Marriage - Laws & Customs


The Synodal Ordinances of Bishop Mark, 1291, have the following to say:

Concerning Marriages.

We inhibit any priest from presuming to celebrate marriage between any persons whatsoever from Septuagesima Sunday till the Octave of Easter, unless with our permission, or that of our officials, and any lay person or clergyman from offering or accepting within that time any judicial oath, either on fast days or holy days. Also any chaplain to presume to be present at clandestine marriages, or on any alleged excuse to permit any persons to be contracted together, otherwise than by the blessing of the ring; but he is to make the contract aforesaid after three public proclamations shall have been made according to custom in the church, publicly and solemnly at the performance of mass, with proper intervals. Also any parish clergyman to presume to solemnise marriage or espousals between any persons, without the bans having been first three times called in the church, asking as well where the man resides as the woman, where they do not both reside in the same parish. And if any should afterwards desire to make objection at all against any in regard of a marriage thus contracted, who at the time of that contract were in the same parish, so that it appear probable that such announcements must have come to their knowledge, let them on no account receive a hearing.

Woods An Account of the Isle of Man 1811 (pp238/40) gives the following on the subject:

The laws were nearly silent respecting marriages till the year 1757. Persons of any age might intermarry, without either licence or the publication of banns. Even the prohibited degree of affinity was never settled by an act of Tinwald; and to the present time no other legal disabilities exist. The marriage ceremony is according to the Protestant church, and several of the regulations observed in England were, at this time, adopted here. No person can be married till he has received the sacrament, except by special leave of the ordinary; nor any one, except a widow or widower, under twentyone years of age, without the consent of their father or guardian, or in default of these, of the mother, except by the publication of banns for three successive Sundays, which, if not objected to, implies their consent. If the father is dead, and the minor is unable to procure this consent of his guardian or mother to the proposed marriage, he may petition the Governor for leave: and if the Governor deems the objection of the guardian or mother insufficient, he may grant leave accordingly.

Aliens may not marry till they have resided three months on the island.

When banns have not been published, a licence from the Bishop or his deputy is always necessary: the solemnisation must be by a minister; and at the parish church of one of the parties, unless the Bishop grant a special licence, under his own hand and seal, to marry elsewhere. The cost of a licence is a British crown; of a special licence forty shillings. These sums being moderate, banns are not very frequent. A residence of three days renders the party a parishioner.

On the subject of divorces we find nothing in the statutes.

The act referred to was the 1757 Marriage Act

The requirement to have received the sacrament comes from the 1703 synodal constitution agreed to by Tynwald and the Lord; to be in this state required the party to have been confirmed (item 2 of that constitution) but there is an interesting 'get out' clause -

" That no person be admitted to stand as Godfather or Godmother, or to enter into the holy state of Matrimony, till they have received the holy Sacrament of the Lord's Supper; unless, being an orphan, there be a necessity for his speedy marriage; and this to be approved of, and dispensed with, by the Ordinary for a limited time, and to fit himself for the Sacrament..."

presumably the provision for orphans is to allow earlier than normal marriages.

Legal Age for Marriage

Roman law gave the minimum age for marriage as that of puberty which was 14 for boys and 12 for girls; these remained the legal age for marriage until the late 19th Century in Britain though that for girls seemed to be assumed also to be 14. There is however evidence that child marriages were reasonably common in North West England in the 16th century - there is a case in 1637 presentments petitioning for divorce from such a marriage. However most did not marry until 18 or older though the Manx have always had a reputation for early marriages. For parties under 21 permission of parents and/or guardians was required. Generally if you find a marriage involving a young minor look for a corresponding marriage settlement as these were generally family arrangements to safeguard the transmission of land. Sometime you will find permission of both one parent and a guardian - this apparently 'impossible' combination, which arises from the considerable differences in Manx law from English law, indicates the death of one natural parent and a remarriage (generally of the woman), the guardian would be appointed to safeguard the interest of the deceased partner's family in the transfer of property to the children. Such guardians or overseers could play a significant part in looking after the children - the 1737 case of the wicked step-mother is one example.

Thus the lawfull age was for Marriage (as well as being able to leave a valid will) was 14.


