After Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 the Georgian couple in England and Wales had three ways of getting married: by banns, by common licence or by special licence. (There was actually a fourth option – to get themselves over the border to Scotland and be married under Scottish law, but I’m leaving the elopements out of this post!)
Banns are intended to give anyone an opportunity to declare reasons why a marriage may not go ahead and the requirement for banns goes back to 1215. They must be called on three Sundays before the wedding date in the church of the parish where the couple intend to marry. Since 1823 it has been a requirement to call them in the parish or parishes where the bride and groom are resident if that is not the parish where the wedding will take place.
Banns are fine if you have no objection to the whole parish knowing your business, but you might want more privacy or you might wish to marry in a hurry. The alternative was a common licence, which cost more than banns and this was the option chosen by many people with pretensions to gentility and by anyone who could afford it and who wanted a hasty marriage – for whatever reason.
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, 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, so I was delighted to find the one shown below.
It has a tax stamp in the top left corner for ten shillings (on top of the cost of the licence) and the Archbishop’s seal is suspended in a paper envelope at the bottom. It reads:
Charles, by Divine Providence, Archbishop of CANTERBURY, Primate of all ENGLAND and Metropolitan, by the Authority of Parliament lawfully authorized for the Purposes within written: To our well-beloved in CHRIST,
Curtis Graves of the Parish of Saint Andrew Holborn in the County of Middlesex, Bachelor and Mary Dunn of the same parish a Widow
GRACE and HEALTH. WHEREAS it is alledged [sic] that ye have resolved to proceed to the Solemnization of true and lawful Matrimony and that you greatly desire to cause and obtain that the same may be solemnized in the Face of the Church; We being willing that these your Desires may be the more speedily obtain a due Effect, and to the End thereof, that this Marriage may be publicly and lawfully solemnized in the Parish Church of Saint Andrew Holborn, London by the RECTOR, VICAR or CURATE thereof, without the Publication or Proclamation of the Banns of Matrimony, and at any Time in the Year, provided there shall appear no lawful Impediment in this Case by Reason of any Pre-contract, Consanguinity, Affinity, or any other Cause whatsoever, nor any Suit, Controversy, or Complaint be moved, or now depending before any Judge Ecclesiastical or Civil, for or by Reason thereof; and likewise, That the Celebration of this Marriage be had and done publicly in the aforesaid Church between the Hours of Eight and Twelve in the Forenoon. We for lawful Causes, graciously grant this our Licence and Faculty, as well as to you the Parties contracting as to the RECTOR, VICAR or CURATE of the aforesaid Parish who is designed to solemnize the Marriage between you, in the Manner and Form above specified, according to the Rites of the Book of Common Prayer, set forth for that Purpose by the Authority of Parliament. Provided always, that if in this Case there shall hereafter appear any Fraud suggested to us, or Truth suppressed at the Time of obtaining this Licence, then this Licence to be void and of no Effect in Law, as if the same had never been granted; and in that Case we inhibit all Ministers, if any Thing of the Premises shall come to their Knowledge, that they do not proceed to the Celebration of the said Marriage without first consulting us, or our Commissary of the Faculties. GIVEN under the Seal of our OFFICE OF FACULTIES, this Eighth Day of May in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Five and in the First Year of our Translation.
[Signed] Chas. Moore Regr.
The back has been signed by Chas. Pryce, St Andrews. May 10th 1805 – the day Curtis and Mary were married.
The Archbishop was Charles Manners-Sutton who was Archbishop 1805-28. Charles Moore Esq. who signed it was one of the Principal Registrers [sic] of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and the Revd. Charles Pryce who performed the ceremony was elevated to a Prebendal Chair at Hereford Cathedral in 1814.
There was also the possibility of marriage with a Special Licence which was very rare. These could only be obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury and allowed a marriage to take place anywhere, not just within a place of worship licenced for marriages. A handful were granted each year, usually to members of the upper reaches of the aristocracy.
