Marriage, Divorce and Bigamy - The Bindloss Affair

Sheila Gordon
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Marriage in the Early Modern period took various forms. One method was a public church wedding with banns but there were also marriages conducted in a private house before witnesses by a practising clergyman, often a form chosen by royalty or the nobility. Clandestine marriages were sometimes contracted in some remote chapel by an obliging curate, frequently to avoid parental objections. In 1619 George Whittaker, vicar of Cawthorne, was cited to appear at York for marrying persons by moonlight in the ruined chapel of Midhope on the Pennine Moors (how romantic!).

Under canon law all that was legally required was a public declaration before witnesses. There were two forms of marriage contract: words of present consent (verba de presenti) and words of future consent (verba de futuro.) In the former the man would say in front of witnesses - “ I take thee … to my lawful wife” and the woman replied likewise. This formed a firm contract and was sealed by breaking a silver coin. If the marriage never materialised one of the parties could be taken to court and sued for breach of promise. In the latter the words used were ‘I will take thee as my husband/wife’; in this instance the marriage was only legal if followed by sexual relations and if not it could be more easily set aside. There was plenty of opportunity for misunderstandings and consequently there were many court cases involving adultery, illegitimacy and breach of promise.

Whilst cases of adultery in England for this period appeared in their hundreds, those for bigamy total just forty-eight and only seven of those were in the north of England i.e. three in Lancashire and four in Cheshire. The figures were obtained through a search of Manor Court Rolls, Quarter Sessions and Consistory Court Records for the period 1500 to 1700 (via British History Online and A2A Web sites) and are only an approximation as we will never know how many cases went unrecorded or have been lost.

Child marriages were uncommon; under canon law the legal limit was 12 years of age for a girl and 14 for a boy. This type of marriage tended to occur amongst the land owning classes, often as a way of securing property and titles. The attitude appeared to be that if the marriage foundered for whatever reason, it could be dissolved by declaring the contract null and void.

Whether the marriage of Robert Bindloss and Alice Dockray (also Dockrey) in the early 1570s was secured to link two ‘cotton’ barons we will probably never know, but they were both born into wealthy families. (’Cotton’ was a coarse woollen fabric made in North West England at this time). Robert’s father Sir Robert Bindloss owned Borwick Hall in the parish of Warton, just north of Carnforth; this Tudor gabled and fortified house is still in existence today. Included amongst the many barns and outhouses is a long range of buildings said to have been erected by Christopher Bindloss, Robert’s grandfather (d.1589), who made his money in Kendal Cottons. These buildings were said to have housed his packhorses which carried goods from Kendal to London and many would have passed through Settle on their journey to the capital. The Bindloss family owned vast estates in Lancashire and Cumberland as well as property and land in the Craven area, including parts of Wensleydale, Nether Hesleden, Eshton (including Eshton Hall), Cleatop in Settle and corn mills in Long Preston, Giggleswick and Settle. Alice’s father Lancelot owned Dockray Hall in Kendal, another fortified building with an attached chapel dedicated to St. Anne, of which nothing now remains. A mill is mentioned at Dockrey Hall at least as far back as 1809, but is thought to be the site of a much earlier building, which adds strength to the theory that it was a marriage of convenience between two textile manufacturers. The Dockrey family also had connections in Giggleswick and appear in the parish registers from 1586-1640. Thomas Dockrey, (possibly Alice’s brother) was a mercer from Giggleswick (1).

Robert and Alice married in the early 1570s; no record has been found to confirm the exact date and even Alice (when giving evidence in the subsequent court case) was vague about the date. At the time of their marriage Robert was aged 13 and Alice 15 years old. Their tender ages may have been a contributory factor in their unfortunate marriage which ended with accusations of bigamy in the Consistory Court of York in 1599 (2).

