Marriage in England and Wales

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Lining up for a traditional wedding photograph

Marriage in England and Wales is legally recognised in the forms of both civil and religious unions, and is open to opposite-sex and same-sex couples. Marriage laws in England and Wales have historically evolved separately from marriage laws in other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom. There is a distinction between religious marriages, conducted by an authorised religious celebrant, and civil marriages, conducted by a state registrar.

The legal minimum age to enter into a marriage in England and Wales is sixteen years, although this requires parental consent if a participant is under eighteen. Certain relatives are not allowed to marry.[1] For foreign nationals, there are also residency conditions that have to be met before people can be married. Same-sex marriage was introduced under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in March 2014.[2][3] Prior to this, civil partnerships had been made available to same-sex couples in the United Kingdom in 2005, granting rights and responsibilities virtually identical to civil marriage.

Marriage procedures[edit]

Wedding ceremonies can either be conducted by "authorised celebrants" (usually, but not always, a minister of religion) or by an "authorised registrar". However, to be legally binding, it must take place with an authorised person or superintendent registrar present (e.g. vicar or priest) and have at least two competent people, who will be required to sign the marriage register as witnesses.[4] Civil marriages may not take place in religious venues,[5] but since the Marriage Act 1994 may take place in other licensed venues. The marriage register is signed by the couple, the celebrant and two witnesses.

Priests of the Church of England and the Church in Wales are legally required to marry people, providing one of them is from the local parish, regardless of whether the couple are practising. Special permission may be granted for out-of-parish weddings.

For civil marriages, notices must be posted for 28 clear days, at the appropriate register office.[6] Church of England marriages require the banns to be read out three times at the appropriate church or churches unless a Special Licence has been obtained. In most cases, the appropriate churches will be the parish churches where the parties reside and the one where the ceremony is to take place.[7]

A marriage solemnized between persons either of whom is under the age of sixteen is void.[8] This disability is commonly called "nonage".[9]

Parental permission (or, in the event of the prior death of the parents, consent from the legal guardians) is required for either party to a marriage who is less than 18 years old,[10] but as long as they are at least 16 years old, a lack of it does not necessarily[vague] invalidate the marriage.[11]


Divorce is allowed on only one ground: the marriage has irretrievably broken down. This must be evidenced in one or more of the five possible facts as stated in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973:

Civil remarriage is allowed. Religions and denominations differ on whether they permit religious remarriage.

Benefits and consequences[edit]

Upon death of one's spouse, bequests to the other spouse do not incur inheritance tax. Intestate property by default will go to the spouse. Also, there is partial inheritance of pensions.

In courts, one spouse may not be compelled to testify against the other. Non-British spouses of British citizens may obtain residence permits if the British spouse meets a minimum income requirement of £18,600 per year. This rises to £22,400 for families with a child, and a further £2,400 for each further child. Spouses are considered to have a duty of care towards each other, and certain social security benefits are calculated differently from those for single people.

Foreign citizens wishing to marry in the UK[edit]

From 1 February 2005, visitors who wish to be married in the UK that are a citizen of a country that is not a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), must apply for a visa before they travel. Without the visa, the registrar will not be able to accept the notice of marriage and will not be able to perform the marriage ceremony.[12]

If one of the people wanting to marry is subject to immigration control, notice of marriage can only be done at a designated register office, which both parties must attend together. Marriage must be between two people neither of whom is in a Civil Partnership or separate marriage (foreign divorces are generally recognised; but an existing foreign marriage would prevent a marriage in the UK as this would be treated as bigamy).


Medieval period[edit]

An idealised medieval wedding imagined by Edmund Leighton (Call to Arms 1888)

In medieval Europe, marriage was governed by canon law, which recognised as valid only those marriages where the parties stated they took one another as husband and wife, regardless of the presence or absence of witnesses. It was not necessary, however, to be married by any official or cleric. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) forbade clandestine marriage, and required marriages to be publicly announced in churches by priests.

From about the 12th to the 17th century, the practice of "handfasting" was widespread in England. It was a term for "engagement to be married", or a ceremony held on the occasion of such a contract, usually about a month prior to a church wedding, at which the marrying couple formally declared that each accepted the other as spouse.