Licences, Special Licences and Banns

One or both of the parties had to be resident in the parish in whose church the marriage would be solemnised. Generally this was the Bride's parish. Banns would be read from the pulpit on the previous three Sundays - according to Waldron's description of the wedding feast (cf. later section) this was the most common arrangement in the 18th century. However a marriage could also be allowed by licence which was the dispensation from either parish residence or of the calling of Banns. The Bishop could also grant special licences by which parties could marry in places other than a parish church. This power of granting special licence illustrates the separation of the Manx Church, as in England only the Archbishop of Canterbury could grant such licences. Generally the Bishop delegated the powers to grant licences to surrogates. The entry in the parish register will give details for in 1732, Bishop Wilson wrote the following:-" I desire that the vicar for the future set down by what authority the Persons are joynd together in matrimony, whither by lycence and by whose lycence, or upon banns in the church."

The later description of marriage customs by Waldron, written in 1726, would appear to indicate that banns were then the norm; the above introductory quote from Woods reflecting the position c.1808 would show that licences were becoming the norm - this is confirmed by Harrison's comments on Waldron written in 1860's which says "This is now the exception, as banns are seldom published in the churches, the Manx candidates for matrimony prefer the more quiet mode of a licence, and yet conduct the marriage much in the same public manner as formerly. The Bishop has the right of granting special licences to marry at any convenient time or place, a power possessed only by the Archbishop of Canterbury in England."

Allowed Relationships

If you are unsure of how to determine a relationship see How to determine a Relationship

Wolfram gives a good description of the various regulations of the English church regarding allowed degrees of consanguinity and affinity - the former relates to what we would now call a shared genetic relationship (parent, sibling, child ..); the later refers to relationships acquired via marriage reflecting the genetic affinities of the marriage partner. However the 20th century knowledge of genetics was not available to the framers of these regulations - as Wolfram points out such regulations are an artifact of society rather than any physiological necessity (even brother-sister relationships were permitted for the ancient Egyptian Royal dynasty!).

To take 'blood' (consanguineous) relationships first (the term blood arising from the pre-genetic theory of evolution that parental bloods were supposed to mix in the child) - the key relationship here is one of 'degree' or distance from some common ancestor.

grandparents     (x)=(x)
2 | 2
| |
parents (x)=(x) (x) uncle/aunt
1 | 1 | 2/3
+---+----+ |
| | |
sibling (x)
YOU (x) cousin
|1/2 | 2/4
| |
niece.. (x) (x) first-cousin
|2/3 | 3/5

The numbers against each party are the degrees of affinity reckoned either by canon law (pre-reformation) or Roman civil law (thus in canon law your cousin was 2 degrees removed, in civil law 4 degrees).

Pre-reformation Roman Catholic prohibitions of marriage were to marriages in which the parties were related within the 4th degree (reckoned by canon law) - thus prohibiting any marriage within a generation of either side of those shown in the figure above.

When man and woman married the two 'became one' and thus a husband's affilial relationships became those of the wife, and vice-versa; and prohibited degrees were calculated as before. Such relationships stood even after the death of one party thus prohibiting marriage with, for example, a dead wife's sister. However it was possible, by applying to the Pope and paying, to acquire dispensations.

Deceased Wife's Sister

Henry VIII's reformation of the English church curtailed many of these relationships - prohibiting marriage to within the third degree (as reckoned by canon law) thus permitting marriage of first cousins. This scheme was almost that stated in Leviticus which explicitly names the parties forbidden to marry (i.e. those whose nakedness were not to be uncovered) - however Leviticus does not mention a deceased wife's sister! Henry's regulations were repealed by Mary (return to previous Catholic teaching) and hers in turn by Elizabeth which supposedly restored the Henrician scheme. Unfortunately the legislation refers to Leviticus thus making the status of a deceased wife's sister arguable. Bishop Parker produced 'A Table of Kindred & Affinity ..' printed in the book of common prayer and hung in every parish church which consisted of all parties in the Henrician scheme explicitly named. Marriages between any such named parties were declared unlawful (i.e. voidable) and any sexual relations incestuous thus putting the two parties under penalties in the spiritual courts. Since September, 1835, the marriage with a deceased wife's sister has been illegal in England & Wales. Up to that date the marriage was not void, but voidable by an action raised in the Ecclesiastical Court during the lifetime of the parents. This course had occasionally the effect of keeping doubtful the legitimacy of children during a considerable portion of their lives. Lord Lyndhurst's object in passing the Act of 1835 was primarily to legitimatize the marriage of Lord George Hill, son of the Marquis of Downshire, who had married Miss Knight, sister of his late wife. During the passage of the bill through Parliament this class of marriage was rendered illegal for the future

As quoted earlier there was no specific Manx equivalent of these regulations though it would appear that the English law applied - Bishop Wilson was keen to return to the original church legislation.

