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Proformat News
No: 110
April 2015
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Marriage in England & Wales

As early as the twelfth century, theologians referred to marriage as a sacrament, but it was not until the Council of Trent in 1563 that marriage was officially deemed one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

Today’s marriage vows date back to Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who set out the purpose for marriage and scripted modern wedding vows based on Catholic rites in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer in English.

Claims of informal marriages before 1754 are common amongst family historians. More often the reality is that the researcher has found records of children but cannot find the marriage record. Many mistakenly assume that it was possible to marry by a simple exchange of consent between a couple. Such arrangements are known as broomstick weddings or handfasting. Some modern wedding celebrations incorporate jumping over a broomstick as this is what they think their forebears did. Nothing could be further from the truth as a broomstick wedding was a term for a sham wedding in the eighteenth century.

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Feature article
Marriage in England and Wales


Graham Jaunay

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Handfasting is another misunderstood concept about trial marriages for a year and a day becoming legal, a practice that owes its origins to pre-Christian unions. There is no evidence of it existing as an alternative to marriage in modern times. Rather it was another term for a betrothal or engagement, and in England was commonly undertaken about a month prior to a church wedding. It was deemed a legal binding contract.

There was a distinction in law between requirements that were mandatory for a marriage and those that were merely directions. Failure to comply with a mandatory requirement rendered the marriage void, however, if the requirement was only directory then the marriage remained valid.

Before 1754 mandatory requirements for a legitimate marriage under church cannon law were:
    1. Anglican priest.
    2. Both parties free to marry.
    3. Free consent by both parties.
    4. Both parties intend to observe the vows of marriage.
Directory requirements were:
    1. Parental consent required if under 21.
    2. Banns called or licence purchased.
    3. Entry in the marriage register.
    4. Marriage in a church of the parish of residence of one of the parties.
Such provisions allowed virtually free rein as far as marrying was concerned and the practice known as clandestine marriages evolved. Effectively these were marriages that observed the above mandatory requirements while ignoring the directory ones! Thus, by definition, a clandestine marriage was simply one that was celebrated by an Anglican clergyman that failed to comply with all of the requirements of the church canon law. In fact it was the directory requirements that cost money and time in the marriage process and by avoiding these a quick and cheap marriage was possible.

The Fleet prison was the place in London for a quick and cheap marriage with not too many questions being asked! The prison, the main debtors prison, was on the eastern banks of the River Fleet. It closed in 1842. It was so overcrowded that prisoners could take lodging close by and live by the Rules of the Fleet. They had privileges, known as liberties and these in turn facilitated clandestine marriages that were undertaken by imprisoned Anglican clergyman who had little to lose and a lot to gain from celebrating marriages in defiance of the canon law. Indeed by the mid eighteenth century about half of all marriages taking place in London took place in the Fleet.

Pictured: A map showing the location of the Fleet Prison in relation to St Pauls Cathedral.

A clandestine marriage should not be confused with an irregular marriage that was one that took place either away from the home parish of the spouses or at an improper time. Clandestine marriages were those that had an element of secrecy to them. During the 1740s, up to 6000 marriages a year were taking place in the Fleet area, compared with 47,000 in England as a whole. Clandestine marriages were also performed at the May Fair Chapel, at King's Bench Prison and within the Mint. Initially, May Fair marriages were performed at St George's Chapel in Curzon Street near Hyde Park Corner and then at a nearby private house. Clandestine marriages performed at the Fleet and King's Bench prisons favoured the working classes and the May Fair Chapel was used by professionals and the aristocracy. Series RG7 held in The National Archives is a collection of surviving records of clandestine marriages (and baptisms) conducted in Fleet Prison, King's Bench Prison, the Mint and the May Fair Chapel, 1667–ca1777.

The legal status of marriages before March 1754:
DenominationEvidence of such marriagesLegal status
CatholicYes, but some dual ceremoniesDubious unless supported by an Anglican marriage
Protestant refugeesLimited and declined over yearsRecognised if performed before arrival in England
PresbyterianVirtually noneNot accepted
BaptistVirtually noneNot accepted
IndependentVirtually noneNot accepted

