I Do’s and I Don’ts: The Act of Marriage
Updated: May 4, 2022
By Mary Smythe, author of Dare to Refuse Such A Man
If you, dear reader, are so kind as to pick up a copy of my novel, you’ll find that the Marriage Act of 1753 is entirely central to its plot. Without this particular law in effect during the regency period, my book could have been summarized thusly:
Mr Darcy: Mr Bennet, Miss Elizabeth has kindly accepted my offer of marriage. May we have your blessing?
Mr Bennet: No!
Mr Darcy: Your opinion has been duly noted.
Save for a few tears and exclamations from Mrs Bennet, I could have then cued the wedding bells for our dear couple. With the Marriage Act in effect, however, a much longer, more interesting story was born.
The Marriage Act of 1753—also known as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage act or, if you’re feeling spicy today, ‘An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage’—was a piece of legislation which more strictly regulated what constituted a valid marriage within English borders. It wasn’t created to kill romance (which, honestly, was a fairly new concept for married couples at the time), but rather for the sake of more accurate record keeping and the prevention of unsanctioned unions. Before this, marriage was strictly under the domain of the Church of England, not civil law, and the Church’s sole requirement was that the wedding be conducted by an Anglican clergyman.
This might seem fairly straightforward, but a single rule will never be enough to coordinate something so complicated. So long as witnesses (even those of dubious veracity) could be produced to swear that two people were married, most others considered them so. As you might imagine, it was something of a quagmire for church and government officials at the time to keep track of whom was married to whom, never mind whether or not the proper forms had been attended to in bringing it about. The Type-A organizational nerd in me cringes at the very thought of trying to untangle that mess.
Clandestine marriage was mostly a concern for the upper classes, who had lines of who had who had lines of succession and large piles of money to worry about. After all, who sincerely cared if a fisherman was really married to his wife when it came down to it? Maybe their local rector, but likely few others. In wealthy, connected families, however, it was imperative that their sons and daughters marry well to protect both their reputations and their finances. Before 1753, it was a much simpler thing for unsanctioned weddings to take place since there were fewer checks and balances to prevent them.
And so the Marriage Act put some basic stipulations in place:
Couples must either purchase a license or have banns read on three consecutive Sundays at their parish church(es). The latter provides opportunity for parents (or anyone else) to raise an objection. In the former, an affidavit is sworn (generally by the groom) that there are no impediments to the union.
The ceremony must be performed by a clergyman ordained in the Church of England.
Said ceremony must take place between the hours of 8 am and noon.
Witnesses must be present (and sign the register).
The couple themselves must sign the church register at the close of the ceremony.
Couples must be at least twenty-one years of age or obtain parental consent.
There were certain individuals and groups who were exempt from the law—such as Jews and Quakers, though all that really meant was that the validity of their marriages was still suspect until 1836 when another act more to that purpose was passed—but for the most part the English were bound by the above restrictions if they wanted to marry their sweethearts. If a couple wished to circumvent them, they would need to do something either drastic or crafty, such as eloping to Scotland where The Act was not in effect. Therein lay other issues, however, as the expense required to do so was not insignificant and these so-called ‘anvil marriages’ were still arguably invalid. Not to mention the beating everyone’s reputations would take in doing so.
The item which most specifically relates to Dare to Refuse Such a Man, of course, is the last one listed, that which requires underage couples to receive parental consent before getting hitched. In my book, Mr Bennet does, in fact, dare to refuse Mr Darcy when he wants to marry Elizabeth, who is several months shy of her majority. Instead, Mr Bennet has other plans (no spoilers) in mind for her that don’t include letting her move away to Derbyshire.
You might think that this would be the end of our dear couple’s fondest wish, but not so! As much as they require Mr Bennet’s consent to marry, Mr Bennet equally requires Elizabeth’s consent to obey his alternate plans. Though he could threaten his daughter with any number of consequences, she can either bow to his will or accept them. And so they’re at an impasse; Elizabeth can’t marry someone her father doesn’t approve of, but neither can Mr Bennet force her to say ‘yes’ to another suitor. And so the issue of consent is deeper even than that described in the marriage act above. Oh, the drama!
And so who really has the final word? Read my book to find out!
Courtship & Marriage in Jane Austen’s World by Maria Grace
Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England by Roy & Lesley Adkins
Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England from 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes