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All that was required was for both parties to agree to the union, so long as each had reached the legal age of consent, Women were completely subordinated to their husbands after marriage, the husband and wife becoming one legal entity, a legal status known as coverture.
As the eminent English judge Sir William Blackstone wrote in 1753: "the very being, or legal existence of the woman, is suspended during the marriage, or at least is consolidated and incorporated into that of her husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything".
With no financial resources, and no skills on which to trade, for many women a sale was the only way out of an unhappy marriage.'e [the husband] turned shy, and tried to get out of the business, but Mattie mad' un stick to it.
At least one early 19th-century magistrate is on record as stating that he did not believe he had the right to prevent wife sales, and there were cases of local Poor Law Commissioners forcing husbands to sell their wives, rather than having to maintain the family in workhouses.
Wife selling persisted in England in some form until the early 20th century; according to the jurist and historian James Bryce, writing in 1901, wife sales were still occasionally taking place during his time.
One was to sue in the ecclesiastical courts for separation from bed and board (a mensa et thoro), on the grounds of adultery or life-threatening cruelty, but it did not allow a remarriage.
An alternative was to obtain a "private separation", an agreement negotiated between both spouses, embodied in a deed of separation drawn up by a conveyancer.
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In one of the last reported instances of a wife sale in England, a woman giving evidence in a Leeds police court in 1913 claimed that she had been sold to one of her husband's workmates for £1.