The hacking of the popular infidelity site Ashley Madison in July 2015 revealed that 33 million people worldwide were seeking adulterous relationships online. The disclosure prompted a raft of press interest, with many commentators lamenting the decline of marriage.[1] In every era in history, a sexual scandal prompts some contemporaries to think that this is new, that their ancestors had greater moral standards and that a social institution, usually marriage, is under threat. A historian of sexuality would be more likely to argue that moral standards are culturally specific and fluctuating, and moreover have been recurrently debated since time immemorial.


The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have been pinpointed as ‘the first sexual revolution’, when the butterfly of sexual freedom was released from the cocoon of Puritan repression.[2] Under the Interregnum government, adultery had been a crime punishable by death, at least for the offending woman. As the 1650 ‘Act for suppressing the detestable sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication’, put it succinctly: ‘any married woman’ who ‘shall…be carnally known by any man (other than her Husband)…shall be convicted’.[3] In practice, there were very few convictions, but not for lack of prosecutions, as the courts were flooded with spouses and neighbours airing their sexual grievances.[4]


Nevertheless, the end of the Interregnum and the restoration of Charles II, the ‘Merry Monarch’, heralded a new age of sexual license. Between 1660 and 1840, illegitimacy rates, the gold standard of measuring extra-marital sex, trebled from just under two per cent to over six per cent of all registered baptisms.[5] Paradoxically, there were also more marriages; by 1800 the percentage of single people in the population halved and the marriage age had dropped by four years.[6] So, over the eighteenth century people were having more sex, both inside and outside of marriage.


But, is this the whole story? Adultery is notoriously hard to measure. In the eighteenth century, illegitimate children born from adulterous relationships were legally the offspring of their mother’s husband, and in the age before DNA tests paternity was impossible to prove. Adulterine illegitimacy would generally only be proved if legitimate conception were impossible; for example, a husband who returned from military campaign after more than nine months would not expect a pregnant wife. And, in an age when divorce was available to only the very rich and was accompanied with a range of legal disadvantages for the wife and children, not all discoveries of adultery would end in quantifiable divorce.


It would therefore be more accurate to say that adultery became more visible in the eighteenth century. Following the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 and the growth of cheaper commercial print, the private lives of the upper classes became important weapons in the competition to sell newspapers. ‘Criminal Conversation’ trials, by which husbands could sue their wives’ lovers for monetary compensation for ‘trespass’ onto their property (i.e. their wives’ bodies), were published as the best-selling, multi-volume Trials for Adultery, accompanied by lascivious illustrations. In many publications, adultery was rebranded as ‘gallantry’; no longer a sin, it had become mainstream entertainment. Novels such as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1748), helpfully subtitled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, were published alongside Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies (1757-1795), a directory of prostitutes to be found in the capital.


But did this increasing public presence of adultery mean that it was becoming more or less acceptable? Although the rise of criminal conversation trials would suggest declining toleration of adultery, collusion was common as often both parties wanted to remarry. One of the most sensational criminal conversation trials of the age, where Sir Richard Worsley, a baronet, sued his wife’s lover for £20,000 compensation, fell apart when it emerged that Worsley had encouraged their affair.[7] Adultery, particularly by the woman, was therefore a convenient legal cause for divorce and was not in itself always enough reason to end a marriage.


This is supported lower down the social scale. In a survey of 1,583 cases of matrimonial conflict between 1660 and 1800, Joanne Bailey found that desertion and wife-beating together made up 67% of cases, whereas all possible indications of adultery, including illegitimacy, bigamy and criminal conversation made up only 7% of cases. Either adultery was not as common as its visibility in printed sources suggests, or, for many couples, adultery could be accommodated without need for divorce. ‘Cruelty’, on the other hand, was more difficult to accept.


Undoubtedly there was a rising tolerance for publicly displayed sexuality, but it is also true that adulterers were frequently the subject of mockery, rather than aspiration. The aristocrat Lord Tyrconnel (see illustration!) was widely criticised for pushing his wife to have an affair with the Duke of York for his own political gain. Both Lord Tyrconnel and his wife were openly adulterous with several partners, and their affairs were frequently derided in satirical prints. Social disapproval was also the case among the non-elite. When the adultery of Glasgow shoemaker James McKaen was discovered by his friends in the 1780s, he recorded that his wife’s ‘friends, and my mother too, kept all at a distance from me for some time, on account of my bad behaviour’.[8] He and his wife stayed married and went on to have a child, but we know about his sexual transgressions because they were cited as contributing to a general slide into sin that culminated in his trial for murder in 1797.


Despite increasing awareness of adultery, it still had the power to damage relationships and reputations. Although voyeurism was alive and well, it is debatable whether adultery became more acceptable amongst ordinary people. This, it seems, is not too dissimilar from current society; the media furore surrounding Ashley Madison suggests that not only do we like reading about other people’s sex lives, but they also still have the power to surprise us and prompt discussion about the state of society. Despite the increasing visibility of sex, whether through the invention of the printing press or the internet, it seems that marital fidelity is still the ideal for many.


Kate Gibson is a first year PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield researching illegitimate children in the long eighteenth-century. You can follow her on Twitter on @KateGibson22


Image Source: The Accommodating Spouse by James Gillray, 15th May 1789. The caption reads, ‘Tyr[co]nn[e]ls delight_ Coming York over her;_ or what you like.’ Lord Tyrconnel (exiting the room) says “A good night to your R[oyal] High[nes]s!!! Bon Soir, my lady; I’m no peeping Tom of Coventry”, addressing his wife and the Duke of York, the King’s brother, who are in the bed. Via the National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons.


[1] Gaby Hinsliff, ‘In the Ashley Madison era, marriage needs a rethink’, The Guardian, 23 July 2015; Adam Lusher, ‘Will the Ashley Madison hacking stop anyone daring to two-time?’, The Independent, 21 July 2015.

[2] Faramerz Dabhiowala, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (London, 2012)

[3] ‘May 1650: An Act for suppressing the detestable sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication’, in C.H. Firth and R.S. Rait (eds), Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660 (London, 1911), pp. 387-389.

[4] Bernard Capp, ‘Republican Reformation: Family, Community and the State in Interregnum Essex, 1649-60’, in Helen Berry and Elizabeth Foyster (eds), The Family in Early Modern England, p. 50.

[5] Peter Laslett and Karla Oosterveen, ‘Long Term Trends in Bastardy in England’, Population Studies 17.2 (1973), p. 260.

[6] Peter Laslett and Karla Oosterveen, ‘Long Term Trends in Bastardy in England’, Population Studies 17.2 (1973), p. 269.

[7] Hallie Rubenhold, Lady Worsley’s Whim (London, 2008).

[8] James McKaen, The Life of James McKaen, Shoemaker in Glasgow, who was Executed at the Cross of Glasgow on Wednesday the 25th Jan. 1797, for the Murder and Robbery of James Buchanan, the Lanark Carrier (Glasgow, 1797), p. 14.

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