The London Weekly Journal of Today June 29th 1723 reported: ‘From an inspection into the registers for marriages kept at several alehouses, brandy-shops, &c., [on the periphery] of the Fleet prison, we find no less than thirty-two couples joined together from Monday to Thursday last without licenses, contrary to an express act of Parliament against clandestine marriages’.
Various marriage rituals are recorded back to Saxon times including that of Harold II and his consort, Edith Swannesha (OE), (Swanneschals or Edith the Fair).(2)
Edith was the common law wife according to Danish Law, by a civil ‘Handfast’ for 20 years, but she was not considered his lawful wife by the Church, however there is no evidence that the children were considered illegitimate.
The 4th Lateran Council 1215 forbade clandestine marriage, with a public announcement being required, and the Council of Trent required a priest and two witnesses, as well as a promulgation of the marriage.
Clandestine marriage was certainly frowned upon by Elizabeth I when Sir Walter Raleigh secretly ’seduced’ and married Elizabeth Throckmorton (Bess), who happened to be a Lady of Privy-Chamber and Ward to the Queen, and needed her permission to wed.
Not surprisingly they earned the disfavour of the monarch. Raleigh was summoned from Panama and both unrepentant newly-weds were imprisoned in the Tower in June 1592.
In 18thc England there were many clandestine marriages such as ‘Fleet Marriages’, around the London Fleet Prison, and Scotland witnessed many un-solemnised common law arrangements, but ceased after being no longer recognised by the Kirk, and by the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1939, which abolished ‘Handfasting’, at Gretna Green.
Section 45 of the 1836 Marriage Act made Civil-Marriage possible thus releasing people from the constraints of the church. Nowadays many choose to avoid any ‘tying of a knot’, handfasting included.
(1) Handfasting is mentioned in Walter Scott’s, ‘The Monastery’, and in Shakespeare’s, Cymbeline, (Act I Scene vi).
(2) She is commonly known to history as Swan-neck which comes from an historical misinterpretation that her nickname represented the Old English ‘Swann’, hence (Swan Neck).