The facts of the Bindloss case, as far as they are known, are as follows:-
1570s - Robert Bindloss marries Alice Dockrey
1589 - Robert and Alice separate by mutual agreement
1593 - Robert and Alice gain legal separation at Chester Court
1594- Thomas Dockrey buys Townend Hall, Kendal, for Alice
1597 - Alice Bindloss marries William Carr
1599 - Alice accused of bigamy in York Courts

But behind these bare facts lies a story of love, power, sex, desire and betrayal! Now read on…

The bigamy case brought by Robert Bindloss against Alice in the York Consistory Court and dated 1599 was a very rare occurrence . Although there were undoubtedly many cases of this type, usually only the wealthy could afford to take them to court. For many the only way out of an unhappy marriage was to disappear and start a new life elsewhere in the hope that they would never be found out.

In Alice’s case she had been separated from her husband Robert for four years when she married William Carr of Giggleswick. They were married around Michaelmas (29 September) 1597 in Gisburne, without publishing banns, the service being held in a chamber of the house of Mr. Armistead, curate of Gisburne. However, just two years later they were accused of an unlawful marriage, as mentioned above. According to her evidence, Alice had understood that she had been legally divorced from Robert in the Chester Courts in 1593 when he cited her for adultery. Robert however claimed that the separation was only from ‘bed and board’ and not an absolute divorce. The term A mensa et thoro, ‘from table and bed’, often translated as ‘from bed and board’, is a separation sanctioned by the church courts; they hoped that this method might eventually lead to a reconciliation and meant that the couple may live apart without the threat of being taken to court for desertion, but they could not remarry.

If Robert’s case were proven and Alice declared a bigamist the punishment could be severe (under the revisions of canon law in 1604 bigamy would become a felony and therefore could be punishable by death; fortunately for Alice that was five years into the future). In the manuscripts of Rye and Hereford Corporations one Richard Died may well have paid the ultimate price when he was condemned to death at the Quarter Sessions for just such a crime. However, he petitioned for a royal pardon in 1637 the results of which are unknown. It was obviously possible to circumvent the ruling as the case of Thomas Preston of Dalton, Lancashire shows (3). He was reliably informed that ‘Dispensation from the impediment of bigamy would be granted without difficulty’. In cases of adultery, of which Alice was also accused, the punishment was less severe, as can be seen by the case of James Meyall and Isabel Crompton both of Bolton, Lancashire. They were ordered to be flogged on two market days at Bolton and then placed in the stocks with papers on them inscribed ‘These persons are punished for adultery.’ The idea of ‘naming and shaming’ is obviously nothing new; during the Elizabethan period a common penance for fornication and adultery was to make the penitents process through the church barefoot dressed in a white sheet and carrying a candle which was to be presented to the priest. There are even occasional references to the penitents ‘accepting discipline from the priest’ which could involve a symbolic whipping!

It was almost impossible in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to obtain a divorce as we know it, i.e. where both parties were able to remarry. That is not to say that it did not happen; there are always exceptions to every rule and the nobility and landed gentry found ways of circumventing this. One method was by commutation, whereby money exchanged hands and the punishment was reduced. Another way was to prove that the marriage had never been valid in the first place and the marriage could then be declared ‘null and void’. Annulment was known as divorce a vinculo matrimonii or ‘divorce from all the bonds of marriage’ and there were four grounds for obtaining such an annulment. Firstly if the marriage had never been consummated, secondly if the couple were related within the forbidden degrees of kinship, thirdly if either or both parties had been married previously and finally if one or both parties were underage. In regard to the second ground, that of consanguinity, during the Early Modern period a marriage was unlawful if the couple were related within the fourth degree, or fourth cousins. This was a relaxation of the previous law, as prior to 1215 the prohibited degrees were seven.

An example of an annulment was found in the Whalley Abbey Act Book and dated 1530. Elizabeth Baker and Edmund Fielden were granted an annulment as it was declared that their marriage had been contracted under parental compulsion and also because they were both minors (Elizabeth being then eight and Edmund seven years old.) Certainly the fourth ground for an annulment i.e. either party being underage, could have applied to the Bindloss case, as Robert was only 13 years old when he married Alice, the legal age for a boy being14.