Handfasting was legally binding: as soon as the couple made their vows to each other they were validly married. It was not a temporary arrangement. Just as with church weddings of the period, the union which handfasting created could only be dissolved by death. English legal authorities held that, even if not followed by intercourse, handfasting was as binding as any vow taken in church before a priest.[13]

During handfasting the man and woman in turn would take the other by the right hand and declare aloud that they there and then accepted each other as man and wife. The words might vary but traditionally consisted of a simple formula such as “I (Name) take thee (Name) to my wedded husband/wife, till death us depart, and thereto I plight thee my troth”.[13] Because of this, handfasting was also known in England as “troth-plight”.[13] Gifts were often exchanged, especially rings:[14][15] a gold coin broken in half between the couple was also common. Other tokens recorded include gloves, a crimson ribbon tied in a knot, and even a silver toothpick.[13] Handfasting might take place anywhere, indoors or out.[13] It was frequently in the home of the bride, but according to records handfastings also took place in taverns, in an orchard and even on horseback. The presence of a credible witness or witnesses was usual.[13]

For much of the relevant period church courts dealt with marital matters. Ecclesiastical law recognised two forms of handfasting, sponsalia per verba de praesenti and sponsalia per verba de futuro. In sponsalia de praesenti, the most usual form, the couple declared they there and then accepted each other as man and wife. The sponsalia de futuro form was less binding, as the couple took hands only to declare their intention to marry each other at some future date. The latter was closer to a modern engagement and could in theory be ended with the consent of both parties – but only providing intercourse had not occurred. If intercourse did take place, then the sponsalia de futuro "was automatically converted into de iure marriage".[13]

In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent legislated more specific marriage requirements, such as the presence of a priest and two witnesses, as well as promulgation of the marriage announcement thirty days prior to the ceremony. These laws did not extend to the regions affected by the Protestant Reformation. Despite the validity of handfasting it was expected to be solemnised by a church wedding fairly soon afterwards. Penalties might follow for those who did not comply.[16] Ideally the couple were also supposed to refrain from intercourse until then.[13] Complaints by preachers suggest that they often did not wait,[13] but at least until the early 1600s the common attitude to this kind of anticipatory behaviour seems to have been lenient.[17] Handfasting remained an acceptable way of marrying in England throughout the Middle Ages but declined in the early modern period.[18] In some circumstances handfasting was open to abuse, with persons who had undergone "troth-plight" occasionally refusing to proceed to a church wedding, creating ambiguity about their former betrothed's marital status.[13]

Shakespeare negotiated and witnessed a handfasting in 1604, and was called as a witness in a suit about the dowry in 1612 and historians speculate that his own marriage to Anne Hathaway was so conducted when he was a young man in 1582, as the practice still had credence in Warwickshire at the time.[13][19]

17th to 19th centuries[edit]

Caricature of a clandestine Fleet Marriage, taking place in England before the Marriage Act 1753
William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress depicting a wedding in the 18th century

After the beginning of the 17th century gradual changes in English law meant the presence of an officiating priest or magistrate became necessary for a marriage to be legal.[20] Up until this point in England, clergy performed many clandestine marriages, such as so-called Fleet Marriage, which were held legally valid;[21] and in Scotland, unsolemnised common-law marriage was still valid.

The Marriage Duty Acts of 1694 and 1695 required that banns or marriage licences must be obtained. The 1753 Act also laid down rules for where marriages were allowed to take place, whom you were and were not allowed to marry, the requirement for at least two witnesses to be present at the marriage ceremony and set a minimum marriageable age. This led to the practice of couples who could not meet the conditions in England and Wales eloping to Scotland (see Gretna Green#Marriage).

Legal common-law marriage was, for practical purposes, abolished under the 1753 Marriage Act, also known as Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act. This was aimed at suppressing clandestine marriages by introducing more stringent conditions for validity, and thereafter only marriages conducted by the Church of England, Quakers, or under Jewish law, were recognised in England and Wales. This effectively ended earlier practices.[22] Any other form of marriage was abolished; children born into unions which were not valid under the Act would not automatically inherit the property or titles of their parents.[23] For historical reasons, the Act did not apply in Scotland.

The Marriage Act 1836 re-introduced civil marriage, and also allowed ministers of other faiths (Nonconformists and Roman Catholics) to act as registrars. This act was contemptuously referred to as the "Broomstick Marriage Act" (a phrase which referred to a custom in supposed "sham marriages") by those who felt that a marriage outside the Anglican church did not deserve legal recognition.[24]

The bill also proscribed certain affinities, such as the marriage of a man to his deceased wife's sister. Until this point, affinities had been largely formalised by those laid out in the "Table of kindred and affinity" in the Anglican (Church of England) Book of Common Prayer.