An interesting case under these regulations appears in the Diocesan Register for 1755 when a Santan man managed to 'marry' his uncle's widow - the marriage was declared unlawful and void; the two parties were punished however it was not clear what happened to the child!.

One example of this occuring during Bishop Wilson's time is recorded in Malew Presentments for 1739 when John Kinley married his dead wife's sister Jony Shimmin, had children by her but was then punished for incest. Interestingly they had married in Dublin

This issue took many years to resolve in England - Tynwald attempted to legislate in 1897 but the act was later refused by the Legislative Council (dominated by Bishop + Archdeacon) as may be judged by the following humorous quote from the 1897 IoM Examiner Yearbook

A Burning Question !

It has been remarked that one of the principal objects in life of the average Englishman - and probably, Manxman - is to marry his deceased wife's sister, and to judge from the pertinacity with which he pursues the coveted privilege, he won't be happy till he gets it. The question has been asked, "Why doesn't he marry the sister first?" But that would hardly get over the difficulty; he might want them both!. If, however, the Bill shortly to be introduced into the Manx Legislature by Mr J. R. Cowell becomes law, we in the Island will have the opportunity, denied to our friends across the water, of marrying as many deceased wife's sisters as we like - seriatim , of course - an opportunity, which it may be safely anticipated, will be immediately embraced There is sometimes a sentimental objection felt to what is known as stepping into other people's shoes, but even that will be removed, if, as is very probable, they happen to have been made by Proctor.
[the last statement was a pun in that Mr Proctor (like Mr Cowell,) was a well known Primitive Methodist LP and MHK as well as a major shoemaker in Douglas!]

Such marriages were legal elsewhere - there is at least one related Manx case: Francis Southward married his deceased wife's sister in the Channel Islands - see Another Missing Marriage (Southward = Stevenson Channel Island marriage)

That this solution to the problem was commonly used can be seen by comments within the Methodist Conference of 1841 (see Grindrod ch7 section 12):

The Conference, moreover, deems itself now called upon to declare, that it is by no means comely, nor of good report, for members of our societies to repair to certain parts of the United Kingdom, or to foreign countries, in the hope of there finding facilities for contracting marriages within the prohibited degrees, and without any intention of fixing their permanent residence in those countries

The Imperial Parliament finally passed the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act in 1907 after over a half-century of sometimes acrimonious debate (see Wolfram for all the details); in 1921 this act was modified to allow marriage with a deceased brother's widow. In 1931 the Marriage (Prohibited Degrees of Relationship) Act legalised marriage between a man and deceased wife's aunts and nieces (& corresponding for a female); the Church of England came into line with civil law in 1940.

Marriage with Step-daughter

As an example of the affinity brought about by marriage a court case in 1846 declared null the 'incestuous marriage' between John Morrison and Sarah Gell his dead wife's daughter.

'In-Law' and 'Step' relationships

Current usage is to distinguish affinal relationships from their corresponding blood relationship by appending 'in-law' - the prefix 'step' indicating a new affinal relationship acquired by a subsequent marriage. However until the early 19th century the term 'in-law' could be used where we would use 'step'.

Current Manx Regulations

See elsewhere for the Manx Marriage Act 1984; by this act the legal age for marriage is set at 16 - prohibited relationships are fully spelt out (and include adopted children).

Marriage Settlements

These are discussed elsewhere


This is considered in more detail elsewhere.


Waldron gives a description of a wedding feast in the 1720's:

Having spoken of the Manks frugality, or rather sordidness, in the way of eating, I must not omit making an exception to this rules at three several times, which are their weddings, their christenings, and their funerals.

