Banns or Licence? Ways To Marry in Georgian England

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!)

Bridal Dress. Ackermann’s Repository June 1816

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.



Marriage Licence 3
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.

Bridal Dress Ackermann's Repository April 1818

Bridal Dress Ackermann’s Repository April 1818

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.’

Parisian Evening Bridal Dress La Belle Assemblee October 1819

Parisian Evening Bridal Dress La Belle Assemblee October 1819


Filed under Fashions, Love and Marriage

13 responses to “Banns or Licence? Ways To Marry in Georgian England

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    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.

  2. Barbara Monajem

    Special licenses are like dukes, I guess — rare in actuality but common in romance novels.

  3. Lovely informative post. What a wordy document that licence is!

  4. Yes, there’s an awful lot of confusion – with heroes apparently always having a special licence in their pocket, just in case!

  5. helenajust

    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.

      • james white

        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.

  6. Bruce Boulden

    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

  7. 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:

    “You won’t have any difficulty about [questioning them],” said Wimsey. “Provided, that is, you catch them within a fortnight. After that, it will be more difficult.”

    “Why within a fortnight?”

    “Oh, come!” expostulated his lordship, “Isn’t it obvious? […] On Monday they depart to London by the first train. My dear Watson, it’s staring you in the face. The only real danger is—”


    “The Archbishop of Canterbury. A haughty prelate, Blundell. An arbitrary prince. But I don’t suppose they’ll think about him, somehow. I think you may risk him.”

    “Oh, indeed! And how about Mr. Mussolini and the Emperor of Japan?”

    “Negligible. Negligible,” replied his lordship, with a wave of the hand. “Likewise the Bishop of Rome. But get on to it, Blundell, get on to it.”

    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.”

  8. Pingback: Special Licences in Regency Era | ReginaJeffers's Blog

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