Choose where to tie the knot
As the 19th century progressed, couples had more choice over where they made it official
Around the time that Victoria ascended the throne, new laws came into force regulating how her subjects could marry. Up until then, all marriages had to be performed according to the rites of the Church of England, with only Jews and Quakers exempt. The Marriage Act 1836 made it possible to have a civil ceremony in a register office. The act also allowed nonconformist Christians and Catholics to marry according to their own rites, as long as they did so in a registered place of worship and with a civil registrar in attendance. And from 1856, non-Christian places of worship could also be registered for marriage.
Despite the reforms, most couples continued to marry in an Anglican church. By 1900, such marriages still accounted for two-thirds of the total, with only one-sixth of couples choosing a civil ceremony. The fact that civil weddings took place in the actual office of the registrar may have put off many. One witness commented that he “never saw such a marriage in my life – there was no ring put on”. On the other hand, a civil ceremony did offer more privacy than one in church. Unsurprisingly, bigamists were twice as likely to choose a register office than was the norm.
The laws governing who could marry remained unchanged by the 1836 act, however: girls could marry at 12 and boys at 14. Not that marriages under those ages were necessarily invalid. If the couple remained together once both had reached the legal age, the marriage was binding. Even when, in 1885, it was made a criminal offence to have sex with a girl under the age of 16, the fact that the couple were married was a valid defence.
Anybody marrying under the age of 21 was encouraged to ensure they had parental approval. Those who falsely swore on oath that they were of age and had parental consent could forfeit any property they might otherwise have gained through their marriage. Parents had the power to forbid the banns of marriage for children under 21 – but there were plenty of ways of getting married without one’s parents knowing, including eloping to a parish where the couple were unknown.
Edmund Leighton’s The Wedding Register. The 1836 Marriage Act allowed civil ceremonies in a register office