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Marriage Licenses in Regency England

In Jane Austen’s day there were three types of marriage licenses available in England; the reading of the banns, a common license, and a special license.

The reading of the banns had the advantage of being free and consisted of the minister reading out the names of people who wished to marry during church services on three consecutive Sundays. If no one objected, the bride and groom would then be permitted to marry in their parish church within the next 90 days between the hours of 8 am and 12 noon. If the bride and groom belong to different parishes, it was required that the banns be read in both and the couple could then marry in either parish church.

A common license cost 10 shillings and was generally the preferred method for people who could afford it. The vast majority of Jane Austen’s characters would have been married by common license. A common license could be issued if either the bride or groom had lived in the parish for at least four weeks and permitted them to marry in that parish church between the hours of 8 am and 12 noon.

A special license was the most expensive type of license, costing between 4 and 5 pounds, and were issued at the discretion of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A special license permitted a betrothed couple to marry at a time and place of their convenience, though they were encouraged to marry in churches. The only people who could obtain special licenses were peers and peeresses, their children, baronets, knights, members of Parliament, Privy Councillors and Westminster Court Judges. Fitzwilliam Darcy would not be eligible for one, though his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam would be.

Jane Austen, David M. Shapard, ed., The Annotated Pride and Prejudice.
Jane Austen, Pat Rogers, ed., The Cambridge Edition of Pride and Prejudice.
Joan Klingel Ray, Jane Austen for Dummies.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Fitzwilliam Darcy would not be eligible for one, though his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam would be.

    Do you mean that he wouldn’t be eligible to obtain one (assuming he’s not an MP, true) or to be married by one?

    Special licenses could be obtained – though not indiscriminately – for other people. Presumably that’s what Mrs Bennet refers to in her rapturous plans for Elizabeth – not much point in marrying a man as influentially connected as Darcy if you don’t proclaim it from the rooftops.

  2. I think it means that Darcy would not be eligible to be married by one. The Archbishop of Canterbury had very nearly lost the right to grant special licenses as part of the 1753 “Act for the better preventing of clandestine Marriages” and created a strict set of rules as to who could or could not receive one. I will do a full post on this later, but in summary, the rules in place concerning the granting of special licenses do not appear to allow for obtaining one for a person who wasn’t eligible to obtain one for himself (I am still working on getting a copy of the full text, right now I am working off of an excerpt). A person who is not eligible due to their own rank could only obtain one if there were “very strong and weighty reasons for such Indulgence arising form the particular circumstances of their Case, and prove the truth of the same to the satisfaction of the Archbishop or his Commissary of the Faculties.”

  3. In any case we know that Darcy didn’t marry by one. It was a double wedding with Bingley and Jane.

    I think that Austen must roll on the heaven’s floor when she reads all of the fanfics having Darcy marrying Lizzy by a special license because of some nonsense uttered by nobody else but Mrs. Bennet, the silliest woman in the world.

  4. Yes, the double wedding would have completely negated the point of having a special license, as Bingley certainly wasn’t eligible and they would not have used any of the benefits that a special license gave.

  5. Historical records show indivuals like Darcy – mere “esquires” sons of esqires – did marry by special license during the years Austen was writting. Not often (sometimes only one every year or two), but it was possible. Records during this time show there were never many special licenses granted, even to aristocrats – generally between six to ten at most in a year.

    Mrs. Bennet’s comment was not so silly or far off the mark. It reflected the prestige associated with an announcement in the society papers which stated the marriage was “by special license”.

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