Anne Lister: The woman who had a lesbian church ‘wedding’ – and whose diaries turned everything historians knew about sex on its head

Anne Lister portrait (copyright Shibden Hall)
Anne Lister portrait (copyright Shibden Hall)

Anne Lister seduced scores of women and recorded every detail in her diaries, using a secret code of her own devising to conceal them. Dr Kate Lister takes a closer look at Halifax's famous icon.

In 2018, the small medieval church of the Holy Trinity, just behind Goodramgate in York, was awarded a blue plaque by the York Civic Trust to commemorate the ‘marriage’ of Anne Lister and Ann Walker that took place in that church on Easter Sunday, 1834. It is truly a remarkable and unique event in our history. But just how did two women manage to tie the knot right underneath the noses of the clergy who most certainly did not support same-sex relationships?

Despite the myth that has grown up about the marriage of Anne and Ann, their union was not blessed by a priest and the Church was blithely unaware of what the two women were up to. The first lesbian wedding has far less to do with permissive social attitudes and everything to do with the formidable character of Anne Lister. A woman who dressed entirely in black, enjoyed firing pistols at supper, and was known as ‘Gentleman Jack’ by the tenants she ruled over with an iron fist.

The only reason we know what took place at Holy Trinity Church in 1834 is because Anne Lister (1791–1840) was also a prolific diarist who recorded the detail of her life over 34 years, in 23 volumes, totalling over four million words. Anne Lister was a wealthy mill and landowner in Halifax, West Yorkshire, whose family had acquired the 400-acre Shibden Hall in the 17th century.

Her diaries tell us about her favourite foods, local land disputes and property acquisitions, and, crucially, her sex life. Any women writing openly about sex in the Regency period is incredibly rare, but Anne Lister was a lesbian. What’s more, she was a lesbian in a time that historians long believed lesbian identity and subculture simply couldn’t exist. Being able to openly identify with same-sex desire was always assumed to be a much more recent development.

‘I love and only love the fairer sex’

Anne Lister’s diaries, her openness and her confidence with her sexuality turned everything historians knew about sex on its head. Little wonder then that her diaries have been called ‘the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history’. Not only was Anne Lister comfortable with her sexuality – she enjoyed it. She wrote: “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs.” She gleefully seduced scores of women and recorded every detail in her diaries, using a secret code of her own devising to conceal the steamiest of it.

Her code was eventually broken by one of her descendants, John Lister, in the late nineteenth century, but he was so shocked by the contents that he refused to publish and locked them away in Shibden Hall. It wasn’t until Helena Whitbread set about cracking the code in the 1980s and then published what she found in ‘I Know My Own Heart’ that the truth about Anne Lister finally came out.

Anne Lister began a relationship with Ann Walker in 1832, but she had been sexually active since her parents sent her away to boarding school in the hope that all-female company would help refine their boisterous daughter. Needless to say, this did not work and Anne Lister quickly set about seducing her classmates, including her first love, Eliza Raine.

Her secret code for sex

Throughout her life, Anne Lister marked orgasms in her diary with an ‘x’, and masturbation with a ‘+’. She calls her sexual encounters either ‘kisses’ or ‘grubbling’ and refers to the vulva as a ‘queer’ – an epithet that’s not recorded anywhere else. Maria Barlow regularly allowed Anne to ‘grubble’ her ‘queer’ through her petticoats as they lay in bed together. On the night of her marriage to Ann Walker, Anne records ‘three xxxs better to her than to me’.

Anne Lister had many passionate love affairs, but sadly Ann Walker was not one of them. Anne Lister was only too aware of her social standing and rejected many lovers because they were not wealthy enough. Ann Walker had the money, connections and social standing that she aspired to, and ultimately, she seduced her and married her for her money.

Ann Walker was a 29-year-old heiress from the neighbouring village of Lightcliffe. Her family had made their fortune in the booming mill industry and although wealthy, they were regarded as ‘new money’ – especially by Anne Lister.

Playing ‘due court’

Anne Lister writes in her diary: “I care not for her – tho’ her money would suit,” that “she little dreams what is in my mind – to make up to her – she has money and this might make up for rank”. There are points in the diary where she expresses affection towards Ann Walker, but money was always her primary objective.

She will look up to me and soon feel attached & I, after all my turmoils, shall be steady.” To her surprise, she noted: “I really did feel rather in love with her in the hut, & as we returned. I shall pay due court for the next few months – & after all, I really think I can make her happy & myself too. […] How strange the fate of things! If after all, my companion for life should be Miss Walker.”

