header('Cache-Control: max-age=259200'); A Regency Marriage Primer - Kristen Koster
Oct 112011
"St George’s Church in Hanover Square, London." Engraved by J. Le Keux. Published July 1st 1810

Last week’s post about Regency Landmarks Beyond London, glossed over the question of “Why are they always running off to Gretna Green?” So this week, I decided we’d take a closer look at some of the customs and circumstances that might surround a Regency marriage or elopement.

Regency Marriage: St George's Church in Hanover Square, London

St George’s Church in Hanover Square, London

The Marriage Act of 1753

Once Hardwicke‘s Marriage Act of 1753 was passed in England and Wales, parental consent was required for anyone to marry under the age of 21. The Act also put a stop to Fleet Marriages, legally binding marriages (under both Common and Ecclesiastical Law), that took advantage of a Common Law loophole which allowed couples to marry by a simple exchange of vows. Fleet Prison, a debtor’s prison in London, was the best known place where these marriages could be performed, hence the name. Jewish and Quaker ceremonies were exempt. Clergymen conducting clandestine marriages risked transportation.

After 1753, in order to get married, a couple needed to have a license or the reading of the Banns to be legally married in England or Wales.

The Reading of the Banns

“I publish the Banns of marriage between [Groom’s Name] of [his local parish] and [Bride’s Name] of [her local parish]. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first [second, third] time of asking.”

The Marriage Banns, as worded above, were read on 3 consecutive Sundays or Holy Days during Divine Service, immediately before the Offertory. Any minor was required to provide proof of parental or a guardian’s consent. At least one of the marrying couple had to be resident in the parish in which they wished to be married in. If the persons marrying came from separate parishes, the Banns were read in both and the curate of one parish could not solemnize Matrimony without a certificate from the curate of the other stating the Banns had been “thrice asked”. Banns were good for 3 months or would be required to be read again. Also weddings had to take place in the church between 8 in the morning and noon before witnesses.

Common/Ordinary License

A Common or Ordinary Marriage License could be obtained from any bishop or archbishop. This meant the Banns need not be read – thus reduced the two to three week delay to a seven day waiting period. These types of licenses were also called Bishop’s Licenses. Proof of parental or a guardian’s consent must be provided for minors under 21 years of age as well as a sworn statement was given that there was no impediment. This meant that the parties were not related to one another in the prohibited degrees, or that proof of a deceased spouse was given. The marriage was required to take place before witnesses in the parish church named on the license where one party had already lived for 4 weeks. It was also good for 3 months from date of issue. The cost of a common or ordinary license was 10 shillings to one pound.

Special License

Obtained from Doctors Commons in London, from the Archbishop of Canterbury or his representative. The difference between this and an Ordinary license was that it granted the right of the couple to be married by a member of the clergy before witnesses at any convenient time or place. All other requirements were the same (something that is frequently left out of the details in Romance Novels) and the names of both parties were given at the time of the application, you couldn’t fill them in later. You also couldn’t transfer them and there was no provision for marriage by proxy in England at the time. They were only available to peers and their children, baronets, knights, members of Parliament, Privy Councillors and Westminster Court Judges. Special licenses cost at least 20 guineas. In 1808, a Stamp Duty was imposed on the actual paper, vellum or parchment the license was printed upon, of £4 which increased to £5 in 1815.

Gretna Green & Other Elopements

Regency Marriage: Gretna GreenThe Marriage Act of 1753, made it much more difficult to marry without parental consent or if the couple was in a hurry to marry. It also did not apply in Scotland (or the American Colonies). Some couples evaded the Act by traveling to various Scottish “Border Villages” such as Coldstream Bridge, Lamberton, Mordington and Paxton Toll. In the 1770s, the construction of a toll road passing through the unremarkable village of Graitney led to Gretna Green which became synonymous with romantic elopements.
Many couples eloped without parental consent and were married “over the anvil” at the popular blacksmith’s shop in Gretna Green. After 1856, Scottish law changed to require 21 days’ residence for marriage, yet Gretna Green remained a center for romantic and irregular weddings until 1940. In 1977, the residency requirement was replaced by a two week notice of intention.

Other Customs

Engagement Rings

Engagement rings in the Regency Era were not diamond solitaires. Sometimes a ring might be given as a token of affection in a long engagement, but it wasn’t expected. Edward in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility wears such a ring made from his fiancee’s hair (a common token in the 19th century).

Wedding Invitations

Invitations were handwritten personal letters inviting friends and relatives to attend the ceremony or letters to announcing the marriage to those who could not be expected to attend.

St. George’s in Hanover Square

In the heart of Mayfair, St George’s Parish Church was the home parish of the majority of the ton. St George’s has been considered a fashionable church almost from its beginning in 1725 and it’s popularity kept rising until about 1,000 weddings a year were performed there in the Regency Era. In 1816, St Georges was the location of 1,063 weddings, or about three a day, making it the Regency equivalent to a Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, with a much higher social appeal. Often you’ll see the difficulty in securing a reasonable date for a wedding to be held there as an excuse for the couple to acquire a license.

Regency Wedding Gowns

The notion of a white wedding gown wasn’t widespread during the Regency but gained popularity during Queen Victoria’s reign. Most women during the early 19th century were married in their Sunday best. Brides were much more practical in those days, especially if they did not rank high on the social scale. They might have a new gown made for the occasion, but often that became their new “best” gown.

