Parish registers of Marriage

Early marriage registers usually just named of the bride and groom and sometimes just the grooms name! Occasionally there may be a reference to the marital status of the parties (bachelor/spinster etc) but more usually additional information and detailed entries were reserved for marriages amongst the nobility.

The early registers of the 16th and early 17th century were written in Latin and therefore can be more expressional than the later English versions.

Example of a marriage register from the 1620’s St James, Shere, Surrey Surrey History Centre; Woking, Surrey, England; Surrey Church of England Parish Registers; Reference: SHER/1/1

During this period the age at which persons could marry was 12 for females and 14 for males with parental consent. This did not change until 1753. Marriage of ‘children’ can often be detected in the marriage registers by the entry including the fact that the marriage was with the consent of the parents. They may also include details of any disability or ‘deformity’ of one of the parties to the marriage, for example “Feb 15/ Thomas Tilsye and Ursula Russel were maryed; and because the sayde Thomas was and is naturally deafe, and also dumbe. …….the said Thomas, for the expressing of his mind instead of words, of his own accord used these signs…..

The early entries do not record whether the marriage was by banns or licence, although during the commonwealth gap (1654 to 1660) it must be remembered that all marriages had to be by banns.

An early 18th century marriage register in English from St Osyth, St Peter And St Paul, Essex, England, Essex Record Office; Chelmsford, Essex, England; Essex Church of England Parish Registers

It did become more common practice in the 17th century for some further details to be included in the marriage register, in particular, whether the marriage was performed following the calling of banns or by licence.

Marriage could, in this period, be entered into without the need for banns or licence; provided both parties consented the marriage would still be valid. In the early 18th century there was a growth in clandestine and scandalous marriages. Most notorious of these were those referred to as “Fleet marriages”, that is those marriages which increasingly took place in and around Fleet Prison in London by clergymen who were disreputable, often due to bankruptcy. Such marriages took place both in the prison chapel and surrounding taverns. They were not limited to the criminal fraternity but such weddings provided a venue for nobility to marry ‘undesirable’ persons or for the young to marry without parental consent. It is therefore wrong to assume that a those who entered into ‘Fleet marriages’ were involved in criminal activity.

Example Fleet marriage entry from the 1740’s; Registers of Clandestine Marriages and of Baptisms in the Fleet Prison, King’s Bench Prison, the Mint and the May Fair Chapel. Records of the General Register Office, Government Social Survey Department, and Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, Registrar General (RG) series 7. The National Archives, Kew, England. Piece 215: 1744 Feb – 1745 Feb

These ‘Fleet Registers’ often contain more information than other marriage registers. For example, in the marriage register for Dukes Place in Aldgate records a ‘third party’ after 1678. For example, the contraction “Fr” may be appended, which probably means “father” and indicated that the individual if not actually the father was acting in loco parentis.

Fleet registers can also include descriptions of “disgraceful scenes” as the disreputable clergy conducting such marriages would keep note books of the marriages which “seem to have been generally copied into the larger Fleet registers”.

In order to combat the practice of clandestine and scandalous marriages, Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was introduced in 1753 which was the first major change in marriage registers.

The Act about wide spread noticeable change to parish registers when it came into force on 25 March 1754. This was the first time a standard form was introduced for any parish records. This Act, as its name suggests, dealt only with marriage registers and following its introduction marriage could only be:

  • by banns or licence
  • take place in the parish in which one of the parties to marry lived
  • entered into a special printed register
Marriage Register entry following Hardwick’s Marriage Act; Service of Church: Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials; Incumbent; Brightlingsea, All Saints; Parish Records;1754-1812; Essex Church of England Parish Registers, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, Essex, England.

It introduced a separate register for marriages being paper or velum books in two parts, the first part being the forms for the publication of banns, the second for entering the marriage details. The pages had to be numbered and many parishes decided to number each entry. The Act made the following legal requirements for a marriage to be valid:

  • Banns had to be read for three Sundays in the church where those to be married were parishioners, if they lived in different parishes the banns had to be read in the church of both parishes
  • Raised the legal age of marriage, without parental consent, to 21 years
  • The ceremony had to be conducted by an Anglican clergyman (Jews and Quakers were exempt, marriages under any other faiths were not recognised in the eyes of the law, however this does not mean they were illegal)

The information to be recorded in the in the marriage register was:

  • The place of residence, before the marriage, of both parties
  • The status of the bride and groom (single/widowed etc)
  • Whether the marriage too place following banns or by licence
  • Signature of the parties (or their mark if they could not write)
  • Signature of at least two witnesses
  • Name of the officiating clergy

It was often the case that dissenters, gentry and yeomen would marry by licence to avoid the public calling of banns and licences which could be issued for more than one church. The Act did not prevent irregular marriages, those wanting to ‘avoid’ the regulations for whatever reason, often travelled further afield to places such as the villages of Coldstream Bridge, Lamberton, Mordington and Paxton in Scotland where the Act did not apply.

This change is the most significant for marriage registers until the introduction of civil registration and provide invaluable information for genealogists.

Marriage registers are no longer parochial records but civil records, issued by and the responsibility of the General Registration Office (GRO) following the General Registration Act 1836. These marriage records are sent quarterly to the District Registrar, who in turn sends them to the Registrar General.

Parish register entry of a post civil registration marriage certificate; London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: P91/ALL/021

19th and occasionally early 20th century parish register copies of the Marriage certificate, for those marrying in church, are frequently available on subscription websites (e.g. Ancestry/FMP etc), having been digitised as part of the wider parish register collections for a given church.

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