Alice and Robert were married at Helston in Robert’s father’s house in the parish of Kirkby Kendal by Stephen Wilson, curate there. They lived together for about nine years, having two daughters Alice and Anne. Daughter Alice subsequently married Henry Bankes of Bank Newton in October 1598 whilst Anne married Henry Denton of Cumberland in October 1599. These marriages appear in the Gargrave Parish Registers along with the death of one Robert Bindloss in 1601. As yet I have been unable to identify this particular Robert, unless he was the Robert Bindloss, son of Robert and Mary (Robert’s second wife), who died young. Suffice to say that there appear to be too many Roberts!

Robert and Alice ‘dwelt as man and wife in his father’s house at Helston (a corruption of Helsington?) and in other places for the space of nine years’. However around 1589, according to Alice’s evidence, the York Consistory Court granted them a mutually agreed separation, because of some undisclosed disagreement. Unfortunately we only have Alice’s word for this because no document has surfaced regarding this separation. This is all rather puzzling and therefore its legality is questionable.

Around this same period Alice had ‘carnall dealings’ with James Porter at Helsington ‘in a great Chamber there during the tyme of his abode there and that always he came by night and was kepte close in the day and departed’. On one occasion Alice’s maid was sent with a message to James requesting him to come to her ‘when all were att their rest….but wished him when he came to her bedd to beware in anyewise of waykinge the childe that laye with her’. Unbeknown to Alice her husband Robert was hidden in the house, ‘havinge rightly conceived suspicion of the said Alice her lewd life’, and overheard everything.

On another occasion Alice was found in an embarrassing situation with a Richard Warriner ‘aboute Easter tyme the said Richard Warriner was found naked in the bedd where the said Alice did lye att the Towne end Hall nere Kendall aforesaid being att that tyme the dwellinghouse of one James Midgley…the said James Midgley and his wife, lyinge in bedd did heare in the night tyme such mumblinge and creakinge of the bedd where the said Alice did lye…thereupon the said James Midgley arisinge somewhat early in the morninge to know the cause thereof did meete the said Alice coming forthe of her said Chamber and found the said Richard Warriner naked in the said bedd in the chamber and wrapped in the bedclothes’. Modern novels have nothing on this!

To her credit Alice denied none of the above when accused of adultery in 1593 which resulted in a legal separation. The 1593 document found at Chester Record Office (4) is sadly rather brief on detail and in places indecipherable. However it states categorically that ‘with the counsel of legal experts with whom we have properly communicated in this matter we separate, liberate, segregate and divorce the aforesaid Robert Bindlose junior from the table, bed and (….) of the said Alice Bindlose alias Dockerey..… on account of the abominable adultery committed and perpetrated by the said Alice often or at least once since the time of the solemnization and confirmation of marriage….’ And it goes on to say that Robert Bindlose junior ought to be ‘free immune and loosed for ever as far as any effect of law’. Note the words ‘from the table, bed ‘; as we have seen earlier this term merely means the couple are separated but does not allow them the right to remarry. This was Robert’s belief and this eventually led to the bigamy case in the York Consistory Court in 1599.

In 1594 Thomas Dockrey (Alice’s brother?) bought Townend Hall, Kendal from Robert Bindloss for the sum of £533, which he declares was inherited from Lancelot Dockrey, Alice’s father. He bought the property on behalf of himself for Alice, so possibly Alice lived there after her separation. The sale was a result of an award made by four arbitrators from ‘certain controversies suites debates and demands…between Robert Byndlose of the one partie and the said Thomas Dockrey as well for himself as also for and on behalf of the sayd Alice Byndlose alias Dockrey of the other partie’. Was Thomas acting as counsel for Alice after her divorce/separation at Chester Court one year earlier and had Townend Hall and its accompanying lands and appurtenances been part of Alice’s marriage settlement? The Indenture relating to Townend Hall states ‘late in the tenure possession and occupation of the said Robert Byndlose ... late being the landes and inheritance of Lancelot Dockrey father of the said Alice’. Certainly Dockrey Hall was part of an extensive estate which included ‘houses, buildings, barnes stables, orchards, gardens, tofts, curtlages, folds, landes, tenements, demesne landes, medowes, feedinge pastures woodes woodgrowndes underwoods wayes waters springs fyshinge commons commons of pastures and turbarie rents’. Suddenly the idea of Alice and Robert’s early marriage being one of convenience, linking two important estates, becomes a distinct possibility.

