Sunday, January 24, 2016

What Did a Special License Look Like?

Since the Special Marriage License often plays a part in romances, I’ve always been curious to see one. During a trip to London I visited the library at Lambeth Palace, the headquarters of the Archbishop of Canterbury who, following passage of the Hardwicke Marriage Act in 1753, was responsible for issuing a license allowing a couple to be wed without calling the banns, without a waiting period, and at any time and place.
I had a notion there was a printed form in which the names were inserted, but I was wrong about that. The library possessed no “blank” licenses, only a few dozen completed ones for marriages that had been performed in the Lambeth Palace chapel. This indicates that after the marriage was performed the license was retained by the officiating clergyman.
A license was handwritten on parchment approximately 18 inches wide by 12 inches high, quite an impressive document. All the couple of dozen I saw (dated between 1754 and 1806) looked much the same. In a couple of instances the names of the parties were written in different handwriting from the text (which was boilerplate, scarcely varying by a word) as though a clerk had prepared a blank license when he had nothing better to do. More often the document had been written all at once, not something that could be dashed off in ten minutes.
A license was signed by the “Register” and finished with the Archbishop’s seal, affixed as follows: Red sealing wax is dribbled on a square of paper about three inches square; a ribbon or string is looped through holes in the parchment and the ends laid over the wax; another square of paper is laid on top to form a wax and string sandwich; the large oval seal is impressed on top of the whole thing.
The men are described as either widower or bachelor, the women as widow or spinster. In the case of a spinster, the name of her father is given, for a widow, her late husband’s. For the man the father is recorded if he’s a peer or someone else notable. As you can see by the list of titles for the bridegroom in the following license, they seemed to like to make the whole business seem important.
Here is the text of a typical license, that for the 1806 marriage of Prince Bariatinsky to Lord Sherborne’s daughter. There is absolutely no punctuation and, yes, the word “Honorable” is spelled in what we would call the American way.

Charles by Divine Providence Archbishop of Canterbury Primate of all England and Metropolitan by Authority of Parliament lawfully empowered for the purposes herein written To our beloved in Christ John Prince Bariatinsky of Russia privy counselor to the Emperor of Russia Chamberlain and Knight of the Military Order of St. George and also Knight of Malta now of Sackville Street London a Bachelor and the Honorable [sic] Frances Mary Dutton of Sherborne in the County of Gloucester a Spinster daughter of the Right Honorable James Dutton Baron Sherborne Wheareas As it is alleged ye have proposed to proceed to the solemnization of a true pure and lawful Marriage Earnestly desiring the same to be solemnized with all the speed that may be that since your reasonable desires may the more readily take due effect We for certain causes as thereunto especially moving do so far as in us lies and the Laws of this Nation allow by these presents Graciously give and grant our License and Faculty as well to you the parties contracting as to all Christian People willing to be present at the solemnization of the said Marriage to Celebrate and Solemnize such Marriage between you the said contracting parties at any time and in any church or chapel or other meet and convenient place by any Bishop of this Realm or by the Rector Vicar Curate or Chaplain of such Church or Chapel or by any other Minister in Holy Orders of the Church of England Provided there be no lawful Let or Impediment to hinder the said Marriage Given under the seal of our office of Faculties at Doctors Commons this twenty first day of April in the year of Our Lord One Thousand eight hundred and six and in the second year of Our Translation.

I am sorry I don’t have a picture of a special license. My visit to Lambeth Palace was several years ago, before phones had cameras. I don’t even know if I would have been allowed to photograph one. I hope the description is helpful to historical readers.
Update: Thanks to Julia (@mizzelle on twitter) for directing me to this picture of a special license.  


  1. that was very interesting - Thanks!

  2. I love all the formal legalese. I suppose I had mentally thought of a Special License as mundane—John Doe has my permission to marry Mary Roe whenever they like.
    The real thing looks suitably impressive.

    1. It was quite expensive so I guess it needed to be impressive, Lillian!

  3. It doesn't appear to have any punctuation. There now is a copy of a license somewhere on the web. It just shows the handwriting and that it was all handwritten on parchment.

  4. Wonderful information! Thank you Miranda.