Canon Law Meets Unintended Consequences: The Church of England and the Clandestine Marriage Act of 1753*
Francis, Keith A., Anglican and Episcopal History
The proof of Clandestine Marriages as now celebrated is attended with insuperable difficulties.
Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, 1753
The many notorious and scandalous Abuses of the Sacred Institution of Matrimony, which have been justly complained of for some Years past, could not but give Uneasiness to every serious and devout Christian.
A Gentleman of the Temple, 1754
Canon law is "the collection of rules, found in a diversity of sources of formal and other regulatory instruments of a particular church, designed to fulfil the purposes for which that church exists in the public sphere of its internal life: governmental, ministerial, pastoral, doctrinal, liturgical, ritual, proprietorial."
Norman Doe, 1998(1)
If there are laws of history, the law of unintended consequences is perhaps the most obvious. In the history of early modern England, dealing with marriage has resulted in some vivid examples of unintended consequences. If Henry VIITs conscience had not "crept too near another lady," to quote Shakespeare, the English Reformation could have turned out differently.2 If Elizabeth I's chastity were not a "living art...shrined in her breast," to quote Spenser, the political and religious controversies of the seventeenth century might have been avoided.3
The law of unintended consequences is certainly one useful interpretative tool by which to understand the relations between church, state, and society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. No doubt the regicides of 1649, who argued that King Charles I's death would bring peace and normality to the Commonwealth, did not expect the 'martyr king' to be so venerated in the future that relics associated with his death would acquire considerable value and the king become the doyen of a reborn Catholic wing of the Church of England/In 1717, the members of a committee of Convocation who charged that Benjamin Hoadly, the bishop of Bangor, attempted to "subvert all government and discipline in the Church of Christ, and to reduce his kingdom to a state of anarchy and confusion" by preaching a sermon before George I on the text "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18.36) did not intend their action to result in the silencing of Convocation as an official voice of the Church of England until 1855.5 Neither did "the populace and the very lowest of the clergy," as Horace Walpole described them, whose clamor in 1754 resulted in the repeal of the Jewish Naturalization Act, suspect that their ardor for a Christian or, more precisely, Anglican state would be perceived by later generations as the reason why such a state could not exist in England.6
Of all the eighteenth-century events which lend themselves to interpretation by the law of unintended consequences, the "Act for the better preventing of Clandestine marriages"' is best suited. When the attorney general, Sir Dudley Ryder, stood up in the House of Commons on 14 May 1753 and opened the debate on the second reading of the bill, he believed firmly that passing it into law would bring to an end a sordid chapter in English social and legal history. The bill, according to Ryder, was "designed for putting an end to an evil which has been long and grievously complained of, an evil by which many of our best families have often suffered, and which our laws have often endeavored to prevent, but always hitherto without success."8 Ryder certainly would have agreed with his colleague Lord Chancellor Hardwicke that clandestine marriages posed "a general mischief" to the public.9 However, rather than finding a means "to prevent effectually all clandestine marriages and all the mischievous consequences flowing from them,"10 Ryder and other proponents of the bill set off a chain of events which occupied the attention of Parliament and the Church of England until 1835 when other aspects of the marriage law became more pressing.11
The story of the Marriage Act of 1753, usually referred to as Lord Hardwicke's Act or the Clandestine Marriage Act, has been examined in detail by historians. …