Special Licence Marriage — Heyer’s Research Failing?

a special licence marriage?

Signing the Register Edward Blair Leighton

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.

Goblin Court typical English village



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

St Eval church, CornwallBanns 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.

wedding hands

So what about a Special Licence? How did it differ from a Common Licence? And was it as commonplace as Regency romances suggest?

wedding at church door, Vezelay, FranceThe key was that a marriage by special licence could take place anywhere — in a nobleman’s private chapel, for example — and at any time of day.

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:

The Reluctant Widow by Georgette HeyerElinor, 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.

love letter to a novelHowever, 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.

In Friday’s Child, the bridegroom, Viscount Sheringham, cheerfully admitted to having sworn a false oath to get his special licence:fridays child sml

“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.

Case Proved?

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?Trust Concept

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?

29 thoughts on “Special Licence Marriage — Heyer’s Research Failing?

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    I’ve only recently found this out and have been busy removing “special” from any new books requiring a licence. I’ve just said licence or common licence. I haven’t needed them to get married outside of church or at an odd hour of the night though!

    I must admit I think sometimes research data really has to give way to the exigencies of the plot, or we’d have to forego some wonderful scenes. I absolutely love The Reluctant Widow and would hate to have lost that wedding in the inn in the early hours.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I agree about The Reluctant Widow, Elizabeth. She had to have the wedding by special licence to make the story work. If she knew it was dodgy — and she may well have done — she let it go for the sake of a good story.

      I’ve used special licences in my own books but I’ve always been very careful (I think!!) to ensure that there was time for the hero to go to London to get it and that he had the status plus the grounds to do so. Like Heyer, I might allow myself to bend the rules a bit, but only if my story made it essential. I do try not to

    1. Joanna Post author

      Love it, Jan! Why indeed? Except that we try — as I know you do — to be historically accurate as much as we can.

      I thought that the job description of a hero (per Heyer in… was it The Grand Sophy??) was to be able to procure a hackney cab in the rain. 😉

  2. Sue McCormick

    I am definitely a Heyer fan. And I go along with the choice that she went ahead with the storyline because it worked and became a very good story. But definitely she did her research!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m a huge fan, too, Sue and I agree that The Reluctant Widow is a good story. But I’m less sure about some of her other Special Licence failings.

      In Faro’s Daughter, she didn’t have to have Mablethorpe getting a special licence while he was under age and when all the polite world would have known it. He was only a few weeks off his 21st birthday. Why not just make him a few weeks older so that he had just turned 21 when he got the licence? Then he’d only have been lying about Phoebe’s guardian’s consent and he could almost get away with that because of the benign aunt in Wales.

      In other words, I think she made some traps for herself when she didn’t need to. That’s also true of Friday’s Child when she has Sheringham getting a special licence from a Bishop rather than the Archbishop. If she knew the form, what was the point of getting it wrong? It wasn’t essential for the story, I don’t think. She could easily have had Sherry get an ordinary licence from the bishop (since he probably had the residence qualification) and marry at Hanover Square in the morning rather than the afternoon. Or perhaps she didn’t know the form and hadn’t done the research???? Just sayin’…

  3. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Loved this post! I’m a huge Heyer fan and the Special Licence in ‘The Reluctant Widow’ definitely gets my vote. And Jan’s comment made me laugh out loud. She’s so right. Of course true heroes can always get these things, just as Sophy was sure that Charlbury could find a cab when it was raining in ‘The Grand Sophy’.

    And don’t forget the Special Licence Sir Peter Stornaway gets in ‘The Tollgate’ so that Nell can marry her John. I suppose Sir Peter argued that he was on his deathbed and wanted to see his granddaughter safe before he died.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it, Elizabeth! And thanks for finding the exact reference for finding a cab. I didn’t have time to look it up but at least I got the right book 😉

      Yes, I’d forgotten Sir Peter and his special licence for Nell. I’d have said that he DID qualify under all those episcopal and legal rules, and he did have good reason both for urgency and for needing a wedding off church premises.

