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A Short History of Marriage by Jane Parkinson


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Ring and Book - Weddings A History

Image Courtesy of Paul Martin Eldridge / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Common law marriage has not existed in this country since the passing of Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. Up until this time there was no requirement in this country to register a marriage or have the ceremony in a church. All that was needed was for the Bride and Groom to say their solemn vows in front of witnesses. This was known as marriage by consent, poorer people tended to opt for this, although it was not recognised in law.

The Act stated that the Bride and Groom would have to have the consent of their parents if they were under the age of 21, the banns had be read 3 times or a special licence bought from the church before the ceremony and at least one of the party had to have been resident in the parish for at least 3 weeks, prior to the ceremony.

The Act was passed to prevent clandestine marriages. These were ceremonies that were presided over by a clergyman but no banns were read, or church licence obtained. Clandestine marriages were very popular as they were cheaper and of course got around the problem of not having parental consent. These marriages were recognised as legally binding and many a rich heiress was persuaded to marry in this way, so unscrupulous grooms could obtain their fortune. Being sent for Transportation to one of the colonies could be the punishment for any clergymen, who disobeyed the law, following the passing of the Act.

Formal marriage ceremonies tended to be the preserve of the rich, as it was a way of ensuring political alliances, in the case of the monarchy, or protecting family fortunes in the case of the aristocracy or middle classes.

Marriage by consent was still popular for many decades following the passing of the Act, and as the Act was only enforceable in England and Wales, many people would elope to Scotland and get married in Gretna Green, where marriage by consent was still legal. This is still of course popular today.

Some amendments were made to the Act in 1836, such as removing the restriction of marrying only in an Anglican church; it was now possible to have a non-religious ceremony in a Register Office, recently set up in towns and cities all over England and Wales, for the purpose of recording Births, Marriages and Deaths. Until 1929 the minimum age for marriage was 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy, this was then raised to 16 for both.

In 1995 it became possible to have a civil ceremony, somewhere other than a Registry Office. Many hotels and stately homes have licences, in order to conduct these ceremonies. In 2004 the law was changed again, to allow same sex couples the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples, by forming a civil partnership. This has proved to be very popular with over 50,000 having taken place since 2005.

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