[History by Numbers] A hitch in time
How marriage law and practice has changed over the centuries
When a pair of ancestors got married is a crucial piece of information for the anyone researching their family tree. Anything the ‘big data’ of history can offer for narrowing down when a couple got hitched can be of great help.
The first parameter which has changed over the centuries is the ‘marriageable’ age when such a union was actually permitted. In general practice, for centuries both common law and canon law (in Scotland, as well as England and Wales) determined that a person had to have reached the legal age of puberty to contract a valid marriage – this was regarded as 12 for females and 14 for males. The age of sexual consent between partners became 13 for women in 1875 and 16 in 1885. During the brief Commonwealth period, Cromwell raised the marriageable age to 14 for girls and 16 for boys.
Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 determined that under-21s required parental consent if marriage was by licence; marriage by banns was allowed anyway as long as parents did not actively object (and in Scotland such consent has not been required since medieval times). This in fact simply enshrined the existing canon law of the Church in civil law. The Age of Marriage Act 1929 then set the minimum at 16 for both sexes.
So much for when couples were technically allowed to marry – when did they actually do so?