Marriage records are one of the oldest types of records kept by churches and governments. Their form and content vary widely from place to place and over time. They tend to be issued locally, though it is now common for them to be archived at the state or national level. In the United States weddings are performed and documented according to state law; elsewhere these matters are often regulated at the national level.
Marriage records usually contain the full names of the bride and groom, though some early official records of marriages in some places named only the husband. They may include several dates, of which the wedding date — the date the ceremony was performed — is preferred for genealogical purposes. Lacking that date, you may have to settle for the license date, bond date, recording date, or another relevant date. (Tip: In many marriage record formats, it’s easy to mistake one of these dates for another, and the actual wedding date is not the most obvious date. Use caution!)
Official marriage records may also contain:
- Ages or birthdates of the bride and groom (Tip: The age listed may be at the next birthday, not the last.)
- The ceremony’s location (may be a family member’s home)
- Birthplaces of the bride and groom
- The groom’s occupation, and possibly the bride’s
- The bride’s and groom’s places of residence
- Parents’ names and places of origin (especially if the bride or groom was young enough that the law required parental consent)
- Names of witnesses, who may be relatives of the bride or groom
- Names of clerks and officiators
- Marital status of the bride and groom (e.g. single, widowed, divorced) (Tip: Sometimes the only clue that a bride was previously married and that the surname shown was not her maiden name is the title “Mrs.” instead of “Miss.”)
Though in modern times marriages performed by clergy tend to be recorded in both church and civil records, in previous centuries they may have been recorded only in church records. In some places and times, only church weddings were permitted by law. In any case, there are commonly several records for a single union. The first few of these are made prior to the wedding and record the intention to marry and other arrangements.
Official Records of the Intent to Marry
Marriage applications or licenses are often the richest source of information about a marrying couple, but they have not always been required. These records may be made on the wedding day or within a few days of the wedding – depending in part on legally-imposed waiting periods – or they may be made much earlier. In church, town, or county registers, the actual marriage record may appear with these earlier records, or chronologically according to the wedding date. Marriage licenses may be issued by towns or counties or, particularly where there is a state church, by a local church authority.
Here are some additional common types of official records often made before the wedding day:
Marriage banns (from a Middle English word meaning “proclamation”) are public announcements of the intent to marry. They are associated with Christian churches. The object is to prevent invalid marriages, by giving the public an opportunity to report any obstacles to the marriage which may exist in church or civil law, such as a previous marriage that is still in force, a vow of celibacy, the lack of needed parental consent, or the couple being so closely related that the law forbids them to marry.
Public notice of engagement has been a required practice prior to civil marriages, and registration of engagement has been required by some churches.
In England the groom, and sometimes the bride, were required to swear that there was no just cause why they should not marry. This was the marriage allegation.
Marriage bonds were sums of money filed with the licensing authority as a guarantee that the marriage was legal according to canon law. If it was found to be illegal, the bond was forfeited.
Notably, many marriage licenses in England were destroyed after the wedding, but allegation and bond documents were kept.
Consent documents are required in many jurisdictions, for a couple to marry where one or both is younger than 18, 21, or some other arbitrary age. In some cases a parent or legal guardian will provide written documentation of consent. In other cases a church or government official will simply record that consent was delivered orally. Marriage documents which do not otherwise contain parents’ names may do so when consent is required.
Contracts, settlements, and prenuptial agreements may be created to protect property and legal rights.
A word of caution is in order here. While most of the marriages documented in pre-marital records actually did occur, some did not. Unless annotated to indicate whether or not the marriage occurred, none of these documents proves that it did. That said, the information can still be very useful.
Official Documentation of the Actual Marriage
Marriage certificates are issued at the ceremony by the civil or church authority who officiates. Before this was common practice – for example, in England before July 1, 1837 – the official record was a return or an entry in an official register.
Returns were oral or written reports of the wedding have been performed. These were often recorded on the license or bond documents in a space dedicated to that purpose.
Registration of a marriage with the town or county clerk or a church authority often occurred in a book dedicated to marriage records. Sometimes, however, marriage registrations are interspersed with other records in court minutes, town minutes, deed books, or probate records.
If you wish to obtain an official copy of an official marriage record, the Internet is your best friend. Every jurisdiction has different rules, procedures, and fees.
It’s worth noting that WorldVitalRecords has hundreds of millions of searchable marriage records from many countries in its collections, including over 144 million from the UK and tens of millions each from Europe, the US, and Mexico.
The next blog post here will describe unofficial marriage records, which can be very useful and interesting.