Sunday, 18 October 2009

Who Witnessed a Marriage?

A question I recently read in a family history magazine suggested that the fact that a man was not named as a witness on his daughter’s marriage certificate was evidence that he had died by this date, or possibly that he was unable to attend the wedding due to illness or infirmity. This seems to presuppose that it was common for parents, or at least the father of the bride, to witness a marriage.

Although I have heard this belief expressed before it is not one I necessarily agree with. There are examples in my family tree of parents witnessing the marriage of one of their children, but I believe it was more usual for the witnesses to be contemporaries of the couple, often siblings, but sometimes cousins or close friends.

More specifically, in the 20th century at least, I thought it was usually the Best Man and Chief Bridesmaid who signed the marriage register as witnesses. This belief is confirmed by my paternal grandparents marriage in 1939. The marriage certificate names as witnesses two individuals who I recognise as the groom’s brother and bride’s sister. A detailed report of the wedding in the local newspaper shows that this same brother was best man and the sister the first named of three bridesmaids.

Searching English Parish Registers in particular, I’ve noticed the same names appearing as witnesses time and time again. I suspect that these were individuals connected with the Church and this certainly seems to be the case with two marriages in my family that took place in the Parish of Gorleston, Suffolk.

A William Bristow witnessed the marriage of my ancestors there in 1809 and a William H. Bristow witnessed their grandson’s marriage in the same church in 1892. A search of census returns indicates that a William Bristow and William H. Bristow, were father and son who both followed the double occupation of ‘Tailor & Parish Clerk’, the younger man taking over the role of Parish Clerk from the older. Both men appear to be have served the function of Parish Clerk well into old age. William senior is recorded as ‘Church Clerk’ in the 1861 Census, aged 67 and William H. Bristow as ‘Parish Clerk’ in the 1891 Census aged 71. If these ages are correct William senior would only have been about 15 at the time of the 1809 marriage so I wonder if he took over the role from another William Bristow, parish clerk - his father perhaps?

So why would the parish clerk be a witness? Does this imply that there were no relatives or friends present at the wedding? I suspect this may have been the case for the 1892 marriage. The couple in question had apparently been living together for over 10 years and had at least four children. It seems likely that the wedding would be a small, private affair, so as not to draw attention to the fact that they were not already married (as they had claimed in the 1881 and 1891 censuses).

However, I am not convinced that just because no relatives are named as witnesses that this always implies they were not present, and suspect there may have been another reason why parish clerks witnessed so many marriages.

For the marriage of my ancestors in 1809 there are actually four witnesses recorded in the parish register. Two signed their names in full and two signed with an 'X'. Although it is not clear, I wonder if the two who could write their names (one of whom was William Bristow) were not so much witnessing the marriage, as witnessing the X marks of the other two.

To avoid the need for this extra step was there perhaps a preference for witnesses who could sign their names? In which case, does the fact that a parish clerk witnessed a marriage not necessarily indicate that there were no guests at the wedding but rather none who could sign their own names?

If so, this might also explain why in the early 19th century and earlier witnesses often seem to be two men, rather than one man and one woman as was common later.

I would be interested to hear from others as to who witnessed the marriages in your family. Relatives or non-relatives? Parents or siblings? Literate or illiterate?


  1. My great grandparents on father's side has the brides father witnessing the application. This marriage took place in 1905. The link is
    But the marriage of my fathers parents took place in another state, in 1933 and the bride's father was deceased at the time of marriage.

  2. Unfortunately I don't have access to my certificates right now (computer crash) but from memory, I do remember a lot of siblings or 'non-parents' being involved.
    In fact, I love being able to revisit certificates and actually place the once seemingly random witnesses as members of the family or neighbours.

    A word of warning: I remember reading somewhere that an X (or mark) as a signature didn't always mean the person was illiterate. Sometimes women especially would use an X so as not to show up their men. Something else to consider, perhaps?

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    @GeneaGeek - a very valid point! I remember there was an interesting discussion in 'Family Tree Magazine' (UK) about that. I did hesitate a bit before using the word 'illiterate' but decided to use it for simplicity. However I agree that just because someone uses an 'X' to sign a particular document it doesn't necessarily follow that they were illiterate.

  4. I find it fascinating to think of the possible reasons for things my ancestors did. Although it's a tad frustrating we may never know the truth, I think it's that mystery that also keeps me interested :)