During The 17th Century Instead Of Divorce Wife Selling Was A Real Thing

Grace Higgins | July 20th, 2020

During the 17th to 19th century, there was a weird and terrible custom of wife selling instead of divorce. It is a practice we are happy has gone away today, and anyone could explain to you why it is highly degrading towards women – but if you asked people from that time era they may end up telling you it had a practical purpose.


In market towns, wife auctioning was a regular occurrence. It happened much like selling cattle, the husband would sell his wife to the highest bidder. In 1847, there are written reports of George Wray tying his wife up to my waist and leading her to the nearest market. She was then auctioned off to the highest bidder: William Harwood. It sounds like some sort of strange joke, but it was an organized way of having a divorce.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries divorce was extremely expensive and many lower-class British couples could not imagine affording it. It sounds completely outlandish today, but it happened in taverns, markets, and fairs all across England. Historians still debate when the practice started and how popular it was, but it appeared to be a preferred alternative to divorce for lower-class Britons.

If your marriage broke down during the 1750s for example, you had to obtain a private Act of Parliament to be allowed to divorce. This process was time-consuming and very expensive, so it appears at some point wife selling came to be the form of faux divorce. It wasn’t legal, but most of the public saw it as valid. The reason was that people could simply leave each other, but that meant the woman was always in danger of her previous husband coming back to haunt her. Legally speaking, a husband could demand that his wife’s new lover pay him money for having relations with his wife. At the time the law was vastly in favor of the man, for example, the wife could not sue the husband for adultery. So wife sales came about as a way to sidestep that risk.

If you have not guessed it already, wife sales were symbolic. Generally speaking there was only one bidder which was the woman’s new lover. This was because women had to agree to the sale for it to be completed, as a result, men couldn’t simply start auctioning off their wife randomly.

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