In this article, we look at the history of marriage in the UK. Our history starts at 410AD, as before this time there were no written records of the history of marriage. Before written records, history was passed down orally from the older generation to the younger one, unfortunately, over time this oral history has been lost.
410AD – The Anglo-Saxons and Other Tribal Groups
For many people, marriage is strongly associated with religion, but this wasn’t always the case. Straight marriages at this time were about peace and prosperity rather than religion. Marriages encouraged good diplomatic relations and the development of trade between two (or more) tribal groups.
It was the fathers who decided who their daughters married and the wishes of the couple were seen as irrelevant.
12th Century – Consent
In 1140 Decretum Grantiani wrote a canon textbook where he introduced the concept of verbal consent to straight marriage and the requirement for a couple to consummate their union to validate their marriage.
In the 12th century, the Roman Catholic Church made verbal consent and consummation necessary for the church to view the straight marriage as legitimate. Some Roman Catholic writers at the time also describe marriage as a spiritual experience tied to God’s presence. While this is not surprising, prior to this very little mention of marriage as a spiritual experience.
1549 – The Vows
The tradition of vows came from Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. Although the book was updated, later on, many of Thomas Cranmer’s words are still used in religious ceremonies today.
These vows laid the foundation for how the Roman Catholic & Protestant churches viewed straight marriage at the time as a partnership.
Thomas Cranmer must have reflected the views of the mainstream population about marriage at the time; otherwise, it would have been unlikely that the church institutions would have accepted and taken on these views.
Roman Catholic Priests at this time were still delivering marriage ceremonies (as all other religious services) in Latin.
However, the Protestant’s began delivering their services in the English language. This is significant as English was the common language and this change made marriage ceremonies (as well as all other religious services) accessible to all.
Today, Protestantism is one the most popular religions practised in the UK. Many historians believe that changing the ceremonies to English played a huge part in making Protestantism a dominant religion.
1563 – Sacramental Marriage
The Roman Catholic Church officially declared that straight marriage was one of the seven sacraments in this year; meaning that it was something undertaken in the presence of god. The other sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession, Ordination and Last Rites.
The Protestant Church didn’t see straight marriage as a sacrament at this time.
1753 – State Involvement
The Clandestine Marriage Act (1753) set out what the state expected in order for a straight marriage to be seen as legal. It required the couple to get married in a church by a minister and issue a formal marriage announcement or to obtain a marriage license.
1836 – Civil Marriages
In 1836 it became legal for straight couples to get civil marriages, which were generally held in Register Offices. This was to accommodate both the religious and nonreligious.
For the religious, it meant that they could get married in a neutral place if for some reason they couldn’t get married in their church. For the nonreligious, it gave them a place void of religion. Prior to this, nonreligious straight couples had to go through a ceremony in a church and undertake practices & traditions that they didn’t believe in.
In 1837 the civil registration of straight marriages started.
1837 – It’s All About Straight Love
Between 1837-1901 it was the Victorian Era. It is said by contemporary historians that the Victorian Era is when marriage became about love, but still only the love between a man and a woman. Gay people weren’t treated well in the Victorian Era in the UK, with laws against sexual acts.
Oscar Wilde – widely regarded as one of the most talented writers of all time; was accused of sodomy by the father of his male lover. He lost the trial and was sent to prison. It was rumoured that he could have escaped to France, but he didn’t. Once he’d served his sentence, he moved to France.
1858 – Divorce
Between the 17th – 19th Centuries there were 300 cases of people wanting to end their marriages. The only way to do this was for an Act of Parliament for each marriage, as there was no accommodation for divorce in marriage law. So in 1858 the government of the time finally made divorce a legal process.
The legal process that meant those who wanted or needed a divorce could have one. But it also signified a shift in the focus of marriage from being a lifetime commitment – for better or worse, to a commitment that could be changed if life’s circumstances changed.
19th Century – Birth Control
By the 19th Century, both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Church’s had promoted procreation as the main reason for straight marriage. But as more children survived childhood, families got bigger and there was a need to use some form of contraception.
In the 1930s the Protestant Church accepted contraception, viewing it as necessary and not a sin or something God would be unhappy with. But the Roman Catholic Church has remained against any form of contraception, as they continue to see the procreation of children as a fundamental aspect of straight marriage.
2005 – Civil Partnerships
In 2005 the first gay civil partnerships took place, a year after The Civil Partnership Act came into law.
It allowed gay people to have legally recognised relationships, which granted them the same rights, protections and benefits of a married straight couple. This included legal rights, such as being one another’s Next of Kin; rights related to their partner’s children and the benefits including those of taxation reductions.
In terms of the actual act, the gay couple could have a civil partnership ceremony that could consist of anything they wanted (within the law). This could be vows, the exchange of rings, their choice in music, etc.
The Civil Partnership Act included a legal process for those gay people who may want to end their civil partnership. It is called ‘dissolution’ and works on similar legal principles to divorce.
This was the first time that the state in the UK legally recognised gay relationships. In the first five, there were 42,778 gay civil partnerships.
Peter Tatchell (Gay Rights Activist), as well as others, criticised The Civil Partnership Act, saying that it wasn’t complete equality as it excluded straight people from being able to be civil partners.
2013 – Gay Marriage
Last year The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act has been passed in England and Wales. The first gay marriages are expected in March 2014.
Stonewall said of The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act:
‘This is an historic moment for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, their families and their friends. This Act will mean that, for the first time, children growing up to be gay in England and Wales will have full equality in law. We can now proudly claim to be a beacon to the world for gay equality.’
In ancient history, marriage had nothing to do with religion but helped tribes to live and thrive together. Then Christian institutions (both Roman Catholic & Protestant Churches) influenced the definition and meaning of marriage. In the last century, the state has got involved for marriage, allowing marriage to be more flexible and much more inclusive.
Marriage as a concept has evolved to meet the needs and desires of society. Currently, there is some debate as to what role the churches and state play within marriage. It is likely that over the next century the Churches will continue to reside over the spiritual aspect of marriage, whereas the state will continue to be involved with the legal and administrative side of marriage.
Antony Simpson, Writer of this article would like to acknowledge the following sources that supported putting together this article based on fact:
BBC – Ten key moments in the history of marriage
Office for National Statistics – Civil Partnerships Five Years On
Office for National Statistics – Video Summary: What does the Census tell us about religion in 2011?
Peter Tatchell – A setback for equality
Stonewall – Equal Marriage to become law – Thank You!
Stonewall – Get Hitched! A Guide to Civil Partnership