The Bigamy act of 1603 made it a specific crime to

marry any person or persons, the former husband or wife being alive

With the penalty being made a

"capital felony"

Were people typically executed for Bigamy after this act was passed? What would have been the likely penalty for 6 additional counts (e.g. if one were married to seven women)?

  • Confused: As written, a divorced person couldn't remarry? Or has the meaning of some words changed in 400 years? Or there was no legal divorce in 1603?
    – gnasher729
    Jul 8, 2017 at 21:55
  • @gnasher729 - My understanding is that it did exist, but was largely for use by the aristocracy. 6 divorces would have been very unlikely
    – Richard
    Jul 8, 2017 at 22:08
  • Right, even Henry VIII didn't have six divorces... And he found a way to get around the "husband or wife being alive"...
    – gnasher729
    Jul 11, 2017 at 9:42

1 Answer 1


A recent law review article on the topic covers this question exhaustively.

Already in Anglo-Saxon times, England condemned polygamy as a serious moral offense. But until 1604, it was left to church courts to punish polygamists using spiritual punishments. In 1604, however, Parliament enacted the Polygamy Act that made polygamy a capital crime, punishable by secular courts. Both individual victims of desertion or double marriage as well as church or state officials could initiate indictment of parties for polygamy. Other interested parties also had standing to press polygamy claims.

Thousands of polygamy cases came before the criminal tribunals of England, not least the famous Old Bailey, which heard more than 500 such polygamy cases under the 1604 Act.

Convicted parties faced punishments ranging from fines and short imprisonment, to transportation to a penal colony or execution orders, though almost all those convicted for a capital felony successfully pled benefit of clergy. The vast majority of polygamy cases were brought against men, and they were punished far more severely than women if convicted. The 1604 Polygamy Act -- while eventually replaced by Acts of Parliament in 1828 and 1861 that made felony a non-capital crime -- was a model for the common law world.

  • Is there any indication of the actual rate of execution? Does "almost all those convicted for a capital felony successfully pled benefit of clergy." mean 90% or 99%, for example?
    – Richard
    Apr 8, 2017 at 21:16
  • The body text of the article (linked) has the best available information on the subject anywhere. Certainly some people were executed (IIRC, benefit of the clergy was only available to those without a criminal record, so your hypothetical six time offender might very plausibly have faced a likely execution.)
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 8, 2017 at 21:25
  • But what is benefit of clergy? Jul 3, 2022 at 10:57
  • @JosephP "In English law, the benefit of clergy (Law Latin: privilegium clericale) was originally a provision by which clergymen could claim that they were outside the jurisdiction of the secular courts and be tried instead in an ecclesiastical court under canon law. . . . Eventually the benefit of clergy evolved into a legal fiction in which first-time offenders could receive lesser sentences for some crimes (the so-called "clergyable" ones). The legal mechanism was abolished in the United Kingdom with . . . the Criminal Law Act 1827." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benefit_of_clergy
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 4, 2022 at 18:40
  • Very interesting wiki-warren, thank you. Jul 4, 2022 at 19:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .