How to Use Church Marriage Records to Trace Your Ancestors
After 1538 the Church of England was supposed to keep records of all baptisms, burials and marriages, although it wasn't until the end of the century that record-keeping was enforced. Even then, the details noted varied greatly from parish to parish, depending on how conscientious the recorder was. Some just showed names, whilst others went into great detail (which is a blessing to genealogy).
Until 1754, all events were entered in the same parish register, but after that (the date of passage of Hardwicke's Marriage Act) marriages were entered in a separate book that usually consisted of printed forms, so be aware of that for your genealogy search.
Family History and Irregular and Clandestine MarriagesHardwicke's Marriage Act was meant to regulate marriage, and eliminate the growing issue of irregular and clandestine marriages. "Irregular" marriages were those that took place without banns or licence, or else in a parish church that was home to neither bride nor groom. "Clandestine" marriages were those that fulfilled both conditions. Prime examples were the "Fleet marriages" from the Fleet prison and surrounds in London (curiously, the records of these marriages were kept, and were classed as Anglican marriages). After the Act, though, the flouting of the laws moved outside England to Gretna Green, whose reputation still exists, and the Channel Isles, so finding marriage records can be very difficult. That just makes life infuriating for anyone tracking these types of marriages for a family tree.
Genealogy and Periods of Low Church MarriageDuring the 1640s and '50s, it's estimated that a third of all marriages went unregistered, a fact no one in genealogy wants to hear. In part this was due to the conflict of the Civil War, which raged until the execution of Charles 1. After that came the Commonwealth, with Cromwell at its head, and the Puritans had other ideas about marriage and Church. After 1653, the right to perform marriages was taken from the clergy and given instead to Justices of the Peace, although from 1657-1660 (when the monarchy was restored) they could be performed by either clergy or JPs. However, there were far fewer Justices of the Peace than vicars, which meant couples either had to search far a field to find one in a different parish or simply forego the ceremony, which many seem to have done (undoubtedly some opted for an illegal church marriage, making marriage records sketchy and genealogy searches difficult.
Genealogy and Marriage Records After 1754After the passage of Hardwicke's Act, any church performing marriages had to be licensed, and the ceremony had to be performed in daylight to be legal.
You might also come across marriages described as being "by certificate," which means one of the parties had the banns read in a different parish, the proof generally on an enclosed certificate. A useful genealogy tip is that if you can identify the name of the person signing the certificate (i.e. the vicar), then you can track down the name of the parish, and discover the homes of both marriage parties.
Two types of printed forms were in common use post-Hardwicke (one included a space for banns, the other didn't). But in both cases they asked the names of the parties, their parishes, whether the marriage was by banns or licence, and finally the names of the witnesses (after 1813, an amendment to the form included a consent section for minors). Brides would normally sign the form with their maiden name.
Interestingly, until 1907 it was actually possible for first cousins (called cousins-german) to marry, and was quite common - maybe 2% of all marriages after 1540 (when it became legal) were of such a type. It was, however, often frowned upon, and if it's in your family history, worth noting.
At times you might not find the marriage record in the groom's parish during your genealogy search. The most common reason for this is that the marriage took place where the bride lived (most pre-Industrial Revolution marriages took place within a 15-mile radius). But there should be a record of either the banns or the licence in the groom's parish, and from there you can find the bride's parish and the certificate (another good genealogy tip). However, please note that it was only after 1823 that banns had to be read in both the bride's and groom's parishes, and before 1753 there's generally no recording of banns having been read.
Other marriages were by licence, which eliminated the need for banns. The licence came in three parts: First there was the affidavit, usually signed by the groom, that there was no lawful impediment to the marriage. Secondly there was the marriage bond, which was a promise, signed by two people, that if the marriage was invalid in the eyes of God, they'd pay a certain sum to the church. Finally there was the licence itself. Local record societies often keep records of marriage licences issued between 1754 and 1837, a good place to look when involved in genealogy.