The Bonds that Last

The Bonds that Last

Marriages created numerous useful records beyond the standard parish registers, as Jenny Jones explains

Jenny Jones, Retired nurse with over 30 years of experience in family history

Jenny Jones

Retired nurse with over 30 years of experience in family history

Marriage licence records are important resources which can offer family historians a useful way of discovering additional information not generally found in the parish registers themselves.

Marriages by licence have existed since the 16th century. While they were initially the preserve of the rich, this subsequently became the marriage of choice for lower classes provided that they could prove they were free to marry.

People married by licence for a variety of reasons: for example, a couple who needed to marry in haste because the bride was pregnant, or a groom who had limited leave time from army or navy services or needed to return abroad for work. Others may have objected to having banns read out publicly in church – perhaps where there was a significant difference in ages between prospective spouses, or the groom was a widowed man who wished to marry soon after the death of his first wife. There are even examples of those with unusual surnames wishing to avoid public humiliation!

Most commonly, licences were chosen by people of different faiths. Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 stipulated that everyone except Jews and Quakers must marry in Anglican churches, whether by licence or banns. This caused much consternation among Catholics. Other Nonconformists, who previously could marry in a chapel with two witnesses, preferred to marry by licence to reduce the number of occasions they would have to attend an Anglican church.

For other couples, residency laws were an issue. Before the Marriage Act, couples seeking to marry in a parish where neither resided required a licence. From 1754, one or both parties should be resident in a parish for four weeks prior to a wedding, whether by banns or licence. Couples who obtained a licence then had a choice of two or three churches in which to marry. The licence was valid for three months.

Remember that the existence of a marriage bond/allegation merely shows that a marriage licence was applied for – it does not prove that the couple actually married.

Canon law stipulated that marriages should take place in the ‘forenoon’ and were forbidden at Advent (from the Sunday nearest to 30 November until 13 January) and Lent (from the third Sunday before Lent, to the first after Easter). If good cause could be shown, however, a licence to marry in one of these periods might be issued.

The process of obtaining a licence was complex but it therefore generated three or four possible avenues of research for family historians.

Which court?
This depended on where the bride and groom were living. It is usual that marriages took place in the bride’s parish, but in many cases it was the groom’s parish, and if a blind eye approach was taken, it could have been in neither. The diocesan boundaries were different from parish boundaries, and researchers need to know where to start the search. The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers indicates parishes and diocesan jurisdictions:

  • Where the bride and groom shared the same archdeaconry, the licence would be issue in a local court.
  • If they were from different archdeaconries but the same diocese, the Consistory Court issued the licence.
  • If the couple came from different dioceses but the same province (either Canterbury or York) the appropriate provincial court would issue the licence.
A marriage bond
A marriage bond from 1675 reproduced with thanks to North Devon Record Office

Application for licence (the ‘allegation’) and the bond
The allegation, written on printed forms, contained names of both prospective spouses, ages, occupations, marital status, parish of residence and often the intended place of marriage. Signatures of the couple and witnesses are usually present. Parental consent in the case of minors was entered on specific printed forms and their signatures would also be present. The survival of marriage allegations is more likely than the licences themselves, which were lost over time. Mostly found in loose sheet format, and rarely indexed, some later ones are bound into volumes.

Although exact ages were offered at the allegation, ages were usually recorded as ‘under 21’ or ‘over 21’ – this simply highlighted whether the parties required parental consent. Where parental consent was given, printed forms were signed and these occasionally survive with the allegations.

record of parental consent
A record of parental consent. Reproduced with thanks to North Devon Record Office

The cost of a licence was ten shillings in 1597, rising to £2-£3 by the 19th century. While the labouring poor were less likely to afford a licence, overseers would sometimes pay willingly to marry off a pregnant pauper who would otherwise become dependent on their parish. At the same application, a ‘bond’ or surety was sworn by two witnesses. The second person, usually a relative, pledged to forfeit a large sum of money (set deliberately high to deter irregular marriages, ranging from £40 to £200), in case the rules of the licence were breached. Although marriage bonds ceased after 1823, these can prove a useful family link.

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The marriage licence itself
The bishop or surrogate logged all the details (in Latin before 1733) into a Marriage Licence Register, some of which were bound into volumes and can be found at diocesan record offices or the relevant county record office.

The applicant took the sealed licence to the incumbent of the church where the marriage was to be held. Afterwards, it was held among the church records and then either destroyed or handed back to the bridegroom – therefore very few actual licences survive. From 1754 it was made compulsory for the incumbent to enter into the marriage register whether the marriage took place by banns or licence.

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