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The Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act 1907 (7 Edw. 7 c. 47) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that allowed a man to marry his dead wife’s sister, until then forbidden.

Until 1857 the law of marriage was administered by the ecclesiastical courts, according to the canon law, although secular courts had the ultimate authority.[1] In particular, English law continued to prohibit marriages within the degrees of consanguinity – relationship by blood – following the rules laid out in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, to guard against the dangers of incest.[a]Incest did not become a criminal offence in England and Wales until the passage of the Punishment of Incest Act 1908.[2] But the prohibited degree of kinship for marriage also included relatives by marriage, perhaps reflecting an analogous taboo, or the idea that a married couple were “one flesh”.[1]

But the legal position was confusing, as there was nothing standing in the way of a man from marrying his deceased wife’s sister, except that such a marriage could be declared void by an ecclesiastical court if any concerned party objected, thus potentially rendering any offspring of that union retrospectively to be bastards.[1] The Marriage Act of 1835 attempted to clarify the position by introducing an absolute ban on marriage between a widower and his deceased wife’s sister, but such a union was still recognised in the United Kingdom if it took place abroad, in a country where such a marriage was lawful. For example, the English painters William Holman Hunt and John Collier married the sisters of their deceased wives, in Switzerland in 1875 and Norway in 1889 respectively.[3][4]

Campaigns to allow widowers to marry their sisters-in-law became the subject of particular agitation from the 1860s onwards. In the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Iolanthe (1882), the Queen of the Fairies sings “He shall prick that annual blister, marriage with deceased wife’s sister”.[5] Towards the end of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), Tess suggests that after her death, her husband Angel should marry her younger sister Liza-Lu, which would have been illegal at the time.[6]

See also

  • Punishment of Incest Act 1908Act of Parliament making it illegal for the first time in England and Wales for a man to engage in sexual intercourse with any female he knew to be his grand-daughter, daughter, sister, half-sister, or mother.




Bennett, Bruce. “Bannister v. Thompson and Afterwards: The Church of England and the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act.” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 49, no. 4, 1998, pp. 668–82,
Bradley, Ian. The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan. Oxford  University Press, 1996.
Bronkhurst, Judith. “Hunt, William Holman (1827–1910).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Online, Oxford University Press, 2004,
Dutta, Shanta. “Thomas Hardy and the Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Bill.” The Thomas Hardy Journal, vol. 11, no. 2, 1995, pp. 61–64,
Johnston, Philip. “How Incest Slipped from Statute Book.” The Telegraph, 23 Nov. 2002,
Springall, Jill. “Collier, John (1850–1934).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Online, Oxford University Press, 2004,