For most of Western history, marriage was a private contract between two families. Until the 16th-century, Christian churches accepted the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s declarations. If two people claimed that they had exchanged marital vows—even without witnesses—the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married. During the Regency, couples who chose to marry could be joined by several means. Many chose to purchase what was known as an ordinary, common or standard license. Others chose to have what was known as a calling of the banns.
A requirement for banns of marriage was introduced to England and Wales by the Church in 1215. The banns were a public announcement in the parish church of an upcoming marriage. The banns permitted anyone who objected to the marriage to raise a canonical or civil legal impediment. Such impediments could include a preexisting marriage that was not annulled or dissolved, a vow of celibacy, lack of consent, or the couple’s being related within the prohibited degrees of kinship.
The banns would be read for three consecutive Sundays and posted in a public place, customarily outside the church door, before the ceremony could take place. The couple would have three months to claim marriage. If they did not marry within that time, another round of banns would be required.
Marriage licenses were introduced in the 14th century, to permit the usual notice period under banns to be waived, on payment of a fee and accompanied by a sworn declaration, that there was no canonical impediments to the marriage existed. Originally, licenses were only granted by an archbishop, bishop, or archdeacon.
The standard or common license did not require a calling of the banns, but the stipulation of marrying within three months still needed to occur. The banns or the license had to come before the service. Everyone who was not a Jew marrying a Jew or a Quaker marrying a Quaker were required to be married in the local parish church of the Church of England. Roman Catholics were supposed to be married first by an Anglican priest before marrying in the Catholic church, but in practice many married in Catholic rites first. However, the marriage was not valid until and unless they married according to the law by a clergyman of the Church of England. All marriages had to be registered in the parish register even if the couple married in a private house by special license.If no one protested the marriage when the banns were read, or at the ceremony when it is asked if any one knows why the two people should not be married, then the marriage could proceed.
“There were two kinds of marriage licences that could be issued: the usual was known as a common licence and named one or two parishes where the wedding could take place, within the jurisdiction of the person who issued the license. The other was the special licence, which could only be granted by the Archbishop of Canterbury or his officials and allowed the marriage to take place in any church.
“To obtain a marriage licence, the couple, or more usually the bridegroom, had to swear that there was no just cause or impediment why they should not marry. This was the marriage allegation. A bond was also lodged with the church authorities for a sum of money to be paid if it turned out that the marriage was contrary to Canon Law. The bishop kept the allegation and bond and issued the licence to the groom, who then gave it to the vicar of the church where they were to get married. There was no obligation for the vicar to keep the licence and many were simply destroyed. Hence, few historical examples of marriage licences, in England and Wales, survive. However, the allegations and bonds were usually retained and are an important source for English genealogy.” (Marriage License)
The poor often married without benefit of clergy or ceremony–they just called themselves married and that was that (made divorce a lot easier and possible, too). Needless to say, the Church of England heartily disapproved. The old custom–marriage by cohabitation had been legal before the Hardwick Act of 1753, and there was the even older custom of handfasting–often held with the very poor, particularly since marriage was more about a legal agreement as to the disposition of property and inheritance from a legal alliance. Handfasting is a historical term for “betrothal” or “wedding.” The practice was common in 16th and 17th centuries Scotland.
And there is always the distinction between the respectable poor, for whom a proper legal marriage was very important, and the less respectable poor, who would either ignore the law or be ignorant of it. Marriage was never only about property. It was also about morality and respectability, which mattered to the middle class and the respectable poor far more than it did to some of the aristocracy.
In Regency England, one was supposed to use one’s correct name for banns and the license to marry. The interpretation of correct name varied in that one marriage was annulled because, among other things, the banns were called in a boy’s baptismal name, though he was always called by his middle name. When banns were called, clarity and identity were most important. Everyone, especially parents and guardians had to be made aware of the names of those marrying.