Shakespeare’s licence to marry Anne Hathaway was issued on 27th of November 1582, but there was something a little unusual about the whole situation… Our Research Team explore the conventions of Elizabethan marriage and what this means about Shakespeare’s own wedding.

Marriage is one of the most common themes in Shakespeare’s plays, especially his comedies. From what the parish records tell us, Shakespeare’s own marriage is equally fascinating, and rather more unconventional, than a lot of his characters’ weddings.

Calling the banns and special licences

Normally, people didn’t have to obtain licences at all. Strictly speaking, before anyone could be married ‘banns’ had to be read out in church in front of the congregation for three consecutive Sundays. This announced that the couple intended to marry and gave people the opportunity to raise any objections. Potential impediments to a marriage could have been if the bride and groom were already married or pre-contracted to somebody else, if they were too young or too closely related, or if they were a minor and didn’t have parental consent.

This last instance could well have applied to Shakespeare: at just eighteen he was still three years away from legal majority and so would have needed his father’s permission to wed. The day after Shakespeare’s marriage licence had been obtained John Richardson and Fulk Sandells, two friends of Anne Hathaway’s family, declared that there were no legal impediments to the marriage by entering into a bond which could have held them to the enormous sum of £40. This got rid of the necessity of announcing the impending marriage to the community in church by reading the banns, and they would also have sworn that William had permission from his father, John Shakespeare.

So why did people buy special ecclesiastical licences rather than having the banns read? It could be a way of conducting a clandestine or secret marriage, as the couple’s intentions were not published to their families and neighbours, it allowed people to marry during religious seasons when it was supposed to be prohibited, and of course it let a marriage happen quickly rather than having to wait for at least three weeks while the banns were called. So which of these was William and Anne’s reason for obtaining a licence?

Why did Shakespeare get a special licence?

There is no evidence to suggest that Shakespeare’s marriage had to be conducted in secret, or that his family disapproved of it. Certainly, Shakespeare was marrying young at eighteen when most men waited until their mid-twenties, and at twenty-six Anne was perhaps just over the average age for a woman to be married, but nobody seems to have objected to the match.

It does seem that they wanted to marry quickly. Susanna Shakespeare, William and Anne’s first child, was baptised six months later on the 26th of May 1583, meaning that Anne would have been around three months pregnant at the time of their wedding. To add to the time pressure, one of the ‘forbidden seasons’ was fast approaching: the church did not allow marriage between Advent Sunday and mid-January, and in 1582 Advent Sunday was the 2nd of December. They obtained their licence on the 27th of November, and due to other forbidden days only the 30th November was left as an acceptable wedding day until January – by which time Anne would have been very noticeably pregnant. Although people did sometimes marry on forbidden days or times, and licences could be used to avoid such restrictions, this could certainly have proved another complication.

Another reason William and Anne would have needed a special licence was because their marriage took place not in their home parish of Stratford, but in Temple Grafton. The law stipulated that marriages had to take place in the home parish of either the bride or groom, but again this was another rule that licences could be used to get around. Their decision to marry elsewhere is likely to be due to Anne’s pregnancy, and thus the desire not to call attention to the wedding, although some people have suggested that they may have wanted to be married by John Frith the former Catholic priest who ministered to the parish of Temple Grafton rather than Stratford’s strict Protestant vicar Henry Haycroft.

As with so much of Shakespeare’s biography it is very difficult to do anything but conjecture about why things happened the way they did, as scant evidence remains. What we do know for sure is that when William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway got married this week in 1582, they were not treading the conventional route.

Further reading

Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. (Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1997)

Sokol, B.J. and Mary Sokol. Shakespeare, Law and Marriage. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare: For all time. (London: Macmillian, 2002)

Wood, Michael. In Search of Shakespeare. (London: BBC worldwide, 2003)