A hitch in time

A hitch in time

Leading genealogist Anthony Adolph explores marriage traditions and practice over the last few centuries

Anthony Adolph, professional genealogist

Anthony Adolph

professional genealogist


In theory, our British ancestors were free to marry whoever they wanted. Unlike, say, Hindu society, in which parents decided who their children could marry and marriage could not happen outside one’s own caste, British society left the choice up to the parties concerned. If a young couple met and fell in love, marriage was only prevented by law if they were underage, or too closely related.

Marriage between first cousins has been legal since the 1500s, but it was not until 1907 that you could marry your deceased sibling’s widow or widower. Other prohibitions included most of the close family of your deceased spouse, and marriages between aunts and uncles (or their spouses) and their nephews and nieces.

Boys below 14 and girls below 12 could not marry (this age was raised to 16 for both sexes in 1929). After Lord Hardwicke’s 1753 Marriage Act, and until they were 21, such young people were deemed ‘minors’ and had to obtain parental consent. Once 21 they were of ‘full age’ and could do as they pleased – thus plenty of young people claimed, when they could get away with it, to be ‘21 years or upwards’, when they were not.

To prevent such irregular unions, or indeed bigamy, couples had to have their intention to be married proclaimed in church, by the reading of banns: if anyone knew why they should not marry, they were supposed to stand up and say so. From the 1300s, an alternative was to obtain a licence from the church authorities, by which a bond of money was promised to be forfeited if the rules were found to have been broken. This rapidly became the preferred method for those in a hurry, or marrying against their parents’ wishes, and also for the moneyed classes generally, who left the tawdry business of having banns broadcasted to all and sundry to the poor.

For most of our ancestors, their theoretical freedom to choose their own partner was severely restricted by several factors. The main one was geography: before the invention of the bicycle, most of our ancestors’ ability to meet, court and wed a partner was restricted by how far they could walk in their free time. Conducting a successful courtship with anyone over 20 miles away risked simple exhaustion overcoming one’s ardour. Thus partners often came, if not from one’s own village, then probably from a neighbouring one. Beyond this simple circumference of opportunity was the catchment area of the local market town. People from all the market town’s hinterland went in on market days: labourers and servants were hired, and romances blossomed.

Other restricting factors were unofficial social pressures and parental interference. Generally, it was simply easier and more socially acceptable to marry within one’s own economic group and social class than to do otherwise. Generally, couples found living together far more comfortable if they shared the same cultural, social and economic backgrounds. Like-to-like marriages were therefore by far the commonest: if you ancestor was a labourer, it is overwhelmingly likely that his brothers-in-law and father-in-law were labourers too.

The Wedding March
The Wedding March, Edmund Blair Leighton

Marriages with the next social group up or down were not uncommon, though: paupers and labours; labourers and tradesmen; tradesmen and merchants; merchants and gentry; gentry and nobles; nobles and royalty. Under the genealogical microscope, such cross-border marriages may not seem too surprising: perhaps the labourer had accrued a reasonable amount of rented land; or if he was poor, perhaps the tradesman was facing penury, so the actual differences were not as great as the labels might imply. Marriages across several borders were much less common: in my day-to-day work as a genealogist I seldom ever see marriages across noticeable social gaps, such as labourers’ daughters marrying merchants. Being made pregnant by them, certainly, but not being married by them. Sex transcends all social and racial boundaries, but marriage was a social custom within a stratified society, so it tended to obey social norms.

The more money was at stake, the more likely you are to find marriages that had, actually, been arranged, in which the couple themselves probably had very little say. Apprentices often married their master’s daughters, not because they particularly wanted to but because, having passed on all his skills to a good apprentice, the master wanted to make him his son-in-law, in order to benefit in old age from the younger man’s income. When large inheritances were concerned, parents might use draconian pressure to ensure that their children married correctly. Those wishing to disobey their parents might run away, and contract a ‘clandestine’ marriage: until they were closed down in 1754, popular destinations for ‘no-questions-asked’ weddings included London’s Fleet Prison and some of the churches nearby, including St Botolph, Aldgate.

