Choose where to tie the knot

As the 19th cen­tury pro­gressed, cou­ples had more choice over where they made it of­fi­cial

BBC History Magazine - - Victorian Weddings -

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

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