If we conceive of marriage as the long-term, exclusive cohabitation and sexual union of two people, then, in the Christian west at least, few male couples would qualify before the dawn of the 20th century. In fact, for the last 400 years, the practice of same-sex marriage has been largely the preserve of women.
To begin with, this was a secretive and punishable matter. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, it was often not even possible for two women to live together independently: households were supposed to be headed by men. Yet we know of a few 16th-century cases of women who disguised themselves as men and lived in marriage with other women. ....
Such cases were even more common in 18th-century England. In the early 1730s, when both were in their late teens, Mary East and her girlfriend decided to move to London and make a life together as husband and wife. Mary put on male clothes and turned herself into “James How”. The two of them became successful publicans and pillars of their East End community. Everyone presumed they were married. Over the years, James was elected to almost every parish office: s/he served as the foreman of juries, on the night watch, as overseer of the poor. For more than three decades, they kept their secret, and lived as a married couple.
It is impossible to tell how many other female husbands lived undetected with their wives. Quick, secret marriages were easy to contract in London until the 1753 act: there was a busy trade in no-questions-asked ceremonies in taverns, brothels, prisons and chapels. On 15 December 1734, a Soho couple calling themselves John Mountford and Mary Cooper decided to get hitched. The first clergyman they approached refused to do it. “Suspected 2 women”, he wrote in his notebook. But they would easily have been able to find another priest. A few years later, a London minister performed the wedding of Elizabeth Huthall and John Smith, “a little, short, fair, thin man, not above 5 foot”. Afterwards, he wrote “my clerk judged they were both women”, but they left as a legally married couple. “After marriage I almost could prove them both women,” runs yet another laconic cleric’s note, “the one was dressed as a man.” That pair, too, departed happily married. (Bishops and legislators take note: same-sex marriages have already taken place within the Church of England.)