A settlement examination, one of the provisions of the Poor Relief Act of 1662, can give a mini biography of an ancestor including where they married. Many poor were subject to such examinations aimed at returning them to the parish responsible for their care, that is the parish of their birth or their husband’s birth. This Act particularly impacted on recent widows because of the marriage vow that clearly stated that a marriage ended with the death of one’s partner. Thus widows living in their late husband’s parish lost entitlement to reside in that parish if they lacked sufficient income to maintain the household and pay the parish tithe. For 1691 the only way to avoid banishment was to fulfill one of five requirements:
    1. As occupier of a property had paid the Poor Rate for a full year previously.
    2. Being unmarried without children and in employment.
    3. Occupying a property worth at least £10 a year in tax.
    4. Holding a public office.
    5. Being bound as an apprentice to a parishioner.
Records held in The National Archives relate to marriages outside the expected Church of England records. The Society of Friends' (Quakers) Registers, Notes and Certificates of Births, Marriages and Burials ranging from 1578-1841 are held in Series RG6. Series RG8 includes the Russian Orthodox Church in London 1721–1927 and registers of Chapels Royal at St James's Palace, Whitehall and Windsor Castle. Overseas marriages are in Series RG33, RG34 and RG36 including Lundy Island DEV, English churches and missions, British embassies and legations.

Jewish congregations kept their own records of marriage. The London Magazine and the Gentleman’s Magazine often carried the wedding announcements of more wealthy Jews. Orthodox Jewish law required a marriage authorisation granted by the Office of the Chief Rabbi. Some for the period 1880–1901 have been digitised and made available at United Synagogue’s website.

The Clandestine Marriage Act of 1753, commonly called Lord Hardwicke's Act, marked the beginning of state involvement in marriage. Lord Hardwicke's Act made the following requirements mandatory:
    1. Anglican priest.
    2. Both parties free to marry.
    3. Free consent given by both parties.
    4. Banns called or licence purchased.
    5. Celebrated in an Anglican church or chapel.
    6. Parental consent given if by licence and under 21.
While the directory requirements were:
    1. Parental consent by banns if under 21.
    2. Witnesses recorded.
    3. Entry in the marriage register.
    4. Marriage in a church of the parish of residence of one of the parties.
The legal status of marriages after March 1754 changed outlining clearly which churches could perform legal marriages:
DenominationStatus under the 1753 ActCompliance
AnglicanExemptedNot applicable
JewishExemptedNot applicable
QuakersExemptedNot applicable
CatholicNot exemptedDual ceremonies with an Anglican marriage
ProtestantsNot exemptedComplied

After 1834 residence for a fixed period together with the payment of rates became the usual way in which a new settlement was acquired. It was not until 1876 that it was gained simply by residence of three years. The Poor Law Act was repealed in the 1929 Local Government Act.

The Marriage Act of 1836 allowed for non-religious civil marriages to be held in register offices and these were set up across England and Wales. The act also meant nonconformists and Catholic couples could marry in their own places of worship, according to their own rites. Some discrimination remained in that non-Anglican marriages were required to have a civil official present.

The state also started keeping national statistics for marriage around this time.

The following requirements were mandatory:
    1. New civil formalities, the equivalent of banns and licence in a church marriage.
    2. Notice to the district superintendent registrar where the parties had resided for the previous seven days.
    3. Marriage notices read out at the weekly meetings of the Poor Law Guardians on three successive occasions and the marriage had to take place within three months.
    4. A £3 licence could be obtained from the district superintendent registrar to reduce the wait to seven days.
    5. Place of celebration to be registrar’s office or a building certified as a place of worship and licensed for marriage.
    6. A civil registrar (could be the local clergyman) had to be present at the ceremony
    7. Free consent given by both parties.
    8. Boys had to be aged fourteen and over and girls twelve and over.
    9. Parental consent given if under 21.
The Civil Registration Act 1836 provisions meant that from 1 July 1837 Church of England clergy were under an obligation to send, every quarter, certified copies of the marriages taking place in their churches to the district superintendent registrar. In turn the superintendent registrar sent copies to the General Register Office.

The 1929 Age of Marriage Act raised the minimum age for marriage to sixteen years for both boys and girls.

Prior to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, divorce was governed by the ecclesiastical Court of Arches and the canon law of the Church of England. As such, it was administered by advocates who practised civil law from Doctors' Commons, adding to the obscurity of the proceedings. Divorce was restricted to the very wealthy as it demanded either a complex annulment process or a private bill, either at great cost. The latter entailed sometimes lengthy debates about a couple's intimate marital relationship in public in the House of Commons. One of the first examples of a divorce without the previous consent of the church courts was that of the Countess of Macclesfield, who was separated from her husband by an Act in 1698.

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