Marriage Allegations, Bonds and Licences in England and Wales
There have always been some people who want to marry in a hurry or in private. The church allowed them to avoid the delay and publicity of calling banns on three successive Sundays by providing, for a fee, a marriage licence. The information given in order to obtain the licence may include detail not available elsewhere. The centrally filed record may lead directly to the place of marriage and may survive when the marriage record itself has been lost.
Couples in a hurry or requiring privacy might include those where:
1. The bride was pregnant or the groom was on leave from the Army or Navy.
2. The parties differed greatly in age, such as a widow marrying a much younger man or an old man marrying a young woman.
3. The parties differed in social standing, such as a master marrying a servant.
4. The parties differed in religion or did not attend the parish church because they were Nonconformists or Roman Catholics.
5. The parties were of full age but still faced family opposition to their marriage.
6. The parties had already married, perhaps in Scotland or overseas, and wished to clarify their status in English law.
Those requiring privacy for these reasons could also, as a result of the shorter residence requirement of the licence and the ease with which the residence requirement could be avoided, marry away from their usual places of residence. The resulting ceremony might well cost less than a local wedding and this may have been an incentive in much the same way as later quiet marriages in register offices, after 1837, also avoided cost. Such marriages would be difficult to trace if it were not for the central record of the issuing of the licence.
From quite early times people of social standing who did not wish to attend the parish church to hear their banns called married by licence. A marriage by licence therefore became a standard symbol of social status. Very grand people who wanted to marry in a private house or chapel could pay even higher fees for a special licence. However, for the above reasons licences are found right across the social scale. Overseers of the poor, for instance, might pay for a licence to marry off a pregnant pauper before the birth of her child.
Before the Reformation the calling of banns was not allowed during times of fasting and repentance and two of these "closed" periods survived the 16th century: Advent (from the Sunday nearest to 30 November to 13 January) and Lent (from Septuagesima Sunday, the third Sunday before Lent, to Low Sunday, the first after Easter). Although these restrictions were forgotten during the Commonwealth, Advent remained unpopular for marriage until the late 17th century and Lent continued to be avoided until at least the mid-18th century. If good cause could be shown, however, a licence to marry in one of these periods might be issued.
Allegations and Bonds
The church had issued licences to marry, dispensing with banns, at least from the 14th century. The system was not, however, codified until Canons of 1604 which said that a licence should only be granted "upon good caution and security taken". From that date the person applying for the licence, who was usually though not always, the bridegroom, provided a bond and an allegation and these were generally filed in the registry, although not all survive.
The allegation (or affidavit) was a formal statement by the applicant about the ages, marital status and places of residence of the parties, usually including some statement of the groom's occupation, to which was added an oath that there was no formal impediment "of kindred or alliance" to the marriage.
The exact ages of the parties may appear but sometimes only a rough age is given and after 1754 "twenty-one years and upwards" regularly appears, although practice varied in different places. If either of the parties was under 21 then a formal written statement of approval by the appropriate parent or guardian was required. No person under the age of 21 - unless already married and widowed - was allowed to marry in church without the permission of their parents.
The bond, sworn "by two sufficient witnesses", one of whom was usually the groom, his father or a friend, pledged to forfeit a large sum of money (ranging from £40 to £200), if there was any consanguinity (a relationship within the prohibited degrees) between the parties or any pre-contract to another person. The large sum of money to be forfeit was intended to underline the serious nature of the oath, and it should not be thought that the couple had these funds at their disposal. The second bondsman soon became a formality, any convenient person acting. Later the second bondsman was often completely fictitious, names like John Doe and Richard Row being used.
Prior to 1754 the marriage was supposed to take place in the parish in which one of the parties had lived for four weeks "and in no other place" but in fact there was much flexibility. Sometimes no place was stipulated or a choice of two, three or four parishes was given. Even then the marriage is often found in a different place altogether. After 1754 the system was tightened up and the marriage had to take place in the parish stated and where one of the parties resided. The residential requirement was reduced to fifteen days in 1823 but was easily avoided by establishing a temporary residence.
For a short time, between 15 September 1822 and 26 March 1823, some evidence of age, usually in the form of a baptismal certificate, was required when an application was made for a licence and this was then filed. Their provision caused problems and in 1823 this requirement, along with that for a separate bond, was discontinued.
Not all bonds and allegations survive, but in most jurisdictions the records are relatively complete from 1660 onwards. In London the Bishop of London issued a great many licences, now held at the Guildhall Library. The allegations and indexes 1597-1900 have been filmed [FHL 279 reels, 563011 etc.] as have the bonds 1664-1823 [FHL 60 reels, 2094170 etc.]. It remains uncertain as to whether the Archdeacons of London (after 1691) and of Middlesex (after 1669) continued to issue licences or if (as with those of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster between 1699 and 1772 and after 1804) the allegations and bonds were sold as waste paper.
