Catholic – Protestant Marriages During the late Georgian Era

When discussing Catholic emancipation, etc., the year makes a difference. George III’s era was far stricter against Catholics having any kind of power. That was one reason why many members of parliament quit in 1801, including Pitt the Younger and Lord Grenville. Such tidbits of information are important to clarify if one is writing a book that places the hero and heroine in a “mixed” marriage.

There were mixed marriages, some very well known. In fact, the Prince Regent himself married a Catholic, though without permission. The children in this case will be raised Protestant.

Prince George knew the marriage was invalid because it had not been approved according to the Royal Marriage Act. This was essential  for him because another law said anyone who married a Catholic gave up his/her place in the line of succession to the throne. Mrs. Fitzherbert considered herself married to him, though it had been by a Protestant clergyman. (See Regency History for more on this joining.)

However, one must realize this was not simply a Georgian era point of contention. The rules against “mixed marriages” continued into the latter part of the 1800s. For example, much later in the century, a case was contested between Maria Theresa Longworth and Major William Charles Yelverton who married in a Catholic Church near Rostrevor on 15 August 1857. They had previously married in Edinburgh on or about 13 April 1857 according to Scottish law; however, Theresa refused to cohabit with Major Yelverton until they were married according to her own Catholic religion. Whether the marriage was legal or not came into the public eye when Major Yelverton married a rich widow, Emily Marianne Ashworth Forbes, in Edinburgh, reportedly some time after Mari had a miscarriage. Maria claimed Yelverton committed bigamy. The major was arrested, but the charges were dropped. Afterwards, Yelverton sought out a declaration in court that he was not married to Maria.

“Meanwhile, Theresa went to the English Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes to petition for the restitution of conjugal rights. At this time, she lived in England and Major Yelverton resided in Edinburgh. Since Major Yelverton was not domiciled in England, the court said it did not have jurisdiction, stating that the Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was “…a court for England, not for the United Kingdom, or for Great Britain; and for the purposes of this question of jurisdiction Ireland and Scotland are to be deemed foreign countries equally with France or Spain”. On 7 December 1859, the court held that there was nothing to get rid of the maxim actor sequitur forum rei, and dismissed Major Yelverton.

“By 1861, Theresa had been living with a Mr and Mrs Thelwall in England, who brought a claim against Major Yelverton to the Court of Common Pleas in Ireland to recover the money owed for her board and lodgings. Their application was on the basis that Theresa was Major Yelverton’s wife, so the real purpose of the petition was to establish that they were indeed married. In February 1860, Major Yelverton had become the Baron of Avonmore; therefore, there was no question of his domicile in Ireland. The ten-day trial was a sensation which received daily coverage in newspapers all over Great Britain and Ireland; Major Yelverton’s “own defence proclaimed him a treacherous, a heartless libertine”, and so public opinion fell firmly in Theresa’s favour. (Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, Famous Irish Trials (Maunsel & Co 1918)

“A 1746 statute became central to the trial, in which it was stated that “every marriage which shall be celebrated … between a Papist and any person who had been or professed him or herself to be a Protestant any time within twelve months before such celebration of marriage, or between two Protestants if celebrated by a popish priest shall be and is hereby proclaimed absolutely null and void to all intents and purposes…”. (Statute 10, George II, Chapter 13 Section I)

“The jury found that there was a Scottish marriage and an Irish marriage, and at the time Major Yelverton had professed to be a Roman Catholic…. In Edinburgh, the outcome of Theresa’s 1858 petition was not so fortunate. In July 1862, the Lord OrdinaryLord Ardmillan, found in Major Yelverton’s favour – a decision which was overturned in December 1862 when the Inner House found that Theresa and Major Yelverton were lawfully married persons.

“Finally, in July 1864, the House of Lords found that Major Yelverton was a Protestant within the meaning of the Act, and therefore the marriage was null and void. The Yelverton saga ultimately resulted in the laws of marriages being reformed, with the enactment of the Marriage Causes and Marriage Law (Ireland) Amendment Act of 1870 legalising marriages between Catholics and Protestants before a Catholic priest.” [Our Legal Heritage: A bigamist’s mixed-marriage declared null and void]

Yelverton showed records of his family being Protestant for generations and the fact that he had attended the “right schools,” etc. as proof for his case.

Maria Theresa Longworth Yelverton

The case infuriated the Catholics all over again, and not many parliaments passed before  the law was changed allowing mixed marriages by Catholic priests or Anglican, Methodists, Presbyterian or other clergymen. 

The Law was clear. In England, everyone including Catholics, with the exception of Quakers or Jews had to be married in the local parish church or by a Church of England clergyman. NO other exceptions. Catholics in England who married only in their own rites were not considered legally married under English law. They had to be married  by a Protestant minister to be legally married. The Catholics found this legislation vile and prejudicial; yet, most married in their church first and then almost immediately in the Protestant church. If they had not married in the Protestant church their children were considered illegitimate, etc., under the law of the land. 

In fact, a Catholic priest faced fines and other sanctions for marrying a Protestant to a Catholic unless they had already been married by a Protestant.

