In 1753, the Hardwick Marriage Act passed, and Georgian couples in England and Wales could choose among three ways to marry: with the reading of the banns, by a common (sometimes referred to as an “ordinary”) licence, and by special licence.
Marriage requirements in England according to Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753–
- a couple needed a license and the reading of the banns to marry
- parental consent if either was under the age of 21
- the ceremony must take place within a public chapel or church by authorized clergy
- the marriage must be performed between 8am and noon before witnesses
- the marriage had to be recorded in the marriage register with the signatures of both parties, the witnesses, and the minister.
Banns had been in use since the 1200s. An actual reading of the banns took place at the parish church over three consecutive Sundays (a minimum of 15 days, if one started counting on the first Sunday). They were called in the parish or parishes in which the bride and groom resided. The purpose of banns is to enable anyone to raise any canonical or civillegal impediment to the marriage, so as to prevent marriages that are invalid. Impediments vary between legal jurisdictions, but would normally include a pre-existing marriage that has been neither dissolved nor annulled, a vow of celibacy, lack of consent, or the couple’s being related within the prohibited degrees of kinship. Banns were more than likely used by the majority of the residents of a village or town. There was little or no expense involved. The couple then had ninety days to finalize the ceremony. If not done for whatever reason, the Banns would need to be called another time.
The wording of banns according to the rites of the Church of England is as follows:
- I publish the banns of marriage between NN of (parish) and NN of (parish). This is the first / second / third time of asking. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it. (Book of Common Prayer 1662)
According to Louis Allen at Jane Austen’s London, “A common licence could be issued by archbishops, bishops, some archdeacons and ministers in parishes which were ‘peculiars’ (eg St Paul’s cathedral). The 1753 Act required a marriage by licence to take place in a parish where one of the spouses had been resident for at least four weeks (i.e., George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), but this was often ignored.
“To obtain a licence someone, usually the bridegroom, had to apply at the registry for the appropriate jurisdiction and submit an allegation which was a statement, under oath, that there were no impediments to the marriage. Usually the document included the names, ages, occupations and marital status (single or widowed) of the parties and, if one of them was a minor, it had to name the parent or guardian giving their consent. Sometimes a money bond was provided to back up the allegation.
“Allegations, bonds and the licences themselves survive quite rarely. The licence was given to the couple to hand to the clergyman who would perform the marriage and, presumably, they often did not give them back.”
By the Regency the aristocrats were more likely to marry by ordinary license to avoid the publishing of the banns for 3 Sundays in a row. In that manner, it was easier to have a quiet family wedding in the local church. Quite a few middling sort married by common license as well to avoid vulgar comment from friends and enemies. The Hardwicke Marriage Act said all marriages by minors by license without permission were NULL and VOID from the beginning. People usually went to court (Church court) to have this made official to avoid other legal complications.
A Special Licensc was obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury in Doctors Commons in London. The big differences between the “special” license and the “common” license were the cost – over 20 guineas plus a £4 to £5 Stamp Duty for the paper — and that the couple could be married at any time of the day and anywhere they wanted. All the other requirements were the same. As one can imagine, only someone very wealthy with a very good reason to pay the money, and go to the trouble of traveling to London and gaining an audience with the Archbishop of Canterbury, would hassle with it. Not an easy task even if rich.
The Archbishop did not need to know the couple—or the man’s title in the peerage—although the Archbishop usually knew of the family if the man was at all connected. The Archbishop was not personally involved with the granting of special or standard licences, which were dispensed at the office in Doctors’ Commons. He did have the right to limit the granting of special licences to whomever he wished. However the grants were customarily limited to the nobility, aristocracy, Judges, high ranking clerics, barristers, etc.—those who would be thought to extend their word as their bond that the information on the form was true as to age and permission. The ones who asked for special licences did not need to name their parishes as they would have for a standard license. In the Regency one had to appear in person or have the father or legal representative do so. It has to be someone who could swear to the truth of the facts. In this case, the most important part is that the female have valid permission for the marriage. If the invalidity of the marriage ever came to light, the couple would need to be remarry, if they so wished. Unfortunately, all children born during the voidable marriage would be considered illegitimate.
If the man (groom) is of an aristocratic family, a barrister, a clergyman, or otherwise of the status where he is likely to subscribe to the code that his word was his bond, he could obtain a special licence. If he wanted, the man could obtain a standard licence from the local bishop and pay the fee for a bond. It would be necessary for him to give the name of the church in which he and his prospective bride planned to marry, which was usually his parish church. The Ton customarily had two parish churches: Most had a country church and lived within the parish of St George Hanover Square in Town.
Though, obviously, more peers and their families married by special licence than did the gentry or the lower classes, in reality, there really were no more than about 300 issued in a hundred years. In other words, do not be misled by the number of dukes or the number of special licences one finds in Regency romance novels. Both were smaller in number than one could be led to believe.
All weddings, no matter where they took place, had to be recorded in the register of the parish church in which the wedding takes place. Even if a couple married by special licende at home, the marriage register was supposed to be signed by them.
Unlike the issuance of ordinary licences, there were no allegation bonds for special licences. The archbishop limited the disbursement of the special license to those who Gave their word—or from whom he expected to be truthful. The standard licence required a £100 bond. The fee paid was not great, and they never paid more unless the truth of the assertions came into question.
For further questions, have a look at these sites:
Miranda Neville’s Blog:
Nancy Regency Researcher
There’s actually quite a lot of detailed info on this page, including who can issue licenses if people are from different areas of England.