Wedding Gown from 1818
The new act was meant to make marriages more public and regular. Though people had always been encouraged to have the banns called, it now became a requirement that they do so unless the couple obtained a license from the local bishop or the Archbishop of Canterbury. By 1811 the cost of a special license was £5. It was mostly used by the aristocracy and men in the public eye. The standard license from a bishop required a bond for £100 to be forfeit if the couple lied about any allegation as well as a slight fee. This license named the parish in which the wedding would be held. This license entailed a wait of seven days. The couple still had to marry between the hours of eight and noon.
After the banns were read in the parish church for three successive Sundays, the couple had to be married in that church between the hours of eight in the morning and noon by an ordained clergyman before two witnesses. Only if both the man and woman were Quakers or Jews were they exempt from this law. All others, even Roman Catholics, had to marry in the parish church of the Church of England unless they had obtained a special license. Even those with a special license had to be married by a man in holy orders.
By law the Roman Catholics were supposed to be married first by an Anglican priest before marrying by their rites, but in practice many married in Catholic rites first. However, the marriage was not valid until and unless they married according to the law by a clergyman of the Church of England.
All marriages had to be registered in the parish register even if the couple married in a private house by special license.
Usually, the couple signed the register with their witnesses before leaving the church.
Marriage contracts were no longer enforced. It was an offense against church law for a clergyman to marry anyone who was not a willing participant in the ceremony.
All those under the age of twenty-one needed the permission of a parent or guardian to marry. The father of a legitimate child was the natural guardian. The father was the only one who could name a guardian for the child, and such a guardianship couldn’t be transferred to another except by action of the Court of Chancery.
An illegitimate child was the child of nobody so neither the father nor the mother had the right to give permission for the child to marry by license. This clause in the act was opposed for nearly all the seventy-five years the act was in force and was the basis for the repeal of most of the act in 1822.
All minors who married by license without proper permission were not legally married at all. The marriage was null and void – never existing– from the beginning.
This caused many problems as some couples waited until they had been married for years and had several children to dissolve their marriages on the grounds that one lied about his or her age. In other cases , the invalidating point was that either bride or groom had been illegitimate and had married by licence without the proper permission. When the marriage was declared void– as it was according to law– any children were then illegitimate.
Parliament refused to amend or repeal the act or this clause in it until it seemed that the marriage of a high ranking peer might be declared invalid and his seven sons declared illegitimate. This led Parliament in 1822 to pass a new marriage act repealing parts of the Harwicke act and strengthening other aspects of it. Then as if this action had broken a log-jam someplace, several other changes in the laws of marriage followed over the next decade.
Marriage of the Prince of Wales and Caroline
of Brunswick at St. James Palace.
The Hardwicke act was only law in England and Wales. It was not the law in Scotland or Ireland or any of the English colonies.
Catholic couples in Ireland could be married by a Catholic priest without the banns being called, though the church preferred that the banns be read. A Protestant marrying a Catholic had to be married by a Protestant clergyman. This remained the law for most of the 19th century.
The law in Scotland allowed couples to marry by just saying they were married and living publicly as though married. This was considered a valid though irregular marriage. The law in Scotland allowed anyone over the age of fourteen to marry without parental permission. Because no clergyman was needed to make the marriage valid, couples from England would go to Scotland "to be married over the anvil." They weren’t really or necessarily married over the anvil by a blacksmith.
Robert Elliot, who was one of the marrying men of Gretna in the early years of the nineteenth century, used a form of the regular marriage service. He asked if they were there of their own free will and if they took each other as husband and wife. He usually gave them a certificate testifying to their marriage. Because consummation was important in Scotland, he also provided a bedchamber if needed.
There were no provisions in the law for proxy marriages anywhere in the British Isles. If a marriage by proxy took place in a country or countries where they were permitted, then such a marriage would be valid in England. None of the cases which came before the courts involved men or women who had been born and baptized in England.
Royal brides were usually married by proxy in their home country as a protection for them on their journey to England. One of the first things they had to do on reaching England was to be married in an Anglican ceremony.
Dissolving a marriage
A marriage could be dissolved by death, annulment, or divorce.
Annulments were not easy. One couldn’t just decide to marry and get an annulment in a year for either the marriage was valid or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t valid the couple were never married, and if the marriage is valid they can’t get it annulled.
Marriages were null and void if minors married by license without the proper permission, if of the couple had a living spouse, or if either was considered too young to marry. Shocking to our sensibilities, the age which was considered too young was before age seven. Children could be married off between the ages of seven and twelve, if female and seven and fourteen, if male. However, when the female reached the age of twelve or the male reached the age of fourteen, the child could repudiate the marriage or decide to stay with it.
Fortunately, by the late eighteenth century, public opinion shifted so that most people disapproved of marrying children off at such tender ages. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the attitude had shifted to allowing girls to wait until they were seventeen or older before declaring them of an age to marry. Despite tales of girls being considered on the shelf if not married by age nineteen, quite a few Regency young ladies didn’t marry until they were twenty or even older.
Marriages were also void if one of the couple did not have a proper understanding of what he or she was doing. The church insisted on willing and informed consent, or at least as much informed consent as might be expected of a twelve year old girl.
Marriages could be annulled if one of the couple, usually the male, was impotent.
Marriages did not have to be consummated in England to be valid. The ability to consummate had to be present.