Regency Marriage ~ Licenses & Banns

Regency Marriage ~ Licenses & Banns

Today I continue my five-part series on marriage during the Georgian to Regency Eras. This segment, #2 of the series, will discuss the differences between banns and licenses.

Here are the links to all FIVE parts of the series —

Part 1 – The Legalities
Part 2 – Banns and Licenses
Part 3 – The Ceremony Prep
Part 4 – The Garments
Part 5 – The Vows & The Celebration

Marriage requirements in England according to Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753–

  1. a couple needed a license and the reading of the banns to marry
  2. parental consent if either was under the age of 21
  3. the ceremony must take place within a public chapel or church by authorized clergy
  4. the marriage must be performed between 8am and noon before witnesses
  5. the marriage had to be recorded in the marriage register with the signatures of both parties, the witnesses, and the minister.

Essentially these five “rules” were the law as applied to legal marriages in England. There were, however, a few caveats and legal options. Number one, for instance, had three different options, as noted below. Which path was chosen depended on the circumstances and wealth of the persons involved.

A.  Calling of the Banns. This was the cheapest way, ie- it cost nothing. For three consecutive Sundays prior to the wedding, the Church of England clergyman in the parish where the groom and bride lived would announce the intended marriage from the pulpit. The following is what would be recited—

“I publish the Banns of marriage between Groom’s Name of–his local parish–and Bride’s Name of–her local parish. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first [second, third] time of asking.”



If the persons marrying came from separate parishes, the curate of one parish could not solemnize the wedding without a certificate from the other curate stating the Banns had been “thrice called” and no objections had been lodged.

The “objections” mentioned were the point to the Calling of the Banns. Banns were not to inform the parishioners of the coming union or as an invitation to the wedding, but to ask of those citizens who presumably knew the couple if there were any impediments to the marriage. This is the origin of the objection line in modern ceremonies. The difference in the Regency was the allotted time — two weeks at least — for anyone to come forward. If there were objections, the person would go to the clergyman directly and give evidence of why one or the other was not free to wed.

Once the three Banns were called, with no objections, the couple then had ninety days to finalize the ceremony. If not done for whatever reason, the Banns would need to be called again.

B.  Common or Ordinary License was the second option. Clergyman of the Church of England could issue a marriage license for a few shillings to a pound. This license was valid for fifteen days, and the couple could marry in either of their resident parishes. Other stipulations applied, such as being a resident of the marrying parish, and a sworn statement had to be given by both that there were no impediments.

With a common license there was not the two-week delay while waiting for the reading of the Banns. However, the ceremony still had to take place in a sanctified church by a clergyman between 8am and noon. The other requirements also had to be met.

C.  Special License was obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury in Doctors Commons in London. The big differences between the “special” license and the “common” license were the cost – over 20 guineas plus a £4 to £5 Stamp Duty for the paper – and that the couple could be married at any time of the day and anywhere they wanted. All the other requirements were the same.

As you can imagine, only someone very wealthy with a very good reason to pay the money, and go to the trouble of traveling to London and gaining an audience with the Archbishop of Canterbury, would hassle with it. Not an easy task even if rich.

1818 parish register
1818 Church Parish Register. Click for larger image.


Those were the three legitimate avenues in England for a couple to marry. Briefly I should mention that the only exception to the Church of England rule were for those of the Jewish faith who married in a synagogue, and Catholics, Dissenters, and Quakers who married in churches of their own faith.

GretnaGreen anvilAnd of course we all know about the famous Gretna Green. Indeed, Scotland had different laws, and minors could marry without parental consent. The town of Gretna Green was not special, as far as the laws go, it was simply the closest town over the border via the main coaching road from London. Fast to reach if a couple were eloping!

All that was required was to pledge your troth in the presence of another person. Any person. As it happens, historically the first place reached once crossing into Scotland was a blacksmith. Elopement to Scotland came to be known as “marrying over the anvil” by these “anvil priests.”

Marriage at Gretna Green blacksmith shop


Last, but not least to the marriage legalities portion, was the official newspaper announcement. This was for the social aspects rather than an actual law, but if one was of the upper classes it was a crucial step.

