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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Forbidden Love and Wedding Banns in Colonial America

The institution of marriage is as old as time itself. With it there are many customs and practices that have been observed. In Colonial America, the popular months for weddings were late December, January and early February. In order for a marriage to take place the couple would need to obtain a marriage license or publish their intent to wed by posting banns.

In 1628, an act in Virginia forbade marriages “without lycence or asking in church.” In 1632, the act stated that “noe mynister shall celebrate matrymony betweene any persons without a facultie or lycense graunted by the Governor except the banes of matrymony have beene first published three severall Sondayes or holidayes” in a church where the couple resided.

The Banns:

The banns of marriage is a proclamation of the intention of a couple to wed. The upcoming marriage would be announced verbally or posted prominently in a Christian church or meeting house on three consecutive Sundays or in a public place. If the bride and groom were from different parishes or towns, then the publication would be made known at both locations. The purpose was to give the community the opportunity to site any reason that would impede a legal union between the pair. In some instances, the third and final announcement would also suffice as an official proclamation that the couple was then married.

Example of Banns:
I publishe the Banns of Marriage between Robert Preston of New Haven and Priscilla Fuller of Milford. If any known cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the 1st time asking.

Impediments to Marriage: 
Note: Laws varied from colony to colony and during various time periods, but these are some general prohibitions.

Age of Consent - Between 1650 and 1750, most women married at about the age of 20-22, while men married at about 24-27 years of age. This was slightly younger in the South as it was in New England. However, it was not typically legal for a female to marriage prior to the age of 16 without her parent's consent. Parents could not arbitrarily withhold permission for their offspring to marry. In fact, some children sued their parents for doing so.

Kinship - Marriages that fell within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity (blood relations) were not allowed. However, first cousin marriage was permissible as well as marriage between brother and sister-in-laws. (First cousin marriage continued until the 19th century and although it is not widely socially acceptable in our current time, it is in most states legal.) 

Bigamy - Forbidden when one partner was already married. (The first divorce in the colonies was granted in 1639 on the grounds of bigamy, while in England divorce could only be obtained by an act of Parliament.) 

Indentured servants - The terms of a contract of indenture had to be complete before a person could marry.

Interracial Matrimony
- Marriage between a white person and a black or Native American person was prohibited according to such laws instituted in Virginia in 1691. This would result in banishment from the colony. Naturally, there were exceptions, such as John Rolfe and Pocahontas. In Pennsylvania in 1726 a free black man marrying a white woman could be forced into slavery. (It wasn't until 1967 when the US Supreme Court overturned laws declaring it illegal for an interracial couple to marry.)

During my research of vital records I came across some marriages that were forbidden to take place, proving the effectiveness and wisdom of publishing the wedding banns.

On June 27, 1767 the banns of marriage were forbidden by Hannah York as she had not been asked or ever consented to be wed to Jeremiah Varell.
The nuptials of Anstrice Fellows and William Baker, sojourner, were posted on Sept. 3, 1837. Yet the banns were forbidden by a court of justice as William Baker had a wife living.
The Bonds:

Since the publishing of banns required three weeks, the more expedient method of getting married would be for the bridegroom to obtain a license in the bride's county of residence. This was very expensive and also required a bond to ensure that there was no impediment to the marriage. In order for a bond to be issued, a close relative or friend would go with the bridegroom to the clerk and essentially guarantee that the groom had no reason that would prevent him from legally marrying the bride. If this was later found to be untrue, the groom would be required to pay a penalty in the the amount of the bond (usually $500 or greater).
A marriage bond was useful especially in frontier regions as the country expanded when it was not always possible for people to be familiar with the identity of the groom or bride. This was the precursor to "if anyone knows just cause that these two should not be wed, speak now or forever hold your peace."

Certification that banns have been published.

Pattern for Romance

Now on Audible (Listen to sample)

Honour Metcalf’s quilting needlework is admired by a wealthy customer of the Boston Mantua-maker for whom she works. In need of increasing her earnings, she agrees to create an elaborate white work bridal quilt for the dowager’s niece. A beautiful design emerges as she carefully stitches the intricate patterns and she begins to dream of fashioning a wedding quilt of her own.

New Englander Carla Olson Gade writes from her home amidst the rustic landscapes of Maine. With eight books in print, she enjoys bringing her tales to life with historically authentic settings and characters. An avid reader, amateur genealogist, photographer, and house plan hobbyist, Carla's great love (next to her family) is historical research. Though you might find her tromping around an abandoned homestead, an old fort, or interviewing a docent at an historical museum, it's easier to connect with her online at carlagade.com. 


  1. Awesome, awesome details. Absolutely fascinating.

  2. When I was married in the late 60's, banns were still being published.

  3. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Such a good post, Carla. As always. While researching, I ran across something called a "bachelor's tax," by which certain colonies taxed young men for being unmarried. In some colonies, bachelors weren't allowed to live in town. Interesting stuff that fascinated this history nerd.

  5. Very interesting post Carla. Before my husband and I got married in 1971, banns were read 3 Sunday's before (attended a Episcopal church at the time) just as in your article.
    Blessings, Tina


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