As stated earlier, Alice married William Carr in 1597 but this arrangement appears to have been short lived as they were brought to court in 1599, accused of an unlawful marriage. This was obviously a case of bigamy although it is interesting to note that this term was not used in the official document. Was that because to do so would have created a scandal which the wealthy families would have wished to avoid?

Alice pleaded not guilty to the charge of bigamy brought against her, saying that her marriage to Robert had been nullified and invalidated at the Chester Courts in 1593, because of the above said adulteries. She and William had therefore committed no crime. However, the courts did not agree and the marriage of William and Alice was declared invalid and they were ordered to separate and pay costs: ‘Therefore we John Benet Doctor of Laws the aforementioned Official pronounce decree and declare that the pretend marriage in fact contracted and solemnized between the aforesaid William Carr and Alice Bindlose…… is by law null and void and destitute of all force of law’ and goes on further to state that they be separated and divorced and ‘we determine that they be ecclesiastically forced and compelled to the payment of the same expenses’. Sadly the cost of expenses are not mentioned.

This is all very final and yet according to various sources including Lucas’s ‘History of Warton’ and Kendal parish registers, Robert then went on to marry a Mary Eltoft of Thornhill, Yorkshire between 1600 and 1603. Mary died in 1625 and is buried in Warton Parish Church where Robert himself was finally laid to rest in 1630. Robert’s marriage to Mary would of course have been impossible if, as we have just noted, he were still officially married to Alice, or he himself would have been guilty of bigamy. Was there a further court case not yet found, which overturned the ruling of the 1599 case? If Alice had died the problem would have been solved, but as we shall see further on, this proved not to be the case.

It has been impossible to find any documents relating to either William Carr or Alice Bindloss/Carr after the court case of 1599, which is surprising because the Carr family are well known in the Giggleswick area. I can only assume however that Alice was still alive in 1629 when her first husband Robert made his last will and testament and in which perhaps surprisingly he leaves an annuity to her of £6.13s.4d. per annum, a considerable amount of money for the period. Robert’s second wife Mary had died in 1625 (5), both his daughters by Alice were now married and so one wonders what was the reason for the annuity? Did he still have a soft spot for Alice and therefore decided to make amends in his will? Were there feelings of remorse about forcing Alice and William to be separated? - we shall probably never know.

This is an intriguing case which needs further research if its remaining puzzles are to be resolved. It is a fascinating story showing the ambiguities and complexities of marriage and divorce in the Early Modern period and we can only imagine the scandal that must have surrounded the whole affair.

Acknowledgments John Harrop expertly translated the many documents written mainly in difficult legal and abbreviated Latin without which help this article could not have been written. Further acknowledgement is made to the help given by Mary and Mike Slater and Libby Glover. The North Craven Historical Research Group funded travel costs to Record Offices.


  1. Hereford Archive Ref. F8/11/466.
  2. Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, University of York. Cause papers. CP.G.3082 Validity of marriage
  3. Lancashire Record Office. Quarter Sessions Pprs. 1674.
  4. Chester Record Office. MF334/10.EDC5, No.36.
  5. Preston Record Office, Wharton Parish Registers.

Other Sources

Life, Love and Death in North East Lancashire 1510-1537: A Translation of the Act Book of the Ecclesiastical Court of Whalley. Ed. Margaret Lynch and members of the Ranulf Higden Society. Pub.Chetham Society, 2006.

History of Warton Parish (Compiled 1710-1740). John Lucas and J.Rawlinson Ford. Pub. Titus Wilson and Son, Kendal.