The Law Of Breach Of Promise

A dressing table with a photo frame with hearts and text 'Happy Anniversary'

If a couple makes it to the altar, chances are they are going to be together long enough to send one another anniversary cards. And because we design and sell greeting cards, never miss an opportunity to put one in front of your audience. Click the image to go to the product page for the card.

But then not every romantic entanglement results in marriage. Sometimes it is by mutual agreement. Sometimes though, the parties actually got engaged, with an engagement ring and all the trimmings. And then what happens if one of them decides to back off?

In England nowadays, the idea being sued in court for breach of promise seems quaint. And if someone jilts a fiancé, it is put down to that mystery of the human heart. After all, most people today would say, love cannot be shackled by obligation – at least not until marriage. So it may come as a surprise to learn how recently the right to sue for breach of promise was taken off the statute books in England.

Before we get to that, you may be even more suprised to learn the origin of the word ‘jilt’. The word is first recorded in the late 1600s, when it meant to cheat, or trick, or deceive, especially after holding out hopes. But what of the person who is a jilt? Again in the 1600s, a jilt was a loose, unchaste woman who gave hope to and then dashed the hopes of the poor man.

Then over the years the word ‘jilt’ came to mean a person, especially a woman, who capriciously rejects a lover. Today, the word still means rejecting someone, perhaps suddenly, but it has lost its meaning of deceiving a person. Nowadays it just means to give someone the push without a big discussion and mutual teary sadness. Not super nice, but nothing beyond that.

The Role Of The Church In Breach Of Promise

With all of that, you might have thought that suing for breach of promise was going strong in the Middle Ages. After all, that was when a man could ‘plight his troth’, which meant to vow the truth of his intention to marry. And ‘vow’ is a strong word, is it not? In fact in the Middle Ages the only legal remedy available to someone who had been jilted was that if they had given a gift in contemplation of marriage, they could sue for the return of the gift.

Beyond that, breaking a promise to marry someone was a purely ecclesiastical matter. And there were no financial consequences for breaking that promise.

The Church could, however, ‘admonish’ someone who broke his or her promise to marry. When communities were much closer knit and everyone knew everyone’s business, that was a meaningful penalty. Nowadays, ho would even have the temerity to admonish someone for breaking off an engagement?

The Common Law Courts Step In

Be that as it may, the influence of the Church waned with the dissolution of the monasteries. And with it the right to sue for breach of promise of marriage evolved in the common law courts.

It evolved an inch at a time, with the courts trying at all times to avoid any hasty, sweeping principles. English law does not want principles that can trip up judges and the courts at a later date. As they evolved, breach of promise cases were treated like any other contract. A promise to marry was just like a contract to buy or sell cotton or potatoes. If one party failed to honour their promise, the other could sue for damages. And the measure was the loss of the benefit that would have come from the contract.

That came with a downside. A merchant was not obliged to disclose the faults in his goods. So in the same way, the parties to an engagement did not have to disclose their faults. If one of the parties was hard of hearing, or penniless, there was no obligation to tell the other party.

Breach Of Promise In The 1800s

In the fifty years up to 1900 there were approximately one thousand breach of promise actions that ended with a trial with judgement and damages awarded by a jury. More cases were started but settled before they got to court. And until 1869 the court heard evidence from anyone and everyone except the parties themselves. That was because until the law was changed in 1869, parties to a breach of promise action were prohibited from giving evidence in court. Why was that? Perhaps because the hearts of the parties were involved and so they could not give cold, hard evidence.

Breach Of Promise In Popular Entertainment

That did not stop the newspapers from printing the details of the evidence given by other witnesses. And breach of promise cases were a prime source of public entertainment. They were so popular that several melodramas and comedies were written on the subject. And the centrepiece was ‘the trial’. Charles Dickens wrote in The Pickwick Papers about poor Mr Pickwick being sued for breach of promise by his housekeeper. Poor, misunderstood Mr Pickwick who got himself into trouble by accident.

In the breach of promise cases that came to trial, the defendants were nearly always men. And their lawyers usually described the women plaintiffs as scheming, avaricious gold-diggers, at least that is how they were reported.

The lawyers for the plaintiff women presented a different truth. Women had very little economic independence. They could not work in many of the professions; they could not vote or be called for jury service. A woman who trusted a man and became engaged to him lost all chance of security if he jilted her. Her chance of finding a secure future was more or less ruined by now being cast-off.

Sex Before Marriage

a postcard showing a policeman presenting a summons for breach of promise

Into this mix came the fact that in more than a quarter of the cases that came before the courts the parties had been intimate. And that presented the all-male juries with a dilemma. Injured womanhood didn’t sit easily with the idea of a real flesh and blood woman having sex with the man who jilted her. So the woman was portrayed as having been seduced by a dishonourable man. And the jury found for the woman in the vast majority of cases.

Then history changed everything. Two World Wars changed the face of the country forever. Women had twice been recruited for essential war work while the men were fighting in the war. And by the 1950s the number of cases was reduced to a trickle, and by the time the Law Commission reported, breach of promise was effectively obsolete.

The Abolition of The Law Of Breach Of Promise

In 1965, Parliament asked the Law Commission to report on things that ought to be changed in English law. The Law Commission’s First Programme singled out “miscellaneous matters involving anomalies, obsolescent principles or archaic procedures. They looked at those that seemed to rest on social assumptions which are no longer valid.”

In 1966 they started to circulate ideas and canvass opinions. They sought opinions from lawyers, judges, the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council, and the Fawcett Society. The Law Commission published the results of their enquiries, and broadly, the lawyers wanted to keep the law on the statute books and the other groups did not.

[ The Fawcett Society campaigns for equality between women and men in the UK on pay, pensions, poverty, justice and politics. ]

The law abolishing it was passed in parliament in 1970 and became law in 1971, as the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970 – a short Act of seven paragraphs and one schedule.

The Act, however, preserved certain rights over property, and those rights continue to this day. If you think this situation might affect you, ask a lawyer.

References on Breach of Promise

The Law Commission Report Vol 26 October 14, 1969
‘Promises Broken: Courtship, Class, and Gender in Victorian England’ G.S. Frost Virginia Press 1995
Postcard images: Printed in Germany for the English market in the 1930s

A bunch of pink tulips set against lush green leaves - Pink On Green - and text 'Happy Anniversary'


For those souls who marry and live to celebrate years of married life, the succeeding anniversaries are milestones. And we are an e-commerce site selling products as well as writing what we hope are interesting posts. So if you are looking for an anniversary card – take a look at the ones on our Anniversary page, or indeed take a look at this one here of pink tulips.

And if you are wondering what wonderful things you can say to your loved one on your anniversary, perhaps this snippet will give you something to mention.

The word anniversary dates from around the year 1200. It referred to the annual return, especially of the day of a person’s death or a saint’s martyrdom. It came from the Medieval Latin word anniversarium. But there is an Old English word mynddag, meaning mind-day’ that seems much more romantic.

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