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Q: 19th century marriage law in England ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   2 Comments )
Subject: 19th century marriage law in England
Category: Relationships and Society > Law
Asked by: mozart75-ga
List Price: $100.00
Posted: 18 Oct 2005 05:05 PDT
Expires: 17 Nov 2005 04:05 PST
Question ID: 581620
In England in the 19th century, what legal steps did a couple who
wished to marry have to take? What was required in the way of
documentation, sponsors, witnesses, and the like?
Subject: Re: 19th century marriage law in England
Answered By: tutuzdad-ga on 18 Oct 2005 09:35 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Dear mozart75-ga;

Great question!

In 19th Century England marriage was viewed in large part as a woman?s
understood destiny (read: expectation) and a man?s social prerogative.
By taking a wife a man essentially laid claim to her and to all her
assets. Her dowry and everything the woman possessed at the time of
the marriage or earned thereafter belonged to her husband as a matter
of common law. As his wife, the woman also became subordinate to her
husband in the same way a child or servant would be. This changed, to
some extent, in 1882 with the passage of the Married Property Act:


The reason I mention this is because, up to this point, the marriage
of a man and woman was not always a happy experience but occasionally
an act of necessity. Women of the time greatly outnumbered English men
and a woman often needed to wed to insure her livelihood and
well-being. Louisa Garrett Anderson wrote of her mother?s marriage to
her father in the 1860?s:

?To remain single was thought a disgrace and at thirty an unmarried
woman was called an old maid. After their parents died, what could
they do, where could they go? If they had a brother, as unwanted and
permanent guests, they might live in his house. Some had to maintain
themselves and then, indeed, difficulty arose. The only paid
occupation open to them a gentlewoman was to become a governess under
despised conditions and a miserable salary.?

On the matter of subordination, women were careful not to oppose their
husbands since it was much easier for a man to divorce his wife that
it was for a wife to divorce her husband. This was set forth in the
Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. Under the terms of the act, the
husband had only to prove his wife's adultery, but the wife had to
prove her husband had committed not just adultery but also incest,
bigamy, cruelty or desertion:

The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857

Marriage, then, was a social placement; an elevation or in some cases
perhaps, a demotion in social status for men as well as women. It was
possible for a man or a woman to ?marry up? or ?marry down? on the
social ladder. As Elizabeth Wolstenholme, who married Ben Elmy at the
Kensington Register Office in October 1874, put it:

?The English marriage laws are impure. English law? sins against the
law of purity. It is a species of legal prostitution the woman being
the man's property.?

In 1890 Clementina Black wrote a pamphlet On Marriage where she
explained why some women were unwilling to get married.

?Marriage, like all other human institutions, is not permanent and
alterable in form, but necessarily changes shape with the changes of
social development. The forms of marriage are transitional, like the
societies in which they exist. Each age keeps getting ahead of the
law, yet there are always some laggards of whom the law for the time
being is ahead?At present the strict letter of the law denies to a
married woman the freedom of action which more and more women are
coming to regard not only as their just but also as their dearest
treasure; and this naturally causes a certain unwillingness on the
part of the thoughtful women to marry.?

Clearly not everyone viewed marriage as an honor or memorable event,
but even more clearly, many women did it out of necessity.

Before 1837, no central register of marriages existed. Men and women
married locally and that record was retained by the church or in some
cases the curator of the local government. Civil Registration began in
England and Wales on July 1, 1837. England was divided into several
registration districts, which were each controlled by the
Superintendent Registrar. All the districts were under the control of
the Registrar General.


To obtain a license, one of the parties, normally the groom, had to
make a formal sworn statement called an ?allegation?.

Marriage Licence Allegation

This usually gave the names, ages and respective parishes of the
parties and sometimes included details of their parents and
professions. It also named the church or churches in which the
marriage could take place. Here is an image and transcript of one such
?allegation? that dates to 1846 in the marriage of Robert Browning
(the poet) and Elizabeth Barrett:


In the nineteenth century marriages were a relatively simple affair.
As a rule there was no much ado in the way of engagement. A man
obtained the woman?s parents' permission to wed her (occasionally
without her input) and occasionally, when true love was involved, a
woman would fashion a customary ring from a lock of her hair and
present it to her finance as a tentative token of commitment. This was
an old 18th century custom that may have lingered among the
old-fashioned for some time, but may have been outdated by the 1800?s.
The wedding ceremony was typically held before noon, and almost always
in the local church. Those in attendance were traditionally only
people who were close to the family, although such a ceremony might
attract locals who would linger around outside the church to catch a
glimpse of people in fine clothes, or to offer their congratulations.
The clergyman and the parish clerk would be in attendance also, of

A ring of any metal and of any size was a requirement according to the
marriage rules of the Church of England. It didn?t matter where it
came from or what it looked like but a ring was a necessity. The
following appeared in Appleton's Journal of Popular Literature,
Science, and Art in 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.?
(You will find a detailed description of a typical 19th century
English wedding here)

Following the ceremony the newly wedded couple would sign their names
in the parish registry in the vestry; the bride would sign her maiden
name to this registry one last time. A well off couple might attend a
wedding breakfast (breakfast came much later in the day in the 19th
century) that was considered extravagant for the time.

?The breakfast was such as best breakfasts then were: some variety of
bread, hot rolls, buttered toast, tongue or ham and eggs. The addition
of chocolate [note: this would have been drinking chocolate] at one
end of the table, and wedding cake in the middle, marked the specialty
of the day."

