Our Legal Heritage: A bigamist’s mixed-marriage declared null and void
Seosamh Gráinséir recounts the Yelverton saga, litigated across the Scottish, English and Irish courts and which resulted in marriage reform in Ireland.
On 15 August 1857, Maria Theresa Longworth and Major William Charles Yelverton got married in a Catholic Church near Rostrevor. 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.
The validity of the marriage came before the courts because, in June 1858, Major Yelverton married another woman, Emily Marianne Ashworth Forbes, in Edinburgh, shortly after Theresa had suffered a miscarriage. Theresa went to Edinburgh complaining that Major Yelverton was guilty of bigamy. Major Yelverton was imprisoned, but the charges were dropped, and after that he sought a declaration he was not married to Theresa.
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. After the verdict, Theresa greeted thousands of cheering supporters who had followed the case and gathered outside the Gresham Hotel, to which she announced “My noble-hearted friends, you have made me an Irishwoman, by the verdict that I am the wife of an Irishman. I glory to belong to such a noble-hearted nation. You will live in my heart forever, as I have lived in your hearts this day… Farewell for the present, but, forever, I belong, in heart and soul, to the people of Dublin”.
In Edinburgh, the outcome of Theresa’s 1858 petition was not so fortunate. In July 1862, the Lord Ordinary, Lord 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.