How common was it for a man to marry his deceased wife's sister (England 1870's) and was there a penalty?

+8 votes
in Genealogy Help by Peter Cameron G2G6 Mach 2 (26.1k points)

7 Answers

+9 votes
Best answer

 It happened, but it wasn't a legal marriage for much of the 19th Century.

Marriage with a dead wife's sister was forbidden by the table of affinity within the church of England   However, these marriages did take place and were legal but voidable as they shouldn't have taken place in the first place. They were often challenged by relatives and of course, one partner could decide 20 years later that they no longer wanted the marriage A marriage could be voided on a death bed! If a marriage was voided, all children were made illegitimate

 After a law passed in 1835 which was supposed to resolve the problem,  any such marriages that  had not been annulled were deemed to be valid but  any that took place afterwards were deemed to be void .  There was no criminal penalty (unlike bigamy) Any  children were illegitimate.  The 'wife' often suffered in law when the 'husband' died and wills not carefully written were challenged.  It also meant that the couple were 'living in sin' and might suffer social exclusion. At  the lower end of the social scale, such relationships might mean that charity was not granted or if the relationship lead to domestic violence the woman might be less sympathetically treated by the courts.

It was  however, an extremely controversial. Quite often, sisters were called upon to look after young families when the man became a widow. They often became close and wanted to marry. It could also be considered to be immoral for the two of them to live in the same house unmarried. The bible of course supported such a marriage. The prohibition became more controversial over the century. There were lots of letters to the Times and several  bills introduced in parliament but of course Anglican Bishops were members of the House of Lords. Marriage to a wife's sister  continued to be illegal  until 1807.1907 (typo)

(there is an article about the case of Jane  Austen's brother who married his deceased wife in1820 and her niece who 'married' her dead sisters husband in 1850  (

by Helen Ford G2G6 Pilot (484k points)
edited by Helen Ford
Amazing to think that this practice was illegal. It seems like it was fairly common among Americans.
+9 votes
I have seen it a handful of times in my own tree. Here in the states. So I imagine it wasn't uncommon in England either. The penalty question however, for England, I really don't know.
by Sylvia Benton G2G6 Mach 1 (13.1k points)
+8 votes
Ditto to what Sylvia said.
by Doug Lockwood G2G Astronaut (2.7m points)
+10 votes

It was illegal until 1907, when the law was repealed.  However, that did not stop people! wink

The Deceased Wife’s Sister Act was passed in 1835.

by Ros Haywood G2G Astronaut (2.0m points)
+9 votes
I happened, even though it was illegal until 1907.
by Lynda Crackett G2G6 Pilot (683k points)
+4 votes
There is a category for successive marriages to siblings.
by Eva Ekeblad G2G6 Pilot (587k points)
+4 votes
I have it in my German tree several times. I actually don't understand why it was considered illegal. It's not that the surviving part married his/her own sibling, but the sibling of the spouse.
by Jelena Eckstädt G2G Astronaut (1.5m points)

 The laws were based upon Roman Catholic religious law  This Wikipedia article explains the history of canon laws on affinity. In many countries, the advent of Protestantism led to marriage being considered a civil matter rather than a religious one.

In England and Wales, the break with Rome didn't change the fact that ecclesiastical law held sway over marriage law. The monarchs  till this day continued to use the title 'defender of the faith' and the Church of England was and is an established church. At the reformation, there was a move to reform canon law on marriage, this would have changed the laws on affinity and even allowed divorce in certain circumstances. It failed because neither Parliament nor Church opinion at the time wanted such a change.  (it actually made it stricter because there was no longer the possibility to appeal to Rome for a dispensation)

I always understood it was a practical matter. Sexual tension in a family is a pain so, when you marry, your spouse's siblings become your siblings and you're supposed not to think about them like that. Problem solved.

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