The Hardwicke Marriage Act laid out the path to the altar for regency couples
Engagements in the regency era were generally brief, often only a few weeks long. Why the hurry? Since premarital sex was common and the birth of illegitimate children problematic for inheritance, parents preferred to see couples married sooner rather than later.
Reading the banns or acquiring a license and having the marriage performed required a minimum of fifteen days to accomplish. If there was property or fortune involved, a couple had to wait for marriage articles to be drawn, a process that could take weeks or months depending on the difficulty of establishing an agreeable settlement. Otherwise, they only need wait to fulfill the requirements of legal marriage.
The Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753
Before 1754, marriage in England and Wales was governed by Church of England’s canon law, not civil law. This led to some confusion about what exactly constituted a marriage.
While canon law recommended reading banns or acquiring a marriage license, the only absolute requirement was that the marriage be solemnized by an Anglican clergyman. Sounds simple enough, right? But wait…
Many believed that the exchange of consent by parties of sufficient age (fourteen for men and twelve for women) in front of two witnesses made a marriage. This led to a great deal of misunderstanding about which marriages were actually valid and proved a record keeping nightmare.
Witnesses had to be produced to validate claims of marriage. Witnesses of the era were no more reliable (or honest) than witnesses today. Their testimonies could be altered by personal agendas or bribes, potentially leaving individuals suddenly married or unmarried and children made illegitimate.Needless to say this could really ruin one’s day.
With fortunes, property and family names on the line, the courts found the situation intolerable. Thus, the introduction of “An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage”, known as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act or The Marriage Act of 1753. It came into force on March 25, 1754.
The Act stipulated couples must purchase a license or have banns read during three consecutive church services. These stipulations were intended to ensure that the couple was eligible to marry.
Couples under twenty one years of age required parental consent to marry by license. Underage couples could marry by banns as long as the minor’s parents did not forbid the banns. (Or were not aware of them being called because the couple had run off to another parish–but that’s another story.)
Finally the marriage must be conducted between the hours of 8AM and noon, before witnesses, in a church, by authorized clergy and duly recorded in a marriage register. The later provided definitive proof the marriage occurred.
There were some exemptions to the marriage act: the royal family, Jews and Quakers (though the Act did not actually declare Jewish and Quaker marriages legal either.) Catholics though, were not exempt. Any marriage performed according to Catholic rites had to be repeated by clergy of the Church of England in order to be a valid marriage.
While not arduous, the requirements of the Marriage Act were a little inconvenient, which let some couples to attempt to get around them by eloping, which is also another story.
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