Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1754 arose out of concern of the abuse of the marriage licence
Before the passing of Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1754, there was a certain ambiguity in canon law as to what constituted a legal marriage. The canon law on marriage gave a few alternatives. A binding union was created by the freely given exchange of vows between two parties delivered in the present tense ‘de praesent’. This vow could also be expressed in the future tense ‘de futuro’, if followed by sexual intercourse and was equally binding.
The marriage could take place anywhere. A wedding in a church before a whole congregation, was considered to be desirable but not essential in the process of marriage. Church courts however worked hard to steer the population towards what was considered desired or acceptable to them, that is a properly publicised, solemnized wedding in a church. It is therefore assumed that as the Medieval period progressed, that more marriages took place in church.
The canon law of 1604 was quite clear in its direction
Anglican weddings were supposed to take place in the parish church of either the bride or the groom and this could happen in either of two ways. The first was after the publication of banns on three Sundays or holidays, then the wedding would take place in the church during the service between 8a.m and 12 a.m. The second was the purchase of a licence that could be bought, that did away with the necessity of publishing the banns. The purpose of the banns was to give the opportunity for anyone to raise any objections to the union, whether there was a canonical or a civil impediment to the marriage, such as a previous promise or union or a close kinship. This was to prevent marriages that were invalid and of course still exists today for a marriage in a church.
The service of marriage was then supposed to take place in the church or chapel where either party lived. Marriages that broke these rules were held to be clandestine and any member of the clergy found breaking these rules were liable to a three year suspension. Many marriages were made in the porch of the church and only then did the couple move into the main body of the church.
The problem was with the issuing of the licences.
It was thought that the issuing of licences was being abused. Those being granted licences were supposed to be of ‘good state and quality’ and had to offer a bond, an assurance, that there was no legal impediment to the marriage and that all parental consents had been granted. It was also stated that the marriage should be made publicly. It must not be a secret event. This bond or oath of sorts, should also be sworn before an ecclesiastical judge. This was all achieved by a marriage licence allegation of intent to marry, which was issued before the licence could be released.
The marriage licence, how and when was it used?
Licences for marriage were used more in urban areas than in rural. Londoners in particular, seemed to use a licence more frequently than elsewhere in England. The licence had to be bought. In the 16th and 17th century, allowing for the fluctuations in wages, a licence might have cost at least a week in wages for a skilled craftsman. This instantly leads us to the assumption that only the wealthier people could afford to marry by licence. The couple would then also have to pay the parish fees, which were usually clearly displayed in their churches. If people were marrying outside their parish they were expected to pay an extra fee as well. In addition, couples wanting to marry but wanting the ceremony to take place outside of canon law in respect of time or place had to pay yet more money. It seems there was variance between rich and poor parishes as well, so overall it was a complicated and uneven affair.
So why was Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1754 necessary?
Figures show that in the mid 17th century there was a large increase in marriages by licence, in certain parishes. Some parishes seem to have become magnets for illicit marriages, St Georges in Southwark being one of them. Couples were presenting themselves for marriage, whose situation was not quite as it should have been, no parental consent being offered or their being kinsmen but because the parish or individual ministers could make quite a lot of money from the practice, they were allowed to marry. Sometimes surrogates stood in for pastors, issuing the licences. In this way the safeguards surrounding the issue of licences grew weaker. Entries on the licences diminished with time, possibly meaning less care was being taken in ensuring the canonical law was being followed.
An explosion of London clandestine marriages
Was it public demand that drove the increase in clandestine marriages or the pursuit of profits by ecclesiastical authorities? Probably the latter. Large numbers of people deserted their parish churches and a lax ecclesiastical attitude encouraged it. The sanctity of marriage was collapsing. Throughout the following hundred years, the pressure grew for something to be done about clandestine marriage. So it was on 25th March 1754 Lord Hardwicke’s act became legislation. Its full title was “An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage” and it was very successful in shutting down the lucrative trade. The Fleet Prison marriages were halted and other places in London associated with such events were also prevented from continuing their practices. Those wanting to marry against the law now took their wedding ceremonies to Scotland and places just over the border, such as Gretna Green.