This blog post is the guide to finding and using marriage records for genealogy purposes.
The vast majority of our ancestors were born to married parents. This is great news as it means most of us can utilise the rich information held within marriage records. Not only can we find out more about those getting married, but we can use marriages to help us hunt down earlier ancestors.
Before we dive in, note that this guide covers England and Wales. Scottish and Irish births, marriages and deaths were all recorded separately.
Marriage Before 1837
From about the 12th century until 1837, our ancestors usually married in churches. Ideally, they should have been married by banns or alternatively (from the 14th century onward) by licence.
Technically, from 1538 the details of the marriage should have been recorded by the clergyman in the parish register. Making marriage records an invaluable tool for those tracing their genealogy. A word of warning though, depending on the date of the marriage the details recorded will vary. There may be record gaps too. Events like the English Civil War interrupted recordings and not every parish register has survived the tests of time.
In addition to the original parish registers, each church was required to make copies. These were collated centrally and known as the Bishops Transcripts (BT’s). In reality, the two sets of registers are not always identical. Sometimes a clergyman might add corrections to the BT’s. Such as fixing a misspelling or adding an accidentally missed entry. Alternatively, they may have accidentally missed an entry within the parish register. Or simply mistranscribed it.
In instances where records have not survived, BT’s can be used as substitutes for parish registers. Similarly, when you find something unexpected in a parish register it might be worth checking the BT’s. Is the entry the same? Was an error made?
There is no one site holding copies of all parish registers or BT’s. Online sites like Ancestry, Find My Past, The Genealogist and FamilySearch all have their own collections. Volunteers for FreeREG have made good headway indexing large swathes of parish registers, although it’s far from complete. Some sites are only able to provide records in transcription format. Whilst still extremely useful, it is always preferable to check originals, which may contain additional details.
Offline copies are held by most county archives and sometimes libraries.
Genuki is a great index for helping you locate records.
Are there records of banns and licences?
Being married by banns basically means that the names of the bride and groom were called out in church for 3 consecutive Sundays. Giving those that might know of some legal impediment the chance to come forward. Records of these do survive, but normally only detail the bride and grooms names and the dates of banns. Occasionally banns were read and the marriage failed to take place. So although, finding banns suggests a couple got married they can’t be taken as absolute proof.
As an alternative to banns, marriage licences could be obtained. In this instance, both parties swore there was no legal reason they could not get married and agreed on a bond to be paid to the church should the marriage turn out to be invalid or illegal. Getting married by licence was quicker, and due to the cost, became a status symbol of wealth.
Licences’ have rarely survived, but the bonds and the allegations have (in places). These can often include information, not only on the bride and groom but their age, residence and even parents names. More information on licences can be found on the FamilySearch wiki.
Irregular and Clandestine Marriages
Marriage ceremonies were meant to take place within the home parish of either the bride or groom. Unless a licence was obtained allowing for the ceremony to take place in a different church. As mentioned above, marriages were meant to be performed following banns or licence.
The problem was that before 1754 the above “rules” were all suggested requirements rather than mandatory points of law. In fact, the only compulsory legally binding element was that the service had to be conducted by an Anglican clergyman.
So, whilst most of our ancestors’ marriages did conform to the suggested rules – not all did! These rule-breaking, but still legally valid, marriages were known as Irregular or Clandestine Marriages (depending on the rules broken).
The authorities did try to stop these marriages without banns or in parishes away from home. A series of acts was released, such as the 1695 Marriage Duty Act. But, these only applied to areas that came under the jurisdiction of the bishop of the diocese. Areas, such as prisons, did not come under the bishop’s jurisdiction. Nor did the law stop dismissed clergymen from performing a marriage rite. Many of defrocked clergymen were in debt and potentially in prison themselves. It would have been easy to entice such a man into a career conducting clandestine marriages – for those willing to pay a fee.
Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1753
In 1753 Hardwicke’s Marriage Act finally tightened the law, with the act coming into enforce in 1754. Those suggested requirements (like banns) all became mandatory. Persons under the age of 21 also had to have parental consent to marry by licence.
