Who in Thorncombe did not sign the 1723 Devon Loyalty Oaths and Why?

By Eve Higgs

Missing Marriers

Seventeen of those who signed the 1723 oaths can be cautiously classed as immigrants as they are among Thorncombe's missing marriers; fathers of children baptised in Thorncombe during 1674-1723 but not listed in the marriage register. Altogether 708 children were fathered by 295 missing marriers during for this period. While some may have been returning emigrants or immigrants who married in church ceremonies elsewhere, others may have undergone civil marriages during the Commonwealth, been married in nonconformist establishments or participated in clandestine marriage ceremonies. Either way these events are not easily traceable (see Appendix 4).

Clandestine marriages were a popular alternative to church weddings. Such was their extent during this period that there were official complaints from the House of Convocation in 1712. Couples who took their vows in front of witnesses and sealed their marriage cum cupola were legally married in the eyes of the Church. Held in a variety of venues, these marriages might take the form of 'handfasting or trothplights', known as 'the country manner' or be solemnised according to the order of service laid down by the Common Prayer Book. Officiants were not always ordained and some were defrocked priests. The 1695 Marriage Duty Act introduced a tax on church marriages which increased demand for extra parochial ceremonies. Cut price marriage shops sprang up to undercut the cost, to meet demand.14

Given the practice of irregular marriage was not outlawed until the Hardwick Marriage Act of 1753, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, some of Thorncombe's missing marriers might be among those who patronised these covert establishments. While there is no documentary evidence a local tradition suggests a corrupt survival of what once might have been a clandestine marriage ceremony. On twelfth night, women hoping to become pregnant still jump over a burning faggot at the Squirrel Inn, Laymore on the Somerset border of Thorncombe's parish boundary. There has been a public house on the same site since the seventeenth century.

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  1. Wrigley, E., 'Clandestine Marriage in Tetbury in the late 17th century', Local Population Studies, 10 (1973), 15-21; Outhwaite, R., Clandestine Marriage in England 1500-1850, (London, 1995), 20-31. [back]