“The power of love is a curious thing. Make one man weep, make another man sing.”
When it comes to love in the Georgian and Victorian eras, Huey Lewis & The News couldn’t have put it better. From shotgun weddings and secret ceremonies, to deceitful divorces and fanciful affairs, the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had more romantic scandals than the front page of the Daily Mail.
So as a reminder that love really does make fools of us all (our ancestors included), we thought we’d take a tour through the infamous makeups, breakups and marriages that appear throughout our records.
Weddings in the 16th and 17th Centuries may not have been the Jenny Packham-clad spectacle we’re familiar with today, but getting hitched back then could still come with its fair share of drama.
In the Clandestine Marriage and Baptism Registers 1667-1754 we see the rise of the ‘quickie’ wedding. This collection covers the period pre-1754 when couples could marry quickly in much the same way they do in Las Vegas.
In fact, the area around Fleet Prison was the Sin City of its time. It became a mecca for ‘clandestine marriages’ with disgraced clergymen offering speedy services to anybody willing to pay a small fee. The vicinity around the prison became known as the ‘rules’, where those tying the knot could celebrate with cheap food, lots of drink and a raucous atmosphere.
One such couple was Henry Fox and Caroline Lennox. Fox was a well-known Whig politician and was widely tipped for the role of Prime Minister, but in 1744 and presumably smitten by love, he eloped with Lady Caroline who, much to the disapproval of her parents, was 18 years his junior.
Don’t believe in love at first sight? You will when you hear the story of James George Hamilton and society belle, Elizabeth Gunning. The couple met on the 14th of February 1752, fell in love, and married in a secret ceremony at the May Fair Chapel that very night.
Across the Atlantic, true love was also booming in Niagara Falls which was fast becoming the ‘Honeymoon Capital of the World’. This was thanks to Theodoisa Burr Alston (daughter of the 3rd Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr) who chose to honeymoon at the falls in 1801. This was followed by Napolean Bonaparte’s brother, Jerome Bonaparte, in 1804, starting the popular tradition that has continued on until today. Many newlyweds who visit the falls can choose to sign their names in register books kept by The Niagara Falls tourism office. These names can be seen in the 680,114 records that make up the Niagara Falls, Honeymoon and Visitor Registries, 1949-2011 on Ancestry.
But love isn’t always smooth sailing, as you’ll find in the 70,000 accounts of Victorian divorce proceedings outlined in the UK Civil Divorce Records, 1858-1915.
Due to the high cost, divorces where relatively rare in the 19th century, with around 1,200 applications made a year. The rarity of cases, combined with the fact that it was a cost only the wealthy or well-known nobility could afford, made divorce proceedings particularly scandalous. However, not all requests for divorce were successful due to the strength of evidence required to prove the grounds of the case.
In one such example, Henry Robinson sued for divorce after reading his wife, Isabella’s diary, which included in-depth detail of her affair with a younger married man. The diary was used as court evidence and, when reported on by the media, became a huge scandal due to the language used within the journal. However, while the diary appeared to be a smoking gun, Isabella claimed the diary was fiction, which inevitably led to her success in court. The story became the inspiration for the book, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale.
In another case in 1869, high profile Conservative MP and baronet, Charles Mordaunt, filed for divorce from his wife, Harriet, who stood accused of adultery with multiple men. The case became national news when the then Prince of Wales, Edward VII was rumoured to be among the men who’d had an affair with Harriet. This rumour was never proved and Lady Mordaunt was eventually declared mad and spent the rest of her life in an asylum.
As they say… the course of true love never did run smooth! What are some of the love stories – albeit romantic or dramatic – that you’ve found in your family tree?