Ann Stentiford's story

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All of us carry with us a set of values, morals - call them what you will - that have come to us through our upbringing and education. The ideas we absorb make us what we are - people of our time. The ideas which our ancestors absorbed made them people of their time. If we could travel back, could we get them to see our point of view? Could they get us to see things their way?

No subject would be a greater test of these values than that of illegitimacy. Parish Registers, recording such events across the centuries, reveal attitudes ranging from vitriolic and self righteous anger to warmth and a gentle understanding on the part of the Parish priests. Some clearly enjoyed writing the word "bastard" and underlining it several times - others simply stated that the mother was a single woman. Some have baptised the innocent offspring openly on Christmas Day with the whole congregation present - others have noted that they sent for the mother and child early in the morning and conducted the little ceremony privately with no other person present.

Our modern notion that a child born outside marriage is not legitimate is based on our modern interpretation of marriage. Up to the 16th century in England, betrothal was the main part of the marriage contract - children born to couples who were conceived during the period of engagement would be legitimate as long as their mother and father eventually married. The betrothal was considered to be the "real" coming-together, and the nuptials or wedding day an occasion for repeating vows already made - a celebration of the marriage to be held at a later date.

The Village Betrothal by Greuze

The Village Betrothal by Greuze 

In Britain, engaged couples were held to be legally husband and wife until the middle of the 18th century. Many Churchmen were unhappy about this but powerless to move against a tide of social custom which held that a publicly acknowledged betrothal was as good as a church wedding.

In 1753, the Hardwicke Marriage Act changed everything by setting up a process of registration. Verbal betrothal was no longer legally binding. Couples had either to get a licence or have banns called in the parish to which one of them belonged and the marriage had to take place in front of witnesses.

Many working class people tried to continue the old customs but, eventually, were forced to comply when children born outside the officially recognised marriage ceremony were branded as illegitimate even though their parents subsequently married. The middle and upper classes used the new ceremony to achieve social respectability. There was  little unsupervised contact between couples during an engagement period which was followed by a ritualised wedding with a white dress to symbolise the bride's purity.

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  Last modified:
30/09/2005