The Day that Marriage Changed
On March 25, 1754, marriage changed in Great Britain. Since most of North America was under British rule at the time, these laws effected the future U.S., as well. To this day, many states still adhere to the law.
March 25, 1754 was the day that the Hardwick Marriage Act became law. This regularized the rules under which a marriage was considered a legal union, eliminating, for the most part, questions as to the legitimacy of a marriage.
Prior to the law, the church preferred that banns be called for three consecutive Sundays before the wedding. (Mind you, weddings were not the bride in a white dress and veil with bridesmaids – affairs that came during the Victorian era). Marriages without these banns, calling out the names of the intended couple to ensure no objections to the union existed, if a couple was married by a clergyman, they were considered married. This created several other issues.
Many couples were married by clergymen in the Fleet Street prison for debt. The parsons could earn a little money to ease their plight, and the couple got a cheap and quick uniting. The problem was, no records of these marriages existed, so a woman could not prove her marriage. Guess what happened from there.
You got it—bigamy. A man or woman could marry in a church, or even have another fleet street marriage and the proof was all word of mouth from persons who were suspect.
Also before the Hardwick Act, marriage contracts were complicated and made matters touchy. If the couple didn’t share marital relations and then one of them married someone else, the most anyone could do about it was sue for breach of promise. If they did consummate the relationship, they were considered “half married” by the church, but the civil courts tied themselves into knots over this one. How can anyone ever be half married?
Then the Hardwick Marriage Act was passed by Parliament and came into law.
To get married, one had a few choices. First of all, one could be married between 8:00 and 12:00 A.M. in the parish church after the banns were called for three consecutive Sundays. Or one could obtain a Common License from the bishop or archbishop of the diocese in the parish in which one lived. The couple had to wait for seven days and sign an allegation as to the truth in a bond. The common license allowed the couple to be married in the parish church on the license and could not be changed.
Then a couple could choose a special license. This was purchased from the archbishop of Canterbury in Doctor’s Commons (London). The archbishop decided to whom he allowed a special license, and they were rather expensive. Few people other than aristocrats married by special license. This license allowed the couple to marry anywhere a couple found a clergyman.
Let me note here that Quakers and Jews were exempt from the law. Catholics were supposed to be married in their parish church—Church of England that is—before having a Roman Catholic ceremony.
Another matter reinforced with the law was how marriage could be dissolved.
Annulments were tricky to obtain. Even if the couple never consummated the marriage, they could not end the union unless the marriage was voidable or void. This is a subject complicated enough to take another thousand words to explain. The simplest way is that one party had to have been married before with a spouse still living and the union not properly severed. One party did not have a comprehension of what marriage was. One party could not perform his marital duty (generally the male) and refusal was not grounds. One party was a minor without proper permission. A few other technicalities existed as well such a consanguinity—too close a relationship. Consanguinity laws weren’t enforced until the 1820s, though.
These laws carried over into the American colonies. Licenses were so expensive, many couples, especially in the more rural colonies like North Carolina, simply moved in together and declared themselves married in the old Gaelic system. Sadly, this meant they could decide to move out and declare themselves unmarried. And many couples took this route.
In many forms the Hardwick Marriage Act still applies in the United States. People need a license to wed. Sometimes they have to wait a period of time between the license and the ceremony, and the license is only good for so many days. The lack of consummation is not a simple way to end a union in many states.
As complicated as the Hardwick Marriage Act seems to have made marriage legalities, the parameters it created by which the legitimacy of a union is decided are simplified.