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Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Banns, licences and Hardwicke's Marriage Act - a Regency History guide to marriage in Georgian England

St George's Hanover Square - the most  fashionable church in Regency London
St George's Hanover Square - the most
fashionable church in Regency London
The Marriage Act (1753)

Marriages in late Georgian England were governed by Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 which came into force on 25 March 1754 – an Act designed for ‘the better preventing of clandestine Marriages’.1

Although marriages usually took place in parish churches prior to this, it was possible to circumvent the system and get married in secret at places like the Fleet prison and St George’s Chapel, Mayfair.

The 1753 Act stated that all marriages in England had to take place in a parish church or chapel, either after banns or by licence, unless under special licence. The law did not apply to members of the royal family. Nor did it apply to Jews and Quakers, but no concessions were made for other non-Conformists. 

There was a rush to get married before the Act came into force and the registers of St George’s Chapel state that 1,136 marriages took place between October 1753 and March 1754 including 61 on the 24 March 1754.

Mayfair Chapel in 1761 from Mayfair and Belgravia by G Clinch (1892)
Mayfair Chapel in 1761
from Mayfair and Belgravia by G Clinch (1892)
Marriage by banns

Banns were a formal way of announcing the couple’s intention to marry. The Banns of Matrimony had to be read out, in a prescribed format, for three Sundays prior to the wedding in the parish church or chapel that the couple attended, or in both parish churches or chapels if the couple were from different parishes. The couple had to give seven days’ notice to the minister of each church before the first reading of the banns, and provide details of their names, where they lived and how long they had lived there for.

If either of the couple were under the age of 21 years and previously unmarried, then a parent or guardian of the underage party could forbid the banns. However, if they failed to object at the time the banns were read, they could not later object to the marriage.

The marriage ceremony could only take place at one of the places where the banns were read. It had to be witnessed by two people in addition to the minister taking the ceremony, and the marriage register had to be signed by the minister, the witnesses and the two parties getting married.

This was by far the most common way of getting married.
 
Entries in the marriage register of St George's Hanover Square from 18-28 July 1811   illustrating the fact that most marriages were by banns.    All the entries are by banns except the one marked licence.
Entries in the marriage register of St George's Hanover Square from 18-28 July 1811
 illustrating the fact that most marriages were by banns.  All the entries are by
banns except the one marked licence.2
Marriage by common licence

Sometimes it was not convenient to wait for the banns to be read, for example if the bride was pregnant, and it was possible to get married more quickly by applying for a common licence. This was available from a bishop or archbishop and their offices.

Before the licence could be issued, one of the couple or someone acting on their behalf had to submit a sworn statement or allegation that there was no impediment of kindred or alliance to the marriage, and if one or both parties were underage and previously unmarried, that they had the consent of their parent or guardian. There was also a requirement for the groom or someone acting on his behalf to enter a bond where a substantial amount of money would be forfeited if an impediment existed.

The marriage had to take place in the church or chapel of the parish where one of the couple had been residing for at least four weeks. As with banns, the wedding had to take place in front of two witnesses who signed the register along with the minster and the couple.

Entry in the marriage register of St George's Hanover Square for a  marriage by licence in 1815. This example is for the marriage of a   minor and states that her father's consent had been obtained.
Entry in the marriage register of St George's Hanover Square for a
marriage by licence in 1815. This example is for the marriage of a
 minor and states that her father's consent had been obtained.
Special licence

The only legal way to be married in a place other than a parish church or chapel after banns or by licence was to be married by special licence. This was a much rarer and more expensive type of licence than a common licence and could only be issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury. A special licence still required an allegation that there was no impediment of kindred or alliance to the marriage, and that the consent of a parent or guardian for underage parties had been given, but it enabled a couple to get married anytime and anywhere, such as in the private chapel of their home.

Entry in the marriage register of St George's Hanover Square for a marriage by   special licence in 1811. This example states where the marriage took place   and that the underage bride's guardians had given consent.
Entry in the marriage register of St George's Hanover Square for a marriage by
special licence in 1811. This example states where the marriage took place
and that the underage bride's guardians had given consent.
1823 Marriage Act

Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was amended several times, most importantly by the Act of July 1823. The new stipulations which took effect on 1 November 1823 included:
• The marriage had to take place within three months of the banns being completed or from the date the licence was granted.
• The marriage had to take place between 8 o’clock and 12 noon, unless by special licence.
• The period of residency for the granting of a licence was reduced to 15 days.
• It was no longer necessary to enter into a separate bond when applying for a licence.

Runaway marriages

Hardwicke’s Marriage Act did not apply in Scotland where it was possible to get married immediately by making declarations in front of witnesses. Underage couples could be married without the consent of parents or guardians, and there was no need to wait for the reading of the banns. As a result, many such couples fled to the border to be married, most famously to Gretna Green.

Travelling chariot at the blacksmith's shop, Gretna Green
Travelling chariot at the blacksmith's shop, Gretna Green

Notes
1. From An Act for the better preventing of clandestine Marriages (1753)
2. All quotes from the marriage registers of St George’s Hanover Square are from the transcriptions edited by John Chapman (see full details below).

Sources used include:
An Act for amending the Laws respecting the Solemnization of Marriages in England [18th July 1823]
An Act for the better preventing of clandestine Marriages (1753)
Chapman, John H (ed) The Register book of marriages belonging to the Parish of St George, Hanover Square in the County of Middlesex Vol 3 1810-1823 (1896)
Clinch, George, Mayfair and Belgravia: being an historical account of the parish of St George, Hanover Square (1892)
Familysearch.org website
Lambeth Palace Research guide

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