Marriage by special licence plays a very important role in historical romance. Georgette Heyer used it often. And today’s writers of historical romance use it too. Why? Because with banns or a common licence, the couple had to marry in a public church or chapel between the hours of 8 and noon.
Those restrictions would have put paid to many a fictional marriage, like the one in Georgette Heyer’s The Reluctant Widow.
The heroine’s wedding takes place in the middle of the night.
And in a local PUB!
Banns, Licences, Special Licences
Banns were said in the couple’s parish church (or churches) for three Sundays before the marriage. Simple and free, but time-consuming and very public. Richer people preferred marriage by licence which created less of a public spectacle.
An ordinary or common licence required a fee and the swearing of an oath (allegation) that there was no legal impediment to the marriage. If the process went smoothly, a bishop or archdeacon could issue the licence and the wedding could go ahead immediately but only in the specified church and only between the hours of 8 and noon.
So what about a Special Licence? How did it differ from a Common Licence? And was it as commonplace as Regency romances suggest?
Special licences were certainly special. Only the Archbishop of Canterbury could grant them and, from 1759, successive Archbishops generally restricted them to peers, peeresses, their children, dowager peeresses, privy councillors, Judges, baronets, knights and MPs. Anyone outside those groups had to have “very strong and weighty reasons” for seeking a special licence.
What’s more, though the sworn allegation was the same as for a common licence, the Archbishop’s rules for special licences required his Faculty Office to make diligent checks, especially if there was a risk that one or both might be under age.
In 1830, there were only 22 special licences, but nearly 3,000 common licences. There was no certainty of getting that special licence, even if you were a peer of the realm!
That Special Licence in The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer
For those who haven’t read The Reluctant Widow, a quick introduction:
Elinor, an impoverished gentlewoman turned governess, is travelling to a new post. In the dark, she gets into the wrong carriage and is delivered to Lord Carlyon who is expecting the mail-order bride he intends to marry off to his reprobate cousin, Eustace. Once the mistake becomes clear, it is too late for Elinor to travel to her destination. Matters become urgent when Eustace is mortally wounded in a bar room brawl. Carlyon persuades Elinor to go through with the marriage to Eustace. Within the hour! They collect the vicar on the way to the inn and, of course, Carlyon has a special licence already in his pocket so that the marriage will be legal. By morning, Elinor is a widow and a twisting spy story can begin.
A Special Special Licence
The whole story rests on the existence of that special licence. Elinor couldn’t have been married, and widowed, without it. But how did Carlyon obtain it? And what was written on it?
Carlyon was a peer so he was well within the Archbishop’s restrictions. Eustace was a commoner and outside them, but as his health was precarious, Carlyon could have argued that there were “strong and weighty reasons” to issue a special licence. So, we can probably safely assume that Carlyon’s convenient special licence had Eustace’s name as the groom.
However, if the licence had contained the mail-order bride’s name, Carlyon would have been stuck with a worthless piece of paper. Besides, he hadn’t been sure she would turn up, so it would have been rash to include her name. (Carlyon — Heyer’s hero — is decisive, but never rash.) So somehow he must have obtained a special licence with a blank for the bride’s name. A sort of Insert Bride’s Name Here special licence. Possible?
Highly unlikely by any legal route, I’d have said. Carlyon would have had to swear an allegation and what could he have sworn about the bride? “She is of full age and there is no impediment, but I cannot disclose her name?” Not very convincing, is it?
Joanna’s Reluctant Widow Theory . . .
My guess is that Carlyon’s only method of obtaining such a licence would be aristocratic bullying — in the story we see how he uses the force of his personality to press Elinor to go through with the marriage — and possibly the payment of a substantial bribe.
If Heyer thought about it — and she may well have done, since her research was generally meticulous — she must have decided to skate over the difficulties because her story needed that licence.
. . . with Supporting Evidence
She had form. She had done similar things in at least two earlier books.
“Do you know, I had to swear an oath, or whatever they call it, that you had the consent of your guardians, Kitten?”
“But, Sherry, I haven’t!”
“No, I know that, but you wouldn’t have had me let a trifling circumstance like that stop me, would you? Besides, there’s no harm done: your precious Cousin Jane ain’t going to kick up a dust, you mark my words! She’ll be thankful to be so well rid of you, I dare say.”
And in Faro’s Daughter, Viscount Mablethorpe managed to acquire a special licence while both he and his intended bride were under age and neither had their guardian’s consent. Was there another false oath? Probably.
So Heyer’s heroes could set honour aside when circumstances required it. I’d say that was evidence for my theory about The Reluctant Widow. After all, what’s a bit of bullying and bribery compared with a false oath?
I think that Heyer knew the special licence strand of these plots was very thin indeed, but went ahead anyway because the storyline was good. The alternative would be that she neglected her research which doesn’t seem in character. Other Heyer lovers may disagree with me, of course.
Are you a Heyer fan? What do you think?