What Does It Mean?

Marriage Licenses, Banns and Certificates

by Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton is a resident of Bracebridge and an honorary member of the MPSGG. He is very knowledgeable on English research and has spoken at many of the club meetings.

A search of English parish registers in the 1700s will produce a long list of marriages with notations such as ‘by banns, or ‘by licence’, or ‘certificate from Mr. Robinson’. What do these mean?

Traditionally, most people could marry their choice of spouses, but certain marriages were not permitted. A person already married was not allowed to marry again, unless widowed. Divorce and civil marriages were not easily available until the mid 1800s. A girl under 12 or under or a boy under 14 were not able to marry (although they were often engaged by their parents for dynastic purposes). Close relatives could not marry each other. In those days of limited records, the best way of finding out whom was prohibited from marrying was to announce the marriage publicly, and ask if anyone was aware of any problems. People would come forward and mention secret marriages, or if a half-brother was unknowingly about to marry a half-sister.

The official name for the public announcement, made in church on Sunday for three consecutive weeks, was the publication of banns. Banns were published in both the church attended by the bride’s family and the church attended by the groom’s family. Effective 1 January 1754, all churches had to keep written records that banns had been published. This could be done in the same register used to record marriages, or in a separate register called the Banns Book.

When people from different parishes married, there would be banns records in each parish, and then the marriage record in one of them. To prove that banns had been published in the other parish, it was usual to get a certificate from the church officials in the other parish. ‘Certificate from Mr. Robinson’ will mean that the Rev. Robinson certifies that he published banns as required.

Have a look at the records of banns, as they will help trace families from other parishes. Remember that even after civil registration started in 1837, a church marriage still required banns or a licence. Remember also that from 1754 to 1837, ALL English marriages, except those of Quakers and Jews, were performed in the Anglican Church.

Some people did not have the time or the wish to publish banns. Perhaps the marriage was hurried, such as with a soldier or sailor about to leave. Perhaps both spouses had no home parish. Sometimes the capacity to marry was unclear, such as marriages between cousins. There were some times of year when the church limited marriages, such as Advent or Lent. There were prosperous people who thought it demeaning that the banns for Lady Pomposity Haughty’s wedding might be published at the same time as those for the twelfth daughter of Grunge the night-soil collector.

For all these people, it was possible to apply for a marriage licence instead of publishing banns. Archdeacons, bishops, archbishops could issue licences, and the more important the couple, the higher the church official who was asked to issue the licence.

Two documents were filed to obtain the licence. An ALLEGATION was filed by the couple, explaining their situation, often identifying their parents, and confirming no legal disqualification for their marriage. A BOND was also provided, usually by family members, confirming that the couple were legally qualified to marry, and promising to pay a financial penalty if this turned out not to be true. The LICENCE itself was then issued, authorizing the marriage to take place at a specific church or churches. It is not really the licence that is of most interest to the genealogist (unless you can’t find the marriage), it is the information in the Allegation.

Licences have been around for a long time. Before Henry VIII ended the relationship with Rome, licences would often be issued with permissions to avoid the rules, called dispensations. Here is an example:

23 November 1433 – Dispensation for Richard de Akerode and Emmotte de Greenwode to marry, related in the 4th degree. Issued from Rome 27 April 1433 by Jordon, Bishop of Alva.

Most of the licences to about 1700 have been indexed by the Record Societies. A typical indexed entry is as follows:

1633 – William Field, aged 46 yeoman, and Margaret Holstead, age 40 widow, both of Bradford, licensed to marry at Bradford.

The Allegation for this brief note will contain quite a bit of information.

Banns are kept at the county record offices, with the parish registers. Licence documents are kept generally where Wills for the same area are kept, and Smith & Gardiner’s book will tell you where to look and what has been published.

If your ancestor was a Presbyterian or other Protestant dissenter, and had the money to finance the trip, look for the marriage in Scotland or in Switzerland. If the marriage was to the sister or brother of a deceased spouse, this was illegal except in Switzerland, so look there. If your ancestor was a Catholic, look for the marriage in France.

This article first appeared in the November 1996 newsletter, Volume 12 - Number 2