Rebecca Probert

Secular or sacred? The ambiguity of ‘civil’ marriage in the Marriage Act 1836


The object of the Marriage Act 1836, as explained by Lord John Russell, ‘was to allow every person to be married according to whatever form his conscience dictated’, whether they were members of the Church of England, Dissenters who considered marriage to be a religious matter, or Dissenters who considered it to be a civil matter. To this end, the Act introduced the possibility of getting married in either a register office or a place of worship that had been registered for the purpose, rather than requiring all except Quakers and Jews to marry in the Anglican church. 

This paper will explore the multiple meanings of ‘secular’, ‘sacred’, and ‘civil’ marriage in the debates that preceded the 1836 Act and in the first 20 years of its operation. First, it will show how the idea of marriage as a ‘civil contract’ was advanced by Dissenting denominations who had a particular view of the relationship between church and state, and how this idea was, rather counterintuitively, perfectly compatible with the holding of religious beliefs and with ‘civil’ marriage being celebrated with a religious ceremony. Second, it will draw on the case of the Bradleys of Birmingham—two couples who went through an essentially secular wedding ceremony of their own devising in a Nonconformist chapel before the 1836 Act—to show that the option of getting married in a registered place of worship was intended to allow for non-religious ceremonies of this kind. Third, it will draw on accounts of early register office weddings to demonstrate that many included religious content. The relationship between the sacred and the secular, and what was meant by ‘civil’ marriage, was a highly complex and nuanced one.


Rebecca Probert is Professor of Law at the University of Exeter. She has written widely on all aspects of family law, but has a particular interest in the history of marriage, cohabitation, divorce, and bigamy. Her books include Marriage Law and Practice in the Long Eighteenth Century: A Reassessment (CUP, 2009), The Changing Legal Regulation of Cohabitation: From Fornicators to Family, 1600-2010 (CUP, 2012), and Tying the Knot: The Formation of Marriage 1836-2020 (CUP, 2021, forthcoming).