Catholics and the law of marriage before 1836

bordeaux-bridge
Bridge over the River Garonne in Bordeaux

There are a couple of peculiar entries in a family bible that belonged to John Roche O’Bryen, and subsequently his son Alfred, and then grand-son Bob.  

“John Roche O’Bryen & Eliza his wife (born Henderson July 27th 1805) married Decr 25/32 Janr th 7th /33 by Protestant Curate at Bordeaux” and also in a second entry  on “December 25th 1832 & again (according to the rights of the Protestant Faith) at the British consulate Chapel   Bordeaux  January  7th  1833.”

This has always been intriguing right from the start. All in all, it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast. The double ceremony is odd, but, as seen below, for a Catholic marriage to be valid under English law before 1836, it had to be performed by an Anglican clergyman. Canonically, in the eyes of the Church, the first, presumably, Catholic marriage is fine. The second Anglican ceremony would provide the legal certainty of a marriage that would be accepted under both English, and Irish law. Ironically, because there is no evidence of a French civil marriage, neither of the marriages were legal in France

The following from the UK Parliament website sets out the state of English Catholic marriages in 1832- 1833.

Until the middle of the 18th century marriages could take place anywhere provided they were conducted before an ordained clergyman of the Church of England. This encouraged the practice of secret marriages which did not have parental consent and which were often bigamous. It also allowed couples, particularly those of wealthy background, to marry while at least one of the partners was under age. The trade in these irregular marriages had grown enormously in London by the 1740s.

1st_earl_of_hardwicke_1690-1764_by_william_hoare_of_bath
Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke 1690-1764

In 1753, however, the Marriage Act, promoted by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hardwicke, declared that all marriage ceremonies must be conducted by a minister in a parish church or chapel of the Church of England to be legally binding. No marriage of a person under the age of 21 was valid without the consent of parents or guardians. Clergymen who disobeyed the law were liable for 14 years transportation.Although Jews and Quakers were exempted from the 1753 Act, it required religious non-conformists and Catholics to be married in Anglican churches.

Hardwick’s Marriage Act 1753 (‘The Act’) applied only to England & Wales and came into force in 1754. Scotland and the Channel Islands were exempt from the legislation. Under Hardwick’s Act, banns were made compulsory and licences were only valid for a specific church. Hardwick’s Act also declared that only marriages held at approved places (i.e. Anglican, Jewish or Quaker churches) were legal. This was a big change as previously couples who made a vow before witnesses, who lived together and who had children were recognised by the church and law as being ‘married’. In order to legalise their marriage, some couples married again in an Anglican church, having first married in a non-conformist chapel. Marriage by other denominations, (i.e. Roman Catholic and Non-Conformist) wasn’t legalised until 1836.

This restriction was eventually removed by Parliament in the Marriage Act of 1836 which allowed non-conformists and Catholics to be married in their own places of worship. The Marriage Act 1836 allowed for non-conformists and Catholics to marry in their own place of worship, ie. chapels and Roman Catholic churches.

The provisions introduced in England and Wales empowered the Established Church to register the marriages but marriages in other churches were to be registered by a civil registrar. In Ireland the Roman Catholic Church was concerned that this latter requirement might detract from the religious nature of the marriage ceremony. Consequently, provisions were not introduced by the government there until 1845 to enable the registration of non Catholic marriages and for the appointment of registrars who were also given the power to solemnise marriages by civil contract. Ireland had legalised exclusively Catholic to Catholic marriages in the late C18th, but the penalties for marrying a mixed Catholic/Protestant couple were extreme to put it mildly.

The death penalty and a large fine were still on the Statute Books in 1830.  In a House of Commons debate on the 4th May 1830, Daniel O’Connell tried to change things: [HC Deb 04 May 1830 vol 24 cc396-401] It was one of the first things he raised, having taken his seat as the first Catholic M.P. since the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 which allowed Catholic M.P.s

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