The Marriage Act of 1753

Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
June 2023

Technically known as “An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage” (26 Geo. II, c. 33), this measure is often referenced as Hardwicke’s Act, from its chief promoter, Charles Yorke, Earl Hardwicke (1690–1764). It went into law on 25 March 1754. Its ostensible aim concerned what a recent moral panic had characterised as a spate of runaway marriages, by which a penniless adventurer would carry off a gullible young heiress. In fact, the Act set up for the first time wider secular control in Britain over the form and legalities of weddings, an area which had previously been left chiefly to the ecclesiastical courts.

The bill was first introduced in the House of Lords on 19 March 1753, and then reintroduced in a new form on 4 May. Following this, it was presented in the Commons by the attorney general Dudley Ryder on 14 May, and after going through detailed scrutiny at the committee stage reached the third reading on 4 June. It was sent back to the Lords two days later, when Hardwicke vehemently defended its provisions to ensure passage. In the process he displayed, in the view of Horace Walpole, “all the acrimony of wounded pride, of detected ambition, and insolent authority.” The royal assent was given on 7 June.

The most vehement opponent of the measure was Charles Townshend (1725–67), best known for the part he played in the crisis over taxation of the American colonies, who denounced it as a cruel enterprise against women. Along with Walpole, others critical of the bill were Henry Fox (1705–74) and the fourth Duke of Bedford (1710–71). Subsequently, the Duke received the dedication of a satirical tale by John Shebbeare (1709–88) which played around some of the issues, and landed the author in gaol. This was given a resonant title: The Marriage Act: A Novel, in which the Ruin of Female Honour, the Contempt of the Clergy, the Destruction of Private and Public Liberty, with other Fatal Consequences, are Considered; In a Series of Interesting Adventures (1754). Some of the arguments raised, concerning the effects on poor people, strangely recall the views expressed by Bernard Mandeville a generation earlier on the social utility of prostitution.

In outline, the main provisions of the law stipulated that marriages had to take place in an Anglican church; that they had to be announced by banns for each of three weeks in advance; that they were to be duly entered in an official register, with the signatures of “credible” witnesses; that a period of residence of four weeks in the given parish should be established for at least one of the partners; and that parental consent was required for either party if they were minors. As in canon law, the celebrant had to be a clergyman of the Church of England. Specific exemptions from the statute were made in the case of Jews and Quakers. However, there was no provision for the union of Catholics and Dissenters.

The implications were wide and went beyond the plight of seduced girls from the aristocracy.

Major inroads were made into the institution of Fleet marriages, which had been carried out in the prison of that name, but also in the Mayfair Chapel of Alexander Keith (d. 1758)—most were performed by ordained ministers who had for some reason separated themselves from the Anglican community. Those who defied the ordinance were liable to be transported for a term of fourteen years, and such a sentence was passed on Rev. John Wilkinson (father of the actor and writer Tate Wilkinson), who allegedly married over 1,000 couples in a single year at the Savoy Chapel where he was the incumbent—though, when interrogated in court, he claimed this figure was far too high. The chapel lay in a passageway off the Strand, outside the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London, and Wilkinson argued that the new law did not apply to his cure. However, when he faced the charge at the Old Bailey in 1756 he was found guilty, as was his deputy John Grierson in a separate trial. Wilkinson died on a convict ship at Plymouth before he could be carried across the Atlantic.

It is certain that ways were found to avoid the strict application of the law, but in general it worked in the sense that irregular marriages were no longer silently tolerated, while the limited functions of the old canon law were supplanted. The most obvious resort of desperate couples was to make their way to Scotland where the Act dd not operate, and where girls could marry at twelve and boys at fourteen. Villages just over the Border became favourite sites for a clandestine marriage, and from about 1770 Gretna Green emerged as the partly mythical venue de choix.

The Act was substantially modified in 1823 and repealed in 1859.

See R.B. Outhwaite, Clandestine Marriage in England, 1500–1850 (1995); and Rebecca Probert, Marriage Law & Practice in the Long Eighteenth Century: A Reassessment (2009).