Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam… The Impressive Clergyman, The Princess Bride
Taking the plunge. Getting hitched. Jumping the broom. Walking the aisle. Going to the chapel. Buying the cow.
There are probably too many euphemisms for simply “getting married.” And all of the above are anachronistic if they show up in a Regency romance. So what exactly did the Regency wedding entail?
I’m glad you asked.
Marriage in Regency England was governed by the rules of the Hardwicke Act for the Prevention of Clandestine Marriages, which was written in 1753 and went into full effect on 25 March 1754 (no more Fleet or secret marriages). Couples were now required to have the banns called for three consecutive Sundays in their home parish; if the lady and gentleman were of different residences, banns must be called in both. The priest would read out some version of the following:
“I publish the banns of marriage between (Name of party) of the Parish of ______ and (Name of other party) of this Parish. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is for the (first, second, third) time of asking.”
After the reading of the final banns, the couple had to marry between the hours of eight and noon by an ordained priest and in the presence of two witnesses.
What were the exceptions to the banns?
If the couple needed to marry sooner rather than later, a Common License (also known as Ordinary, Standard, or Bishop’s License) could be obtained from the local bishop. The bishop charged a small fee, but also required a bond of £100 to stand forfeit if the couple provided false information for the license. The couple had to marry in the parish where the license was obtained.
A Special License could be obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury; researcher Nancy Mayer records that by 1811 they cost the gentleman £5. The Special License had to be obtained by the gentleman wishing to marry, and every line was filled in while in the presence of the Archbishop (so no fill-in-the-blank Licenses to use whenever, wherever, or with whomever). The couple still had to marry by the benefit of clergy between the hours of eight and noon, but the ceremony did not have to take place in a church. It was a sign of wealth to use the Special License and hold the ceremony in the privacy of one’s home. Remember dear Mrs. Bennett’s declaration to Elizabeth:
“My dearest child,” she cried, “I can think of nothing else! Ten thousand a year, and very likely more! ‘Tis as good as a Lord! And a special licence. You must and shall be married by a special licence.” Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 59
To provide evidence that a marriage had occurred, the couple and their witnesses signed the parish register at the end of the ceremony. This was done in the vestry of the church, whether the marriage had been performed there or at a separate location by Special License. This practice of recording signatures is likely where the colloquialism “marriage lines” originated. These registry lines were then copied onto a separate sheet of paper and handed to the best man, who then passed it on to the new bride (and never the groom). It was considered her property.
Both parties had to have reached the age of majority – one and twenty – to marry without permission of their parent or guardian. Any minor who married without permission was never considered married – it was as if the ceremony had never occurred – no matter the passage of years or number of children (who were all considered illegitimate) since the vows were spoken.
Some interesting tidbits about the Hardwicke Act
The Hardwicke Act was law only in England and Wales. Scotland, Ireland, and English colonies. In Scotland, a couple could simply state they were married and live together publicly; anyone over the age of fourteen could do so. No wonder many an English lad and lassie crossed the border to marry, be it by blacksmith, innkeeper, or actual clergyman. Catholic rites were the order of the day in Ireland, although an Anglican had to be married in the Church of England as well.
Quakers and Jews were exempt from the Hardwicke Act, but poor Roman Catholics in England and Wales were stuck. They could obtain a Special License, but the law still required them to be married first in the Church of England before taking Catholic rites. While this was a section of the law many Catholics ignored, the insult to this injury kept their marriage from being valid “until and unless they married according to the law by a clergyman of the Church of England.”
Next week I’ll talk about what it took to dissolve a marriage. Here’s a hint: way more than you’d think, based on popular Regency romances.
For now, let’s enjoy a clip of The Impressive Clergyman in action.
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- The extent of her knowledge is astounding. Be amazed at the wealth of information at Nancy Mayer’s Regency Researcher site.
- You know you want to learn all the whys and wherefores of the Hardwicke Marriage Act. C’mon. Click the link.
- Historian Kathryn Kane writes all you ever wanted to know about Marriage Lines.
- Family Search gives a brief but helpful review of marriage banns.