Ralph Rylance in his Epicure’s Almanac (1815) describes the scene in the Horn Tavern, Godliman Street. This lay between St Paul’s Cathedral and Doctor’s Commons, which was where the lawyers practicing civil and ecclesiastical law were based and was the easiest place to get a licence for those living in London.
‘…the fond expectant bridegroom sips his soup or savoury jelly, waiting for his licence, which is to be obtained from the Prerogative Court. This soup, jelly, and licence, form the prelude to his occupancy of his (perhaps) equally important bride. Good easy man! He little thinks that the licence aforesaid is to rob him of his liberty for and during the remainder of his, the aforesaid bride-groom’s life.’
26 responses to “Banns or Licence? Ways To Marry in Georgian England”
What a fascinating post! And I had no idea there was a difference between Common Licence and Special Licence – the latter being what we Regency writers/readers use and understand as being what was needed.
Special licenses are like dukes, I guess — rare in actuality but common in romance novels.
Lovely informative post. What a wordy document that licence is!
Yes, there’s an awful lot of confusion – with heroes apparently always having a special licence in their pocket, just in case!
Like Elizabeth, I’d never appreciated that there was a common licence as well as a special one. Thank you for a very interesting post.
It reminded me of Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion, in which Kitty helps Dolph leave London with his intended but none of them realise that they need a licence to get married if bans haven’t been called. Freddy to the rescue! And I’ve just realised that if I’d been paying attention I should have realised that there were two different types of licence, because he gets it from Doctor’s Commons whereas in other books special licences are obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Yes, really confusing! Somewhere I’ve got the stats for how many Special licences were issued – it was a tiny number compared to the common ones.
I found your scan of a common licence interesting – the one I have is for 1815, with most of the typeface (and signatures) very similar. It was among the personal effects of my father, who presumably was around when the Church he looked after was being tidied up! My wife and I were married with a special licence, so it has been interesting to read the historical background you provided.
If you want a scan of the 1815 document, just let me know.
How interesting, James! Thanks very much for the offer, but as I’ve already got one then I won’t trouble you. I believe that modern special licenses are quite a size.
What a brilliant find! I have a similar license for my great great great grandparents from 1814 and you have helped me decipher several words which I could not make out; until I knew what they were of course! The style of mine is rather different, which a much more “hand-written” typeface. I have it scanned so I can easily send it if you would like.
Glad it as useful, Bruce! What a wonderful thing to possess when it relates to your own family – I’m green with envy. Thanks for offering to send a scan, but I won’t trouble you – now I’ve got one ‘in hand’ that’s all I need. Have a great Christmas
Of course, the same rules applied in the mid-20C: when Lord Peter Wimsey deduces in The Nine Tailors (1934) that two suspects have run away to get married (thus making it impossible for either to be a witness against the other), he has the police try all churches and registrars for evidence of a marriage by license, but, well, read for yourself:
Nevertheless, Wimsey does telephone the Archbishop and gets a satisfactory (negative) answer, and sure enough, the vicar of St. Andrews, Bloomsbury, reports that he was asked to marry a couple with the right names by (ordinary) license. They are caught in time and detained.
In Lewis Carroll’s parody “Atalanta in Camden-Town”, the lines appear “And the question is ‘License or Banns?’, though undoubtedly Banns are the cheapest.”
I love that book!
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I am wondering if you are still watching this site, I have a license which included a 200 pound bond, payable to Benjamin, Lord Bishop of Winchester. Your site has been informative but I have questions not covered. It is from 1756 at Kingston upon Thames. Can you throw any light on this very high amount of money. To my knowledge the people involved were not aristocracy.
Dear John, yes, it is a great deal of money but it was only payable if a false declaration was made. To quote Rebecca Probert: Marriage Law for Genealogists – “Do not be mislead by the large sums of money mentioned: these were the penalties threatened for false swearing, not the cost of the licence.”
