Registers of Clandestine Marriages and of Baptisms in the Fleet Prison, King's Bench Prison, the Mint and the May Fair Chapel. Records of the General Register Office, Government Social Survey Department, and Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, Registrar General (RG) series 7. The National Archives, Kew, England.
Rules of Marriages
Ecclesiastic laws governing marriage have changed during England’s history, and during this period (1667–1754), marriage within the church came with certain restrictions. Banns required a couple to post an announcement of the intended union for three weeks prior to the marriage. Banns could be waived by obtaining a license, but church officials could also dictate where and when a couple could marry. Residency requirements, although at times loose, had to be met, and there were certain times during the ecclesiastic calendar when marriages were not to be performed. There were also age restrictions: parental consent was required if either party was under the age of 21.
Most couples were married at the family church, but a significant portion of the population, for various reasons, chose to skirt these regulations and get married outside the church. Here, requirements were much looser. Grooms could be as young as 14, and brides 12. The bride and groom needed only to give their consent to the union for it to be recognized. Clergy and witnesses were not necessary, though they were often present to provide proof that the marriage had taken place. These marriages are commonly referred to as “irregular” or “clandestine.”
Who Performed Clandestine Marriages?
The demand for clandestine marriages was met by institutions that considered themselves exempt from church canon and in some cases, like that of May Fair chapel, by a cleric who simply flouted the regulations.
Prisons like the Fleet and the King’s Bench Prison became popular destinations for couples interested in quick, no-questions-asked nuptials because of the number of clerics imprisoned for debt who had nothing to lose and welcomed the income. Many of them lived in the “Rules” or “Liberties,” which were areas around the prison where prisoners could pay for the privilege of living outside the gates.
In an effort to crack down on clandestine marriages, legislation in 1711 attempted to coerce prison keepers to require banns or licenses before performing marriages. That legislation only succeeded in pushing more marriages outside the prison walls into the Rules, or in the case of King’s Bench Prison into the area known as “the Mint,” until the passage of Hardwicke’s Act of 1753, which went into effect March 24, 1754, and required formal ceremonies, thus shutting down the marriage centers.
What You May Find in the Records
The contents and format of the registers may vary slightly, but they will typically include the following details:
- full names of the couple (in some cases a maiden name may be absent)
- marital status
- residences (generally parishes)
- occupation of the groom
- minister's name or initials
This collection also contains about 2,800 records of clandestine baptisms.
Burn, John Southerden. The Fleet registers: Comprising the history of Fleet marriages, and some account of the parsons and marriage-house keepers, with extracts from the registers... London, England: Rivingtons, 1833.
Herber, Mark D. Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History. Baltimore, MD: Sutton Publishing Limited by arrangement with Genealogical Publishing Company, 1998.