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In a lot of historical romance novels (specifically those set in Regency England), people decide to get married very suddenly a lot of the time. You see this a lot in the marriage of convenience trope, but also in various other flavours of historical romance.

When this happens, they usually either end up running away to Gretna Green (because apparently anyone there can witness/perform marriages, at least in the era historical romances are usually set) or getting a "special licence" that allows them to get married very quickly.

What's this special licence? Why is it needed? Is this an actual thing that was required of people of the time, or is it merely a romance novel trope that allows the author to sidestep the actual laws/rules of marriage in that time period?

  • Questions on Stack Exchange work better when theyre about a specific example. I recommend changing this question so it is about a specific book, or at the very least, giving a few examples of when this occures. While this pattern may occur in many books, that does not mean it occures for the same reason. I also recommend narrowing this questiin down: are you asking about a specific time period, etc? – user111 Sep 12 '17 at 23:32
  • @Hamlet This is a very common trope in many, many historical romances. I've narrowed down the time frame and the location. It likely occurs for a similar reason because, well, it's Regency England. – Ash Nov 25 '17 at 19:16
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Ordinarily, in Regency England, to get married you had to announce your intention in church on three successive Sundays before the wedding. This was called reading the banns, and is described in a wikipedia article. This poses a problem for Regency Romance couples: they could not legally get married in less than 4 weeks after their initial decision. But there was an exception: one could get a special license from the Archbishop of Canterbury) (or, presumably, from his secretariat or chancery or whatever it was called). Another way to get married in less than 4 weeks was to go to Scotland, where the laws were different. The closest town in Scotland seems to have been Gretna Green (just north of Carlisle, where those nice bikkies come from).

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There were four possibilities for those who wanted to get married in 19th century England:

  1. Banns. This meant that you had to have the upcoming wedding announced three Sundays in a row from the parish pulpet. Unless someone spoke out against the marriage, you then had a three-month window open to legally marry. However, this was seen as something for those too poor to afford anything else.
  2. Ordinary licence. Could be gotten from the local clergyman or the Doctors' Commons in London, and let you get married in a parish where one of the parties had lived for at least fourteen days. This was the most common way, even if it cost a few pounds.
  3. Special license. You applied to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who at his discretion could then grant you this, which allowed you to marry anywhere, at any time. A special licence was expensive, and thus a sign of high social class.
  4. Civil license. After 1836, this could be obtained from the superintendent-registrar, and was for people who wanted to get married outside the Church of England (e.g. Jews or Catholics).

If none of the above was available to you, you could also get married outside of England, most typically in Gretna Green in Scotland. The Scottish Presbyterian Church only required that you pledged yourself to your partner in the presence of a witness, up until 1856, when a requirement of a 21-day residency was imposed. This option was used when the other were closed, as for example for people up to the age of 21, who until 1823 required parental consent to get married.

Source: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, by Daniel Pool.

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