Before they departed on their honeymoon it was customary fun for the
revelers to throw shoes after the departing couple for luck.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, working class couples could
opt for a ?penny wedding? during which as many as twenty couples were
wed in a mass ceremony and each enjoyed a communal style party
afterward that included respectable dancing, drinking and merrymaking.
In exchange for the wedding the couples would each pay one penny to
the church and the party was catered in a pot-luck fashion with each
couple and their families in attendance bringing food and drink for
the attendees to dine upon. Alternatively a couple or their family
might give more than one penny to help defray the costs of food and if
any was left over it went toward the couples? start in life.


From a legal perspective here you can read about the various Courts of
The Church of England and the roles they played in marriage:


Here you can read a history about ?allegations? and the ?Bonds? of
marriage and learn where this term came from:


I hope you find that my answer exceeds your expectations. If you have
any questions about my research please post a clarification request
prior to rating the answer. Otherwise I welcome your rating and your
final comments and I look forward to working with you again in the
near future. Thank you for bringing your question to us.

Best regards;
Tutuzdad-ga ? Google Answers Researcher






Google ://












19th century


Request for Answer Clarification by mozart75-ga on 18 Oct 2005 16:19 PDT
Thanks for a most informative answer. Ihad better explain what gave
rise to my initial questions. I read Wilkie Collins's _The Woman in
White_ and was struck by the point in the plot at which Walter
Hatrright marries Laura Fairlie who has officially been declare dead
and whom everyone but her sister, Marian, and her lover-husband Walter
believe to be the person called Anne Catherick. How could Walter marry
a woman who has offically been declared dead? Did he in fact marry the
false Anne Catherick, or did he marry Laura Fairlie, even though she
was officially declared dead? If you could comment on this muddle, I'd
be most grateful.

Clarification of Answer by tutuzdad-ga on 18 Oct 2005 17:14 PDT
Ah, but WAS she declared dead? Or better still, was SHE declared dead.
Me thinks there is underhandedness and conspiracy afoot.

Let?s review how it all REALLY happened:

??Laura has promised her now deceased father to marry Sir Percival
Glyde, and chooses to keep this promise. Soon after the marriage it
becomes clear to the sisters that Percival Glyde has married Laura
only in order to get access to her money. He and his friend, the
exotic and very 'foreign' Count Foscoe, endeavour to obtain Laura's
personal fortune of 20.000 pounds. From this follows the illness of
both Marian and Laura, and an intricate replacement of Laura with her
unacknowledged, backward half-sister Anne Catherick, with the result
that Laura is declared dead and locked up in a mad house bearing Anne
Catherick's identity. Marian discovers this and rescues Laura, and
Marian and Hartright restore her from the shock her feminine
sensibility has received and unravel the mystery of the fraud. In a
grand finale, displaying a hat trick of deus ex machina, Percival
Glyde (standing in the way of Hartright and Laura's marrying) dies in
a fire, Laura's uncle Frederic Fairlie (refusing to acknowledge
Laura's identity, and thus keeping them in poverty) dies from a heart
attack, and Count Foscoe (challenging Hartright to meet him in a duel)
is killed by the Carbonari. This leaves Walter Hartright and Laura
Fairlie, now married and having reclaimed Laura's social status and
wealth, to settle back at the Limmeridge estate with Marian and their
first-born son.?

Contents Introduction Chapter 1 The ideal of femininity Chapter 2 ...

So you see, Laura Fairlie was very much alive. The whole thing was an
elaborate criminal hoax to secure her fortune, which, fortunately for
the characters involved, failed miserably with the villains reaping
their just rewards. In the end the end goodness prevailed over evil,
as well it should in such a novel.

?.and Walter and Laura, presumably, lived happily ever after in
[completely legal] wedded bliss.

The End

:) tutuzdad-ga
mozart75-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Thanks for a wonderfully informative and entertaining answer. My
doubts and puzzlements have been laid to rest. I'm more than satisfied
with your response and have learned a great deal from it. Thank you.

Subject: Re: 19th century marriage law in England
From: myoarin-ga on 18 Oct 2005 16:54 PDT
Tutuzdad has posted a great deal of pertinent information.  
I think there is an additional point, the ?banns?, announcement of the
coming marriage, originally from the pulpit, later by written
announcement.  The wikipedia site explains the purpose, referring to a
law in the 18th century.  The other site explains that it is still a
practice, so we can assume that it was also one in the 19th century,
as it still is today in many other European countries.  In some more
rural areas, it may still be a custom to hang a wreath of flowers
around the announcement, and may have been in 19th c. England.

If you don?t want to read through everything on the latter site, click
on ?Church of England ?? under Religious Marriages.

Please let me say that I don't think this omission in the least
detracts from the quality of Tutuzdad's answer (who may be setting a
record for no. of answers in one day  :).  Also, your request for
clarification is a very interesting point, but any failure to find an
answer to this really new aspect also does not lessen the quality of
the answer.
My opinion on it is that it may be some poetic license on the part of
Wilkie Collins.  Furthermore, Walter is marrying an "Anne Catherick",
whom everyone else apparently accepts to be such, so no one is doing a
"background check" on her to see if her birth is registered in some
parish.  That is the sort of thing that the passage in the wedding
ceremony is about in which the priest asks the congregation:
"Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not
lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for
ever hold his peace."

Great question and answer, Myoarin
Subject: Re: 19th century marriage law in England
From: amber00-ga on 19 Oct 2005 14:49 PDT
Actually, one of the best ways of answering your question is to read
some more Wilkie Collins, particularly his novel, 'Armadale'. This
novel explains 19th century English law on marriage in a detailed way.
The wicked Miss Gwilt (a flame-haired governess) wants the fortune of
Alan Armadale. She finds another chap also called Alan Armadale and
marries him. Her plan is to murder the first Armadale and inherit his
fortune by claiming to have entered into a secret marriage with him.
Wilkie Collins was trained as a lawyer and the legal details are
generally very accurate. He seems to have been fascinated by the
position of marginalised women  and marriage law features in a number
of his works.

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