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Marriage licenses | VRChristensen

Marriage licenses

It’s typically understood that a man and woman wishing to get married in the 19th century had a choice between the banns or obtaining a “special license.”
From Wikipedia:

“The banns of marriage, commonly known simply as the “banns” or “bans“  are the public announcement, in a Christian parish church of an impending marriage between two specified persons. The purpose of banns is to enable anyone to raise any canonical or civil legal impediment to the marriage, so as to prevent marriages that are invalid.”

The banns were published for three consecutive weeks, further ensuring that the marriage was not contracted in undue haste.

But what if haste was exactly what was desired? Or, alternately, what if  the couple in question wished for a little more discretion than the banns would allow?

If one were sufficiently wealthy, and had good connections, a ‘special license’ might be acquired.

From What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool, page 183.

“The most expensive procedure was to get a special license that enabled you to get married any place at any time. This could only be obtained from the archbishop of Canterbury and cost a whacking great sum–twenty-eight guineas in the middle of the century–and would probably only be available to the well connected, since it was granted at the archbishop’s discretion.”

Twenty-eight shillings equals about 2,500 pounds today. That is a whacking great sum. It’s not impossible, however, that Sir Edmund, anticipating the acquisition of Imogen’s wealth, would shell out that kind of money. But I doubt he was well enough connected to pull it off.

What then, were the alternatives?

Again from What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew,

“There were other ways to get married. ‘Marriage by banns is confined to the poorest classes,’ sniffed one mid-century etiquette manual ‘and a license is generally obtained by those who aspire to the “habits of good society”.’ Ordinarily, for a few pounds you could obtain a license either from a local clergyman or at Doctors’ Commons in London, which would let you get married in a parish where one of the parties had lived for at least fifteen days. Outside of very poor and rural areas, this would have been the usual way to get married for most of the century and it avoided publication of the banns.”

Which the protagonists in Of Moths and Butterflies would certainly have wished to do.


Now I should probably add, that the above cited book, is not my favourite reference. It lumps the Regency era together with the Victorians, and any historian of the Victorian era will tell you that it’s hard enough to lump together the  six and a half decades of Victoria’s rain, let alone trying to group it with another time period whose ideals were radically different. It is useful in it’s way, but it’s by no means a detailed resource. For more solid proof, I prefer to turn to documentation contemporary to the time period in which my story is set
From Cassells Household Guide, 1880′s New and Revised Edition. The section is Society, part 3, Weddings, part 2, found on page 136.

“MARRIAGES if performed by licence, must be solemnised in either parish wherein one of the persons has been for the preceding fortnight resident. The church where the marriage ceremony is to take place must be named in the licence. The parties themselves are not obliged to take out the licence personally, provided that whoever undertakes the office takes oath that both the bride and bridegroom elect are of full age, and, if minors, have the consent of their parents and guardians. Marriage licences may be taken out at the proper office at Doctors’ Commons. The cost is £2 2s. 6d (159 pounds today). Special licences differ from the ordinary licence in permitting the parties to be married at any place not named, and at an hour different from that which is otherwise compulsory. Marriages, without a special licence, can only be solemnised between the hours of eight o’clock and twelve in the forenoon of the day.

Such a license would have been ideal. It would have been taken out by Sir Edmund. Neither the bride or groom would need to be present to apply. No proofs of identity were necessary to be given. The uncle’s application, and his word, were proof enough, though if the bride were under twenty-one (which Imogen is) a letter would have to accompany the application stating that the young woman had the approval of her nearest relation. After the wedding the register would be signed by the couple. It is very likely no one would have said anything if the names did not match. And I’m sure, if it were necessary, a few pounds might persuade the parish clerk to overlook the matter. It might easily be amended at a future date, after all.

As for the marriage certificate, it would have been drawn up, upon request, by making a handwritten copy and certifying it. Birth certificates were similarly created, upon request and when required, which was rarely.

But I’ll write more about that in another post.

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