From the 14th century, marriage licences were issued for a fee, so that couples could get married quicker than by banns. In later years it also meant they could get married without anyone else finding out, as there was no proclamation of the impending marriage like there is with marriage by banns. Early marriage licences only gave exemption from one or two callings of banns (there are usually three in total), or allowed the ceremony to take place at seasons normally forbidden (never both).
It was customary for people who wanted to display their wealth to be married by licence, and it is estimated that 2-3% of marriages in England were by licence between 1694 and 1850. Remember that these licences only give a couple permission to get married, they are not proof of an actual marriage taking place. As such, a small proportion of these issued marriage licences will not have resulted in an actual marriage.
Between 1754 and 1837, when all marriages had to take place in the parish church by law, non-conformist couples commonly married by licence.
Applying for a marriage licence
The granting of a marriage licence resulted in four different entries being recorded – a marriage allegation, a marriage bond, the marriage licence itself, and an entry in the marriage licence register. The process was as follows. When applying for a marriage licence, the groom would have to sign an allegation stating that there was no legal impediment to the marriage. They would then sign a marriage bond, agreeing to pay the Church a large sum of money if they had lied in this allegation. Upon this being done, the parish official would give them the marriage licence, and record its issuing in the marriage licence register. The groom would then give the licence to the celebrant of the marriage, who would sometimes return it to the Diocesan registry, and sometimes return it to the couple. Practises were different in different parishes.
What’s in a marriage licence
The entries in marriage licence registers are very brief, naming only the couple and their parishes, along with the date of issue of the licence. They are useful if the parish where a marriage took place is not known, or where a marriage cannot be found because the parish registers and bishops transcript’s have not survived.
Marriage bonds and allegations are the most informative documents. However, even they contain little additional information. Exact ages were often not recorded, with just an effort made to distinguish between parties over and under the age of 21. The names of one parent or guardian are only recorded in the case of minors intending to be wed. The names, marital status and parishes of the parties are generally given on marriage allegations, together with the groom’s trade. Names, trades and parishes of the groom may also be given on a marriage bond.
Surviving marriage licences
Most marriage licences themselves have not survived, but entries in the relevant marriage licence register may still exist. In general, marriage licence registers exist as early as the 1500’s, but coverage is extremely patchy this far back. Preservation gradually improves towards the 19th century records. The earliest surviving bonds and allegations tend to be from the 17th century.
Where to find marriage licences
You can search indexes of marriage licences, bonds & allegations on some of the online genealogy sites. Each site has different sets of data, so be sure to check them all for the records you need. Your county record office will have many original licences, bonds & allegations, as does Lambeth Palace Library, which holds records of couples who were married under the Archbishop of Canterbury. If you are planning to visit in person, make sure to check beforehand on the repository’s access policy – you may need to give a day or two’s notice if you want to see certain records.