Publication Date



medieval marital law, Church of England, marriage


Because England did not enact a comprehensive reform of its medieval marital law until Lord Hardwicke’s Act in 1753, it was possible to construct a binding marriage outside the authority of the Church of England during the Tudor and Stuart periods. Marriages created by the exchange of present-tense consent, even if they failed to follow the church’s suggested rules concerning time and place, its emphasis on clerical presence, and its stress on publicity (through three readings of the banns or the procurement of a marriage license), were considered spiritually legitimate throughout the eight decades prior to the civil wars. An examination of church court records from the diocese of Chester reveals that people in northwest England formed such “irregular marriages,” although with declining frequency, into the 1640s, long after matrimonial contract litigation had all but disappeared in other regions of the country. Evidence suggests, though, that the types of people who made these irregular unions and the means by which they did so changed significantly over time, as the practice of child marriage finally receded in the northwest and as irregular matrimonial contracts ceased to be an effective means of making marriage for those below the level of the elites.