The Bad Baronet of Braddan

In the late 1840's a wedding which had taken place in Braddan over 30 years before was briefly in the news. Louisa and Florence, daughters of the late Sir John Piers, an Irish baronet, brought an action in the Chancery Court in Dublin, claiming portions under a family settlement. Their rights depended on their being his legitimate children, which in turn depended on the validity of his marriage in 1815 to their mother, Elizabeth Denny, a former actress who had lived with him for several years.
Sir John Bennett Piers (1772-1845), 6th baronet, of Tristernagh Priory, Co. Westmeath, was a Regency buck and the original Bad Baronet. In 1807 he fled to the Isle of Man after damages of £20,000 and costs were awarded against him for seducing Lady Cloncurry — for a wager! (This episode is the subject of an early poem by John Betjeman, under the pseudonym 'Epsilon'.) Lord Cloncurry subsequently divorced his wife (Act (1811) 51 Geo.3 c.73).
Site of Leece Lodge, Braddan
Leece Lodge, Braddan
In 1811 Sir John and his mistress were living at Leece Lodge, Braddan, with their five children. Wishing to ensure that any future issue of theirs should be legitimate, he obtained from Bishop Crigan a special licence to marry her. He wanted his brother, who was in Orders, to marry them, but he never came to the Island. In 1815 (by which time George Murray was Bishop), Elizabeth was expecting another child, and Sir John asked his friend the Rev. Thomas Stewart, who had been curate at St George's, to perform the ceremony, which took place at Leece Lodge on 27th May 1815. Louisa was born on 23rd June, and Florence in 1819.

In 1821 the couple returned to Dublin, and there went through another marriage ceremony (as often happened then, if a couple had been married in foreign parts such as Scotland or the Isle of Man). On Sir John's death in 1845, his nephew Henry succeeded to the baronetcy and estates, and rejected the daughters' claims on the ground that the 1815 marriage had not been proved. (In a previous action in 1838 (Piers v Tuite 1 Dr. & Wal. 279) the marriage had been held to be valid, but that decision was not binding on Sir Henry.)

In 1847 Louisa and Florence began their lawsuit, and some evidence of the marriage, including a certificate signed by the clergyman, the parties and a witness, was produced, but there was no official record of it, or of the special licence. Murray was by now bishop of Rochester, and a deposition by him was put in, saying that he had issued no special licence, the couple had been notoriously living in sin, he was sure that no such marriage had taken place, and the clergyman was a bad lot too! (That at least was true: in 1816 Stewart was found guilty of adultery, and took a parish in Jamaica, where he died in 1819.)
The Irish court ordered that the validity of the marriage be decided by a jury (Piers v Piers 10 Ir. Eq. Rep. 341), but Bishop Murray refused to go to Dublin to give oral evidence. The impasse was resolved by the daughters' successful appeal to the House of Lords in 1849. The Lords' decision (Piers v Piers 2 H.L.C. 330) is a leading case on the presumption that a marriage is valid, and the law report gives an insight into social life in the Island 200 years ago.
The lawsuit had an unexpected outcome for the Isle of Man. The publicity for the case drew attention to the Island's archaic marriage law, which included savage penalties (pillorying and ear-cropping) for overseas clergy performing irregular marriage ceremonies. In 1849 Tynwald reformed the law in line with changes made in England in 1836, repealing the penal sanctions, and introducing civil and non-conformist weddings for the first time.