The great majority of licences were obtained from the bishop of the diocese in which one of the parties lived and in which the marriage was to take place. The licence, although authenticated with the seal of the bishop, was granted on his behalf by his chancellor (an ecclesiastical lawyer) or by one of several local clergy (often the rural dean), called surrogates, acting as deputies for the chancellor. A note that the licence had been issued was, in some dioceses, made in an act book or register of the bishop's court (in Latin before 1733) and the bonds and allegations were generally filed there.
In 1597 the recommended fee for a licence was ten shillings, but Richard Grey, writing in 1730, says that a fee of five shillings was then normal. At the end of the 19th century the fees, including ten shillings' tax, varied from about £2 to £3.
Although the majority of licences were issued by bishops, in cases where the parties both came from parishes within some smaller ecclesiastical jurisdiction (that of an archdeacon, dean and chapter, or any peculiar), the officials in those areas sometimes issued a licence, and these smaller jurisdictions should not be overlooked. The parishes in each are shown in the Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers and the surviving records are listed in the Gibson Guide mentioned below. Not all archdeacons and peculiars (parishes not subject to the jurisdiction of the bishop in whose diocese they were located) issued marriage licences. The majority seem to have ceased to do so at some date in the 19th century.
The applicant took the sealed licence to the church where the marriage was to be celebrated as the clergyman's authority to conduct the ceremony. Afterwards, having no further value, it was held for a while among the church records and then destroyed. Today it is sometimes given to the married couple.
Prior to 1754 the entry in the marriage registers may be marked "by Lic." but in many instances the fact that the marriage was by licence will not be indicated. From 1754 the entry always says whether the marriage followed banns or licence.
Because of its general authority one occasionally finds that a licence has been accepted in a place not specified in the document. Many licences were issued by local clergymen acting as surrogates and before 1754 many of the marriages they authorised took place in their own churches and not in the churches specified. Elsewhere, the licence was frequently applied for on the day before the marriage, but in these cases it is often found to have been issued on the same day.
The licence was valid for three calendar months. Sometimes, of course, although a licence was obtained, no marriage took place and a later licence may then perhaps be found allowing marriage to another party. The licence itself is not, of course, evidence that a marriage actually took place.
If the parties came from different dioceses in the same province they could obtain a "Common" Licence from the vicar general of the archbishop of that province, Canterbury of York. Perhaps because of the convenience or prestige involved, many couples who did not live in different dioceses obtained their licences from the Vicars General. Their indexes should on no account be overlooked. The licences issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury are particularly important in this respect and enable many marriages in the London area to be located easily. These licences were issued at a centrally located office in Knightrider Street, Doctors' Commons, near St Paul's Cathedral.
The allegations received by the Vicar General of the Archbishop of Canterbury are at Lambeth Palace Library, London SE1 7JU, and commence in 1660, being bound into volumes. They have been published in the Harleian Society's Visitation Series, volumes 23 (1885) for 1660-79 [FHL 942 B4h v.23], 30 (1890) for 1679-87 [FHL film 162057.1], 31 (1890) for 1687-94 [FHL 942 B4h v.31] and volumes 33-34 (1892) for the entries for 1660-79 omitted from volume 23 [FHL 942 B4h v.33-34]. The entries are included in Boyd's Marriage Index to 1709. The allegations and indexes 1660-1851 have been filmed by the Family History Library [FHL 267 reels, 375222 etc.] and there are copies of the films at the Society of Genealogists. Indexes of names have been compiled by the Society of Genealogists from 1694 to 1851 and are published on microfiche and in hard copy form [FHL 9 vols. 942 K22v]. These indexes 1694-1850 are also available on a pay-per-view basis on the EnglishOrigins website at http://www.englishorigins.com.
The bonds for these licences 1666-1823, also at Lambeth Palace Library, will usually provide the occupation of the groom if this does not appear in the allegation [not filmed by FHL].
The licences issued by the Vicar General of the Archbishop of York are at the Borthwick Institute, University of York, Heslington, York YO10 5DD (http://www.york.ac.uk/inst/bihr), and commence in 1660. Many earlier licences used to exist and extracts of these for the period 1567-1714, made by the 19th century antiquary, William Paver, were printed by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society [see the FHL Title Catalog under "Paver's Marriage Licences"]. These are indexed in Boyd's Marriage Index for Yorkshire, the word "Paver" appearing instead of the name of the parish, causing many mystified genealogists to reach for a gazetteer! Valuable abstracts of the later licences have been published by the Institute as An index to the Archbishop of York's Marriage Bonds and Allegations, 1735-1839 [FHL 9 vols. 942.74 K22n].
