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Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act (or the Marriage Act of 1753)

This week’s Wednesday Wedding Fact is a trip into the vaults of the laws which underpin current marriage law in the UK.

It may sound boring if you’re not into history….but the roots of this “Act” are actually quite fascinating…read on!

Firstly, Lord Hardwicke was a Lawyer and also Lord Chancellor to various Prime Ministers such as Robert Walpole between 1737 and 1756.

His Act in 1753 set out to stop a lot of the problems such as the groom needing to carry a sword or having his Best Man present!

Still awake?

He’s probably best known for introducing the Marriage Act of 1753, which aimed to decrease the amount of skulduggery involved in the act of marriage.

Before his act, common-law marriages were common. Under common-law marriages, anybody could perform the marriage act between husband and wife…it didn’t have to be the local vicar (Registrars didn’t come into being until 1836), and the ceremony didn’t have to be performed in a place of worship.

The rules about who could get married were also very lax.

There were no hard and fast rules regarding witnesses, intention to marry/banns being declared, and as a result, many clandestine marriages were performed.

Also known as “Fleet Marriages” (after marriages performed in Fleet Prison), these marriages were often performed in less than ideal conditions and in secret….the bride and groom were often trying to hide something!

Hardwicke’s Act set out to “standardise” the way in which marriages were performed to ensure that they were legal.

His Act included:

  • Laying out where a couple may be married (usually a religious building and indeed rules were set out as to how long one of you must have lived in the parish in which you were to be married!)
  • Who may or may not be married (such as siblings…eeew!)
  • The requirement for at least two witnesses to be present during the ceremony
  • The minimum age at which couples could be married.
  • That children born outside of wedlock may not automatically inherit property or titles from their parents.

Other interesting points are that:

  • Marriages had to take place in a public place (to allow anybody to attend and object if necessary)
    In fact did you know that even in current times, if somebody raises an objection to your marriage during the ceremony at the part where the officiant asks if “anybody knows of any legal cause why these two should not be bound in marriage”….that the ceremony cannot go ahead for another 24 hours, regardless of the basis of the objection?
  • Marriages had to take place during daylight hours (so that the bride and groom could see that they were marrying the right person…believe it or not, many marriages before the Act led to the wrong people being married for financial reasons!)
  • The bride had to remove her veil at the altar so that her groom could see that he was marrying the correct woman!

The “Act” didn’t apply in Scotland however, and led to couples fleeing across the border to Gretna Green where the ‘smithy’s were still able to perform the act of marriage quite legally!

This is one of the reasons that a wedding today must take part in a place open to the public…you cannot by LAW exclude anyone from attending your wedding!

In England and Wales, common-law marriage was for all intents and purposes outlawed under Hardwicke’s Act. After the Act was introduced, only marriages performed by the Church of England, Quakers, or under Jewish Law were recognised as being legal in England and Wales.

It wasn’t until the Act was amended in 1836 that Civil ceremonies, or those performed by the Catholic Church and Non-Conformists became legally recognised.

Any other form of marriage (including the Pagan tradition of had tying and popular up until this time) was abolished.

What did the Act achieve?

Actually, quite a lot.

It stopped a lot of underage weddings. It stopped a lot of illegitimate weddings (such as those between close relations). It stopped bigamy, and to an extent stopped the practice of brides being married against their will.

So there you have it.

A bit of a history lesson, but much of Hardwicke’s Act is still enshrined in the latest Acts of Parliament regarding marriage.

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