What is a marriage bond?
Discover how marriage licences were used as an alternative to marriage by banns in England and Wales, and how marriage bond and allegation records can be used in family history
Traditionally, marriages in England and Wales in the Anglican church have required the banns of marriage to be read in the couple’s parish church for three Sundays prior to the wedding. However, couples could obtain a marriage licence, which gave them permission to marry without the banns being called, for instance if they wanted to marry without the three week wait, or to marry in a church other than their parish church.
Modern marriage licences date back to the 1533 Ecclesiastical Licences Act, when Henry VIII’s break with Rome removed the possibility of obtaining a papal dispensation. After the Reformation, there were two sorts of licences – ‘special’ and ‘common’. A special licence was issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury and allowed a marriage to take place any time and anywhere. Since these were relatively rare our focus here is on common licences. Although they did not allow couples to marry outside the permitted hours or anywhere other than in an Anglican church or chapel, they offered greater speed and privacy than marrying by banns.
- Find out more about ordering post-1837 civil marriage certificates
- Find out more about tracing nonconformist records
According to the canons of 1604, licences were only to be granted to those “of good state and quality”. Either bride or groom had to sign an ‘allegation’ swearing that there was no impediment to the marriage and (if either was under 21) that parental consent had been given. To deter individuals from lying, they were required to enter into a ‘bond’ – an obligation to pay a certain sum of money, perhaps a few hundred pounds, if anything in the allegation was untrue.
It is these marriage allegations and bonds that were kept by the ecclesiastical authorities, rather than the licences themselves (which were handed to the happy couple). Diocesan records are now generally held by local record offices, but knowing where to look requires some background knowledge of the parties and the different layers of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. While most licences were granted by bishops (or whoever they had delegated the power to), exactly who had the authority to grant a marriage licence depended on whether both of the parties lived within the same archdeaconry, diocese or province (that is, York or Canterbury).
Fortunately for researchers, an increasing number of marriage bonds and allegations are now being digitised, making them much easier to find. Ancestry has collections from Derbyshire, Durham, Leicestershire, London and Surrey, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Somerset, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Yorkshire, some dating back to 1557. Findmypast also has collections from Durham, Oxfordshire, Norfolk and Wiltshire, as well as from Cheshire, Lincolnshire and Staffordshire, while FamilySearch has collections from Cheshire and Durham.
Marriage allegations and bonds are useful family history records, but note that they only record that permission was sought for the couple to marry, not that the marriage actually took place.
Although the format of an allegation is fairly standard, some details varied over time as the preconditions for obtaining a licence changed. For example, from 25 March 1754 a licence could only be obtained for a wedding in a parish where at least one of the parties had been resident for four weeks. The 1823 Marriage Act reduced this to 15 days. Between 1 September 1822 and 25 March 1823, both parties were required to provide a copy of their entry in the baptismal register. After 1 November 1823 bonds were no longer required, and subsequent allegations were both shorter and simpler.
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The 1836 Marriage Act preserved the right of couples marrying in the Anglican church to do so after Anglican preliminaries. Common licences should not be confused with the new ‘civil’ licences that could precede non-Anglican marriages from then on – these were granted by a superintendent registrar, and had different requirements.