THE BANNS OF MARRIAGE
The original purpose of banns, going back to 1563, was to prevent clandestine marriages by providing a way of revealing any legal impediment to the union prior to the marriage sacrament. Such impediments would include a pre-existing marriage, a vow of celibacy, lack of consent, or the couple’s being related within the prohibited degrees of kinship.
Traditionally, banns were published and read from the pulpits of the home parishes of both parties on three Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation prior to the marriage. The wording of banns according to the rites of the Church of England is as follows:
I publish the banns of marriage between NN of … and NN of …
- This is the first / second / third time of asking. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it. (Book of Common Prayer 1662) or
- This is the first / second / third time of asking. If any of you know any reason in law why they may not marry each other you are to declare it. (Common Worship 2005)
FLEET AND CLANDESTINE MARRIAGES
The Marriage Duty Act of 1696, intended to prevent clandestine marriages, as well as raising revenues through taxes on marriages licenses, penalized any beneficed clergymen who married couples without banns or license. However, the clergymen operating in the Fleet Prison, though ordained by the Church of England, were unbeneficed and therefore effectively excluded from any penalty.
Prior to the Marriage Act of 1754, eloping couples could be married clandestinely by any ordained clergyman. Since the Fleet prison was also outside of the jurisdiction of the Church, the prison warders took a tidy profit from the cleric performing the marriage.
Like today’s “Las Vegas Style” wedding chapels, such places sprung up all about the prison environs. Marriages took place in taverns, coffee houses, private dwellings, chambers and shops even at a coffin plate maker. Thus, the clandestine marriage business in the Fleet, the Rules of the Fleet, the King’s Bench Prison, the Southwark Mint, and Mayfair Chapel, boomed.
In the 1740’s over half the marriages in London were performed in such manner. While some of the Fleet marriages were undoubtedly for criminal or fraudulent purposes (many Fleet parsons and register-keepers were not above antedating marriages and certificates) the vast majority of the couples married for a normal lasting union.
A Fleet wedding could be performed at a minute’s notice, with no questions asked, no stipulations made, except for the fee for the service, or the quantity of liquor to be drunk to celebrate the occasion. Not infrequently, the clergyman, the bridegroom and the bride would be drunk at the very time of the ceremony. Many Fleet parsons and tavern-keepers fitted up a room in their respective lodgings or houses as a chapel with the parsons taking the fees, as well as deriving a profit from the sale of liquors drunk by the wedding-party. In some instances tavern-keepers kept a parson on the establishment at a weekly salary. Most of these taverns kept their own marriage registers, in which the parsons entered the weddings and hung placards advertising “CHEAP WEDDINGS PERFORMED HERE.”
One of the most notorious of these “Fleet Clergy” was a man named George Keith, a Scottish minister, who set up a marriage office in both Mayfair, and in the Fleet, to carry on the same trade which has since been practiced in front of the blacksmith’s anvil at Gretna Green. His business was so extensive that the Bishop of London found it necessary to excommunicate him.
With the ease of the deed, and the availability of unscrupulous clergy, many iniquitous schemes were perpetrated under the name of Fleet weddings. For a simple bribe, many parsons would make false entries in their registers to antedate weddings, to give fictitious certificates, and to marry persons anonymously, some only providing the initials of their names.
A spinster or debt-ridden widow might cheat her creditors, by pretending to have been married prior to contracting her debt. By paying an additional fee to the clergyman, a bridegroom could be found on the spot, as well as a blank place in the marriage register for any year desired.
If a parent desired to legitimize his natural children, a Fleet parson could be induced to provide a marriage certificate at any required date.
If a libertine desired a young maid who would not yield without the sanctity of marriage, nothing was easier than to wed at the Fleet and later expunge the record, thus cutting all ties with the unsuspecting victim after the pleasure of debauching her.
Conversely, a woman might even rid herself of an unwanted profligate husband in such manner!
In 1731, heiress Mary Edwardes willingly wed at the Fleet Chapel the profligate son of a nobleman. Shortly after their union he began to squander her money. Only three years after their wedding, fearful that there would be nothing left for their young son, Mary bribed the clergyman to destroy the marriage record and baptized her son under her maiden name. She never remarried.
Other notable and notorious Fleet Marriages were Elizabeth Chudleigh to Lt. Augustus Hervey, which years later led to a bigamy suit.
In 1752, James, the Sixth Duke of Hamilton and Brandon was so smitten by Elizabeth Gunning, that they wed at midnight in a Mayfair Chapel with nothing more than a bedcurtain ring for a wedding band. Another such scandalous marriage was that of the Hon. Henry Fox with Georgiana Caroline, eldest daughter of the Duke of Richmond and illegitimate granddaughter of Charles II.
Such were but a few of the irregularities practiced by the ministers of the Fleet until the public outcry demanded action. The subsequent Marriage Act of 1754 proclaimed that any person solemnizing matrimony in any other than a church or public chapel, without banns or license, should be charged with felony, and if convicted, be transported for fourteen years, and that all such marriages should be void. This Act took effect the 25th of March, 1754.