Return next Monday, March 24 for a post on the ceremony preparations.


8 Comments for Regency Marriage ~ Licenses & Banns

  1. The only exceptions were for Jews and Quakers. Everyone else had to follow the rules including Catholics and Baptists and Methodist and Presbyterians. No ceremony in England for any one except Quakers and Jews that didn’t follow the rules was valid. Catholics had to be married in the church of England parish church for their marriages to be valid. Only bishops of the various Diocese or their representatives could issue common/standard licenses within tehir disocese. The Bishop of London couldn’t issue a license for some one to marry in Durham. There was a seven day wait.
    There was no waiting period in Scotland during the first score of years or so of the 19th century. I think the waiting period was imposed sometime in the 20’s . I just know i there was no waiting during the regency period.
    Death bed marriages were difficult to obtain without a special license. If banns had already been called and a man wanted to marry his mistress or housekeeoer or someone and there was no one to complain the pastor could conduct the service . If no one complained or contested her right the marriage would stand. It would be valid as far as the church was concerned but not by the letter of the law.
    Byron wrote to the Archbishop about a special license and was told to apply to Doctors’ Commons. He was embarrassed that he didn’t know that. Then he applied in the afternoon but only had to come back the next day to pick it up. The license was all hand written Most people received theirs the same day. parents, and solicitors do appear to have been able to obtain the special license for a couple. Had to have some authorization and ability to swear to the truth of the information but it appears that they could obtain it. It was easier for many to just marry by common license when they weren’t near London as it would usually take more than the seven days for letters to be sent and messengers to arrive etc.

  2. I was really happy to find this post. I love Jane Austen novels but have never known what they were talking about with the banns and special licenses. Thank you!!

  3. I have always wondered just how long it would take to obtain the license once someone applied for it. I remember reading somewhere that Lord Byron was upset that it took over a certain amount of time (which I don’t recall offhand). I’m guessing it would depend on what time of year, and if the archbishop or his copying/recording clerk were very busy (or holding off because of the person applying). Is there any general waiting period involved, and once the document is prepared, how would one know?


  4. I wonder if any exceptions were granted in cases of one person being near death. No quickie marriages then except for Gretna Green, and I’ve heard that today, even Scottish marriages must go through a waiting period. Thank you for the helpful info!!

    • Good question, June. I didn’t find anything on that scenario in my research, but I am a believer in exceptions for just about any rule. Still, the legalities seemed fairly strict.

    • This is a very good question, Debra. Sorry for the delay in response. I have been ill, and wanted to dig a bit to make sure I was correct in the answer.

      In short, no. The groom, at the least, and bride-to-be if possible, had to personally solemnly swear before the Archbishop himself (or one of the Archbishop’s officials) that there were no impediments to the marriage. Legally and ethically no one could do this other than the gentleman seeking the license.

      As glamorous as the whole “special license” idea is within romance novels – and the flighty minds of people like Mrs. Bennet – obtaining one was very, very rare. Similar to one thinking there must have been thousands of handsome, bachelor Dukes running around England based on the number of novels on romance shelves, special licenses are now perceived as being doled out willy-nilly. LOL!

      Almost all the serious sources on the subject agree that getting a special license was very unusual. Even a rich man could not simply walk into the office and plop down the cash. There were “eligibility” rules, for one, meaning that only those of the aristocracy or highly elevated rank were able to apply at all. Secondly, there had to be a very good reason to ask for one. The benefit of having a special license (which really did not amount to much of a difference than a common license) generally did not outweigh the hassles.

      Interesting info from one source: “Prior to January 1755 the Vicars General, and after that date the Archbishop of Canterbury through his Faculty Office, could also issue “Special” Licenses 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… The numbers issued were tiny (six in 1730, twenty-two in 1830) compared with 2,700 common licenses issued annually through the Vicar General and Faculty Offices, but the number greatly increased after the Second World War.” *Full article here:,_Bonds_and_Licences_in_England_and_Wales

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