Sunday, February 20, 2011

Licence Laws, or How to Wed in the UK

In Betty Neels' Never the Time and the Place -- one of her marriage of convenience stories -- the hero proposes that they wed in the church in Stourton (at right).  The heroine asks about the banns, which take three weeks.  The hero says, "Don't worry, I'll get a special licence."  I had to scratch my head -- the couple was planning to wed at a church, so why a special license licence?

I called Henry, because I recall when -- more than a dozen years ago -- we were planning a wedding that the rules in England are vastly different than here in the U.S.  Henry and I did visit All Hallows Church in Hampstead where Henry was resident, but neither of us was a churchgoer, so it seemed impertinent to marry there, even if we were were entitled to by sheer geography.  (In the end, we were married by the federal judge I clerked for, in her chambers in Philadelphia.)  But this is just the sort of intricate legal morass Henry loves, so I asked him to explain all this.  As you'll see, even The Great Betty got it wrong!

Hey Henry -- Here's the question.  I was reading a Betty Neels romance the other day and it had the hero saying that he had a special license.  Now, this might have been the one where the couple has agreed to marry at the church in Stourton, which is not the parish the heroine lives in, although she points out that her regular vicar is willing to co-officiate.  Would they really have needed a special license?

And I realized, not for the first time, that I totally don't understand the need for, and use of, banns, licenses, and special licenses.  But then I remembered that you do!

So could you explain how a couple in England in 1820, 1900, and modern day get married?  For example, when Ross and I got married at Fountains Hall (a National Trust property licensed to host weddings), we just needed a license, right?  If we'd wanted to get married in a church, we'd have had more trouble as neither of us was resident in a specific parish.  And there are places where one simply cannot marry, no matter what sort of license you have, right?

P.S.  Extra credit if you can work in the Marriage Act of 1753, the Marriage Act of 1836, and any other law you can think of.

1. "Banns" were a proclamation, read in the parish churches of both parties, at the main morning service on three successive Sundays, to give public notice of the impending marriage in case anybody wished to raise a just cause or impediment.  They were the normal proceeding for ordinary people.

I believe, though I am not certain without researching it, that the marriage had to be in one of the parish churches in question.  That was seldom a great hardship, since the bride was conventionally married from her mother's house, and an unmarried woman was automatically deemed to be resident with her parents.  (By the 1980's that no longer applied, and one friend of mine had to go and spend a two-week vacation with her parents to establish legally sufficient residence there before her wedding.)

2.  An ordinary licence was granted by the diocesan bishop.  It dispensed with the reading of the banns, and with the accompanying three-week delay, and with any requirement for the marriage to be in one of the parties' home parish.  However, the wedding still had to be in a parish church or other church regularly authorized for weddings, between 8 am and noon on a weekday, with the doors open to anybody who did want to rush in and object, and not in lent or advent.

A licence was commonly used by the gentry, who considered having the banns read out to a church full of tradesmen and servants to be undignified.  It was also used if there was some reason for urgency.  Because the banns were not read, the licence application required proof that the people likely to know of an impediment (such as the parents of an under-age girl) assented.  One of Heyer's heroes simply swore a perjured oath that he had her parents' consent.  In later years, actual counter-signatures by the assenting parties were required.  An ordinary license would have been sufficient for your Stourton bride.

3.  A special licence was granted by the archbishop of Canterbury. (I am not sure whether York could grant one within his province.)  That dispensed with the requirement for the marriage to be in a church with open doors.  It was used, for example, when people at my college at Cambridge exercised their privilege of marrying in the college chapel (above), because the chapel was not generally approved for weddings. 

A friend at work in the late 1970s got a special licence from the archbishop of Canterbury to be married in a nonconformist protestant church, because they realized that the church was not licensed for weddings too late in the proceedings for any other solution.  Another of Heyer's heroines needed a special licence to be married at her dying father's bedside, because he was too ill to get to the church.

4. Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753 had the effect that a marriage without proper banns or licence was void.  Before that, clandestine marriages, though illegal, were valid once completed.  After 1753, you had to leave the country, usually to Scotland, where a 16 year old could marry without parental consent.  The Scots put a stop to that a century later, by requiring that one of the parties had to be resident in Scotland (for 14, or was it 21, days, but that was long enough to louse up an elopement).

5.  The Act of 1836 changed the whole system, and required all marriages to be performed by, or in the presence of, the Registrar General or his appointed deputy.  Instead of banns, a notice was posted on the notice board at the local register office for three weeks.

Under one of those peculiarly British fudges that is totally indefensible in theory but worked very well in practice, all Anglican parish priests were automatically Registrar's deputies.  I think the Jews and Quakers were given a similar privilege from an early date, but it was only gradually extended to other denominations.  If your particular priest or shaman was not approved, he could still marry you provided that the approved forms of wording were used, and provided that the local registrar was there to witness it.

I remember in the 1970s the registrars staged a work-to-rule and refused to work on Saturdays, so all those with religious weddings on the Saturday had to have a separate register office ceremony on the Friday.  The Roman Catholic church issued a special reminder to its flock that they were not allowed to consummate the marriage until after the church service on the Saturday, so at that date their priests were still not routinely accredited as registrar's deputies.  (I think the RC priesthood were deputized shortly after.)

The Act of 1836 broadened the list of places where weddings could be held to include register offices (duh!) and a progressively increasing number of non-Anglican churches.  Note that the church might be approved even if the priest was not: most Roman Catholic churches in the 1970s were clearly in that position.  In general, however, the wedding still had to be in a recognizable church with open doors.

Ross and I sign the register, with Jill, a "duly authorized equivalent"
6.  I don't really know the ins and outs of the current system, which was introduced about the time I left England.  My understanding is that the main change is that far larger numbers of secular buildings are licensed as venues for weddings, and the open-door rule has been abolished. You still need a registrar or duly authorized equivalent - didn't you have one sitting at the side at Fountains Abbey? - and you still need to have certain forms of wording in the ceremony, but they're probably more willing to accredit officiants other than conventional Christian priests.  They may have abolished the requirement for three weeks' public notice: it was pretty futile in these days of increasing mobility.  I recall one registrar saying that in 20 years' in the job, he had had exactly one objection raised as a result of all those notices.

7.  Strictly speaking, I believe the Church of England is still required to marry anybody resident in the parish, though they can exclude divorced people (my sister in law fell foul of that rule) and if you are not a regular Anglican they may be as strict as the rules allow about whether you are actually resident.  However, if you are not in a class they are compelled to marry, a lot will depend on the charity of the parish priest in question.


  1. Wow! Wow! Wow! Heaps of help, Betty Henry!

  2. This was really interesting! I'm intrigued by the notion of an open church so an objection could be raised if necessary. The words are always there in the service, but I think they've always gone in one ear and out the other. Historically, I wonder how common objections were.

  3. My thanks also! I always wondered a bit about why it was considered just fine for the whole village to turn up uninvited to a wedding - it must have been that 'open door' policy.

  4. Catholic weddings are still open door events. In able to get to a daily mass, especially on Saturdays, I've attended wedding and funerals of strangers. Not a big deal for us. The idea being that all are invited to the banquet of the Lord. There are exceptions for celebrities, I believe. But that takes special permission. My nephew was married in St. Patricks Cathedral in NY last St. V'day 2010 and we had tons of strangers there. They did cordon off the center aisle to discourage the non-invited from sitting with the wedding party.

  5. Janet W: Oh my goodness: that explains so much! It sounds like George and Sherry got it right with Kitten's runaway marriage.

    When I got married, at St. Anselm's (the RC church on the University of Toronto campus, graced by a priest of both the Roman and Anglican communions) there were tons of people milling around. Saying the Stations of the Cross and whatever ... haven't thought of that forever!


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