Banns of marriage

The banns of marriage, commonly known simply as the "banns" or "bans" (from a Middle English word meaning "proclamation," rooted in Old French[1]) are the public announcement in a Christian parish church of an impending marriage between two specified persons. It is commonly associated with the Church of England and with other denominations whose traditions are similar; the Roman Catholic Church abolished the requirement in 1983.

The purpose of banns is to enable anyone to raise any canonical or civil legal impediment to the marriage, so as to prevent marriages that are invalid. Impediments vary between legal jurisdictions, but would normally include a pre-existing marriage that has been neither dissolved nor annulled, a vow of celibacy, lack of consent, or the couple's being related within the prohibited degrees of kinship.


Historical overview

Roman Catholic Church

The original Catholic Canon law on the subject, intended to prevent clandestine marriages, was decreed at the Council of Trent on November 11, 1563. (Sess. XXIV, De ref. matr., c. i) which provided that before the celebration of any marriage the names of the contracting parties should be announced publicly in the church during Mass, by the parish priests of both parties on three consecutive Holy Days.[2] Although the requirement was straightforward in canon law, complications sometimes arose in a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, when one of the parties to the marriage did not have a home parish in the Roman Catholic Church.[citation needed]

Traditionally, banns were read from the pulpit and were usually published in the parish weekly bulletin. Prior to 1983, canon law required banns to be announced, or "asked", in the home parishes of both parties on three Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation prior to the marriage. Under Canon 1067 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the norms regarding the publication of banns are to be established by each individual national or regional Conference of bishops.

In some places, the words once spoken by the priest were: "I publish the banns of marriage between (Name of party) of the Parish of........ and (Name of other party) of this Parish. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is for the (first, second, third) time of asking."

Marriage licenses were introduced in the 14th century, to allow the usual notice period under banns to be waived, on payment of a fee and accompanied by a sworn declaration, that there was no canonical impediment to the marriage.

The Roman Catholic Church abolished the requirement in 1983, as greater mobility had limited its usefulness as a means of determining whether there were impediments to marriage. However, many parishes still publish such notices in church bulletins.


While the Council of Trent is best known as a Counter-Reformation Council, neither the Lutheran Church nor the Church of England broke with the Roman Catholic Church on the requirement of publication of banns (or the equivalent) prior to marriage. (An equivalent notice was not required in the Orthodox Christian Churches, which used another method to verify eligibility to marry.) The break between some Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church was over what would constitute an impediment to marriage (the Church of England, for example, recognised remarriage after divorce in some circumstances), rather than over the means by which impediments to marriage should be identified.

In England, under the provisions of Lord Hardwicke's Act of 1753, a marriage was only legally valid if the banns had been called or a marriage licence had been obtained, codifying earlier practice within the Church of England. By this statute, 26 Geo. II, c.33, the banns were required to be read aloud on three Sundays before the wedding ceremony, in the home parish churches of both parties. Omission of this formality rendered the marriage void, unless the bishop's licence (a common licence) or the special licence of the Archbishop of Canterbury had been obtained. This statutory requirement had the effect of requiring Roman Catholics and other non-conformists to be married in the Church of England, a requirement lifted by legislation in 1836.

Before 1754, when Lord Hardwicke's Act came into force, it was possible for eloping couples to be married clandestinely by an ordained clergyman (a favourite location was the Fleet Prison, a debtors' prison in London, in which clergymen willing to celebrate irregular marriages might be found). After the law, elopers had to leave England and Wales in order to contract a marriage while avoiding these formalities. Scotland, in particular Gretna Green, the first village over the border from England, was the customary destination, but became less popular after 1856 when Scottish law was amended to require 21 days' residence. The Isle of Man was briefly popular also, but in 1757 Tynwald, the Island's legislature, passed a similar Act, with the additional sanction of pillorying and ear-cropping for clergymen from overseas who married couples without banns.[3] These details often figure in melodramatic literature set in the period.[4]

The wording of banns according to the rites of the Church of England is as follows:

  • I publish the banns of marriage between NN of … and NN of …
    • This is the first / second / third time of asking. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it. (Book of Common Prayer 1662) or
    • This is the first / second / third time of asking. If any of you know any reason in law why they may not marry each other you are to declare it. (Common Worship 2005)

Country-by-country overviews

United Kingdom

The present legislation relating to banns of marriage is contained in the Marriage Act 1949.[5]

United States

Lord Hardwicke's Act did not extend outside England and Wales, and hence did not become law in the colonies that would later become the United States of America. For this reason, and as a consequence of the American separation of church and state, banns or equivalent notice by publication is not required prior to marriage in most U.S. states, although most U.S. states require that a marriage license which establishes the freedom of the parties to marry be established prior to a valid marriage, often a certain number of days prior to the marriage ceremony. Such license is no more than a legal formality, as the license is not publicized in any significant way.


In the Canadian province of Ontario, the publication of banns "proclaimed openly in an audible voice during divine service" in the church(es) of the betrothed remains a legal alternative to obtaining a marriage licence.[6] Two same-sex couples married this way at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto on January 14, 2001, since the province was not then issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples. The marriages were ruled valid in 2003. See Same-sex marriage in Ontario. Banns being read once in a church ordinarily attended by both parties to the marriage is allowed in lieu of a licence in Manitoba.[7]

In the Canadian province of Quebec, equivalent formalities are required for all marriages, although the statutes do not use the word "banns".[8] There is no requirement for a government-issued license, but a written notice must be posted at the place of the wedding for 20 days beforehand, and the officiant verifies the eligibility of the intended spouses.

In British Columbia, only Doukhobors can be married by banns.[9]

Civil-law countries in general

Many civil-law countries have different, secular pre-marriage registration and publication requirements.

The Netherlands and Belgium

In the Netherlands and Belgium, there is a statutory requirement for couples intending to marry to formally register that intention with officials beforehand. This process is called "ondertrouw". Civil marriage is mandatory, but some people also have a religious ceremony.

Other uses

A second use of "the banns" is as the prologue to a play, i.e., a proclamation made at the beginning of a medieval play announcing and summarizing the upcoming play. An example can be found in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, a Middle English miracle play written sometime after 1461.


  1. ^ AMHER, banns, also bans: (Middle English banes, pl. of ban, proclamation, from Old French ban (of Germanic origin).
  2. ^ Waterworth, The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Œcumenical Council of Trent, London, 1848, p. 196
  3. ^ "How to deal with come-overs". Retrieved 2010-01-01. 
  4. ^ Lemmings, David (June 1996). "Marriage and the Law in the Eighteenth Century: Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753". The Historical Journal (American Society for Legal History) 39 (2): 339–360. doi:10.1017/S0018246X00020276. JSTOR 4141653 
  5. ^ "UK Statute Law Database". Retrieved 2010-01-01. 
  6. ^ "Ontario Marriage Act, R.S.O. 1990". Retrieved 2009-02-17. 
  7. ^ "Manitoba Marriage Act". Retrieved 2008-03-12. 
  8. ^ "Civil code of Quebec Book Two". Retrieved 2009-02-17. 
  9. ^ BC Marriage Act, BC Marriage Act 1996, chap. 282, section 13-14

External links

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