Today, our post is another inspired by our recently-published volumes on the House of Lords. In this blog the editor, Dr Ruth Paley, describes the infamous matrimonial affairs of the 20th earl of Oxford…
Sometime in the early 1660s, Aubrey de Vere, the 20th earl of Oxford, married the popular actress, Hester Davenport. Or did he? There is little doubt that a wedding took place; the question is, was it sufficient to create a legally valid marriage?
Actresses had only just started appearing on the English stage. They had a somewhat dubious moral reputation but it seems that Hester Davenport refused to give in to Oxford’s advances unless they were married. Davenport wore a white satin gown decorated with silver ribbons for their ensuing wedding, which took place in the dining room of a chandler’s shop in a somewhat insalubrious street in the vicinity of what is now London’s Northumberland Avenue. The proceedings were conducted by a man dressed as a clergyman. Later rumours suggested that the clergyman was actually one of Oxford’s menial servants, variously described as his groom or trumpeter. The couple lived together as man and wife, they had a son together and Hester Davenport seems to have been acknowledged as countess of Oxford.
Until recently historians believed that before the passage of Hardwicke’s Marriage Act in 1753 such a union constituted a genuine marriage – one that would be recognised as legal under the common law, but that belief has been exploded by the research of Rebecca Probert. Accordingly when Oxford married Diana Kirk at Whitehall in January 1672 in an Anglican ceremony conducted by his chaplain, no one questioned that this was a legal marriage even though Hester Davenport was still alive, and still calling herself countess of Oxford.
An action in the church courts in the mid 1680s confirmed that Hester Davenport and Oxford had indeed gone through some sort of ceremony but failed to establish that it had been performed by a genuine clergyman. Hester Davenport was thus unable to prove that she was anything other than a discarded mistress. She did not accept the result, even after losing an appeal to the court of arches. She continued to call herself countess of Oxford and, insisting that their son was legitimate, attempted to establish him as the heir to the earldom. She remained single until Oxford died in the spring of 1703 then married the Flemish merchant Peter Hoet.
The History of Parliament has recently published our first set of volumes focusing on the House of Lords. Covering the period 1660-1715, this five-volume work is available from Cambridge University Press.