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FAQ Marriages

Where did a marriage take place?

Most commonly in the parish where the bride’s family lived at the time of the wedding, but sometimes in the parish where the bride and/or groom was living, if they were no longer living at home or the bride’s parents were dead. (Marriages in the City of Oxford are a special case discussed below.)

Does “of the parish of …” tell you where they were born?

No. This is a common mis-conception. This column in a marriage register entry specifically indicates the parish where the person was living for the 3 weeks prior to the marriage and hence where his or her banns were read. The abbreviation “o.t.p.” meaning “of this parish” is used when the person was living in the parish where the marriage took place. Since this is the default situation, many transcripts will leave this column blank for this situation rather than entering “o.t.p.” every time. This same convention is used in the OFHS marriage indexes. Note however that an o.t.p. entry is not always to be trusted. If the bride and groom lived in different parishes, the law required that banns were read at both churches. Since a fee was charged for reading banns, this doubled the cost. So many prospective grooms would notionally be lodging in the bride’s parish, (e.g. by leaving a suitcase of clothes at a friendly neighbour’s house) for the period prior to the wedding. Hence the groom would be o.t.p. and only one set of banns would be read. (Marriages in the City of Oxford are also a special case discussed below.)

Why can’t I find their marriage?

They may have married outside the county, or a record may have been lost, but by far the most likely explanation is simply that they never formally married! Such informal marriages, often (but inaccurately) called “common-law marriages” were quite common and carried no stigma. Church weddings were expensive and unlike the situation for baptisms, there was no strong theological reason for a church wedding. So you will find many instances of families with firm religious beliefs, who conscientiously baptised their children but never married in church.

Surely everyone married in church after Lord Hardwicke’s marriage act of 1753?

It is a common fallacy that Lord Hardwicke’s act was about protecting the morality of the nation and ensuring that everyone was “properly married”. This is not true. The act was not about morality, it was mostly about money! The act was precipitated by a case finally resolved in the House of Lords in 1753, which had been under way since 1746, following the death of Captain John Campbell, of Carrick, who was killed at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745. Captain Campbell had been irregularly married in 1724 and 1725 to two different women, who were subsequently disputing rights to his property and a widow’s pension. In rural Oxfordshire such property disputes were of no great significance and irregular marriages continued until the advent of “Victorian morality” towards the end of the 19th century. Such marriages were not legally valid, but if you were an impoverished Ag. Lab. the legal status of your marriage was of no great consequence.

Why did they marry in the City of Oxford when they lived in the country?

It is quite common to find a couple, often both from the same parish, who marry in an Oxford City parish, then apparently return home to live and raise and baptise a family. Were they temporarily living in Oxford? Almost always the answer is no. Did they marry in Oxford to be “posh”. Again the answer is usually no. Most often they were Ag. Labs. with no such illusions of grandeur. The real answer is more prosaic and peculiar to Oxford, where many of the academics were clerics, who would supplement their finances with an incumbency of one of the surrounding rural parishes. This required them to be present in their parish on Sundays to conduct services but they spent the rest of the week in the city. So some were reluctant to “traipse all the way out into the sticks”, on other days of the week to marry a couple. How much easier to use a college chapel or to “borrow” a city church and persuade the couple to come into town? After Lord Hardwicke’s marriage act of 1753 college chapels were not licenced for marriages so the result is a wedding in one of the city parishes, of which St Mary Magdalen seems to have been the most popular. Sometimes the register will record both partners as being “sojourners” in the parish but quite often they are recorded as being “of this parish”. The rationale seems to be that as far as the person conducting the service was concerned, they were his parishioners and he had personally read their banns (in their own local church), on the preceding Sundays.

What is marriage by banns?

A forthcoming marriage had to be announced in the parish churches of both bride and groom by the reading of Banns as part of the main Sunday service on three Sundays preceding the marriage. This gave anyone believing the proposed marriage to be unlawful, the opportunity to object. A fee was charged for the reading of banns, so there was some incentive for both parties to a marriage claiming to be from the same parish, so one set of banns would suffice, even if this was not strictly the case. The reading of banns was usually recorded in a book, separately from the main marriage register and some of these Banns Books have survived. They can be a useful aid to finding a “missing” marriage. OFHS parish register transcripts usually incorporate details from any surviving banns books, for cases where the marriage took place in a different parish. However there are no search indexes into these banns transcripts and you will need to view the actual transcript to see if they exist.

What is marriage by licence?

As an alternative to the reading of banns, it was possible to marry by licence. This offered a quicker route, with no need to wait three Sundays for the reading of banns. It also permitted a marriage in a parish in which neither bride nor groom were resident. Finally, because it required access to a source of money, it conferred social status. A marriage by licence involved three documents: The actual licence was given to the officiating minister and it was his authority to proceed with the wedding. They were rarely kept after the wedding, so few have survived. The allegation was a signed statement usually by the groom, that the proposed marriage was legal. The bond was a signed promise by someone that if the marriage was subsequently found to be illegal, he would forfeit a specified sum of money (most often “One hundred pounds of good English money”). This meant that the person signing the bond had to be someone deemed worthy of fulfilling this obligation should the need arise. The allegations and bonds were normally kept and many have now found their way to local record offices, in our case the Oxfordshire History Centre. (You will often find them colloquially referred to as a “marriage licence”) Transcribed marriage registers will normally indicate when a marriage was by licence, so when providing details for a specific marriage as part of the Search Service, we will include that information. You will need to contact the record office directly to confirm whether the bond or allegation have survived and if so to obtain details of these. A website that may be helpful for determining if a bond has survived is Whipple, though the absence of an entry from these lists does not mean that the bond has definitely not survived and it is still worth checking at the record office.

