Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Licenses, Laws and the Legalities of Getting Married

by Maria Grace

Engagements in the Regency era were generally brief, often only a few weeks long. Since premarital sex was common and the birth of illegitimate children problematic for inheritance, there was considerable pressure to see couples married sooner rather than later.

If there was property or fortune involved, a couple had to wait for marriage articles to be drawn, a process that could weeks or months depending on the difficulty of establishing an agreeable settlement. Otherwise, they only need wait to fulfill the requirements of legal marriage. Reading the banns or acquiring a license and having the marriage performed required a minimum of fifteen days to accomplish.

The Hardwicke Act Marriage Act of 1753

Before 1754, marriage in England and Wales was governed by canon law of the Church of England, not civil law. Not surprisingly, this led to some confusion about what exactly constituted a marriage.

While canon law recommended reading banns or acquiring a marriage license, the only absolute requirement was that the marriage be solemnized by an Anglican clergyman. Even so, many believed that the exchange of consent by parties of sufficient age (fourteen for men and twelve for women) in front of two witnesses made a marriage. This led to a great deal of confusion about which marriages were actually valid and proved a record keeping nightmare.

Witnesses had to be produced to validate claims of marriage. Witnesses of the era were no more reliable (or honest) than witnesses today. Their testimonies could be altered by personal agendas or bribes, potentially leaving individuals suddenly married or unmarried and children made illegitimate.

With fortunes, property and family names on the line, the courts found the situation intolerable. Thus, the introduction "An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage", known as Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act or The Marriage Act 1753, to regulate the institution of marriage. It came into force on March 25, 1754.

The act stipulated couples must purchase a license or have banns read during three consecutive church services. These would ensure that the couple was eligible to marry. Couples under twenty one years of age also required parental consent to marry by license. Underage couples could marry by banns as long as the minors' parents did not forbid the banns. Finally the marriage must be conducted between the hours of 8AM and noon, before witnesses, in a church, by authorized clergy and duly recorded in a marriage register, providing definitive proof the marriage occurred.

There were some exemptions to the marriage act: the royal family, Jews and Quakers (though the act did not actually declare Jewish and Quaker marriages legal either.) Catholics though, were not exempt. Any marriage performed according to Catholic rites had to be repeated according to the Hardwicke act in order to be a valid marriage.

Marriage by Banns

Most couples married by publishing the banns. The process cost little to nothing and took about three weeks. Harriet Smith of Jane Austen’s Emma would likely have married this way.

To publish the banns, the local clergyman would, on three consecutive Sundays announce: “I publish the Banns of marriage between Groom’s Name of–his local parish–and Bride’s Name of–her local parish. 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. This is the first [second or third] time of asking.”

If someone objected to the marriage, they would go directly to the clergyman to provide evidence to support their objections. Relevant objections might include: one party was otherwise married, engaged to be married, or inappropriately related to the other, or a parent might object if one was under age.

Naturally people could, and did, present other objections. Relatives might not like the choice of spouse, old grudges might come to light. Sometimes people did not wait to bring it up privately, but called it out during the reading of the banns themselves, resulting in rather memorable holy services. Sounds like fodder for today’s reality television, doesn’t it? It was little wonder that the wealthy and well connected disliked the public aspect of reading banns.

After the banns were called three times with no objections, the couple had ninety days in which to marry, otherwise the banns would have to be called again.

If bride and groom lived in different church parishes, the banns had to be read in both of their parishes. If the banns were thrice called without objection, the local clergyman would produce a certificate attesting to the fact to be presented to the clergyman performing the wedding ceremony.

Marriage by License

Those wishing greater privacy, speed, flexibility or prestige could purchase a license for marriage instead of having banns read. An ordinary license was less expensive, though still out of reach for many. A special license was reserved for the wealthiest elite who could afford it. Either form of license required a sworn ‘allegation’ giving assurances that no official impediments to the marriage existed.

Common or ordinary license

Common or ordinary licenses were issued by archbishops, bishops, and some archdeacons, or by clergy in certain parishes. These licenses permitted a marriage to take place within fifteen days in one of the parishes named on the license (either one of the couple’s resident parishes or one in which at least one of them had resided in for a minimum of fifteen days.) Weddings still had to take place in a church, by an Anglican clergyman, between the hours of 8 AM and noon, and be entered in the official marriage register.

Special license

“The privilege (of a special license) was only granted to a limited aristocratic cadre: Peers and Peeresses in their own right, to their sons and daughters, to Dowager Peeresses, to Privy Councilors, to Judges of the Courts at Westminster, to Baronets and Knights, and to Members of Parliament. Others could be granted a (special) license, if they could allege very strong and weighty reasons for such indulgence, arising from particular circumstances of the case, the truth of which must be proved to the satisfaction of the Archbishop (of Canterbury). In practice these requirements were sometimes interpreted with some liberality.” (Rogers, 2006)

Special licenses enabled people to be married outside a church or chapel. Couples might select a fashionable location or a private home. Weddings could also be conducted outside the hours of 8AM to noon. 


Austen, Jane, and Pat Rogers. Pride and Prejudice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 

Find previous installments of this series here:

Get Me to the Church on Time: Changing Attitudes toward Marriage
To Have a Courtship, One Needs a Suitor
Nothing is ever that simple: Rules of Courtship
Show me the Money: the Business of Courtship
The Price of a Broken Heart
Making an Offer of Marriage
Games of Courtship
The why's and how's of eloping


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter .


  1. Thanks for the interesting post, Maria. One thing to note: In the medieval era (at least the 11-13th centuries), neither a solemnizing of the marriage by an Anglican clergyman nor witnesses were required. The sources I have consulted in my research indicate that a bond of marriage could, at that time, be created by the couple making "present statements of intent" followed by consummation.

  2. Fascinating post. I have wondered how Charlotte Bronte kept her marriage a secret from the village....( she was only found out when they saw her go in the church looking "like a snow drop" ) didn't she have to have banns read? ...well as you point out , not if they got a Marriage by License, which they did. It is currently on display at the Morgan Library in NYC at their great Charlotte Bronte 200 exhibit( along with the famous painting of the three sisters !)

    ... Weddings still had to take place in a church, by an Anglican clergyman, between the hours of 8 AM and noon, and be entered in the official marriage register.

    That was why her marriage was at 8 am...it was the earliest she could get married legally....if she could have done it at 6 am, it's likely she would have lol

    Thanks again for this great post


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