Marriages within the Rules of the Fleet
In England and Wales, it was against canon law for marriages to be conducted anywhere other than an Anglican church after banns or a licence. However, until the introduction of Hardwicke's Marriage Act in 1754, marriages outside the church, or lacking banns or licence, were recognised in common law. Such marriages were technically known as 'clandestine', and were not necessarily subject to the same checks and requirements as canonical marriages. The majority of clandestine marriages were conducted within the 'Rules of the Fleet'. The Fleet Prison was largely a debtors' prison, but some of its 'inmates' actually lived in the area around the prison, subject to the 'Rules of the Fleet'. Clergymen who were amongst the inmates would marry anyone for a fee, and the prison wardens took a cut of the fee charged. Marriages took place in the prison chapel (until 1711), but also in inns and various other places around the prison. Marriages are known to have taken place at the Fleet from at least 1613, but the surviving records start in the late 17th century. Many thousands of marriages per year took place at the Fleet, and by the 1740s the rate of over 6,600 per annum constituted half the marriages in London and about 1 in 7 of all marriages in England.
Many of the records of Fleet marriages have been lost, but the surviving registers are in the National Archives in series RG7, with two further registers in PROB 18/50. They are of the same (variable) content as parish registers, sometimes giving merely the names of the parties and the date, but other times adding the parishes of the couple and the groom's occupation. There are also fraudulent entries, including marriages which never took place and entries with false dates or names. Indexes to the Fleet marriages in RG7 are to be found:
- on www.BMDregisters.co.uk and www.thegenealogist.co.uk;
- on Ancestry.co.uk in the London, England, Clandestine Marriage and Baptism Registers, 1667-1754 collection;
- in Clandestine marriages in the chapel & rules of the Fleet Prison 1680-1754: transcripts of registers at Public Record Office by Mark Herber (3 volumes), though this only indexes some of the registers.
For further information see:
- the RG7 series description in the National Archives Catalogue and the National Archives Guide covering the Fleet registers;
- Fleet Marriage on Wikipedia;
- account of the Fleet marriages on the BMDregisters site
- John Burn's The Fleet Registers (1833)
- Rebecca Probert's Marriage Law for Genealogists: The Definitive Guide (2012)
- Mark Herber's Ancestral Trails (2nd ed., 2004) pages 280-283 on Fleet and clandestine marriages.