As you say the people involved were not aristocrats I assume this was an ‘ordinary’ licence, not a special licence, as special licences were only granted to peers/peeresses and their families, Privy Councillors, judges at Westminster Hall, baronets, knights and MPs. Anyone else had to show ‘very strong and weighty reasons’ according to the Act. Of course MPS etc were commoners, so your people might have qualified – but you’ll be able to tell from the wording – special licences gave the right to be married at any time or place (including secular settings).
Hope that helps!
Louise, thank you very much for your reply. I have seen from further study that a child was born about five weeks after the wedding. Was that sufficient cause for the issue of a licence? Speaking of adequate reasons, was the applicant required to provide reasons for the requested licence, or could you just get it because you wanted it? I presume your ‘very strong and weighty reasons’ quoted in your response related to special licences.
For an ordinary licence there was no need to give a reason for requesting it – they were no big deal and anyone who could afford one could get one. A lot of my perfectly ordinary – tradesmen/craftsmen – ancestors married by licence. The imminent birth of the child was clearly a reason for your ancestors to chose to marry by licence because as well as ensuring the child was born in wedlock it gave them more privacy than having banns read would – but so far as the application was concerned the reason for asking was irrelevant.
Hi! I see you just answered a question the other day so you are still monitoring this post – my lucky day! It’s so helpful to read the verbiage from an actual license. Do you know if there was a waiting period between when the license was purchased and when it could be used? I think I read somewhere that the couple had to wait a week after obtaining the license, but I’m not seeing that here. Also, do you think a rector could provide his own license for marriage? Seems like that would be questionable. Would he have to go to the bishop or could he get his curate to sign it? (I am an author trying to marry some characters relatively quickly, one of whom is a rector!) Thank you so much!
Drat, just replied and it vanished into the ether!
Any delay would be over residence – at least one of the parties must have been resident in the parish or chapelry where the licence stated the marriage was to take place for **at least 4 weeks**. Provided they could convince the officiating clergyman of that, then they could get married the moment they pitched up with the licence (within the stated hours – see the original post).
However, surprisingly, if it subsequently turned out that they hadn’t been resident for the 4 weeks then the marriage could not be challenged after the event (unless it turns out there were other factors such as lying about an under age person) – so if you need to you could have a convincing lie being told and the marriage would still be valid.
A clergyman absolutely could not produce the licence himself, whether for his own marriage or when he was the officiating priest. It has to be an archbishop or bishop. (Unless we’re getting into Royal Peculiars and I assume we’re not – and even if we were, then he can’t authorise a licence for his own marriage!) It seems that it was pretty quick getting the document once you’d turned up at the appropriate bishop’s registry for the jurisdiction (Inns of Court if in London) – not so long hat you couldn’t sit about and wait for it, anyway.
Hope that helps
Louise, thank you so much! This is very helpful. One more question, if I may – who would the couple see at the Inns of Court to obtain the license? Presumably they wouldn’t necessarily speak with the bishop himself, but an underling? Would both parties need to be present or could the groom show up and provide the names and pay for the license? Oops, I guess that’s two questions! Thank you again!
If you look at the licence in the original post you’ll see it is signed by someone called Chas [Charles] Moore Rgr. ie he’s a registrar. Not in holy orders, I imagine, or he’d have added that to his signature. I would assume he was an employeee of the bishop, trained in law who could check due process and authorise the licence himself on behalf of the bishop. Ordinary licences were no big deal – a lot of my perfectly ordinary ancestors used them. It was not necessary for both of the couple to apply in person, or even for the licence to be issued personally to one of them .
I wasn’t sure what a registrar would be at that time and had a similar assumption to what you said. You have absolutely made my week (no small feat, it’s been a doozy), thank you so very much!
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Happy to approve a pingback – but my name is Louise, not Louis!
Phew, thanks! I should have come to you first!
Did a common licence ever expire if it remained unused?
I don’t think so – at least, the one I own has no ‘best before’ date on it! Possibly the clergyman to whom it was presented might have made enquiries if it was more than a few mnths old, perhaps on the grounds that the information sworn to might have chnaged, but that’s just speculation.