Georgian Marriages


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    Marriage licences
    To get married during the Regency period you needed either to have a licence, or the reading of the Banns to be legally married. There were three ways of doing this;

    1 - Banns--read on 3 consecutive Sundays or Holy Days during Divine Service, immediately before the Offertory. Any minor needed to provide proof of parent's or guardian's consent. At least one of the marrying couple had to be resident in the parish which they wished to be married in; the banns of the other party were read in his/her parish of residence, and a certificate provided from the clergyman stating it was properly done. Banns were good for 3 months. The wedding had to take place in the church between 8 am and noon. Wording:
    "I publish the Banns of marriage between Groom's Name of--his local parish--and Bride's Name of--her local parish. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first [second, third] time of asking."

    If persons marrying came from separate parishes, the Banns were asked in both. The curate of one parish could not solemise Matrimony without a certificate from the curate of the other stating the Banns had been "thrice asked".

    2 - Common/Ordinary Licence - This could be btained from any bishop or archbishop and meant the Banns need not be read - and so there was not the delay of two weeks. The same provisions as above applied for minors. A sworn statement was given that there was no impediment [parties were not related to one another in the prohibited degrees, proof of deceased spouse given]. The marriage was required to take place in church or chapel where one party has already lived for 4 weeks. It was also good for 3 months from date of issue. Cost of licence: 10 shillings.

    3 - Special Licence - Obtained from Doctors Commons in London, from the Archbishop of Canterbury or his representative. The difference between this and the Ordinary licence was that it granted the right of the couple to marry at any convenient time or place. All other requirements were the same. Names of both parties were given at the time of the application. Cost: In 1808 a Stamp Duty was imposed on the actual paper, vellum or parchment the licence was printed upon, of 4. In 1815, the duty increased to 5.

    Fleet Marriages
    When you read about Fleet Marriages, these were an earlier form of marriage which was stopped in 1753. From 1694 to 1754 it is estimated that some 2-300,000 of these marriages were performed. These were legally binding marriages (in both Common and Ecclesiastical Law) that took advantage of a loophole in Common Law which allowed people to be married by a simple exchange of vows. Fleet Prison was the best known place where these marriages could be performed, hence the name.

    They were attractive to people because they were legally binding, could be made without attracting the attention of others through the calling of the Banns or other notice, and they could be made without the any authority's consent (such as parents, masters etc). They were also cheaper than regular church marriages.

    Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753 put an end to them. The greatest concern had been for the issue of inheritance . Thus the new act specified that only marriages conducted in the Church of England by Banns or licence and before witnesses were legal for people over the age of 21. Those under the age of 21 needed parental consent.

    Scottish marriages
    As Scotland was still governed by different laws it was still possible to contract marriages - 'over the anvil' on Scottish territory. A couple with neither parental approval nor of age could be married legally under Scottish law, thus the popular elopement to Gretna Green.
    Marriage to Deceased Wife's sister
    The prohibition on marrying your brother's wife comes from an Old Testament text: "If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an impurity: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless." (Leviticus xx,21.) Now you might well notice that this could easily mean don't take your brother's wife _while he is alive_, but the medieval church interpreted it to mean that people could not marry their deceased spouse's sibling, at all and because the church did grant dispensations from the prohibition.

    There was no outright civil ban on these marriages in England although they were certainly discouraged, until the The Marriage Act of 1835. Up until this date these marriages were considered voidable (meaning either party could use the relationship as a reason to annul the marriage - or indeed anyone else might do so if they felt so moved) but were not void.

    The case of Charles Austen, the younger brother of Jane Austen is an example of this. In 1814 his first wife, Frances Palmer, died in childbirth. Being a naval officer, he left his surviving three daughters in the care of his wife's older sister Harriet. In 1817, Charles was returned to shore for several years (he did not get another ship until 1826.) In 1820, he and Harriet were married, and remained married for 32 years, until his death in 1852; Harriet died in 1869. They had 4 children, three sons and a daughter. After his marriage, Charles continued to rise in the navy without prejudice because of his marriage; in fact he captained several different ships, was named a Companion of the Bath in 1840, became a rear-admiral in 1846, and was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the East India and China Station in 1850. By then, of course, his marriage with Harriet had been officially sanctioned by the 1835 Marriage Act which closed the possibility of it being challenged under Canonical Law and made void. While it doesn't appear either her father or Charles' father opposed the marriage, it is suggested that the couple did go to France to be married.

    Lady Holland perhaps best illustrates the situation commenting the Marquis of Worcester's marriage to his wife's half sister, Emily Frances Smith. They had to marry in Europe, but this was no guarantee that their marriage would not be voided. "The Duchess of Beaufort (Lord Worcester's mother) has had an amiable interview wtih Lord Worcester, & invited Lady Worcester to England. Her religious scruples have taken a turn; but the marriage is still libale to be dissolved any day by an ill-natured person." (from "Lady Holland's Lettters To Her Son". Edited by Lord Ilchester. John Murray, London, 1946. Page 26, April 21, 1824.)

    There was not universal supprt for these marriages though, Maria Edgeworth's father was forced to wait for sometime to marry his deceased wife's sister in late eighteenth century Ireland while a clergyman was found who would marry them.

    In fact there are instances of these marriages being voided. This is from the March 1810 issue of La Belle Assemblee, under Incidents Occurring In and Near London pp 152-155:
    "Feb. 27. This day a cause of nullity of marriage brought by Charlotte Aughtie, widow, late wife of William Aughtie, of the parish of St. Mary-le-bow, London by reason of affinity, was decided in the Arches Court. It appeared by the evidence produced, that Gabriel Aughtie, the former husband of Charlotte Aughtie, and William Aughtie (the party now proceeded against) were own brothers. It also appeared by the former marriage, there were issue ten children, five of whom were still living, and by the latter marriage one child. These facts together with other necessary facts, being satisfactorily proved, the court observed, it had no difficulty whatever in pronouncing this to have been an unlawful marriage and thereby pronounced it accordingly."

    By the 1830's, eminent people who had contracted these marriages and feared they might later be declared void, sought to have their position stabilized and a bill was introduced by Lord Lyndhurst to regularize them. The bill that was passed in 1835 enacted that "all marriages which shall hereafter be celebrated between persons within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity or affinity shall be absolutely null and void to all intents and purposes whatsoever." At the same time the act did legalize all marriages within the prohibited degrees of affinity (i.e. with deceased wife's sister) that had been celebrated before August 31, 1835. That meant that all those eminent people (and their children) were safe.

    It was only any later marriages, after the date of the marriage act which were void. Beginning in the 1860's, bills were introduced in Parliament just about annually to allow marriage with deceased wife's sister; it finally passed in 1907. The issue prompted the classic line from Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta 'Iolanthe' - "We will prick that annual blister, marriage to deceased wife's sister". In 1907 they finally managed to repeal at least half of it. The Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage act of 28 August that year made it possible to marry one's sister-in-law. Yet it wasn't until 1921 that the Deceased Brother's Widow's Marriage Act was passed which made marriage to a brother-in-law legal.

    (Reference "The Dictionary of Dates, Everyman's Library, JM Dent and Sons. 1940.) Charles Austen's case wasn't unique. There were a lot of widowers who wanted to marry their sisters-in-law-- it was often she who came to care for her nieces and nephews, and therefore was available.

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