Yelverton Marriage Case

Like me, in browsing Newry’s history you may have read or heard some reference to the famous ‘Yelverton Marriage case’ and wondered what it was all about. 

The Yelverton case was a famous 19th century Irish law case which eventually resulted in a change to the law on mixed religion marriages in Ireland.

Under a Statute of King George II (i.e. of the infamous Penal Laws) any marriage between a Catholic (Popish) and a Protestant or a marriage between two Protestants celebrated by a Catholic priest was null and void.

Theresa Longworth, an English Catholic, and Major William Charles Yelverton, Viscount Avonmore, an Irish Protestant, met in 1852. They became involved, but Charles insisted that he could not marry Theresa publicly because he had promised his family he would not marry and thus, their relationship had to be kept secret. Their relationship continued, with Charles refusing a public ceremony and Theresa refusing to co-habit with Charles without a Catholic marriage ceremony.

In 1857 they were married by a Catholic priest in Killowen, Co Down, in a ceremony which consisted of a renewal of their marital consent previously declared privately to each other. Charles continued to insist that the marriage be kept secret. The bride and bridegroom stayed a night at the Victoria Hotel in Newry and later, the daughter of the proprietors Mr and Mrs Dransfield would be an important witness in the several court cases that ensued.

In 1858 after a miscarriage was suffered by Theresa, Charles met another woman, Emily who he intended to marry.  He demanded that Theresa renounce her status as his wife and offered her money to relocate to New Zealand.

Charles married Emily Ashworth despite Theresa’s refusal to renounce her status as his wife. Theresa then instituted an action to receive a wife’s maintenance, which Charles resisted, filing his own claim to have him declared free of any marriage with her.

After numerous appeals, ultimately to the House of Lords (fellow peers of the realm and many of whom were numbered among Yelverton’s friends) the Lords ruled in Charles’ favour and his first (Catholic) marriage was declared invalid. His marriage to Emily Forbes was declared lawful.

The case and its perceived unfair consequences, led to the enactment of the Marriage Causes and Marriage Law Amendment Act of 1870, under which a mixed marriage before a Catholic priest became valid and lawful, subject to the normal provisos of civil law.

Thus we perceive that a number of the penal laws of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries continued to have deleterious effects up to the close of the nineteenth century.

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