The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Fleet Marriages

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FLEET MARRIAGES, irregular and clandestine marriages performed by imprisoned clergymen in Fleet prison, London, after 1696, when by Act of Parliament a penalty of £100 was imposed on any clergyman who celebrated a marriage otherwise than by banns or license. To the imprisoned clergymen in the Fleet prison such a law had no terrors for they had neither liberty, money nor credit. Marriages had been performed in the prison and vicinity from 1613 onward, but it was only after the passage of the act referred to that they became clandestine. The great expense of the public ceremony was the impelling motive of these clandestine marriages and many tavern-keepers near the prison kept a room fitted as a chapel for their performance. The scandals and abuses incident to such a system became so great that they became the object of special legislation in 1753, when an act was passed, which required, under pain of nullity, that banns should be published according to the rubric or a license obtained, and that, in either case, the marriage should be solemnized in church. This effectually put an end to clandestine marriages in England, and thereafter couples were obliged to travel to Gretna Green. The original records of such marriages, celebrated between 1686 and 1774, are called Fleet books or Fleet registers. They are now kept at Somerset House, London. Consult Ashton, J., ‘The Fleet, its River, Prison and Marriages’ (London 1888); Burn, J. S., ‘The Fleet Registers, etc.’ (London 1833).