On this day in 1786, Scotland’s beloved poet and bard Robert Burns (books by this author), best remembered for romantic classics like “Auld Lang Syne” and “A Red, Red Rose,” stood before his church a third and final time as public penance for “antenuptial fornication” with Jean Armour.
Pregnant with fraternal twins she would name after herself and Robert, Armour had been hustled off to stay with relatives in another town when her parents learned of her condition earlier that spring. Her father, hoping there was still time to snag a suitor with better prospects than the penniless Burns, destroyed a document the poet had given Armour promising marriage. But it was all for naught when the local church caught wind of the scandal. Armour officially acknowledged her pregnancy and named Burns as the father.
Whether or not Armour was coerced, Burns declared all this a “desertion” on her part, and stood before the church the required three times to receive a certificate declaring him a single man. Burns may have had motives beyond feeling jilted; letters he sent friends that summer suggested he’d already found a new paramour and may have impregnated her too. In any case, there was at least one other illegitimate child to provide for: “Dear bought Bess,” as Burns called her, a daughter born to a servant girl shortly before he’d taken up with Jean Armour. When the publication of his first book seemed likely, Burns, fearing the Armours would make a claim on his future earnings, turned his estate over to his brother to ensure Bess would be taken care of.
Burns left for Edinburgh and found success — with both poetry and women — in the months that followed the birth of the twins. He returned to town less than a year from the day he’d been declared a single man, and Jean Armour’s parents, impressed by his new wealth, received him with open arms. So did their daughter Jean, and she became pregnant with a second set of twins.
Eventually — despite claims that he would never again extend her the offer, despite calling her “ungrateful” and “foolish,” despite comparing her to a “farthing taper” next to the “meridian sun” of another woman he was busy wooing — Burns married Jean Armour. She bore his philandering with patience and apparent good cheer, just as she continued to bear him children — the ninth was born on the day of Robert Burns’ funeral in 1796. “Our Robbie should have had twa [two] wives,” she is said to have exclaimed upon taking in one of his illegitimate daughters to raise.
For all his affairs, Burns was also dealt with rather leniently by the church, which had the custom of making men in his circumstances sit on a “creepie-chair,” or a low stool reserved for public humiliation. When Burns reported for penance on this day 225 years ago, he was allowed to stand in his usual pew.