      The other one I didn’t mention was produced by Freddy, in Cotillion, for Dolphinton and Hannah. Heyer always refers to it as a “special licence” but no one suggests the wedding should take place before the morning (and in church) so it might just have been an ordinary licence (which would have been much easier for Freddy to obtain, of course)

  4. kathybryson

    I’ve been researching marriage laws so think that there could have been a lot of confusion at that point in time. The Marriage Act of 1754 has only just been implemented to provide a legal basis for marriage other than the church so a lot of the details like licenses were still being worked out. Heyer’s heros could well have been working within their and their clerical peers’ understanding of the various rulings.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Having ploughed my way through most of Thomas Poynter’s 1824 book on the Doctrine & Practice in Doctors’ Commons relating to Marriage and Divorce, I tend to agree with you, Kathy, in relation to the period just after 1754.

      But some of the Heyer books are set decades later, so there’s much less excuse for getting it wrong for those stories. By the Regency period, the Hardwicke Marriage Act had been in place for over 50 years. Also, don’t you agree that most of the 1753 Hardwicke Marriage Act was about stopping clandestine marriages by ensuring banns were said in local parish churches and that marriages (whether by banns or common licence) took place there? It did some tidying up on marriage by common licence (such as a 4-week residency requirement) but otherwise didn’t change much, I would suggest.

      As you’ll know, the Hardwicke Act specifically made NO change to the Archbishop’s prerogative to grant special licences. The 1759 restrictions were ecclesiastical ones, I think, rather than legal.

      I hope your researches are progressing well. It’s a difficult subject. Wet towel around head stuff, sometimes 🙂

  5. Catherine Kullmann

    I agree with Joanna that Heyer allowed herself a certain amount of artistic licence. I am sure she never imagined that her books would be pored over the way they are now.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Catherine. Did she realise she was starting a whole new genre based on the world she had created? I sense a whole new blog post coming on…

  6. nmayer2015

    The Hardwicke Marriage act clause 11 says that any marriage of minors by license without proper and valid consent is null and void and not valid for one minute. Permission could not be given after the event. Fortunately no one came forward to challenge the marriages in Heyer . They did in the case of the marquess of Donagel who had seven sons at the time and had been married for over 21 years. In his case his wife was born out of wedlock so only a guardian appointed by the court of chancery could give permission. Consider the feelings of a man of 21 who is called the Earl of Belfast with six younger brothers who suddenly faces the possibility all of them being declared illegitimate. Some people even stopped calling him earl and called him by the surname.
    Carlyon’s action made no difference to anyone except allowing the man to die thinking he had foiled some plot of Carlyon’s. As the one who was heir presumptive to the dead man, he could do what he wanted with the estate. The fake wedding made it look good when he nominally gave it to Elinor. It never really left his control and returned to him when they married.
    Those other under age characters who lied– weren’t really married according to the law.

    1. Lynne Connolly

      I always imagine that they do it properly and quietly later on! As long as their first child is born in wedlock and nobody finds out, they’re good to go.

      1. Joanna Post author

        I’m not sure that “doing it properly and quietly later on” would have been all that simple. The couple would have had to state they were bachelor and spinster even though they’d been living as man and wife. Would have required a pretty biddable bishop to get the licence for that one, perhaps?

        1. Lynne Connolly

          It wouldn’t have to be public. If they bought a special licence (another one!) they could do without the banns, and sneak off and do the deed somewhere quiet. All they needed was two witnesses, and they didn’t have to know the couple, just witness that they’d seen the ceremony.

          1. Joanna Post author

            I wasn’t suggesting it was public, Lynne. I was suggesting that it would be very difficult to get a bishop to issue an ordinary licence because of the earlier fraud. And much MORE difficult to get a special licence, given the episcopal rules. For that reason, many of such couples may not have dared to try for a “proper” marriage.

            Some may well have done so, as you suggest. I imagine such errant couples would have pleaded the need to regularise their irregular union in the eyes of the church and the need to prevent scandal. And if they were people of rank, Doctor’s Commons might have gone along with it. Their ceremony would be relatively easy. It was the licence that would have been difficult.

    2. Joanna Post author

      Interesting point about the Hardwicke Act and underage marriage by licence. In the following decades, commentators were particularly scandalised by the fact that the person committing the fraud (like Sherry in Friday’s Child) could himself later repudiate the marriage and benefit thereby.

      And it obviously did create problems because under the 1823 Marriage Act (as discussed at length in chapter 4 of Thomas Poynter’s book) “the consent of the Parent or Guardian is still required, to the marriage of a Minor had by licence; though the want of that consent appears no longer to furnish a ground for questioning the validity of such a marriage, if in other respects it be duly solemnized; however fraudulently the parental rights may have been invaded.”