As to the first, twenty pounds is a good portion for a mountaineer's daughter, and they are so exact in the marriage bargain, that I have known many, who have called themselves hot lovers, break off for the sake of a sow or a pig being refused in the articles. Yet, notwithstanding this, a stranger cannot be invited to one of these nuptial feasts, without believing himself in a land of the utmost plenty and hospitality. The match is no sooner concluded, than besides the bands of matrimony, being publickly asked in the church three Sundays, notice is given to all the friends and relations on both sides, tho' they live ever so far distant. Not one of these, unless detained by sickness, fail coming, and bring something towards the feast; the nearest of kin, if they are able, commonly contribute most, so that they have vast quantities of fowls of all sorts. I have seen a dozen of capons in one platter, and six or eight fat geese in another; sheep and hogs roasted whole, and oxen divided but into quarters. They have bride-men and bride-maids who lead the young couple, as in England, only with this difference, that the former have ozier wands in their hands as an emblem of superiority: they are proceeded by musick, who play all the while before them the tune, the Black and the Grey, and no other is ever used at weddings. When they arrive at the church-yard, they walk three times round the church before they enter it. The ceremony being performed, they return home, and sit down to the feast; after which they dance in the Manks fashion, and between that and drinking pass the remainder of the day.

Harrison adds the following gloss to Waldron:

"The Black and Gray" was a tune prevalent in the time of Charles II., and the dance continued popular at least until the middle of the last century. This country dance tune is to be found in " The Dancing Master, or directions for dancing country dances, with the tunes to each dance, for the treble violin," 7th edition, &c., London, 1686. The figure, as there described, is:" First and second couple take hands and go quite round, and then cast off: then second and third couple take hands and go quite round, and then cast off: the first couple are now in the third couples place, the first man turns the third woman and the first woman turns the third man with the right hand at the same time, and then each turn their own with the left hand: next the first man turns the second woman, and the first woman turns the second man with the right hand, and then turn their own with the left hand till they are in their places."

Further descriptions of Marriage Customs are provided by Dr Clague - probably referring to mid 19th Century. William Kennish also provides a description of some of the Manx Wedding customs at the start of the 19th Century in his 'Manx Courtship' - note here how the father thought the bride much too young to marry at 16. Train also describes some of the customs of the early part of 19th century

Roeder also has some descriptions of Manx wedding customs, probably relating to the later part of the 19th Century - eg a Crow's Wedding (none of women's family present) and the invitation of guests

On what day ?

In the Malew register we can find for 1678:

1678-Tho: Shimin came with his daughter Kath: to the Church of Malew this 19th day of jan: beinge Sunday and brought her wth her friends into the bodie of the Church where I came to marrie John ffargher and her at the usuall time of marriage in the time of Divine Service and the said John ffargher or friends appeared not, the bans of Matrimonie beinge calld three Sundays.

This, apart from a sorry tale of being stood up at the altar, would indicate that most marriages took place on the Sunday as part of the usual Sunday service.

Train (1845) claims that, like the natives of nearby Galloway, the Manx married either on Tuesday or Thursday. Moore (Chap 6 'Folklore') expands on this saying that Tuesdays and Thursdays were considered lucky days whereas Friday was considered most unlucky (possibly one reason being that under old Catholic pratice Friday was a day of abstinence from meat and thus the wedding feast would be limited).

Roscow quotes the following refrain

Advents bids thee to refrain,
Hillary sets thee free again,
Septuagesima bids thee stay,
Six days from Easter says thou may,
Ascension pleads thy Chastity,
But thou may'st wed at Trinity.
[quoted ref MM MMS498c]

Most weddings would be in winter after the harvest had been gathered and the parents would have some ready money from the sale of the crops.

Age at Marriage

That the Manx married young was noted by many writers - one observant comment is that by Hannah Bullock (1816):

I do not, indeed, consider the Isle of Man as the abode of Cupid or the Graces; in general, the marriages contracted by the natives, (though they take place at rather an early age) are founded on prudential calculations, no man, however youthful, marries merely for love; yet, as soon as any one is established in business or housekeeping, he naturally looks out for a wife as a necessary appendage to his domestic economy, and in his choice is influenced by parity of circumstances, by early associations, or some such motives, independent of the tender passion: in general, the same quietude of sentiments actuates both sides, yet are these marriages, in most instances, fortunate in their results; a couple thus united live together on the best terms, they co-operate in their pursuits, habit soon gives them an undeviating conformity, and permits their lives to pass

" A clear united stream."

