The Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which the Catholic James II was overthrown by the invasion of his son-in-law, the Dutch Protestant prince William of Orange, was widely perceived by English Protestants as a divine intervention. It was God’s way of giving England one last chance to reject sin, irreligion, and ill government. In response, the Revolution provoked a fervent movement for moral and spiritual reform, which lasted well into the next century – the national campaign for ‘reformation of manners’. The new monarchs backed it enthusiastically, for it contrasted their godliness with the immorality of their predecessors, and justified the expensive wars against Catholic France upon which they embarked.1 So did countless politicians, clergymen, magistrates, writers, activists, and ordinary people. From the moment that William and Mary were proclaimed there were spontaneous efforts across the country to crack down on immoral behaviour.
The stricter punishment of illicit sex was central to the campaign from its very beginning. One obvious hope was that new laws might now be passed. As the lawyer George Meriton put it, the existing sanctions against sexual immorality were laughably ‘gentle and easy’. If vice was to be restrained, agreed John Bellers, the Quaker philanthropist, ‘less than parliament authority will not do it’.2 Even before William and Mary had assumed the throne they came under pressure to take up this cause.3 In February 1690, the new king duly went on the offensive, in an open letter issued to every parish in the land. Exhorting clergymen and churchwardens to assist towards ‘a general reformation of the lives and manners of all our subjects’, he commanded the immediate prosecution in the church courts of all sexual offenders, but only as ‘there is as yet no sufficient provision by any statute-law for the punishing of adultery and fornication.’4
Serious attempts were made throughout the 1690s to remedy this lack. In 1690, a group of reform-minded bishops and judges put together a draft bill that would have reinstated the death penalty for adultery, and imprisonment for fornication, and also have improved on some of the weaknesses of the 1650 Act. To make convictions easier, the standard of proof was lowered: guilt was to be presumed whenever an unmarried couple ‘shall be found in bed, or in any such posture of nakedness’. Prostitution was now treated as a separate offence, and tackled systematically – sexual trade was becoming an increasingly intractable problem in London, as the capital expanded exponentially and older forms of communal oversight lost their grip. In an effort to regain the initiative, the draft bill ordered that ‘common strumpets’ were to be flushed out through regular searches in every parish, and summarily punished as vagrants. Keepers of taverns and ale-houses would be banned from admitting suspicious women after dark. Procurers and brothel-keepers were to be fined, pilloried, and if necessary banished overseas.5
Similar concerns over the spread of prostitution informed a 1698 bill against whoring and other vices, which not only would have made adultery and fornication punishable by branding, transportation or hanging, but also sought to clamp down on sexual rendezvous in places such as hackney coaches.6 Finally, in 1699, following a concerted public campaign by bishops and reformers, there was considerable momentum towards the passage of another bill, which proposed that adultery and fornication be tried as misdemeanors and punished by fine.7
The desire to strengthen the law against prostitution, adultery and fornication was widely felt amongst moral reformers – even after 1700 the hope remained that ‘it would be possible to get a new bill through the House against immorality’. These abortive bills formed part of a broader resurgence of political efforts against vice, which resulted in proposed and actual legislation against blasphemy, profanity, gambling, and duelling.8 There were also encouraging developments in New England and in neighbouring countries. In Holland, a movement for ‘further reformation’, including the stricter repression of adultery, fornication, and prostitution, had been gathering pace throughout the seventeenth century, and in Scotland the revolution had been followed by a notable drive against ‘filthiness, adulteries, and other abominations’. Fresh Scottish statutes in 1690, 1693, 1695, 1696, and 1701 encouraged action against immorality, and the ‘strict and vigorous execution’ of capital punishment upon notorious adulterers.9 In England a majority of MPs voted to give the 1699 bill a second reading, and ultimately it was foiled only by repeated adjournments. Yet only a zealous minority thought the passage of a new statute essential. As one sceptical politician put it, ‘those that would not take the Old and New Testament for a rule of life would never be reformed by an act of parliament’.10
In the absence of new legislation, moral reformers stepped up the use of existing, common-law sanctions, not just against prostitution but against all unchastity. In the early 1690s about a hundred prosecutions for adultery and fornication were brought in London every year. In Bristol, similarly, reforming magistrates ordered constables to draw up lists of persons ‘supposed to live lewdly’ with one another, or ‘in whoredom’, and took steps to flush out secret whores. As the campaign for reformation constantly advised its supporters, ‘adultery, etc., and all acts of bawdry, are breaches of the peace. . . for which an indictment will lie’.11
Some later commentators took the same line. Although they were but imperfect weapons compared with the death penalty, urged one of George Il’s bishops, fines and shaming punishments ‘ought more strictly and impartially to be inflicted’ upon adulterers. Throughout the eighteenth century, zealous magistrates continued to maintain that men and women discovered in whoredom should be charged: for ‘acts of lewdness were always punishable at the common law’.12 Yet by then, as we shall see in the next chapter, the intellectual consensus was steadily moving in the opposite direction. The failure to enshrine the principle in legislation further hastened its demise. Already by 1703 the number of prosecutions brought in London had halved, compared with a decade earlier. In the years that followed, the notion that adultery and fornication were public crimes gradually faded away. By 1730 few men and women appealed to it, most magistrates no longer recognized the procedure, and it had become, as the editor of the State Trials put it, the ‘general opinion’ that such matters were beyond the reach of the criminal law. Even in Scotland, the same trend was clearly visible. The last English prosecution for adultery as a public crime appears to have taken place in 1746.13