Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1753

In 1753, Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, was responsible for the a new Marriage Act that made it compulsory for all marriages to be solemnised in the Church of England Parish Church and registered by the parson.  Although its full title was “An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage” is became knows as Hardwicke’s Marriage Act and was the first piece of legislation in England Wales that made a formal ceremony a requirement of marriage.

By the mid eighteenth century, there was widespread abuse of the marriage laws. The matter was brought to a head by the so called Fleet Marriages. These were conducted in the Fleet Prison in London by unscrupulous parsons who were willing to conduct marriages without too many questions asked.

For a small fee, the marriage was solemnised. Victims of the practice included your girls, especially, especially those of some means, who were abducted or otherwise coerced into marriage. Young men also fell victim. After being plied with drink,they found themselves wed to Drury Lane trollops.

One Fleet parson is said to have made £75 12s in a single month; another conducted 6,000 such marriages in one year.

In 1753, Hardwicke, then Lord Chancellor promoted a bill that required all marriages to be conducted in a Church of England Parish Church and that banns should be called for three consecutive Sundays in that Church prior to the marriage. The only exceptions were Jews and Quakers who were permitted to conduct their own valid marriage services.

Other groups, including Roman Catholics and Dissenters were required to marry in the Church of England though of course many then went to their own churches for a second ceremony.

There was some opposition to the Bill, mainly from Charles Townshend (who hoped to profit by an advantageous marriage) and from Henry Fox. Fox, who was probably the most eloquent orator in Parliament at the time, had made a runaway marriage himself with the daughter to the Duke of Richmond.

Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, was the son of an attorney and was a native of Dover. He enjoyed a long and successful career in Parliament. He was Lord Chancellor from 1737-56 during which time, as well as the Marriage Act he was largely responsible for the abolition of heritable jurisdictions and for prohibiting the use of the tartan in Scotland following the Battle of Culloden in 1745.He had been Solicitor General from 1720-3, and Attorney General from 1723-33. He was Lord Chief Justice of the Kings Bench from 1733-7.

Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, 1690-1764.

Main source: The Whig Supremacy, 1714-60 by Basil Williams