Researching the past

Marriage Laws and Elopement in Nineteenth-Century England

Marriage was the cornerstone of Victorian society (or so the Victorians would have you believe). But say your family and friends disapprove of your choice of partner and want you to marry a wealthy cousin instead. You and your improvised lover decide your only choice is to elope. But how do you go about it? Today I explore marriage laws and how to elope in Victorian England.

Minimum Age and Parental Consent

Nowadays, the minimum age you can marry at is sixteen with parental consent, or eighteen without consent. In the nineteenth century, the minimum age was fourteen for boys and twelve for girls, so Mrs Abernathy could have legally married her daughter off at fifteen. I hasten to point out that the majority of Victorians did not marry until they were older than this! If you were a woman under twenty-one, you were classed as a minor and needed the consent of parents or guardians to marry, unless the young woman was already widowed.

Lord Hardwicke’s Act 1753

The Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriages (1753), also known as Lord Hardwicke's Act, or the Clandestine Marriages Act, intended to prevent clandestine marriages, meaning marriages conducted in secret. This was not illegal in itself, but some believed that because they ‘were not official marriages, they provided easy opportunities for the unscrupulous’ (Francis, 2003: 457). For instance, a shady character might wed a minor with a large inheritance. Clandestine marriages were harder to prove because of their privacy. Clandestine marriages often lacked many usual requirements for a marriage, as Francis notes:

one or more of the following usually occurred: the minister conducting the ceremony was not a priest; the failure to publish the banns or procure a license which excused the banns from the appropriate ecclesiastical official; the couple obtained the marriage license without the proper securities; the ceremony occurred at the wrong time of day, instead of between 8 AM and 12 noon; the ceremony was not conducted in the parish church of one of the couple; one of the couple was a minor who had not obtained the consent of his or her parents or guardians; the marriage was not recorded in an official parish register (ibid, 2003: 456) [1]

Lord Hardwicke’s Act meant that if a marriage had any one of the above shortcomings, that marriage would not be valid. Under the Act, ‘all marriage ceremonies must be conducted by a minister in a parish church or chapel of the Church of England to be legally binding’ (UK Parliament, [no date]). This did not apply to Jews or Quakers, but did apply to religious non-conformists and Catholics. The Marriage Act of 1836 allowed non-conformists and Catholics to marry in their own place of worship. The Marriage Act also saw the introduction of civil ceremonies at register offices, which were a legal but inexpensive way to marry.

Banns and Licenses

The Act provided two ways for a marriage to be legally binding: banns and licenses.

A clergyman had to be notified of the couple’s intention to marry a week before the banns were published. The banns had to be read on three successive Sundays in the parish where the couples resided. If the prospective bride and groom resided in different parishes, then the banns would have to be read in both parishes. The purpose of reading the banns was to make the couple’s intention to marry public and allow anyone to come forward who knew of a reason why the couple could not lawfully marry, such as one partner was already married or was a minor marrying without consent of a legal guardian. So an eloping couple would have to be resident in a parish for several weeks and have the banns read three times before they could marry, although this meant there was plenty of time in which they could be tracked down and discovered.

A slightly more expensive way to marry was to obtain a license. These cost several pounds. This was a less public alternative to banns, but there was still a long wait period:

A fiancé(e) had to live in his or her parish for four weeks before the wedding, unless the archbishop of Canterbury eliminated the waiting period by granting an immediate license. (Nelson, 2015: 90) [2]

Whichever way the couple chose, the marriage had to be entered in the parish registries with the signatures of the bride, groom, two witnesses, and clergyman. Church weddings without a special license were solemnised in Anglican churches between 8am-12pm.

Gretna Green

Eloping couples could get around these restrictions by marrying across the border in Scotland, where the Act did not apply. Gretna Green in southern Scotland was a popular choice as it was close to the border with England (the couple would probably have endured a long, uncomfortable carriage journey by this point).

As well as travelling across the Scottish border, you could disappear in the throng of a major English city like London, as Mr and Mrs Abernathy do, where marriages were conducted less scrupulously. It would be harder to be detected and harder to verify addresses for banns.

Further reading:

  • [1] Francis, K.A. 2003. Canon Law Meets Unintended Consequences: The Church of England and the Clandestine Marriage Act of 1753. Anglican and Episcopal History. 72(4), pp.451-487
  • [2] Nelson, H.L. 2015. The Law and the Lady: Consent and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century British Literature. Ph.D. thesis, Purdue University
  • UK Parliament. [no date]. The law of marriage. [Online]. [Accessed 1st May 2020].
    Available from: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/privatelives/relationships/overview/lawofmarriage-/