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Publish or Be Damned

David Johnson describes the infamous Marriage Act of 1753, which made marriage a tightly-regulated institution governed by church and state.

A wedding is a public occasion, as Mr Justice Lindsay reminded actress Catherine Zeta Jones in the High Court when she sued for damages over unauthorised photographs of her big day. Indeed, for religious ceremonies, the Book of Common Prayer specifically invites the happy couple to ‘come into the body of the church with their friends and neighbours’, and make their promises ‘before God and in the face of this congregation’. There, as on three previous occasions at the reading of banns, all are invited by the priest to declare known impediments to the marriage, ‘either by God’s Law, or the Laws of this Realm’. The terms are unequivocal and final: ‘If any man can shew any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.’ For the couple themselves there is a chilling moral-health warning: confess any impediment or ‘answer at the dreadful day of judgement when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed’.

This high-profile Church of England marriage service was enforced, at least in theory, upon the entire population of England and Wales by Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, and has resonated down the ages, colouring the popular image of marriage in most English-speaking countries. It influenced the form of Civil Marriage introduced in 1837, where token public scrutiny was incorporated by asking the couple to declare impediments, by obtaining parental consent where necessary, and by arranging for two witnesses to be present when the contract was made.

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