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Irregular and Clandestine Marriages, Part 2

Apart from the Fleet chapel, other chapels were used for clandestine and irregular marriages. The Fleet was a major centre as was James Dukes Place and Holy Trinity Minories, but what was a clandestine marriage and why did they take place?

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Susan Bogan
Word Count: 542 (approx.)
Labels: Marriage Record 
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Ecclesiastical laws governing the validity of marriage specified the marriage took place by banns or licence, and if these procedures weren't carried out, the church justified itself in deeming the marriage void. However, English law had a different interpretation; therefore, as long as two people consented to a marriage then it was deemed a marriage. The age of marriage was hugely different when you see the interpretation by church law, which was 21 being the age of consent, and under 21 the parents were needed to give permission for the marriage to go ahead. Yet under the English law a boy could marry at 14 and a girl even younger at 12. So before 1754 a marriage was valid under either route taken.

What do the terms irregular and clandestine represent?

  • Irregular means not under the law of the church, so performed in Fleet Chapel and other chapels listed below.
  • Clandestine, however, has more secretive undertones. It was still an irregular marriage, but furtive and covert for a variety of reasons. Clandestine marriages were available for a fee and performed forthwith promptly.
A variety of reasons might exist for furtiveness on the part of the bride and groom. For example, if a widow was not allowed to remarry under a husband's will and still keep the estate, she may well have wanted to keep the marriage quiet. If there was an element of unsuitable marriage between classes, where one spouse would be eligible to lose and inheritance if the marriage was found out. Plus, bigamy would be another reason.

Because clandestine and irregular marriages were so common, there were a number of centres that were popular. Apart from Fleet prison chapel, clandestine marriages were performed at the Tower of London chapel for the early 1600's. To put this all in perspective, from around 1665 to when the Marriage Act occurred putting an end to it in 1754, over 200.000 marriages took place, as irregular or clandestine.

Sadly, the two other major centres apart from Fleet Chapel, including St. James Dukes Place and Holy Trinity Minories, many of their registers are missing. However, the East London Family History Centre does have an index for Holy Trinity from 1676 to 1754, and a published works by Phillimore has 1664 to 1837 for St James Dukes Place.

The Guildhall library in London plus the London Metropolitan Archives holds the surviving registers of the following chapels involved in these favoured and accepted marriages: St. James Dukes Place; St. Dunstan Stepney; St. Gregory by St. Paul; St. Benets Wharf; St. Pancras; St. Ktharine by the Tower; St. Botolph Aldgate; and St. Mary Magdalen.

The Mayfair Chapel has it registers--the surviving ones, in printed form by the Harleian Society. This chapel performed hundreds of marriages; and the reverend, though, found himself then an inmate of Fleet prison.

So if you have an ancestor who you just cant find via the use of the IGI and other sources, it may well be he or she had taken the easier route of irregular or clandestine. It will, however, be not much consolation to know that finding these pre-1754 marriage will not be that easy, purely by the fact by the fact that so many registers and notebooks just have not survived. But it is one more place to look.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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