The graph taken from Laslett shows the mean and median (i.e. that by which 50% of marriages had taken place) ages of marriage averaged across a number of English parishes (averaged over 50 year periods). From 1896 to 1950 the mean age of women at marriage has varied only within the range 25.66 to 27.14 years.

graph: ages of Marriage

Note, although no comparable work has yet been done on Manx figures I would suspect them to show a younger age.  However more research is needed to give solid statistical grounding to this statement. One article by Rex Kissack on Parish Registers and Parish People will serves as an introduction to the more general topic of demography.

Prenuptial Pregnancy

Many brides were pregnant at the time of marriage - illegitimate births can be mostly considered as courtship activities that did not result in a successful outcome. It would appear that betrothal was seen by many as the turning point in a relationship. The graph is drawn from figures quoted by Laslett.

graph: illegitimate births

No comparable Manx figures exist - however as elsewhere prenuptial pregnancy was strongly correlated with illegitimacy I would expect Manx figures to be at least comparable, if not higher.


As Stone makes clear the impression of a happy couple surrounded by a large family is a myth - being based mostly on affluent late Victorian families. Until the late 19th century around 30% of all children would die before their fifteenth birthday - likewise maternal deaths in childbearing were still over 0.5% per birth in the later half of the 19th century until falling sharply in the early 20th century. It is likely that these statistics do not fully reflect the early infant deaths as only those baptised are likely to be recorded - Stone quotes a typical average mortality rate of around 20% for one-year old infants - the recorded mortality rates for 1 to 5 year olds was around 18% (figure derived from a few English parishes). Child mortality also increased with family size - this is shown in the following chart based on figures collected from the Westminster General Dispensary 1774-81.

graph: surviving children

It is quite likely that Manx families living in a healthy rural environment may have shown better survival ratios.





See under civil records

A Table of Kindred and Affinity,

Wherein Whosoever are related are forbidden in Scripture and our Laws to marry together.

Taken from 1844 edition of Anglican Book of Common Prayer - for some reason they are not to be found in the Manx Book of Common Prayer (at least not in my 4th and final edition of the 1808 printing dated 1838)

A Man may not marry his
2 Grandfather's Wife,
3Wife's Grandmother.
4Father's Sister,
5Mother's Sister,
6Father's Brother's Wife.
7Mother's Brother's Wife,
8Wife's Father's Sister,
9Wife's Mother's Sister.
12Wife's Mother.
14Wife's Daughter,
15Son's Wife.
17Wife's Sister,
18Brother's Wife.
19Son's Daughter,
20Daughter's Daughter,
21Son's Son's Wife.
22Daughter's Son's Wife,
23Wife's Son's Daughter,
24Wife's Daughter's Daughter.
25Brother's Daughter,
26Sister's Daughter,
27Brother's Son's Wife.
28Sister's Son's Wife,
29Wife's Brother's Daughter,
30Wife's Sister's Daughter.
A Woman may not marry with her
2Grandmother's Husband,
3Husband's Grandfather.
4Father's Brother,
5Mother's Brother,
6Father's Sister's Husband.
7Mother's Sister's Husband,
8Husband's Father's Brother,
9Husband's Mother's Brother.
12Husband's Father.
14Husband's Son,
15Daughter's Husband.
17Husband's Brother,
I SSister's Husband.
19Son's Son,
20Daughter's Son,
21Son's Daughter's Husband.
22Daughter's Daughter's Husband,
23Husband's Son's Son,
24Husband's Daughter's Son.
25Brother's Son,
26Sister's Son,
27Brother's Daughter's Husband.
28Sister's Daughter's Husband,
29Husband's Brother's Son,
30Husband's Sister's Son.



S. Wolfram In Laws and Outlaws. Kinship and Marriage in England London:Croom Helm 1987 (ISBN 0-7099-2796-7)
Peter Laslett et al (editors) Bastardy and its Comparative History London: Edward Arnold 1980 (ISBN 0-7131-6229-5)
Lawrence Stone The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1600-1800, London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson 1977 (stongly recommended reading, though at times contentious)
D.V.Glass Population in History London: Edward Arnold 1965
J. Roscow Manx Marriage Contracts 1600-1756 Proc IoMNHASoc X No 2 pp3-16 1994

F .J. Furnivall Child Marriages, Divorces, and Ratifications, &c in the Diocese of Chester A.D. 1561-6 London:Early English Text Society 1897 - though not directly relevant to Manx affairs would appear to indicate that child marriages were surprisingly common in North west England.

 [Genealogy Index]


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 2001