Methods of Marriage in Jane Austen’s Time

There were three methods of marrying legally in England and Wales in JA’s day. Marriage in England and Wales was regulated by the Marriage Act of 1753, known as Hardwicke’s Marriage Act after the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hardwicke who introduced and oversaw the passage of the Act in Parliament.

The Act was controversial as it was the first attempt by Parliament to regulate the legality and form of marriage, something that has previously been subject to the control of the Church. The reason for the act was the great uncertainty and difficulties experienced during the mid 18th century by the various methods of getting married.

Lord Hardwicke’s act was designed to clarify the law, to prescribe the methods by which people would marry, and to provide punishments for anyone who flouted the new regulations regarding marriage and the recording of the ceremonies.

From 1754 (when the Act came into force) it was only possible to marry in one of three ways. By the reading of banns, by Common License or by Special license.

The act made attempts to marry in any other fashion-e.g. by verbal contract, a clandestine marriage, or under the auspices of a so-called Fleet marriage, unlawful, and anyone performing a marriage in this way could be subject to the death penalty, or transported for a period of 14 years( see Section 16 of the Act)

Let’s look at the different methods.

Banns: Provided both parties to the marriage were over 21 or had their respective parents consent if they were under age, after giving 7 days notice to their priest, banns would be read for three successive Sunday in both of their parishes, to advertise the fact that their marriage was to take place.

The marriage (and this was a requirement for all marriages by banns or by license) had to be performed before two witnesses. The marriage would then be immediately recorded in a register in a form prescribed by Section 15 of the Act, which was to be kept and maintained in proper order by the priest at the church. You may recall JA made amusing entries in her fathers register at Steventon Church when she was a young girl.

The reason for all this publicity and recording was to ensure that the marriage was known to have taken place and that there was evidence of it having occurred, should anyone attempt to deny the existence of the marriage in the future..

There were objections raised to this procedure being introduced by many people in Parliament during the passage of Hardwicke’s bill. The fact that a couples nuptials were being advertised in public was perceived to be unseemly. Horace Walpole was appalled by this situation. He wrote to a friend as follows:

How would my Lady A—– have liked to be asked in a parish church for three Sundays running? I really believe that she would have worn her widows weeds for ever, rather than have passed through so imprudent a ceremony.

( quoted in The Life of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, Volume 2 pp486-7, written by G Harris.)

Common License: For those who objected to such publicity there was another route to take: marriage by Common License obtained from a Bishop. To obtain a common license, which enabled the couple concerned to marry in a nominated parish church, without the necessity of the banns being read, the applicant, usually but not always , the bridegroom, had to submit an application called an allegation to the appropriate Bishop, stating who was to be married, where, and that they had the requisite consents, or were of age. If they were under age, written consent of the parents had to be submitted. In addition, until 1823 a bond (a pledge of money) was also required, which was to be forfeit if any of the facts in the allegation were subsequently found to be untrue.

Most people with any pretentions to gentility married by this route, to avoid the publicity and delay occasioned by taking the reading of the banns route to matrimony.

Special License: Special licenses, were issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury, from the Office of the Master of Faculties. Again, allegations had to be made in written from to obtain a license. The big difference between JA’s time and ours (until very recently) is that a special license enabled a couple to marry, not only in a parish church but any where they wished, for example, the bride’s home.

A special license therefore was very desirable for anyone who wished to have absolute privacy when marrying. In view of remarks like that made by Horace Walpole above, one can see why this was appealing to eighteenth century A special license was valid for 6 months from its date of issue, which was recorded by the Faulty office.

Below is a picture of Captain Cook’s marriage allegation, which he made when applying for a Common License. (Here is a link to a transcript of that allegation, which frankly I find invaluable in order to read the thing.

Special License in Pride & Prejudice:

There had to be a reason why JA made Mrs. Bennet talk about Special licenses, and it had to be slightly amusing.

I have found an interesting side note to history which may throw some light on the real reason why Mrs Bennet’s comment about Special Licenses is supposed to be amusing.

I don’t think it has anything to do with the time it takes to obtain a Special license and / or thwarting Lady Catherine. That is rather a red herring.

Mrs Bennet says:

“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 license! You must and shall be married by a special license! But, my dearest love, tell me what dish Mr. Darcy is particularly fond of, that I may have it to-morrow.” 
Chapter 59.

Now this suggests that the couple could be married by Special License. We have learnt , however, by this time in the novel not to trust everything Mrs Bennet says or indeed to take any of her statements at first value.

So, why is she mistaken? Why would Darcy and Elizabeth not qualify for marriage by a Special license?

Below is a quote from Christian Marriage Rites and Records by Colin R Chapman:

Very few Special licences were issued prior to the 20th century- in fact 99% of all marriage licenses issued before 1900 were Common Licenses.

In a number of cases the residential requirement was fulfilled merely temporarily or even only on paper to ( just about) meet the requirements. There was nevertheless, a rise from eleven Special Licenses in 1747 to fifty in 1757, probably as a result of Hardwicke’s emphasising that under a Common License a couple should only marry within the parish of one of them.

Such a five fold increase albeit to an extremely low absoulte number, caused Archbishop Secker to panic and in 1759 to issue some guidelines whereby only Peers, Privy Councillors, Members of Parliament, barons and knights should be married with Special Licensees.

He also expected couples to marry within the normal canonical hours. Special licenses were also intended for a couple to marry in a place with which they had a real attachment, not a mere fascination.

So…lets apply this to P&P.

Mrs Bennett, like her daughter Lydia, comprehends very little. She continually, despite begin an attorney’s daughter, misquotes and misunderstands the workings of English law, even as it affects her regarding the workings of the entail of the Longbourn estate.

She knows a Special License is a “special” thing , probably by its rarity and aristocratic associations, and therefore assumes that Mr Darcy will naturally marry with the assistance of one.

However JA as a clergyman’s daughter would know of the guideline (as would most of her immediate audience- her family. They would know that whatever Mrs Bennet may say, there is no certainty at all that Darcy, as the mere Grandson of an Earl would obtain a Special License.

Even thought Mrs Bennet states that he is as good as a lord, the truth is that he isn’t.

Hence the joke.

Darcy was more like to marry by Common License- doing away with the necessity of the public nature of having the banns read. The big objection by people of “quality” to the compulsory reading of banns in Church was the very public nature of the forthcoming event. It advertised that the wedding was to take place once the banns were read.

Horace Walpole was quite astounded that such an intimate matter was to be made known to all people who attended church in the bride and bridegroom’s parishes. There was quit an outcry against it.

I think Darcy had enough sensibility to actually marry by Common license.