  7. Lynne Connolly

    The Heyer Group did a lot of research into this one. The confusion seems to have arisen because, as you say, there were two kinds of special licence. One enabled the couple to marry after the prescribed three weeks, and could be issued by a bishop, the other needed to be applied for at Doctor’s Commons in London (near the Inns of Court) and enabled the person purchasing it to marry immediately, and in the place of their choosing, as long as the people named on the licence fulfilled the conditions of the 1753 Marriage Act. So Heyer made a boo-boo by allowing Carlyon to have a blank one. They never issued those, and it would have been illegal anyway, since the participants had to be entered on the register at the time of the issuance of the licence.
    The aristocracy liked the licence, because in those days weddings were private affairs (wedding breakfasts could be quite large).
    But Heyer slipped up in other matters, too. There were no announcements of a forthcoming wedding in the Morning Post or anywhere else, though there might be a mention after the fact. No dance-cards, either, and periods of mourning were nowhere near as strict until later.
    The one people tend to notice is in “Frederica,” where Alverstoke takes Felix to SoHo to see the new Mint. Trouble is, the SoHo in question was in Birmingham, not London.

    1. Lynne Connolly

      Wanted to add – Georgette Heyer made a handful of errors in 40 books, and this was the days before the internet. We should all be that careful with our facts!

      1. Catherine Kullmann

        Heyer grew up in post-Victorian, Edwardian England roughly one hundred years after the Regency and so would have heard a lot of ladies reminiscing about the early to mid-Victorian society of their youth. I imagine it never occurred her to question things such as dance cards or mourning periods.

        1. Joanna Post author

          A very fair point, Catherine. Historical authors can easily be tripped up by the “unknown unknowns” ie the things we don’t know we don’t know.

          I did something of that sort by having one of my characters say he’d “bowled his man out, middle stump”. Originally, cricket had 2 stumps, not three, and I didn’t know. I got away with it because my book was set — quite by chance — just after cricket started using three stumps. Whew!

      2. Joanna Post author

        Quite right, Lynne. The Soho one annoyed her greatly, I believe.

        As to Carlyon’s blank licence, I have in mind that (for a bribe) someone in Doctor’s Commons inscribed the name of the mail-order lady on the allegation that Carlyon swore, but somehow “forgot” to write any name at all on the licence that Carlyon took away. One of the holes in the special licence system was that the allegations (held on file at Doctor’s Commons) and the licence (given by the groom to the clergyman, possibly a long way away) were never matched up.

        1. photondancer

          I’ve always assumed there’s bribery behind some of these special licenses. A poorly paid clerk who knew handing out a blank form would never be traced back to him – why wouldn’t he pick up an extra shilling or two? There are images online which are all signed by a Registrar, not the Archbishop himself.

          I presume they became less necessary for the Sherry’s of this world after Register Offices were authorised to conduct marriages in 1837. He would still have had to lie, just not go all the way to Doctors Commons to do so.

          1. Joanna Post author

            I hadn’t thought about Register Offices — not my period, as they say! — but you may well be right. Thanks for commenting. Given us something else to think about on this rather complex subject.

  8. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Re: Friday’s Child. Sherry has a long conversation in Chapter IV about how to get a special licence. Chilham, Mr Ringwood’s man says, ‘I believe, sir, that the correct procedure will be for his lordship to apply to His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury.’

    After some further talk, Chilham adds, ‘I fancy, sir, that any bishop will answer his purpose as well.’

    Fortunately, George Wrotham knows a bishop and offers to introduce Sherry to him.. Still, after reading all your interesting comments, I’m surprised the said bishop didn’t give Sherry short shrift.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, Elizabeth, I’m surprised too, but maybe Heyer either didn’t know the correct form, or didn’t care. I was reading The Toll Gate last night and came upon the point where John tells Babbacombe that he (John) must make his will and Bab can witness it. But surely a will needed two witnesses, even then? If so, Heyer is again neglecting correct form, or ignoring it because it doesn’t suit her story line to arrange a second witness.

      However, as Lynne said earlier, Heyer made very few mistakes in all those books and she didn’t have the internet for checking. She’d have had to use reference libraries etc.

Comments are closed.