20th century[edit]

Church wedding at Oswestry, Wales in January 1954

The list of proscribed affinities was reduced in the early twentieth century by the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act 1907, and by subsequent amendments (the Deceased Brother's Widow's Marriage Act 1921 and the Marriage (Prohibited Degrees) Relationship Act 1931).

The Age of Marriage Act 1929 increased the age of marriage to sixteen. It was passed in response to a campaign by the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship.[25] Until this point, at common law and by canon law a person who had attained the legal age of puberty could contract a valid marriage. A marriage contracted by persons either of whom was under the legal age of puberty was voidable. The legal age of puberty was fourteen years for males and twelve years for females. This section amended the law so that a marriage contracted by persons either of whom was under the age of sixteen years was void.[26]

The Marriage Act 1949 prohibited solemnizing marriages during evenings and at night; since the Marriage Act 1836 it had been forbidden to marry between the hours of six in the evening and eight in the morning. This prohibition was repealed[27] on 1 October 2012.[28][29]

The Marriage Act 1994 was originally introduced as a private member's bill by Gyles Brandreth and allowed marriages to be solemnized in certain "approved premises"; prior to the act, marriage ceremonies could only be conducted in churches and register offices.[30]

21st century[edit]

A same-sex marriage in Islington, London on 29 March 2014, the first day they were permitted in England and Wales.

In 2013, Parliament passed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, introducing same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Same-sex weddings began on 29 March 2014; however, the provisions of the Act came into force on 13 March 2014, meaning that existing same-sex marriages performed abroad were recognised from that date.[3][31] Prior to this, Civil partnerships had been made available to same-sex couples in the United Kingdom in 2005, granting rights and responsibilities virtually identical to civil marriage.

Royal marriages[edit]

Marriages of members of the royal family were formerly regulated by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 (repealed 2015), which made it illegal for any member of the British royal family (defined as all descendants of King George II, excluding descendants of princesses who marry into "foreign families") under the age of 25 to marry without the consent of the ruling monarch. Any member of the Royal Family over the age of 25 who has been refused the sovereign's consent may marry one year after giving notice to the Privy Council of their intention to so marry, unless Parliament passes an act against the marriage in the interim. In 2005, the Queen consented formally to the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles.

The royal family was specifically excluded from the Marriage Act 1836, which instituted civil marriages in England. However, Prince Charles's civil marriage raised questions. Lord Falconer of Thoroton told the House of Lords that the 1836 Act had been repealed by the Marriage Act 1949, which had different wording, and that the British Government were satisfied that it was lawful for the couple to marry by a civil ceremony in accordance with Part III of the 1949 Act, and the Registrar General Len Cook determined that a civil marriage would in fact be valid. Any doubt as to the interpretation of the Marriage Act 1949 was put to rest by the Human Rights Act 1998, which requires that legislation be interpreted in conformity with convention rights wherever possible (including the right to marry, without discrimination).

See also[edit]

References and sources[edit]

