Archbishop Manners-Sutton and the Marriage Law

Nicholas Dixon is a member of the executive committee of the Ecclesiastical History Society. He has contributed to the latest three volumes of Studies in Church History. Last year, he was awarded a PhD in History by the University of Cambridge for his thesis on the activity and influence of the Church of England from c. 1800 to 1837, which can be read online here.

In a previous post for this blog, I examined the central role of the Church of England in the tumultuous Queen Caroline Affair of 1820, and the ways in which this event led to greater politicisation within the Church. George IV’s attempted divorce was part and parcel of an ongoing debate among high-ranking clergymen and statesmen concerning the extent to which marriages were inviolable and the Church’s role in upholding the institution of marriage. From these debates emerged a rigid defence of the Anglican ideal of marriage, which had a significant effect on marriage law reform in the 1820s and relations between church and state.

Charles Manners-Sutton, Archbishop of Canterbury, by Thomas Charles Wageman (1826).
© The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced under Creative Commons license.

From 1805 until his death in 1828, the Archbishop of Canterbury was Charles Manners-Sutton, who came from the aristocratic Rutland dynasty and was a favourite of George III. As a young man, Manners-Sutton had evaded the marriage laws of England by eloping with his cousin Mary Thoroton to Gretna Green in Scotland, where they were married in 1778. Lord Eldon, who was Lord Chancellor from 1801 to 1806 and 1807 to 1827, had made a similar journey, leading George III to remark on the ‘singular circumstance’ that ‘the head of the Established Church, and of the Law, should both have been married at Gretna Green’. Yet, in Parliament, it was Manners-Sutton who led an effort on the part of the Church to tighten the laws concerning marriage as well as to preserve intact the existing Anglican marriage liturgy.

The first indication of this new assertiveness was during the discussion of a divorce bill in the House of Lords in 1815. Sir Henry Mildmay had been found disguised as a bearded sailor in the rooms of his sister-in-law the Countess of Rosebery, with whom he then went to Paris. The Earl of Rosebery sued for divorce, and a clause was inserted into the divorce bill which was debated in the House of Lords forbidding Mildmay and the countess to be married on the basis that Anglican teaching proscribed the marriage of a man to his sister-in-law. When the Earl of Lauderdale proposed that this clause should be removed, Archbishop Manners-Sutton stated that ‘surely in this case it ought not to be dispensed with, for how could there be a case which called more imperiously for such a provision?’ He further warned, ‘If their lordships rejected it, they would ruin the peace of families, destroy the best affections of the human mind, and poison the very sources of domestic security and happiness.’ The clause passed.

A similar robustness among the bishops was evident during the Queen Caroline Affair, in which Manners-Sutton supported George IV’s divorce but privately expressed concerns about the omission of the Queen from the prayer for the Royal Family in the Anglican liturgy. When amendments to the 1753 Marriage Act were put forward by the government in 1822, Manners-Sutton initially opposed a clause allowing the annulment of marriages between minors where no parental consent had been obtained, stating that he could not conceive ‘any thing more repugnant to religion or morality than that persons should be placed in the situation of not knowing whether they were lawfully married, or living in a state of concubinage’. However, while serving on the committee of the Marriage Act Amendment Bill, the archbishop came around to the view that such marriages could be annulled within a year. This proposal was strongly opposed by Bishop Law of Chester, who considered it unfit ‘to be enacted by a Christian legislature’, and by Archbishop Venables-Vernon of York, who cited words from the marriage liturgy, ‘Those whom God has joined, let no man put asunder.’

‘Matrimony’ by Richard Westall (1812).
© The Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced under
Creative Commons license.

The clause did not pass, but the discussions concerning marriage legislation raised another controversial issue: should separate arrangements exist in law for the marriage of dissenters? As the law stood, the only non-Anglican marriages recognised legally were those of Quakers and Jews. Lord Liverpool suggested that when dissenters married in an Anglican church, ‘a certain portion of the service might be omitted, if the church did not object to it.’ This alarmed Manners-Sutton, who gave a very forthright response to Liverpool’s suggestion:

It was, he believed, the first proposition ever made in that House to alter the liturgy of the established church. And for what purpose? For the purpose of accommodating those who were not of the Church of England – to accommodate sects who founded their faith and religious belief on private and unlearned interpretations of the Scriptures.

However, this did not mean that the archbishop was not willing to extend marriage rights to dissenters, only that he objected to any alterations to the liturgy of the Church of England. When Lord Lansdowne introduced a bill to give legal recognition to Unitarian marriages in 1824, Manners-Sutton supported it on the basis that it ensured both ‘the ease of the Unitarian and the security of the church.’ By contrast, Bishop Law and Lord Eldon attacked the measure, Eldon insinuating that Unitarians were breaking the law by denying the Trinity. The bill did not pass, and it failed again when it was reintroduced the following year. Manners-Sutton appealed in vain to put a stop to what he saw as ‘that unhallowed equivocation which, sanctioned by law, now took place at the foot of the altar’ when Unitarians married in church.

By the time of Charles Manners-Sutton’s death in 1828, no extended provision had been made for the marriages of dissenters; this was not enacted until the Marriage Act of 1836. However, the firm stances which the archbishop took on marriage and his strident rhetoric shaped the parliamentary debate on this topic for over a decade. He had been both a brake on alterations to the Anglican ideal of marriage and an encourager of separate provision in law for dissenters. As such, he contributed to the erosion of the Church’s near-monopoly on marriages in England while fervently defending Anglican teachings and liturgy. He also demonstrated the Church’s capacity to act independently on such issues in Parliament. Moreover, he made marriage the focal point of church-state relations during the years prior to the reforming laws of 1828-32, a state of affairs which those laws have long overshadowed.

Nicholas Dixon

This research has been supported by an AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership Studentship.

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