Research guide


  1. According to one source, when a man had a marriage annulled because of his own impotency and then later married another and had a child, many of the Civilians wanted to have the annulment annulled. However, wiser heads prevailed and decided that God works in mysterious ways and sometimes a man just can't get interested in a certain woman. Usually, though, the verdict was valid. The Earl of Portsmouth was also impotent besides not having an idea about sex. You always have such well researched blogs.

    1. Yes, I read that. I think that's what made the courts less ready to consider annulment on the grounds of impotency alone unless it was indisputable.

  2. Marriage of minors by license without permission wasn't a voidable marriage. It was flat out void. I think it is clause 11 of the Hardwicke act that says it is void from the start. The marriage act of 1822 changed the time a parent or anyone had to contest a marriage by license of minors without permission-- which included illegitimate children who were considered to have no father to give permission. Portsmouth's first marriage was to a woman who acted more as a governess than a wife. It was later said that the earl had no idea about marriage that is mind and genitalia were like a 10 year old boy's.

    1. Although void, I assume that a marriage would continue as if it were valid unless someone went through the process of having it set aside. I wonder how many technically void marriages were never set aside.

  3. Are marriages void if one spouse lied about their age?

    1. If one of the parties was a minor and so needed parental permission and lied saying they were of age, then yes, my understanding is that the marriage would be void. (Sorry for the long delay. I was having problems with trying to reply to your comment.)