  1. ^ Retrieved 9 September 2015.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. ^ Department for Culture, Media & Sport, United Kingdom. "First Same Sex weddings to happen from 29 March 2014". HM Government. Retrieved 28 January 2014. 
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^
  5. ^ Approval of premises for civil marriage and civil partnership (England and Wales)
  6. ^ Giving notice of marriage or civil partnership,
  7. ^ Finding a church, Your Church Wedding
  8. ^ The Marriage Act 1949, section 2. This replaces section 1 of the Age of Marriage Act 1929.
  9. ^ J C Arnold. The Marriage Law of England. Staples Press. 1951. pp 13 & 62.
  10. ^ The Marriage Act 1949, section 3
  11. ^ The Marriage Act 1949, section 48(1)(b) (applicable to marriage by superintendent registrar's certificate); R v Birmingham (Inhabitants) (1828) 8 B & C 29 (applicable to marriage by common license). As to marriage by publication of banns, see sections 3(3) and 25(c) of the Marriage Act 1949.
  12. ^ Until May 2011, persons already in the UK and a citizen of a country that was not a member of the EEA, needed the approval of the Home Secretary to be married. This was provided in the form of a certificate of approval. That programme was discontinued on 9 May 2011.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Charles Nicholl, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, London, Allen Lane, 2007 ISBN 978-0-713-99890-0 Chapter 27, pp. 251–258
  14. ^ The rings might be plain – one was made on the spot out of a rush lying on the floor – or elaborate. They often had a posy engraved. One surviving example is a "gimmal" ring, a double ring which twists apart to become two rings interlinked. It is in the shape of two clasped hands and has the posy "As handes doe shut/so hart be knit". See [1][2]
  15. ^ Some rings incorporated "memento mori" devices, to remind the wearer the marriage was till death. See Diana Scarisbrick, Tudor and Jacobean Jewellery, Tate Publishing, 1995. “(Thomas Gresham's) wedding-ring has a twin 'gimmal' hoop inscribed in Latin 'Let not man put asunder those whom God has joined together', and beneath the ruby and diamond bezel there are cavities enclosing an infant and a skeleton alluding to the vanity of riches."
  16. ^ Anne Laurence, Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History, London, Phoenix Press, 1994. "A public church marriage was necessary to ensure the inheritance of property".
  17. ^ In Shakespeare's 1604 comedy Measure for Measure a young man sleeps with his betrothed wife before his church wedding. Judged technically guilty of fornication, under puritanical laws he is condemned to die. The plot is driven by the need to rescue him, and audience sympathy is clearly expected to be on his side.
  18. ^ Anne Laurence, Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History, London, Phoenix Press, 1994. "Between the mid-sixteenth century and the mid-seventeenth century the number of spousal actions in the church courts declined markedly, partly because of the increasing belief that the only proper form of marriage was one solemnized in church."
  19. ^ Shakespeare's Wife, Germaine Greer, Harper Perennial, 2009, pg 108-110.
  20. ^ Anne Laurence, Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History.
  21. ^ In 1601 the poet John Donne married clandestinely in a private room where only he, his bride, his friend Christopher Brooke and Brooke's brother Samuel, a clergyman, were present. No banns were called and the bride's parents did not give consent; nevertheless, the bride's father did not later legally dispute the validity of the marriage. David Colclough, 'Donne, John (1572–1631)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 accessed 23 April 2012
  22. ^ Anne Laurence, Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History, London, Phoenix Press, 1994. "From 1754...Pre-contracts (promises to marry someone in the future) and oral spousals ceased to have any force...”
  23. ^ The term "common law marriage" is frequently used to describe mere cohabitation, but such a "marriage" is extremely rarely recognised in law; cohabitation does not generally confer any of the rights or obligations associated with marriage on the parties. It survives only in a few highly exceptional circumstances, where people who want to marry are unable to do so any other way and can simply declare that they are taking each other as husband and wife in front of witnesses - British civilians interned by the Japanese during World War II who did so were later deemed to be legally married.
  24. ^ Jackson’s Oxford Journal 12 September 1840, p. 1; Saint Valentine: or, Thoughts on the evil of Love in Mercantile Community: The Galanti Show (1843) 13 Bentley’s Miscellany 151
  25. ^ The Law of Marriage,
  26. ^ Bromley and Lowe. Bromley's Family Law. Eighth Edition. Butterworths. 1992. p 35.
  27. ^ The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, section 114
  28. ^ The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (Commencement No. 3) Order 2012 (S.I. 2012/2234), article 3(m)
  29. ^ "Night-time weddings to be allowed". BBC News Online. 12 February 2011. 
  30. ^ "Rock chick bride says 'aisle do'". BBC News Online. 13 February 2006. 
  31. ^ Department for Culture, Media & Sport, United Kingdom. "First Same Sex weddings to happen from 29 March 2014". HM Government. Retrieved 28 January 2014. 
  • Rebecca Probert, Marriage Law and Practice in the Long Eighteenth Century: A Reassessment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
  • Anton, A. E. "'Handfasting' in Scotland." The Scottish Historical Review 37, no. 124 (October 1958): 89–102.
  • Gregory, D. History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland (1881).
  • Martin, Martin, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1693) 1st Edition, (1716) 2nd Edition.
  • Nicholl, Charles, The Lodger:Shakespeare on Silver Street (2007) 1st edition; Chapter 27, "A handfasting".
  • Nicolson, Alexander History of Skye MacLean Press, 60 Aird Bhearnasdail, by Portree, Isle of Skye (1930) pp. 73, 86, and 120.