In the early eighteenth century, most members of the aristocracy and nobility had weddings that closely resemble formal weddings of today. A ceremony would take place in a church, the bride often wore white, friends and family would gather to celebrate, and the affair would cost a large sum of money. This was the case even though, prior to 1753, all that was necessary for a marriage to be considered legal was the mutual consent of both parties, assuming they were both “of age” (fourteen for boys, twelve for girls). Moreover, a man could promise to marry a woman at a future date, and then if they “consummated” their relationship, the couple could be considered legally bound. This loose definition of marriage led to many scandalous irregular marriages. The couple would not have a formal ceremony (often they would not have any witnesses at all), there would be no celebration, and it did not need to occur in a church.
By the mid eighteenth century, the trend of irregular marriages was on the rise, and this led to many legal and societal problems, the most common of which was marriages being contested. This most often occured when a woman accused a man who was currently married to someone else of being previously married to her. Since these irregular marriages had no documentation and often no witnesses, they were very hard to prove. Often the evidence was hearsay and/or informal written correspondence between the couple. The ramifications of these legal challenges were significant, since women were often dependant on their husbands for income and property. If a relationship was not sanctified by society (via marriage), a woman could have trouble finding another spouse (because of her soiled reputation) and any children she had could be considered illegitimate and thus unable to claim any inheritance.
To counteract this trend, the Marriage Act of 1753 was passed as an attempt to codify the rules of marriage and create one universal standard. The...
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