If you’ve read more than about one Regency-era romance, chances are you’ve come across a special license. You see there was this pesky law by which marriages couldn’t take place in England without the banns being published in the resident parishes of both bride and bridegroom three Sundays in a row. In addition, marriages had to take place in church and before noon. This is damnably inconvenient for the writer who wants her couple wed quickly and who doesn’t want the trouble of sending them all the way to Scotland where the laws were less restrictive
Luckily for our desperate heroes (isn’t it always the hero who’s in a hurry?), there was a way out. You could apply to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head cleric of the Church of England, for a Special License which allowed a marriage to take place anywhere and at any hour without a waiting period. This useful document was obtained from the Archbishop’s London offices at Doctors Commons in the City of London.
A few years ago I became frustrated by the fact that I didn’t know what a special license looked like. I couldn’t find a picture on line, or even the text. So during a trip to London I went to the source. Doctors Commons was demolished during the 19th century but the Archbishop has a nice little London pad at Lambeth Palace, just across the River Thames from Westminster.
I imagined a printed form in which the names were inserted, but I was wrong about that. The Lambeth Palace Library possessed no “blank” licenses, only a few dozen completed ones for marriages that had been performed in the Palace chapel.
A license was handwritten on parchment approximately 18 inches wide by 12 inches high, quite an impressive document. All the couple of dozen I saw (dated between 1754 and 1806) looked much the same. In a couple of instances the names of the parties were written in different handwriting from the text (which was boilerplate, scarcely varying by a word) as though a clerk had prepared a blank license when he had nothing better to do. More often the document had been written all at once, not something that could be dashed off in ten minutes.
A license was signed by the “Register” and finished with the Archbishop’s seal, hanging from a ribbon or string looped through holes in the parchment.
The men are described as either widower or bachelor, the women as widow or spinster. In the case of a spinster, the name of her father is given, for a widow, her late husband’s. For the man the father is recorded if he’s a peer or someone else notable. As you can see by the list of titles for the bridegroom in the following license, they seemed to like to make the whole business seem important.
Here is the text of a typical license, that for the 1806 marriage of Prince Bariatinsky to Lord Sherborne’s daughter. There is absolutely no punctuation and, yes, the word “Honorable” is spelled in what we would call the American way.
Charles by Divine Providence Archbishop of Canterbury Primate of all England and Metropolitan by Authority of Parliament lawfully empowered for the purposes herein written To our beloved in Christ John Prince Bariatinsky of Russia privy counselor to the Emperor of Russia Chamberlain and Knight of the Military Order of St. George and also Knight of Malta now of Sackville Street London a Bachelor and the Honorable [sic] Frances Mary Dutton of Sherborne in the County of Gloucester a Spinster daughter of the Right Honorable James Dutton Baron Sherborne Wheareas As it is alleged ye have proposed to proceed to the solemnization of a true pure and lawful Marriage Earnestly desiring the same to be solemnized with all the speed that may be that since your reasonable desires may the more readily take due effect We for certain causes as thereunto especially moving do so far as in us lies and the Laws of this Nation allow by these presents Graciously give and grant our License and Faculty as well to you the parties contracting as to all Christian People willing to be present at the solemnization of the said Marriage to Celebrate and Solemnize such Marriage between you the said contracting parties at any time and in any church or chapel or other meet and convenient place by any Bishop of this Realm or by the Rector Vicar Curate or Chaplain of such Church or Chapel or by any other Minister in Holy Orders of the Church of England Provided there be no lawful Let or Impediment to hinder the said Marriage Given under the seal of our office of Faculties at Doctors Commons this twenty first day of April in the year of Our Lord One Thousand eight hundred and six and in the second year of Our Translation.
I wish I had a picture, but I had no smart phone back then. Also, the library was very strict with scary Anglican librarians who were polite but firm. They only let me look at one document at a time and I was too intimidated to ask for a photocopy.
Since a special license allowed a marriage to take place at any time or in any place, where would you like to see our Regency couple tie the knot?