Marriage in the English Revolution

As same-sex marriage legislation receives royal consent today, Dr Stephen Roberts, the editor of our Commons 1640-1660 section, looks back at debates over marriage laws during the 17th Century…

‘Marriage is best left to the churches, not politicians.’ The view of newspaper columnist Trevor Kavanagh (BBC Radio 4, Any Questions, 24 May 2013) was expressed at a time when forms of marriage are in contention. During the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, politicians showed no reluctance to involve themselves in matrimonial law-making. That period was one of competing legislative claims, not between the versions of same-sex unions, but on the format of heterosexual marriages. In England and Wales on the eve of the Civil War, the Book of Common Prayer dictated the only form of public marriage available, based on the formula ‘I take…to have and to hold’. When Parliament was in a position to impose a Puritan, Scots-Presbyterian influenced alternative to the Prayer Book, The Directory of Worship (1645), marriage was downplayed as not a sacrament, not peculiar to the Christian church but ‘common to mankind’ and of universal public interest. In the new prescribed ceremony, the form of words spoke by each partner was ‘I promise and covenant’, and ‘without further ceremony’ the minister was to pronounce the couple married.

The trend was towards simplicity and reduced ceremonial, and towards greater involvement by the state. During the Nominated Assembly or ‘Barebones Parliament’ of 1653, this was taken to its logical conclusion when the conducting of marriages was taken away from the clergy altogether and vested in justices of the peace. Parishes were to elect a registrar to keep records of the new unions. Couples were now required to be ‘loving and faithful’ to each other, wives with the additional promise to be obedient, a requirement maintained from the Book of Common Prayer in every new version of the marriage ceremony. Whereas in earlier forms the age of consent was vague, ‘years of discretion’, in the 1653 formula it was set at 16 for men and 14 for women, with parents needing to give consent for the under -21s.

So by the mid-1650s the married population might have validated their unions by one of  three types of marriage ceremony, a fact that the second of Oliver Cromwell‘s Parliaments contemplated in a debate in 1657: ‘now people marry three ways’, as one MP put it. The debate was prompted by the need to confirm or repudiate all the legislative achievements of 1653, which had been constructed by an assembly called into being by Cromwell’s command, not by popular election. In an interesting echo of the recent debates, there were those very ready to offer outlandish examples and possibilities. The conservative John Glynne came up with this: ‘A gentleman being asked how many wives he had had, he said he had had seven wives, but he had been ten times married, viz. three times married to his last wife. This was Sir Gervase Clifton.’  Others championed one or other of the competing marriage forms, the conservative puritans promoting the 1645 Directory. Others were well aware of the problem that repealing the earlier legislation of 1653 would threaten to make marriages contracted by its terms of dubious legality, and bring into question the legal standing of offspring: ‘you will bastardize a great many families, and make work enough for the lawyers’, as Colonel Francis White put it. In the event the Parliament of 1656-8 confirmed the bulk of the 1653 act, but repealed the clause which had declared itself to be the only valid form of marriage for the future.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Book of Common Prayer again became the only sanctioned basis for the marriage ceremony. In its 1662 formulation, heavily influenced by anti-Puritan language, the ‘minister’ of the pre-1640 version became the ‘priest’, and the format of reading the banns was laid down. But in a tacit concession to the upheavals that had occurred in the country, let alone in marriage rubrics, the pre-1640 insistence that a wedding should immediately be followed by the taking of Holy Communion by bride and groom was dropped in favour of an expression that it was ‘convenient’ that a couple should thus confirm their status as members of the Anglican church at the ‘first opportunity’ after the nuptials.


For more on the law and marriage, read Dr Ruth Paley’s earlier post on Parliament and gay marriage.

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