Law against Improper Marriage Contracts in Early Virginia

In this short post, women folk were rare in 1624, so they had the upper hand in the marriage contract. They were betrothed to two or more men—usually two—by verbal agreement.

Apparently, the women didn’t tell the other man of her previous commitment.

The Governor and Council had to take action.

If the women persisted in their abuse of the law of God and of England, they could suffer punishment, including whipping or a fine.

Transcription begins (slightly modernized):

Whereas,

To the great contempt of the Majesty of God and ill example to others, certain women within this colony have of late contrary to the laws ecclesiastical of the realm of England contracted themselves to two several men at one time, whereby much trouble does grow between parties; and the governor and counsel of estate [state], thereby much disquieted.

To prevent the like offence in others hereafter, it is by the governor and council ordered in court that every minister give notice in his church to his parishioners that what man or woman soever shall hereafter use any words or speech tending to a contract of marriage unto two several persons at one time (though not precise and legal yet so as may tangle and breed struggle in their consciences) shall for such their offence undergo either corporal punishment (as whipping, etc.) or other such punishment by fine, or otherwise, according to the quality of the person so offending.

Given at James City, this 24th of June 1624

Transcription ends.

It must be conceded that our earliest forebears went right to corporal punishment, probably based on Deuteronomy 25:2-3.

They used corporal punishment for these sorts of crimes, up in seventeenth-century Philadelphia, too, as seen here:

Peter Stewart is caught red-handed

Lashes for contempt of government

Journal of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619-1658/9, ed. by H. R. McIlwaine, Classic Reprint Series (orig. Richmond: 1915), p. 121.

 

 

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