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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Civil Partnership Act 2004, for example, granted civil partnerships to same-sex couples in the United Kingdom with rights and responsibilities identical to civil marriage.
Although the Act was intended to apply only to England and Wales, the devolved Scottish Parliament passed a Legislative Consent Motion which allowed Westminster to legislate on behalf of Scotland.
Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013
In 2013, Parliament passed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act which introduced civil marriage for same-sex couples in England and Wales. The legislation allowed religious organisations to opt in to marry same-sex couples should they wish to do so and protected religious organisations and their representatives from successful legal challenge if they did not wish to marry same-sex couples. The legislation also enabled civil partners to convert their civil partnership into marriage and transsexual people to change their legal gender without necessarily having to end their existing marriage.
In Scotland, the Scottish Parliament has legislated to allow same-sex marriages. The Northern Ireland Assembly has not legislated to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland.
The first same-sex marriages in England and Wales took place in March 2014.