What is marriage by registrar’s certificate?

Occasionally a marriage register may show that a marriage after 1837 was by “Registrar’s Certificate” rather than by banns or by licence. In effect this is the secular equivalent of banns. A notice is posted on a public notice board in the bride’s and groom’s registration district(s) for three weeks prior to the wedding showing their intention to marry. Like banns, this is intended to give anyone believing the proposed marriage to be unlawful, the opportunity to object. It was no quicker or cheaper than banns, so to the family historian it is most often a pointer that one or both parties was non-conformist and so did not want banns read out as part of an Anglican church service. The marriage had still to take place in premises licensed for the purpose, so before the days of established register office weddings, it may still take place in the local parish church, and so appear in the parish marriage register.

Who are the witnesses?

Following the implementation of Hardwicke’s marriage act in 1754, all marriage register entries should include the signature of two witnesses to the marriage. We have no search service index into witness names but when providing full details of a marriage as the result of a search, we will include the witness names. Sometimes these will be other family members and so can provide useful extra evidence for the family historian. Quite often one finds one witness name being repeated for many marriages around the same time. This will normally imply that this person is the parish clerk. Where this is apparent, we will normally mention it when providing details for the marriage. If you have purchased parish register transcripts, it is worth while to look at all the other marriages in the parish for a few years either side of the marriage you are interested in. You will quite often find one or both of “your” couple acting as witnesses for their friends or relatives who married about the same time.

Why do some names have an “x” beside them?

In the marriage register, the bride and groom and the two witnesses were all required to sign their names. If they were unable to write, they marked a cross and the clerk noted the name alongside this. When transcribing registers we conventionally mark this with an “x” in brackets beside the name.

They left it a bit late didn’t they?

There is a tendency nowadays to regard the “permissive society” as a modern invention and to assume that the strict urban Victorian morality of “no sex before marriage” was the norm for all time before that. This was certainly not the case for rural communities such as most of Oxfordshire, up to the end of the 19th century. If anything, the motto was “try before you buy!”. The ability to produce children was crucial to a rural family. They were the people who you hoped would look after you in your old age. So if a couple planning marriage were unable to conceive a child, the marriage would probably not take place. Hence it is quite common to find the first child being born appreciably less than 9 months after the marriage.

At what age was it legal to marry?

In the UK, the Age of Marriage Act of 1929, specified a minimum age of 16 for a person to marry (with the consent of their parents). Prior to that a girl could marry at age 12 and a boy at age 14. However that does not mean that marriage at such a young age was common. It was in fact extremely rare. For example in 1871, in the whole of England and Wales there were only 35 marriages in which the bride was under 16. (i.e. less than 0.02% of all marriages). (Source: ONS website.)

It is commonly believed that following Harwicke’s marriage act of 1753, a minor (a person under the age of 21) could not legally marry, without the active consent of their parents. This is not strictly true in the case of marriage by banns. When the banns were read (as described above), a parent of a minor could object and so prevent the marriage taking place. However if the banns were read without any parental objection, the subsequent marriage was legally binding. Only in the case of a marriage by licence was the formal active consent of a parent or guardian of a minor required.

Do marriage records include details of occupation and parents?

After 1837 the record will include occupations for the bride and groom, together with the names of their fathers, and the fathers’ occupations. Often the record will also indicate if the father is deceased. Before 1837 none of this information is recorded. Our search index entries do not include this information for any marriages, but if a detailed search for a specific marriage is requested we will automatically provide this information where it is available.

Marriage to the sibling of a deceased spouse

When one marriage partner died it might seem logical for the surviving partner to marry a previously unmarried sibling of the deceased partner. If the wife died her sister might be the ideal person to care for the children. If the husband died his brother might be the ideal breadwinner to support the family. However the prevailing church view was that the original marriage endowed kinship between the husband and wife. Hence the deceased partner’s sibling was the kin of the surviving partner, in which case the rules of consanguinity as specified in the book of Leviticus, would make such a marriage forbidden by God. This view was incorporated in the civil law governing marriage. It was not until the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907 that men were legally allowed to marry their deceased wife’s sister, whilst widows had to wait even longer until the Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act of 1921 before they could legally marry their deceased husband’s brother.

Before these dates you may find such couples living together as man and wife, without a marriage ever having taken place. Alternatively couples might marry somewhere remote from home claiming to be previously unmarried. Depending on the level of local knowledge, and/or the sympathies of the local vicar, children of such couples might be baptised normally with both parents named, or might be baptised as illegitimate, with just the mother named.

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