For her part, Ann Walker was besotted with Anne Lister and proved very easy to manipulate. A combination of mind-blowing sex and paying “due court” allowed Anne Lister to pressure her into leaving her family home and living together as husband and wife. On 10 February, 1834, Anne records that “she agreed it was understood that she was to consider herself as having nobody to please, & being under no authority, but mine. She is to give me a ring & I her one in token of our union”.

A secret wedding

Anne Lister wanted to be married to gain access to her wife’s money, and in order to make that as official as possible, to her mind, that required a church ceremony, an exchange of vows and rings, and taking sacrament together at the altar. This was precisely what Anne Lister engineered at Holy Trinity Church on 30 March 1834. The union was not blessed by a priest, but the two women exchanged rings, vows and took the Communion together. As far as Anne Lister was concerned, they were now married in the eyes of God.

Despite her confidence, it seems her new wife was unaware of the full significance of what transpired. Anne’s diary entry for her wedding night reads: “…At Goodramgate church at 1-35. Miss Walker and I… stayed for the sacrament…The first time I ever joined Miss W- in my prayers – I had prayed that our union may be happy – she had not thought of doing as much for me.”

We have no way of knowing just what Ann Walker thought was going on that day, but we do know that she loved Anne Lister and regarded her as her life partner. After the marriage, the two women changed their wills to make the other the full beneficiary of their assets for life. Both wills included a special clause that if the other should marry a man, the right to the other’s assets would cease.

Despite her confidence, it seems her new wife was unaware of the full significance of what transpired. Anne’s diary entry for her wedding night reads: “…At Goodramgate church at 1-35. Miss Walker and I… stayed for the sacrament…The first time I ever joined Miss W- in my prayers – I had prayed that our union may be happy – she had not thought of doing as much for me.”

We have no way of knowing just what Ann Walker thought was going on that day, but we do know that she loved Anne Lister and regarded her as her life partner. After the marriage, the two women changed their wills to make the other the full beneficiary of their assets for life. Both wills included a special clause that if the other should marry a man, the right to the other’s assets would cease.

Ann Walker had a good fortune, and Anne Lister wanted a wife

One of the earliest same-sex unions to take place in a British church that is known to historians was actually motivated by money rather than love, and one half of the couple was unaware that they were getting married at all.

Whitbread decoded Anne Lister’s diaries in the 1980s and has spent her career studying Anne’s life and legacy. She explains: “It is evident that romance is not the over-riding factor in Anne’s relationship with Ann Walker. At 41 years of age, Anne was disillusioned and cynical about ever finding love again. In deciding to court Ann Walker her motives were clear – ‘she has money’.

It is easy to become disillusioned with Anne Lister’s motivations, but as Whitbread explained, although the marriage “was very much based on economics”, most marriages at this time were financial, rather than romantic arrangements. Jane Austen famously wrote that “is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. Ann Walker had a good fortune, and Anne Lister wanted a wife.

One of the earliest same-sex unions to take place in a British church that is known to historians was actually motivated by money rather than love, and one half of the couple was unaware that they were getting married at all.

Whitbread decoded Anne Lister’s diaries in the 1980s and has spent her career studying Anne’s life and legacy. She explains: “It is evident that romance is not the over-riding factor in Anne’s relationship with Ann Walker. At 41 years of age, Anne was disillusioned and cynical about ever finding love again. In deciding to court Ann Walker her motives were clear – ‘she has money’.

It is easy to become disillusioned with Anne Lister’s motivations, but as Whitbread explained, although the marriage “was very much based on economics”, most marriages at this time were financial, rather than romantic arrangements. Jane Austen famously wrote that “is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. Ann Walker had a good fortune, and Anne Lister wanted a wife.

Anne Lister and Ann Walker lived together as a married couple until Anne’s death in 1840. In many ways, their marriage was just like every other marriage of the time. They argued about money, made up, fell out with relatives, their sex lives dwindled, and they enjoyed going on holiday together. Perhaps it’s not the greatest romance of all time, but it remains one of the most historically significant. In 1834, two women decided to live openly with one another as a married couple, and that is truly remarkable.

(Dr Kate Lister is a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, a writer, blogger, and curates the online research project Whores of Yore - a digital public engagement project that works to make research on sexuality and the history of sex work accessible to the public. Kate is a campaigner for sex worker rights and is a board member for the sex work research hub and the Vagina Museum. In 2017, Kate won the Sexual Freedom Award, Publicist of the Year.)