|A Fleet Wedding Robert Chambers Book of Days|
These were ceremonies conducted by an ordained clergyman, but without banns or licence, and generally not in a church, usually away from the parish of the bride or groom. Often shrouded in secrecy, the primary appeal of these weddings being reasons of cost, or the avoidance of the need to obtain parental consent, to obtain a back-dated ceremony, to legitimise offspring, or validate claims upon an inheritance or will.
Before the Civil War, a chapel in the White Tower was a favourite setting for such marriages, though this practice was stopped by Archbishop Laud. Impatient lovers then went to one of two churches in the east end of London - St. James's, Duke's Place, or Trinity, in the Minories, who claimed to be exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop of London. A register preserved at St James’ records that from 1664 to 1690 nearly 40,000 marriages were celebrated.
The Fleet Prison, located on the east bank of the River Fleet, which claimed to be outside the jurisdiction of the church, was a debtors' prison as early as 1290, where gaolers levied fees from the prisoners, and habeas corpus was unknown.
The ‘Rules of the Fleet’, may be traced to Richard II’s time, when prisoners were allowed freedom under bail, or with a 'baston' (tipstaff), a sort of permanent warder to prevent the prisoner from absconding. This licence cost eightpence per day, and twelvepence for the keeper who remained with him. These day rules existed during the reign of James I, The Fleet and the Queen's Bench being the only prisons in the kingdom to which these privileges were attached. For certain payments favoured prisoners were allowed to be absent for long periods; and Mr. Charles Dickens tells a story of one old resident, whose heaviest punishment was being locked out for the night.
The lawless streets, side-alleys and by-yards of the Fleet quarter around the prison and the Fleet Ditch, were where prisoners lived under ‘The Rules of The Fleet’, among them disgraced clergymen, and those pretending to be ordained. This is also where they ran their disreputable business, amongst which was the celebration of illicit marriages.
English marriages have to be solemnised between 8 am and 3pm, during ‘canonical hours’ thus the clocks in the marriage houses were all stopped at a time between these two to keep the ceremony legal.
The marriages were entered in a pocket-book by the parson, and on payment of a small fee, copied into the regular register of the house, unless the interested parties desired the affair kept secret. Sometimes the names were transposed to protect identities or left off altogether.
One famous celebrant of clandestine marriages was Bartholomew Bassett, clerk of the Fleet Chapel, who paid an exorbitant rent of £100 for the Fleet cellars which he used as a private chapel, offering bribes to turnkeys and subordinate officials of the Fleet Prison.
The earliest recorded date of a Fleet Marriage is 1613, after which the demand for such weddings grew and spread to rooms of adjoining taverns and private houses adjacent to Fleet Street, Ludgate Hill, and the Mint.
Attractive young girls would act as touts to bring in victims, accosting passers-by with the words, ‘Would you like to step in and be married, sir?’ and earn themselves a commission of a shilling on a fee which ranged from two crowns to a guinea. It was at Bartholomew Bassett’s, that Beau Fielding married his first wife, before he fixed his affections on the Duchess of Cleveland.
Famous marrying houses were: 'The Cock,' near Fleet Bridge, 'The Rainbow' Coffee House, at the corner of Fleet Ditch. The 'Cock and Acorn,' the 'Fighting Cocks,' the 'Shepherd and Goat,' the 'Golden Lion,' the 'Bishop Blaze,' the 'Two Lawyers,' the 'Wheatsheaf,' the 'Horseshoe and Magpie,' the 'King's Head,' the 'Lamb,' the 'Swan,' the 'Hoop and Bunch of Grapes.' These taverns in or near Fleet Street and Fleet Market, provided chaplains, chapels, or private rooms, in which marriages were solemnised on every day of the year.
The 'Hand and Pen' appeared more than once. Joshua Lilley's 'Hand and Pen' stood near Fleet Bridge; Matthias Wilson's 'Hand and Pen' looked out on the Fleet Ditch; John Burnford's 'Hand and Pen' kept open door at the foot of Ludgate Hill; and Mrs. Balls had her 'Hand and Pen' office and registry of marriages within sight of the other three establishments of the same name.
Some who came into the marrying business were women, who entered the trade by inheritance. Many were former innkeepers who supplied adulterated liquors before they entered the more lucrative matrimonial trade.
On occasion a young heiress was kidnapped and forced into a hasty Fleet Marriage for purposes of exhorting money. The bride’s family were then persuaded to buy off the ‘bridegroom’ to obtain an annulment and preserve the girl’s reputation.
Bigamy was often a reason for using ‘The Fleet’ and these marriages were often hard to prove. Matthew Dowtey was acquitted at the Old Bailey in 1694 of having married Sarah Suddrey at St Mary le Bow and subsequently Ann Padle at the Fleet chapel, despite evidence from a Fleet minister of the second marriage and of others of his cohabitation.
The following is from the poem The Humours of the Fleet in the British Museum:
"Scarce had the coach discharged its trusty fare,
But gaping crowds surround th' amorous pair;
The busy plyers make a mighty stir,
And whispering cry, 'D'ye want the parson, sir?
Pray step this way—just to the "Pen in Hand,"
The doctor's ready there at your command.'
'This way!' another cries. 'Sir, I declare,
The true and ancient register is here.'
The alarmèd parsons quickly hear the din,
And haste with soothing words to invite 'em in.
In this confusion, jostled to and fro,
The inamoured couple know not where to go,
Till slow advancing from the coach's side,
The experienced matron came (an artful guide);
She led the way without regarding either,
And the first parson spliced 'em both together.
Depiction of a Fleet wedding
(Robert Chambers, Book of Days)
In 1711, Parliament passed legislation to counter the loss of revenue (from non-payment of licence fees) caused by clandestine marriages. Fines were also imposed to any person in 'holy orders' conducting a marriage, as well as ‘prison-keepers’ who permitted such a marriage at his prison. While this prevented marriages being performed inside the prisons, it did not prevent them being conducted in other locations nearby: e.g. the Liberties (or Rules) of the Fleet, or the Mint (for King's Bench Prison).
In 1753, Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act was passed, which required, under pain of nullity, that banns should be published or a licence obtained; that, in either case, the marriage should be solemnized in church; and that in the case of minors, marriage by licence must be by the consent of parent or guardian; and that at least two witnesses must be present. Jewish and Quaker ceremonies were exempt. Clergymen conducting clandestine marriages were liable to transportation.
The act put a stop to these marriages in England, so couples had to travel to Scotland (Gretna Green had substantial use until 1856, when English law declared such marriages invalid) or to the Channel Islands where the 1753 Act did not apply.
Further Reading The Book of Days