The movement for legal recognition of same-sex marriage has been big news for the last decade. While official sanction of same-sex marriage is hard to find in historic cultures, there were a number of ways for people to slip through the cracks. For women who wanted to marry each other, the easiest way--not to say that it was an easy choice--was for one of them to live as a man.
When we look at historic examples of “female husbands”, as this phenomenon was called, we can’t always know whether the so-called husband was using the disguise purely as a legal strategy or whether they had a transgender identity. It’s rare to get enough of a glimpse into their thoughts to be able to distinguish these. In the case of the marriage between Amy Poulter and Arabella Hunt, both of them appear to have considered themselves to be women, but other interpretations are possible.
Arabella Hunt was a beautiful and talented musician at the licentious and scandalous court of King Charles II of England. She was a singer and lute player, performing for royalty and in operas. Poets wrote odes to the beauty of her voice. She inherited a house in Buckinghamshire around the age of 17 when her father died. This start on economic independence may have been part of the motivation for her deciding to marry a year or two later. In 1680, Arabella married James Howard in London, with her mother and two friends in attendance as witnesses. Arabella and her husband moved in with her mother in London and to all appearances lived in wedded bliss for the next six months.
The thing was: James Howard was actually a woman named Amy Poulter and she was already married--to a man named Arthur Poulter. And that’s when life gets interesting.
Because when Arabella’s marriage had problems and she wanted an annulment, she didn’t bring suit on the basis that the marriage was invalid because her husband was really a woman. Rather, she complained that her husband was a bigamist. To further complicate the issue, Arthur Poulter had died about a month before the annulment suit was brought. So although Amy was married to Arthur at the time she married Arabella, she was a widow by the time Arabella demanded an annulment. It’s possible that Arthur’s death was a precipitating event in what followed. Particularly given that Amy seems to have been strongly invested in receiving the financial benefits of being his widow.
In the legal testimony that followed, each woman told the story that put herself in the best light. And yet we needn’t assume that this means that their marriage was not originally inspired by love and devotion. Lawsuits always bring out the worst in people, divorce in particular. And the modern media did not invent the concept of “spin”.
Arabella’s spin focused on maintaining her sincere position that she had married someone she understood to be a man, and that the marriage should be annulled because that man (that is, James Howard) had already been married at the time--never mind that James was already married as a woman to a man. To support this argument, Arabella testified that Amy had “a double gender”, that is, she was a hermaphrodite with anatomy that could be understood as either male or female. And that therefore she was capable of entering into a marriage with either a man or a woman and have that marriage be valid. Thus her bigamy--once married to a man and once married to a woman--was a legal basis for annulment.
As I discussed in the last episode, the idea of hermaphroditism was one of the ways that medieval and renaissance society dealt with the idea of same-sex desire and cross-gender behavior. They believed that a person might have an ambiguous physiology and that this would lead to behavior that partook of both masculine and feminine identities. Arabella’s claim that Amy was a hermaphrodite protected Arabella from accusations that she had knowingly entered into and enjoyed a marriage with a woman.
Amy’s version of the story was that, yes, she was married to Arthur Poulter at the time of her marriage to Arabella. And yes, she occasionally cross-dressed and had courted Arabella both in women’s and men’s clothing. But, she maintained that both the courtship and the marriage had been a frolicsome prank. It had never been meant in earnest. Oh, how that must have stung for Arabella if theirs had truly been a love match! Amy agreed to the annulment, but only on the basis that it had never been a real marriage in the first place. This has a certain resonance with some of the issues brought up when same-sex marriage was just coming to be accepted in some states and not in others in the United States, and where a woman who wanted to get out of a same-sex marriage might move to a state where that marriage had never been legal, and then make claims on that basis.
Now, Amy also demanded a physical examination to prove that she was unambiguously a woman. This was an important legal point for her, because if she were determined to be “more man than woman”, as Arabella’s suit claimed, then her original marriage to Arthur Poulter would be declared retroactively invalid and she’d lose her widow’s inheritance from him.
The medical examination concluded Amy was indeed a woman, and that therefore the marriage to Arabella was invalid but did not constitute bigamy.
One might think that this outcome would have been far more mortifying for Arabella than for Amy, but as it happened, Amy Poulter died five weeks after the annulment was finalized, and there is circumstantial evidence to suggest she may have taken her own life as a result of the outcome of the case. Arabella lived for another two decades, enjoying her brilliant musical career. But she never married again and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence connecting her romantically with any other person during the remainder of her life.
What are we to think from this? Was their marriage indeed a prank that went too far? Was it a desperate strategy between two women who saw the masquerade as their only hope for happiness together? Was the break-up due to Arabella suddenly discovering--after six months of sharing a bed!--that her spouse was a woman? Or was it due to discovering that her beloved wife had a husband on the side--something that came to light in the aftermath of that husband’s death?
What might have happened if Amy hadn’t already been married? Might the two of them have enjoyed a discrete and blissful marriage until death did them part? How many other couples might have married in similar circumstances, and lived happily until their deaths, and we never knew because their secret was never uncovered. The answers to that question could inspire any number of interesting stories.
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