The only persons exempt from the Act were Jews and Quakers. Additionally, the act had no standing in Scotland. Hence the desire for those not fitting the legal requirements of marriage to elope to places like Gretna Green.
By and large, though, the Act finally put a stop to clandestine marriages. It also meant that all marriages (except Jewish and Quaker ones) had to take place in an Anglican Church. Regardless of religious belief.
What details were recorded in the marriage parish register?
Before 1812 it is not uncommon to find that the only details recorded are the name of the bride and groom. After 1812 legislation helped standardise recordings. After 1812 records should state whether a spouse was a bachelor, spinster, widower or widow at the time of marriage. They should also include a note about the residence, such as “of this parish” or “of the parish of X”. Age should be recorded, although it was often just noted as ‘of full age’, which means over 21. Age details should always be taken with a big pinch of salt. Our ancestors didn’t apply for passports, drivers licences or bank accounts regularly. Sometimes they didn’t really know how old they were! Sometimes they fibbed or clergymen made assumptions.
Lastly, the signatures or marks (X) of the bride and groom should be recorded, along with those of two witnesses. See my article on Why You Should Examine Your Ancestors Signatures & How To Do It to find out more about the hidden clues in our ancestors’ signatures.
After 1837 the information recorded mirrors that recorded on the marriage certificate (see below).
Central Registration 1837
In 1836 an Act was created allowing couples to get married by licence in approved places of worship outside of the Church of England. Such as nonconformist churches, chapels and meeting houses. Shortly afterwards (on 1 July 1837) a formal central registration of marriages (and Births and Deaths) began in England & Wales. Until 1836 a local registrar had to be present at non-Church of England marriages but after 1836 other officials, like Rabbi’s, Ministers etc could be appointed into this role. The 1836 legislation also allowed for marriages in licences premises outside of religious buildings, thus creating registry offices.
Local registrars (called superintendent registrars) send copies of all birth, marriage and death registrations from their office to the Registrar General in London. These are submitted quarterly at the end of March, June, September and December. The Registrar General compiles all the data from all the local registrations to create an index of birth, marriages and deaths. These are held by the General Registration Office (GRO) and are available to the public. You need to find your ancestors’ index details to order birth, marriage and death certificates.
The index details the surname and first name of your ancestor. Sometimes second names or an initial may be recorded too. The year that the marriage was registered and the quarter are stated, along with the local district within which the marriage was registered. Note, this is not the same as the parish your ancestor was married within. See the UK BMD website for more information on the composition of registration districts.
Lastly, each entry will have a page and volume number. You can search for one spouse and find the other spouse by checking who else had their marriage recorded in the exact same year, quarter, district and with the same page and volume number.
Once you find your ancestors’ registration details you can order the certificate for their marriage from the GRO.
What information is on a marriage certificate?
A marriage certificate should contain the below.
Information on the Bride and Groom:
- Their surname and first name. Sometimes initials or middle names are included.
- Their ages, although this may be stated as ‘of full age’.
- Their marital status – such as single, bachelor, spinster, widow, widower.
- Their residence.
- Their occupation.
- Their signature
Information on the Bride and Groom’s Fathers:
- Their surname and first name. Sometimes initials or middle names are included.
- Their occupation OR
- Sometimes the father might be recorded as deceased. A handy clue! However, it would be wrong to assume a father was living just because they were not recorded as deceased.
- The date of the marriage and where it took place
- The name of whoever performed the marriage
- The signatures or marks of at least two witnesses
Using Marriage Records for Genealogy
One of the biggest benefits of finding a marriage, especially after 1812 is that the details on it can be cross-referenced against other records. Such as birth certificates and census. For example, normally, the name of a bride’s father will also be found on her birth certificate. Ideally, the name and occupation will match – or be related.
This ability to cross-reference is partly why Birth, Marriage and Death records/registers are the backbone of genealogy.
For finding the identity of our female ancestors’, marriages are particularly vital. Without a marriage record sometimes it can be impossible to discover our female ancestors’ maiden name.
