Was your ancestor married by a witchfinder?

"The Puritan Wedding Interrupted" by George Henry Boughton. Yale University Art Gallery.

“The Puritan Wedding Interrupted” by George Henry Boughton. Yale University Art Gallery.

Well… sort of….

During the Commonwealth, from the time of the 1653 Marriage Act to the Restoration in 1660, marriages weren’t performed by clergy but by the local Justice of the Peace.1)See Rebecca Probert’s Marriage Law for Genealogists for more information. In the Tendring Hundred, these Justices – amongst them Harbottle Grimstone (who sounds like a Dickens character) and Sir Thomas Bowes (a relative of mine – sorry everyone) would have performed the marriages. And these were the very same men who aided Matthew Hopkins in his crusade against “witches” – they were responsible for committing the women (and sometimes men) for trial.

I’ve just finished transcribing the marriages from Weeley‘s earliest register and have found it noted who was wed by Sir Thomas Bowes. You might be wondering why these civil marriages were recorded in the parish register, but this is because the Register (as in a person, rather than a book) was quite often the local clergyman – so although he wouldn’t be performing the ceremony, he would be recording it.2)Again, Rebecca’s book points out that some Registers were responsible for more than one parish, so you need to look at nearby parishes in case your ancestor’s marriage isn’t in their home parish. When I’ve transcribed marriages for this period before, I haven’t seen the specific JP being mentioned, so it was interesting to find Bowes being named, especially as he’s somewhat infamous.

The notes highlight that couples were being married by the clergyman after their civil marriage. There are several whose record says they were married by Sir Thomas Bowes “and att Weeleigh againe”:

    • Richard Barker (from Kirby-le-Soken) and Margrett Amis (from Weeley), were married on 25th March 1654. “Married by Sir Tho. Bowes and att Weeleigh againe 28th March.”
    • William Potter and Mary Meadow, both of Weeley, married on 1st June 1654.
    • James Lufkin (from Wivenhoe) and Mary Causton (from Weeley) were married on 14th April 1657.

Perhaps this is like the blessing that a vicar might do in church these days for a couple who are married at a register office?

There are several Weeley locals who were married by a Justice of the Peace in Colchester – although which one, we aren’t told. For instance John Lay and Bridget Baker, on 30th January 1653/4, and Francis Vincent and Ellen Maslin. In 1655, John Buller and Mary Johnson “were cryed in Colchester market & married there in November” – this was how the banns were sometimes read for these civil marriages.

I’m not sure if it was Sir Thomas Bowes performing the marriages in Colchester, or another JP. And I don’t know if he travelled to the couple’s village to perform the marriage (and once there, it was performed either in their home or, surely not – the village pub? Perhaps the church vestry?), or if they had to go to his house in Great Bromley. But I think the notes are interesting – because it shows people subtly subverting the new law of civil marriage. Some people, at least in Weeley, didn’t like it. They wanted to be married by their vicar, and even after going through the ceremony with the JP, it’s as if they felt they needed the vicar to marry them in order to make it “official” – at least in a religious sense.

In her book, Rebecca Probert raises this question – why did the Puritans, who were so fiercely religious, introduce civil marriage? She says this is because they believed that God was everywhere, and that it was to get away from the Anglican church marriage which was too ‘popish.’ The vows were still deeply religious, referring to ‘God the searcher of all hearts.’ One wonders how those Weeley locals identified themselves – were they Puritans, but only up to a certain point? Or were they not Puritan at all, hence their subverting of the law? Or were they extreme Puritans, who wanted a religious ceremony even if other Puritans thought it wasn’t necessary? Alas… I don’t know.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. See Rebecca Probert’s Marriage Law for Genealogists for more information.
2. Again, Rebecca’s book points out that some Registers were responsible for more than one parish, so you need to look at nearby parishes in case your ancestor’s marriage isn’t in their home parish.