If one party to a marriage lived in the Province of York and the other in that of Canterbury then a licence to marry could only be obtained from the Master of Faculties of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The licences issued by the Faculty Office are at Lambeth Palace Library.
Prior to 1632 they survive only for the years 1543-49 and 1567-75. The full details from the allegations for these early years were printed by the Harleian Society in its Visitation Series, volume 24 (1886) [FHL 942 54h v.24; CD-ROM no 4238; film 162053.2]. Readers should note that the title page of the volume says that it includes records to 1869, but the later entries are only a tiny proportion of those that survive. An index of names 1632-1714 was printed in the British Record Society's Index Library, volume 33 (1905) [FHL film 962731.3; fiche 6073751], and those entries fully extracted in the Harleian Society volume are marked with an asterisk. No licences were issued between 1650 and 1660. All the entries prior to 1714 are indexed in the Miscellaneous Series of Boyd's Marriage Index.
The allegations 1632-1851 and calendars 1632-1955 have been filmed by the Family History Library [FHL 232 reels, 355430 etc.] and there are copies at the Society of Genealogists, 1715-1851. Indexes of names have been compiled by the Society of Genealogists and published on microfiche [FHL has 1726-1750 on fiche 6202698 and 1801-1825 on fiche 6202699]. These indexes 1701-1850 are also available on a pay-per-view basis on the EnglishOrigins website mentioned above.
The bonds for Faculty Office licences, 1694-1824, also at Lambeth Palace Library, will provide the occupation of the groom if this does not appear in the allegation [not filmed by FHL].
Prior to January 1755 the Vicars General and after that date the Archbishop of Canterbury through his Faculty Office could also issue "Special" Licences allowing marriage "at any time and in any church or chapel or other meet and convenient place". Considered to be "special acts of grace and favor" on the part of the Archbishop, their granting was much restricted in 1759. From about 1866 they begin to specify the place of marriage.
The numbers issued were tiny (six in 1730, twenty-two in 1830) compared with 2,700 common licences issued annually through the Vicar General and Faculty Offices, but the number greatly increased after the Second World War. At the end of the 19th century the average fee was about £30. The allegations, always made through a proctor, were bound with those of the Faculty Office and their indexes have been published to 1851 as described above.
Scotland and Ireland
Different marriage laws in Scotland mean that very few marriages followed licence, although they may be found in periods in the 17th century when the Episcopalian Church was in the ascendant.
From 1754 to 1845 all marriages in Ireland, excepting only those of Quakers and Jews, were supposed to take place according to the rites of the Church of Ireland, and licences were issued in much the same way as in England. Extracts from those issued by the Archbishop of Armagh 1629-1810 and by the Bishop of Dublin 1638-1824, with copies of parts of the calendars of licences for the other dioceses (except Derry), survive at the National Archives of Ireland, but practically all the allegations and bonds have been destroyed. Details are given in the Gibson Guide mentioned below.
Registrar's Certificates and Licences
From 1 July 1837 it has also been possible for a marriage to take place, without banns, in a District Register Office or in a certified building (usually a Roman Catholic or Nonconformist church or chapel), either by Certificate or by Licence, both issued by the Local Superintendent Registrar. See the separate article on 'Marriage by Registrar's Certificate or Licence in England and Wales'.
Records and Resources
The whereabouts of surviving records, transcripts and indexes are shown in the Gibson Guide, Bishops Transcripts and Marriage Licences, Bonds and Allegations (Federation of Family History Societies, 5th edition, 2001) [FHL has 4th ed. 1997, 942 K23]. Most have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. A catalogue of the collection at the Society of Genealogists is provided by Marriage licences abstracts and indexes in the library of the Society of Genealogists (Society of Genealogists, 4th edition, 1991) [FHL has 3rd ed. 1987, 942 K23c].
The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, Dyfed SY23 3BU, has a card index to all the surviving marriage bonds of the Welsh dioceses prior to 1837 [not filmed by FHL]. The marriage bond index may be searched on the internet using the ISYS:web catalogue.
A useful index, with abstracts of about 20,000 original marriage licences 1713-1892, collected mainly from churches in the London area by Frederick Arthur Crisp (some of the originals have since been dispersed), is at the Society of Genealogists [not filmed by FHL].
[Adapted from Anthony Camp's article 'The history and value of genealogical records: marriage by licence' in Practical Family History (UK), no. 53 (May 2002) pages 34-36].
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