The other day I had cause to visit All Hallows Church in the pretty village of Sutton-on-the-Forest near York and my attention was caught by a rather imposing and elaborate plaque on the wall next to me.
It was a memorial to a couple who had passed away and, apart from instantly knowing that it must be dedicated to a very important local family, the wording of the inscription caught my eye. It went like this:
‘Near this Place Are deposited the Remains of PHILIP HARLAND Esq. and ELIZABETH his Wife; Eminent Examples Of Conjugal and Parental Affection.
To perpetuate their own Gratitude And to do Justice to such Respectable Characters, Their two surviving Daughters ELIZABETH and ANNE Have erected this Monument.’ Then followed their parents’ ages (59 and 52) and dates of death (1766 and 1763).
Good grief, I thought, this couple obviously set the bar for marital perfection at quite a height! How can the rest of us ordinary folk possibly live up to that? Childishly, it also made me silently snigger, because for me, the word ‘conjugal’ instantly evoked images of sexually frustrated prisoners being allowed a brief rendezvous with their partner after months of enforced abstinence.
It is only in recent times that the word ‘conjugal’ inspires silly people like me to think primarily of the sexual relationship between two people, rather than the relationship between them as a whole. The word comes from the Latin ‘con’ meaning ‘together’ and ‘iugum’ meaning ‘yoke’, suggesting a couple who are formally joined together (‘Conjux’ means ‘spouse’). Today, as well as the term ‘conjugal visit’, we also refer to ‘conjugal bliss’, inspiring images of two people living together, to the exclusion of all others, in a state of perpetual contentment.
Of course, it is far from the truth, but when people pass away, we do have a tendency to gloss over the bad bits. Yes, there are many marriages that are successful, happy and long-lasting, but to suggest that they are in a permanent, unshakable state of utter bliss is, quite frankly, poppycock.
Every marriage has its ups and downs, its highs and lows. Maintaining a long-term relationship with the same person for years on end while life lobs its regular curveballs at you can be far from blissful, no matter how much you love each other. Maybe the best description for a partnership that stays the distance is ‘conjugal stamina’ rather than bliss.
There used to be such a thing as ‘conjugal rights’, where a husband could insist on sexual relations with his wife whether she wanted them or not. It stemmed from the days when women were considered the property of their husband the minute they tied the knot and ‘conjugal rights’ were part of that marriage contract. It astonished me to learn that as recently as 1991 it was not considered rape if a man forced himself upon his wife against her will. In a landmark case, a man had been convicted of raping his wife the previous year, but he appealed against the decision, citing that his conjugal rights as a husband meant he could have sex with her even if she did not consent.
The ruling ultimately went to the House of Lords, and members rejected the husband’s appeal unanimously, stating: ‘Nowadays, it cannot seriously be maintained that by marriage a wife submits herself irrevocably to sexual intercourse in all circumstances.’ In the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the illegality of rape within marriage was explicitly laid out so that there could be no such debates in the future. Now, sex without consent is rape, whatever or wherever the situation. If convicted, you can be sentenced for between four and 14 years, depending on the circumstances. In certain situations, a life sentence can even be given.
Going back to the plaque that inspired me to write this, I had a wander around the church and there were several more, all featuring equally loquacious epitaphs extolling the endless qualities of the deceased.
It made me wonder whether, when my time draws near, that I should make it known that I will expect my sons to erect a similarly fancy plaque near my resting place that lists all my earthly virtues. I can imagine their responses, but as this is a respectable publication, it might not be the right place to reveal them.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 20th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 18th May 2022.