Marriage certificates are full of clues. Residences can be looked for in census, electoral rolls and newspapers.
Depending on the occupation, this too might generate a search. Either of occupation specific documents or in apprenticeship and trade union collections.
Witnesses are always worth investigating. They might be friends or family. Either can lead to further discoveries.
There’s No Father’s Name
Sometimes you’ll find a marriage certificate where the father of the bride or groom was not named. This normally means the bride or groom was illegitimate.
What does illegitimacy mean? It means being born to parents that weren’t married. Now, if your parents married after you were born you could be considered ‘legitimised’ but only if your birth was re-registered. That’s still the case today. I’m unmarried and when registering the birth of my children I was advised to re-register them if I married their father. Why? Because, if after I married him, I went on to have another child – that child born within wedlock would have a greater entitlement to our assets should we die without leaving a will. I know, totally archaic. The only way around this historic legislation would be to re-register the kids born before we got married.
But how common was it to be illegitimate? Well, according to Population Past:
“Illegitimacy was not uncommon in historic England and Wales, but it underwent a sustained decline over the Victorian era, falling from around 7 per cent of all births in 1851 to around 4 per cent in 1901”.Illegitimacy Ratios: https://www.populationspast.org/about/
For genealogists, illegitimacy can present a challenge. No father on a marriage certificate usually means there isn’t one named on the birth certificate either. It means one less piece of information to cross-reference too. This makes it harder to ascertain that you’ve found ‘the right’ person across records.
For those with illegitimate ancestors, it’s worth checking records such as Bastardy Bonds. Find out more on the Gen Guide website here.
In cases of illegitimacy, it’s necessary to really work the extra clues provided on a marriage certificate. Such as witness names. But, sometimes illegitimacy mysteries aren’t solvable and DNA might be your only chance to discover the identity of someone’s father. There are no guarantees.
Other Marriage Records for Genealogy
Aside from parish registers, BT’s and general registration, there are several other marriage lists.
Non-Conformist & Catholics
Some non-conformists, and Catholics, got married in their own place of worship – as well as officially getting married in a Church of England. Sometimes the couple were never legally married, but were married according to their own religious beliefs and passed themselves off as such.
For all Jewish information, I’d highly recommend viewing the Jewish Gen website. For marriages, in particular, see their marriage database.
Boyd’s Marriage Index
Between 1925 and 1955, Percival Boyd and his staff, copied marriage records from serveral different sources. This included parish registers, BT’s, licences, banns, bonds and allegations. Boyd’s index data ranges from 1538 to 1840 but no county is covered in its entirety. Originals are held with the Society of Genealogists and the list can also be searched online at Find My Past.
Pallot’s Marriage Index
Pallot’s Marriage Index is a collection of marriage data, most of which has been taken from the parishes in London and Middlesex. It covers the dates 1780 to July 1837. Only the place, date and name of the bride and groom have been included. The original index belongs to the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies but can be accessed online at Ancestry.
Marriages Abroad or At Sea
Marriages that took place outside of England and Wales are not recorded in the main GRO register of marriages. Before formal registration, they may not have been recorded centrally within the UK at all.
A full list and explanation of the different registers can be found at The National Archives.
Marriages in the Armed Forces
Marriages that took place in the armed forces may not be included in the standard GRO register – depending on the circumstances.
There is no one list of armed forces marriages, and different lists cover different periods. A full guide can be found at The National Archives.
In addition to looking for formal records, it is always worth checking the newspapers for your ancestors’ wedding details. You never know you might even find a photograph! Wedding notices can be amazingly detailed. They might give a description of the bride’s dress. Or list all the guests and their relationship to the couple.
In some instances of missing records, a newspaper entry might be the only ‘proof’ of a marriage that can be found. This is certainly the case for one of my early military ancestors!
As many of the sites are referenced multiple times, I’ve included links as I go along. However, in addition to the websites, I’d highly recommend reading, Rebecca Probert’s Marriage Law for Genealogists. Essential reading for anyone interested in marriage records for genealogy, and the laws surrounding marriage.