The law of marriage

Until the middle of the 18th century marriages could take place anywhere provided they were conducted before an ordained clergyman of the Church of England. This encouraged the practice of secret marriages which did not have parental consent and which were often bigamous.

Irregular marriages

It also allowed couples, particularly those of wealthy background, to marry while at least one of the partners was under age. The trade in these irregular marriages had grown enormously in London by the 1740s.

In 1753, however, the Marriage Act, promoted by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hardwicke, declared that all marriage ceremonies must be conducted by a minister in a parish church or chapel of the Church of England to be legally binding.

Parental consent

No marriage of a person under the age of 21 was valid without the consent of parents or guardians. Clergymen who disobeyed the law were liable for 14 years transportation.

Although Jews and Quakers were exempted from the 1753 Act, it required religious non-conformists and Catholics to be married in Anglican churches.

Restrictions removed

This restriction was eventually removed by Parliament in the Marriage Act of 1836 which allowed non-conformists and Catholics to be married in their own places of worship.

It was also made possible for non-religious civil marriages to be held in register offices which were set up in towns and cities.

Minimum age

In 1929, in response to a campaign by the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, Parliament raised the age limit to 16 for both sexes in the Ages of Marriage Act. This is still the minimum age.

Civil partnership

In 2004 Parliament passed the Civil Partnership Act which gave same-sex couples the same legal rights and responsibilities as married heterosexual couples. The Act also set out formal procedures for the dissolution of partnerships similar to divorce.

Did you know?

It was possible for young eloping couples to evade the 1753 Marriage Act by marrying in Scotland where the Act did not apply. Such marriages often took place at Gretna Green in southern Scotland near the border with England.

Related information

Historic Hansard

The House of Lords debates the Second Reading of the Marriages Bill 1836

The House of Lords considers the Age of Marriage Bill