Marriage Certificates – Prospecting For Names in Marriage Certificates

To someone tracing their personal family history it is an equally exciting piece of evidence. Marriage certificates are what historians refer to as ‘primary’ sources of evidence. They are so good because they are written by witnesses to the event, at the same time as the event and usually by the person who officiated at the event. Marriage certificates are also legal documents that prove to genealogists and amateur family historians that two people were partners in the eyes of the law. They are also all about names. The names of the witnesses and crucially for following the gene pool back in time the names of the couple and in particular the maiden name of the bride.

Names, surnames in particular, are both the fascination of genealogy and the bugbear within it. Because British social norms demand that women take the surname of their husband and drop the surname of their father the marriage certificate is often the only link to the female family line. In Iceland there is a far more helpful practice where women not only keep their surnames after marriage but those surnames are their fathers’ Christian name plus the suffix ‘dottir’ which means daughter iceland women marriage. If Magnus Magnusson’s daughter Sally had lived in her father’s homeland, Iceland then she would have been known as Sally Magnusdottir for the whole of her life. Unfortunately, as things stand here in Britain, the genealogist has to become detective and seek out the marriage certificate clues to find out when Mrs. Butcher came to be called that and when she gave up being Miss Whittaker and where can we find Mr. and Mrs Whittaker and in turn, what was her mother’s maiden name.

There are in fact three sorts of documentary nuggets when it comes to marriage certificates. There are marriage licenses, the marriage register and the full marriage certificate. The first of these, the marriage license is in genealogy terms pure gold. Licenses were granted for a couple to marry by the clerk of the town or parish where the ceremony was to happen. Recorded on the license were the all important names but also the current addresses, birth dates, occupations and sometimes even the same information for the parents of the betrothed. The license would then be given to the person who was to conduct the ceremony on the day.

The marriage register is the easiest document to find but also the least informative of the three. Once the marriage has been performed the marriage license now signed and witnessed goes back to the clerk who records the bare bones of the event with names, date and place plus the name of the person who conducted the ceremony. The big day for the couple becomes a minor entry in an official ledger.

The marriage certificate is often the hardest document to find because it goes with the couple and therefore, for the genealogist, relies on the conscientiousness and care of individuals. Officialdom rarely keeps copies of marriage certificates preferring to rely on their register entries.

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