Special Licenses

Previous posts on the subject explained that a special license allowed the holder to get married in anywhere in England and Wales (not just in a church).

Mrs Bennet in P&P exclaims:

“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! But, my dearest love, tell me what dish Mr. Darcy is particularly fond of, that I may have it to-morrow.” 
Chapter 59.

Now, we already know that Mss Bennet is not the most intelligent of the Bennet family. She is a woman of

.… mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news. 
chapter 1

We know she frequently misunderstands legal matters (despite being the daughter of the local attorney) and cannot, no matter how many times Elizabeth and Jane try to explain, comprehend the working of the entail affecting the family.

So, it should really come as no surprise to realise that she is entirely wrong about Darcy being eligible for a marriage by Special License.

In one of my linked posts above I noted that I had long thought that the reference to Mrs Bennet assuming Darcy qualified for a Special license was yet another joke made at Mrs Bennet’s expense. JA was after all a clergyman’s daughter and would have known, surely, based on her close and affectionate relationship with her father, exactly who was entitled to apply for a special license. Her immediate audience, (which consisted of Mr Austen and the rest of the family) would know this too, and they would understand the joke.

The secondary reference I found to the restrictions placed on applicants for special licenses in Archbishop Seckler’s correspondence sent me on the hunt.

I have found that during the passage of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Bill (which later became the Clandestine Marriages Act of 1753) attempts were made to try to abolish the right of the Archbishop of Canterbury to issue Special licenses. The right to grant them survived this attack, but it was decided that the Master of the Faculty office of the Archbishop of Canterbury was the only administrator allowed to issue such licenses (previously a dispute had arisen between the Master of the Faulty office and the Vicar General as to whom was entitled to issue these licenses) .

Special licenses had been issued for years prior to the 1753 Act. But they were indeed supposed to be reserved only for the applicants of the highest social standing. The latin phrase that had always been applied to applicants for Special Licenses by the church was that they had to be stirpe vel opibus insignes. (That is, persons who are distinguished both by birth and wealth)

As a result there were few Special licenses issued prior to the 1753 Act. The Faculty Office only issued an average of 8 per year from 1750-1753.

But, once the Clandestine Marriages Act was passed (and came into force in March 1754) the numbers of special licenses issued began to soar.

From 1754-57 the average issue of Special Licenses rose from 8 to 36 per year.

The new Archbishop Seckler became sufficiently concerned to explain his feelings in a letter now preserved in the Lambeth Palace Library (Lambeth Palace being the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury), detailing his unhappiness with the vagueness of the qualification (being a person distinguished by wealth and birth.) :

This Description is not very determinate… especially since the wider Distribution of property, and the increase of personal Estates. For where , and on what Grounds, shall we fix the Company? Or, if we could , how shall we know , in multitudes of Cases, whether the Person is possessed of it? And refusing People for not being sufficiently wealthy, would both create more perplexity & disobliged greater Numbers, than refusing to let mere Wealth be a Qualification .

(LPL, Seckler Papers ,iv, fos 234-43)

Seckler seems to have been distressed by the rather more generous interpretation for qualification which was pursued by the Faculty Office under his immediate predecessor, Archbishop Herring. In Archbishop Seckler’s view; all have been deemed “opibus insignes” who could pay the Fees,

Seckler was worried that Parliament, having once attempted to try to abolish the right of the Archbishop to grant these licenses, would be on the watch for abuses of the system. If there were any instances of Special licenses being issued to those who clearly did not qualify as people who were “opibu insignes” he was concerned that Parliament would use that as an excuse, and act to abolish the right to grant the license , once and for all:

the more are permitted to have special Licenses , the greater will be the Danger of their producing sometimes very grievous Consequences. It needed only a single fragrant Instances of an unjustifiable marriage by a special License for the Legislature to take away the Power of granting them,.

The Faculty Office, under his instructions drew up new rules for the issuing of the licenses and these were in force all through JA’s lifetime.

That Special licenses to Marry at any convenient time and place may be granted to Peers and Peeresses in their own right of Great Britain and Ireland,… to their sons and daughters, to dowager Peeresses in their own right, to their sons and daughters , to Privy Councillors, to Judges of His Majesty’s Courts in Westminster Hall, to Baronets and Knights and to members of the House of Commons.

Furthermore, no Special license be granted to any other Person unless they allege very strong and weighty reasons for such Indulgence arising form the particular circumstances of their Case, and prove the truth of the same to the satisfaction of the Archbishop or his Commissary of the Faculties

(LPL,Moore Paprers 5)

This stemmed the flow of Special licenses. In 1759 only 16 were issued and in 1760 only 9

Therefore Mr Darcy , a mere gentleman, was not entitled to a Special License.

Mrs Bennet was entirely wrong. Again.

He might be rich but in this instance, his riches did not help him: he was simply not as good as a lord! 

More at Methods of Marriage in Jane Austen’s Time