Wedding Rings

The following appeared in Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Artin 1869:

Although a ring is absolutely necessary in a Church-of-England marriage, it may be of any metal, and of any size. Some years since, a ring of brass was used at Worcester at a wedding before the registrar, who was threatened with proceedings for not compelling a gold one to be employed…. The church-key was used in lieu of a wedding-ring at a church near Colchester, early in the present century; and that was not a solitary instance within the past one hundred years in England. The Duke of Hamilton was married at May Fair with a bed-curtain ring.

Wedding Breakfast

Today we just call the party after a wedding ceremony “the reception” and are done with it. During the Regency, members of the ton would be expected to fast and then take communion after the ceremony, so the meal served after the ceremony would have broken their fasting. Add to that, the majority of weddings were held between 8 am and noon, and there’s our modern interpretation creeping in. Remember at the time, Venetian Breakfasts were very popular and were essentially afternoon parties that could last into the evening.

If you’re looking for information on how to have a Regency wedding ceremony, check out Vanessa Riley’s post which includes the full text as well as some commentary. Vanessa’s Christian Regency Blog even has a whole category of posts about vows.

Visit my post on Regency Divorce & Annulments or my Regency Resource page for more information regarding a variety of other Regency-themed topics. If you’d like more information on a specific place or topic, please let me know in the comments below.

  16 Responses to “A Regency Marriage Primer”

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing. My short story starts after the “wedding” but I wanted to describe the village and the subdued ride home!

    That tidbit about the Duke of Hamilton getting married with a bed curtain ring is brilliant!

    • Hope it helps or at least gives you a starting point of where to look. There’s a lot of overview articles on Gretna Green out there. The links I gave for it were from the town/area itself, so might have better info like you’re looking for!

      The story sounds like it’ll be a fun one! Those wild rides north are always exciting!

  2. Kristen,
    What was the man called who would marry a couple in London…a vicar? a minister? In my situation, they are Protestant and marrying by special license and the ceremony will be in a home in Mayfair.


    • Hi, Regan! There’s a great page at Pemberly with the Form of Solemnization (Marriage ceremony) — they refer to two members of the clergy during the ceremony. A minister and a more generic priest. Also over on Allison Lane’s page of Common Regency Errors they talk about the requirements of special licenses and only refer to clergymen as officiating. Wikipedia’s article on vicar gives the following: “In the Church of England, vicar is the ordinary title given to certain parish priests. Historically, Anglican parish clergy were divided into rectors, vicars, (alternative titles for the parish priest depending on their mode of appointment) curates (assistant parish priests) and, rarely, perpetual curates (parish priests but of a small parish). Rectors and vicars were distinguished according to the way in which they were appointed and so remunerated.”

      Did that help or make it worse?

      If you wanted to be safe, you could say the parish priest or vicar and not be wrong, I think.

  3. I do not write historical anything but the primer you just gave me will definitely help when I read my historicals. Sometimes I get really confused when I read them.

    • Yay! Thank you, Marika! That was more my goal with this series — to make it more accessible to readers! — than necessarily do or point out research links for other writers!

      I’ve been reading Regency set romances for over 20 years now, some I picked up from context and some I had to look up (yay for the internet!), but until Alexia asked me about something in the book she was reading a couple weeks ago and a couple of her comments on my work in progress, I’d forgotten exactly how much of these little trivia details I take for granted!

  4. Love this. But then I’m a huge historical buff. Thanks for the info.

  5. Wow fascinating information. Thanks for sharing it. I never knew a lot of those things even though I read most anything. I’ve read a lot of historicals and sort of slid over the details. I just figured that was how they did it. I did know that white and wedding gowns specifically were not common in America until around the 1950’s. I was writing a historical western set in around the late 1800’s just before 1900. It was designed to fall on the verge of the Industrial Revolution with automobiles and things. My heroine had been back east to school so she knew about a few modern things for that time frame.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kathy!

      It’s funny, I can read Medievals, Regencies, and Victorians all set in England, but I start to have problems with Edwardian stuff like Downtown Abbey (which I LOVE). Simply because the phones and cars just FEEL wrong to me. I haven’t read much turn of the century stuff set in America, but I don’t think that would bother me as much, although it’d be reading about my grandparents and great grandparents generations.

      I find it interesting how each time period and even settings can have their own little quirks and language that define them.

  6. Hi, Kristen, Demi here. I want to be sure that a woman or 19 year old girl could serve as a witness at a wedding. I have seen over and over that two witnesses were required, but nothing about the sex of the witnesses. And considering how little women were allowed to do, I want to be sure to get this right. Thanks!

    • Hey Demi, I don’t know the answer off the top of my head, but I’ll take a look and see what I can find out for you!

    • Ok, after some searching which turned up mostly just a requirement of at least two witnesses, I found mention on Sharon Lathan’s website where one of the bride’s female attendants and one of the groom’s male attendants were designated as official witnesses and were required to also sign the marriage lines in the parish registry. http://sharonlathanauthor.com/library_pemberley/historical-articles/regency-marriage/

      The key will be in the term “credible witness” which from what I’ve found doesn’t require an age of majority just competency and believability (they were there, paying attention, and knew what was going on, and had no reason to lie about it). That being said, I asked Nancy Mayer (Regency Researcher) and she said, “generally witnesses had to be over 21 and members of the church in good standing. Most witnesses were the fathers of bridal couple, or the verger and the vicar’s wife, or guardian or brother of bride or groom.”

      So depending on what you need for your story, something in there should help answer that question.

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