Having trouble finding a record of a particular marriage? There are some general tips below, followed by tips for specific time periods. If you haven’t even looked for a marriage record yet, read this guide on searching for marriage records.
- Talk to surviving family members and find out as much as you can about the couple in question. This should include when & where they got married, their full names, a maiden name, where they lived & what religion they were.
- Search your parish marriage register – you can search these online for free at a number of websites, and you can also view them in your County Record Office (here’s a list of Record Offices in England, Scotland & Wales).
- Historical records referring to the same person may be spelt differently, e.g. Smith might be used interchangeably with Smyth, even when written by the same registrar. Spelling was not a high priority in times gone by, and even today there can be spelling mistakes.
- Pre-1750, records of personal names and place names may be Latinised, e.g. Magna Hatfield refers to Great Hatfield. Places may also have changed name over time, for example King’s Lynn was just called Lynn before Henry VIII. If you have found a name which is close but not exact, see if it’s the Latin equivalent for the name you’re looking for.
- The marriage may not have been registered in the same parish that the wedding took place in. The record may therefore exist in a different County Record Office to what you might expect.
- Always check transcripts and indexes of records with the original document – there may be transcription errors.
- There will be times when you need to take an educated guess that the record you are looking at is really the one you want. Try looking for further clues leading off this record. Search for the birth and death records for this person, along with their entry in the national census. Also try to find records of their parents and children. Even if it just rules them out that will be of some help. Don’t forget you can do all this research online at these genealogy websites.
- Inevitably many records have been lost or destroyed, which becomes more and more of an issue the further back you go. Some records were also lost to fire and bomb damage during the Second World War. Sadly it may be the case that what you’re looking for no longer exists. Try calling your County Record Office or even The National Archives to see if they can tell you exactly what has been lost. It may save you hours of fruitless research chasing a dead end. There was even a bomb census after the Second World War, which might be of use.
Change of Name
Names may have been anglicised (made to sound more English), e.g. Ó Briain often becomes O’Brien, or much less obvious, Somhairle to Sorley. First names were also sometimes written in Latin before the 1730s. To complicate it even further, someone may have changed their name before they were married, or even deliberately entered the wrong name on the marriage certificate.
Formal changes of name could be made in different ways, and were often recorded. Name change could be done by deed poll, Act of Parliament and royal licence and would often be recorded in newspapers. An Index to Changes of Name by Phillimore and Fry is an excellent index of name changes mentioned in newspapers between 1760 and 1901.
From 1837 to the present day
These records will be easy to find for the vast majority of people with British ancestry, as this is the year when births, adoptions, marriages, civil partnerships and deaths began to be properly recorded in England and Wales. You have an excellent chance of finding records right up to the early 1800’s in just a few hours, as you can search most of these records online for free. The same scenario applies in Scotland from 1855 onwards.
From 1754 to 1837
There is a strong chance a written record of the marriage exists somewhere, but it may not yet have been published online. It should have been recorded in a Banns book, announcing the proposed marriage a few weeks before it took place. You will be able to look at a transcription of these books in your County Record Office. If you don’t know the exact date of the marriage, take an educated guess and work outwards from this, one year at a time. Expect a few hours research before you find anything. Also take note that the Banns book only announced an impending marriage – it may not actually have taken place.
From 1550(ish) to 1754
From the mid 16th century, records of marriage began to be kept by the Church. However it took decades for marriages to be recorded uniformly across England and Wales, as the ruling was not very strongly enforced. Much depends on the conscientiousness of whoever was officiating in the parish at the time. The records were also looked after rather poorly in general, often just kept in an unsecured chest in the church. All this means that you have the chance of a coin toss as to whether the marriage record in question still survives. Furthermore, what is recorded can be very minimal, although more information does start to be given later on, such as marriage status (bachelor, spinster, widow or widower), parish of origin (if they are getting married outside their home parish), whether the marriage was by licence, and the groom’s occupation.
The marriage licence itself will almost certainly not have survived, as it will have been given to the couple, so your chances lie with finding the licence bond or allegation. Try searching online first – most genealogy websites do have a number of records from this period. Realistically though, your most likely success will be in your County Record Office.
An important note about dates, which applies to England and Wales only. Until 1752 England and Wales used the Julian calendar, meaning the year started on the 25th March and ended on the following 24th March. Lord Chesterfield’s Act of 1751 would bring England and Wales into line with Scotland and the Continent by using the Gregorian calendar (what we use today). To adjust the calendar, in 1752 the 2nd of September would be followed by the 14th September. The eleven days in between would not exist. Therefore:
- 1751 commenced on the 25th March 1751 and ended on the 31st December 1751.
- 1752 commenced on the 1st January 1752 and ended on the 31st December 1752, but without the 3rd to 13th September.
Some parish registers show dates before 1752 like this: 1st January 1697/1698. It doesn’t mean they were unsure which year the event took place, it means the date was in 1697 in the Julian calendar and 1698 in the Gregorian calendar.
Between 1653 and 1660
During the Interregnum period all marriage ceremonies were decreed civil ones and were performed by persons authorised by the State. Marriages could not take place in a church and there were no marriages by licence. During this period far fewer records made it into the parish register, and it may be hard or impossible for you to find a marriage record.
From 1300 to 1550(ish)
Surnames became widespread around 1300, making it theoretically possible to trace your ancestry back this far. However it will be far from easy, or even impossible to do so for many of us. Surnames would frequently be misspelt, not transferred from father to son, or a completely different surname may even be used to their real one! If your ancestors were wealthy landowners then some records may exist for them, but if they were just ordinary folk the chances are nothing will exist whatsoever. It is unlikely any records would specifically be about a marriage, and at best you will probably have to infer someone was married from any clues in the record.
Before 1538 marriages were not officially required to be recorded. The couple could just tell each other that they were married in front of any witness, and the marriage would be legal. Even if any record of the marriage was taken, it would likely be in a very basic form – often just a short sentence such as David Hughes married his wife. It would probably not be recorded in a dedicated marriage register either. A long search most likely lies ahead if you want to find a record from during this period, and you should look through any kind of local record that you can get your hands on. A good place to start is your County Record Office, followed by the The National Archives. Good luck – you’ll need it.
Astronomical odds apply here. Have you traced your family history back before this time? I would love to hear from you!