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Banns & Licenses

Exploration of the types of marriage licenses

Our heroes and heroines in historical romances had three ways (aside from elopement) to legally marry: Banns, Common License, and Special License.

While we see the Special License used often in novels, it would have been exceedingly rare. If a man needed to obtain a license, he would have chosen the Common License instead.

The graphic offers an overview of each to better understand them, but I encourage looking into the full research post about the topic: Banns, Special License, and Common License

It's important to fully understand how these worked, what was acceptable, who could obtain which, why a person would choose one over the other, the restrictions of each, etc.

A few teasers to consider, which you can read in more detail at the link provided:

  • The banns were the most socially acceptable way to marry. Any other way was not socially acceptable and would likely lead to scandal. The banns were considered the "time of asking." These were not announcements of an engagement or upcoming marriage rather it was the "time of asking" the congregation within the parish of residence (and only the parish of residence) if anyone had objections to the marriage. The congregation then had 3 Sundays in a row to object to the marriage. If no objections were heard, the marriage would take place after that time but within a certain period of time since any lengthy delay would mean the need to call the banns again in case objections had arisen since the previous calling of banns. The couple to be married did not tell the parish clergyman of their upcoming nuptials and instruct him to call banns, rather the couple had to seek permission to marry from the parish clergyman, and if the clergyman was in agreement to both the marriage and performing the ceremony, he would then require the time of asking, or the calling of banns.

  • The Common License would be the most likely choice outside of the calling of banns since it could be obtained locally with a visit to the bishop. It cost money, and the applicant had quite a bit of paperwork to go through to obtain it, but anyone of good standing in the community and with the coin could obtain it and thus bypass the calling of the banns. The couple would still need to marry within the church, and the clergyman would still need to agree to officiate the ceremony. Bypassing the banns was tricky because it said to all and sundry this marriage might not be approved by the congregation, there could be an impediment, and there is a reason not only to rush the marriage but to keep it secret until vows are exchanged. A common reason for the license, aside from pregnancy, was when marrying a different social class since the congregation would likely object to two different classes marrying, especially if one part of the couple was a servant.

  • The Special License was the least likely to be obtained. It could only be obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury in London, was exceedingly expensive, and could only be obtained by aristocrats, never commoners (and yes, members of the gentry were commoners). Outside of the many restrictions for obtaining this license, the only benefit over the Common License was that it allowed the couple to marry outside of the church and at a day and time of their choosing. To do so was absurdly scandalous, though. If someone needed a deathbed wedding, or if an aristocrat planned to marry his scullery maid, then a Special License just might be the right choice.

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