Fleet Marriage

A Fleet Marriage is the best-known example of an irregular or a clandestine marriage taking place in England before the Marriage Act 1753 came into force on March 25th, 1754. Specifically, it was one which took place in London's Fleet Prison during the 17th and, especially, the early 18th century.

Irregular marriages

Under English law a marriage was recognized as valid if each spouse had simply expressed (to each other) an unconditional consent to their marriage. No particular words were necessary; no clergyman or registrar need be present; no witnesses were required. Most people married in church, however, since the church desired it, and the family and friends expected it. Vows could be exchanged by a boy as young as 14 and a girl as young as 12; the church expected parental consent for those under the age of 21.

An "irregular marriage" was one taking place away from the home parish of the spouses (but after banns or licence); or taking place at an improper time. "Clandestine" marriages were those where an element of secrecy applied: perhaps where they took place away from a home parish, and without either banns or marriage licence. The secrecy might be for many reasons: no parental consent; or where bigamy was involved are two. The facts that fees were involved meant that many clergymen were willing to conduct such marriage ceremonies.

The number of such marriages was enormous, particularly in London, and certain churches were important centres of such "trade". In the 1740s, over half of all London weddings were taking place in the environs of the Fleet Prison.

Even before that date some attempt had been made to curb irregular marriages. The Marriage Duty Acts of 1694 and 1695 required that banns or licences must be obtained, and imposed a penalty of 100 on any clergyman who celebrated a marriage without obtaining one or the other. This was largely ignored by many parishes, who were not put off by the fine, and particularly already imprisoned for debt. In such circumstances the Fleet Prison became important as a marriage centre.

Fleet Prison

The earliest recorded date of a Fleet Marriage is 1613 (although there were undoubtedly earlier ones), while the earliest recorded in a Fleet Register took place in 1674. As a prison, the Fleet was claimed to be outside the jurisdiction of the church. The prison warders took a share of the profit, even though a statute of 1711 imposed fines upon them for doing so: it only moved the clandestine marriage trade outside the prison. There were, in fact, so many debtors that many lived in the area outside the prison (itself a lawless area). Disgraced clergymen (and many who pretended to be clergymen) lived there, and marriage houses or taverns carried on the trade, encouraged by local tavern-keepers in the neighbourhood who employed touts to solicit custom for them. There were also many clerks who made money recording the ceremonies.

During the 1740s up to 6000 marriages a year were taking place in the Fleet area, compared with the 47 000 in England. One estimate suggests that there were between 70 and 100 clergymen working in the Fleet area between 1700 and 1753. It was not merely a marriage centre for the criminals and poor, however: both rich and poor availed themselves of the opportunity to marry in secret.

Marriage Act 1753

The scandal and abuses brought about by these clandestine marriages became so great that they became the object of special legislation. In 1753, Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act was passed, which required, under pain of nullity, that banns should be published or a licence obtained; that, in either case, the marriage should be solemnized in church; and that in the case of minors, marriage by licence must be by the consent of parent or guardian; and that at least two witnesses must be present. Jewish and Quaker ceremonies were exempt. Clergymen conducting clandestine marriages were liable to transportation.

This act had the effect of putting a stop to these marriages, so far as England was concerned, and henceforth couples had to fare to Scotland (Gretna Green had substantial use until 1856, when English law declared such marriages invalid) or to the Channel Islands where the 1753 Act did not apply.

References

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