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At heart, marriage is not a religious or civil affair. It is the decision of two people to be together, and of society to recognise this. The Romans started to bring law into the matter, and Christianity strove to gain moral control of it, so by the 17th century, while some couples could and did contract ‘common law’ marriages, the vast majority of weddings were conducted by a priest, usually in church: few which were not had any real legal recognition.

Religious groups recognised their own marriage ceremonies, but the only ones that would be recognised by the state, without awkward questions being asked, were those in the established Church. In England and Wales, after Hardwicke’s Marriage Act , Anglican parish church weddings were the only ones recognised as valid. Some, such as Catholics, might have one of each – a Catholic marriage to satisfy God, and an Anglican parish church marriage to ensure that the State would not declare their children to be bastards.

English and Welsh General Registration (1837) provided the option of a registry office wedding, recognised by the state, but without church sanction, a popular option for the hasty, the irreligious or, increasingly, those contracting second marriages.

A 19th century wedding party at a photographer’s studio
A 19th century wedding party at a photographer’s studio

Death in childbirth was common. Widowers who worked long hours could not look after children too, so a quick remarriage was a common solution, and we should not be surprised to find our ancestors putting grim practicality before love. Young widows with children to feed, equally, had no choice but to find a new husband as quickly as possible.

Finally, let’s be clear: many brides went up the aisle pregnant. In the serious business of producing children who would work for them and provide for them in old age, few men wanted to risk marrying an infertile woman. ‘No sex before marriage’ was a rule very seldom upheld.

Scottish weddings

Scotland was different. Common law marriage was termed handfasting: anything from a big betrothal party to a simple nod and a wink by the couple concerned was enough to constitute a legal marriage. The established, Presbyterian church frowned on this, and until 1834 its ministers were able to pursue such miscreants and use social pressure to coerce them into formalising their union in the Kirk. From 1754, English and Welsh couples wishing to marry outside Hardwicke’s strict rules might run away north of the Border to contract a ‘clandestine’ marriage. Many special marriage houses, such as Lamberton Toll and Gretna Green, were set up to cater for them.

Gretna Green

Something old…

Upper class weddings have always been lengthy, sumptuous affairs. For the poor…

Something old, something new Something borrowed, something blue And a silver sixpence in her shoe

…was the norm, and often the ‘something new’ was often over-ambitious, unless it was simply a wreath of wild flowers or foliage in the bride’s hair. You will often find weddings on or near Christmas Day, as this was the only time in the year when demands of work relented, factories ceased temporarily, and families could make long journeys to come together. Witnesses were usually siblings or siblings-in-law, but in some churches one witness might be a churchwarden or other official would act as a regular one to all weddings, and thus of no genealogical significance.

Wedding rings

Family weddings

Mary Ann PatersonPatrick KilduffWedding breakfast menu
My great grandparents Patrick Kilduff and Mary Ann Paterson who married in 1879

Wedding memorabilia features prominently amongst many people’s family papers. Mine include a number that stretch across the generations, from my parents’ marriage to my mother’s parents, Jerome Rietchel and Maureen Denning in 1934, and then back to the marriage of Jerome’s grandparents, Patrick Kilduff and Mary Ann Paterson in 1879. The latter was a very grand affair, the wedding at St Mary’s Stoke Newington being followed by a wedding breakfast at the Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras, the magnificent Gothic frontage of St Pancras station that was then six years old, and which has recently been restored and reopened. Given how much they must have spent on the elaborate French cuisine, I’m not surprised the menu was such a cherished heirloom. Jerome’s wedding in Ruislip in 1934 was a less ostentatious affair, but it was reported in minute detail by the local newspaper.

Jerome Rietchel and Maureen Denning in 1934Jerome Rietchel and Maureen Denning announcement
My mother’s parents marriage, Jerome Rietchel and Maureen Denning in 1934

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