History

The Marriage Act 1836

The Marriage Act of 1836 (6&7 William IV, c.85) has been in the news thanks to the Government’s decision to repeal the restrictions on when people can get married. The current requirement for marriages to be held between 8am and 6pm is set to go as part of the Freedoms Bill, but why was the restriction ever introduced in the first place?

The answer to that is a neat illustration of how regulations do not exist in a vacuum but have to fit with the current social context. In addition to introducing civil registration of marriages, the Act introduced the limit on hours of marriage as a reaction to the number of secret marriages taking place without the knowledge of the parents and many of which (it was claimed, with some if not full justification) were bigamous.

The idea of curbing bigamous marriages would still have widespread support today, but restricting the hours of marriage is not (any more) an effective way to do that. Society has changed in too many ways for it to any longer be an effective step.

The Marriage Act of 1836 was a liberalising measure in one important way, as it allowed Catholics and non-conformists to be married in their own places of worship rather than having to marry in Anglican churches. (Quakers and Jews were already able to use their own places of worship for marriage prior to 1836.)

This relaxation of the Church of England’s grip provoked the sort of opposition that sounds very familiar to modern ears, as with the Bishop of Exeter who wrote to The Times thundering that the act was,

A disgrace to British legislation. (It) is pretended to be called for to prevent clandestine marriages, but I think it will greatly facilitate such proceedings. Not solemnized by the church of England, may be celebrated without entering into a consecrated building, may be contracted by anybody, and will be equally valid, whether it takes place in the house of God, or in the house of a registering clerk, one of the lowest functionaries of the state. The parties may take one another for better and for worse, without calling God to witness their plighted troth. No blessing sought; no solemn vows of mutual fidelity; no religious solemnity whatever.

One odd footnote about The Marriage Act of 1836: although it introduced the restriction on hours of marriage, it has actually long since been fully replaced by other Acts (which retained the hours restriction). However, during a piece of legal consolidation in the 1940s, the 1836 Act’s statement that the civil marriage provisions did not apply to members of the Royal Family was (probably inadvertently) dropped. Hence Prince Charles was able to marry Camilla Parker Bowles in a civil ceremony.

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