In Ireland, the Catholics didn’t need to be married by a Protestant at all, but the clergy was still forbidden to celebrate at a mixed marriage unless there had already been a Protestant one. 

All through the 19th century, the restrictions against other religious groups were eased and there even was a provision for a civil marriage, but a Catholic and a Protestant still could not marry in the Catholic Church unless already married by civil or Protestant ceremony. Rules against Catholics lasted longer than rules against other religions. Any marriage of a Protestant to a Catholic by Catholic ritual alone was invalid. 

Legally, there had to be a Church of England ceremony first for the marriage to be legal in England. If the bride wanted to be married by a priest afterward, it would not be impossible to find a priest to perform the ceremony. Confession before marriage has never been a requirement, especially if the marriage ceremony does not include a Mass, which it would not if the groom is not Catholic.

Though the laws against Catholics had been somewhat weakened by the Regency period,  there was still much feeling against Catholics in general. In 1780 there were riots when Parliament discussed a bill to remove some of the disabilities against Catholics.

George III greatly objected to his prime minister attempt to include Catholic emancipation with the bill making Ireland a part of the United Kingdom. This despite the fact that it had been promised.

Catholic emancipation was the subject of political debate in the United Kingdom which intensified in the 19th Century after the Act of Union in 1801. “Catholics were not allowed to sit in Parliament. and, therefore, were represented by Protestants. Catholic emancipation — Catholic relief — was designed to give Catholics the right to sit in Parliament.

“The Act of Union unified Ireland with Great Britain and disbanded the mainly Protestant and ineffective Irish Parliament. Catholic emancipation was informally promised to the Catholics of Ireland, which would allow them to stand for election and represent their country in Parliament. Catholics had previously been barred from political office by the Oath of Supremacy, which required them to disavow the supremacy of the Pope and the act of transubstantiation and swear loyalty to the Anglican Church of England. William Pitt [the Prime Minister] was unable to grant Catholic emancipation after the Act of Union because George III believed that it was unconstitutional and that allowing it would violate his oath to the Church of England. Pitt and his government did not want to push him [George III] further into ‘madness.’ Furthermore, Britain was engaged in the French Wars and could not afford political instability. Catholic emancipation was shelved.” [The Catholic Relief Act (1829)]

Ironically, it was the Napoleonic wars with an increased need for men in the army and navy that allowed Catholics to be officers.

They still could not vote nor attend university or schools, such as Eton, Harrow, Westminster, etc. Before the war, Catholic children were often sent to the Continent to Catholic schools. The Duke of Norfolk came from a prominent Catholic family. He had a hereditary position as Earl marshal, but had to allow a Protestant to fulfill many of his official duties. He was supposed to allow the churches to which he held the livings to be handled by the universities, but he refused to hand them over and had a Protestant make the formal approach to the Bishop regarding his refusal.

Shortly after the Regency, Parliament granted him the right to act in his won stead, no matter his professed religion. After McConnell’s election to Parliament  and other reforms, Roman Catholics were allowed to take their seats in the House of Lords. Suddenly the number of Catholic peers increased. The families had often been bringing up the heir to the title as a Protestant so he might inherit, while the rest of the children were raised as Catholic. 

Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk by Thomas Gainsborough ~ Public Domain ~ 1746-1815

Norfolk renounced his Catholicism to start his political life, but remained a staunch supporter of Catholic Emancipation. He sat in Parliament from 1780 to 1784 and served as a lord of the treasury under the Portland administration in 1783. Howard became a staunch Whig. However, at the great political dinner at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, Arundel Street, Strand, on 24 Jan. 1798, at which nearly two thousand persons attended, the duke gave a toast, `Our sovereign’s health—the majesty of the people.’ The king, highly offended, caused him to be removed from his lord-lieutenancy and colonelcy of militia in the following February. The news reached the duke on the evening of 31 Jan., when he was entertaining the prince regent at Norfolk House (Lonsdale, Worthies of Cumberland, v. 57–64). The prince and the duke were for a time fast friends, and were the first to bring into fashion the late hours of dining. They subsequently quarrelled, but after some reconciliation, the prince invited Norfolk, then an old man, to dine and sleep at the Pavilion at Brighton, and with the aid of his brothers, the Dukes of Clarence and York, reduced him to a helpless condition of drunkenness (Thackeray, Four Georges).[Dictionary of National Biography]

He left no issue, and was succeeded in the dukedom by his third cousin, Bernard Edward Howard (1765–1842) Unlike Charles Howard, Bernard Howard was a staunch Roman Catholic, but by act of parliament passed 24 June 1824, he was allowed to act as earl-marshal. He was made a councillor of the university of London in 1825, was admitted to a seat in the House of Lords, after the Roman Catholic Relief Bill of 1829, was nominated a privy councillor 1830, and was elected K.G. 1834.

The Twelfth Duke of Norfolk, portrait of Bernard Howard, 12th Duke of Norfolk (1765-1842) – via Wikipedia

An ardent Roman Catholic, like most of his family, he strongly supported Catholic Emancipation, and gave offense to his Protestant neighbors by hosting a large banquet to celebrate the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829.  


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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