Marriages: Handfast, Morganatic & Left-Handed



30 October 2014

When is a marriage not a marriage? Most researchers are well familiar with the term common-law marriage (which did become a marriage, with longevity, in most societies), but historical records yield other delightful terms that can undermine our conclusions if we are not familiar with the practices involved. Today, we examine three of those.

HANDFAST MARRIAGES, as a term, existed as early as 13th-century England when hands were bound together as part of a betrothal ceremony or at the signing of a marriage contract. In more recent centuries, it came to signify an "irregular or probationary marriage, contracted by the parties joining hands and agreeing to live together as man and wife according to ... common law."

MORGANATIC MARRIAGES originated in Germanic culture, as a means of recognizing marital unions between a person of high rank (usually the male) and one of significantly lesser rank. Children of a morganatic union were considered legitimate but could not legally inherit title or property from the higher-ranking parent.

LEFT-HANDED MARRIAGES was the common euphemism for morganatic marriages as the custom spread across Europe. The term came about when—instead of the traditional joining of right hands in troth—the groom would extend his left hand to the bride. However, that alternate term does carries a different connotation in the British Isles and its colonies. In English usage, the term more commonly referred to extramarital or otherwise unsanctioned unions.


SOURCES: Michel Quinion, "Morganatic," World Wide Words ( : posted 19 February 2005). Also Noel C. Stevenson, Genealogical Evidence: A Guide to the Standard of Proof Relating to Pedigrees, Ancestry, Heirship, and Family History, rev. ed. (Laguna Hills, Calif.: Aegean Park Press, 1989), 85, for "Handfast Marriage."

PHOTO CREDIT: "Silhouettes of the bride and groom," CanStockPhoto ( : downloaded 16 September 2014), uploaded by Mudryuk; used under license.

DebNC's picture
What about marriage bonds, licenses and certificates?

In North Carolina, and possibly in some other states, marriage bonds were paid by one or more bondsmen, sometimes a relative or future in-law. I recently read of an ancestor--a free person of color-- who, along with his future father-in-law, paid the sum of 500 pounds for a marriage bond in 1795. The bond states: "The condition of the Obligation is such, that whereas the above bounden Peter George, hath made application for a license for a Marriage intended to be had and solomnized between him and Hannah Carter of the County aforesaid. Now in case it shall appear at any time hereafter, that there is any lawful cause to obstruct the said Marriage, then the above obligation to be void, otherwise to remain in full force and virtue."

So, sometimes there are two dates given for a couple, the first one for the bond and the second one for the marriage. But at other times, there is only the bond date given. Would it be possible that the couple married on the same day the bond was made? Or could it be that it was never solomnized?

Jade's picture
Marriage Bonds, Licenses, other records

DebNC, those are really good questions.

The Marriage Bonds were about the bride-groom relationship, specifically whether the promised marriage took place without legal/social incumbrances.  They were typically good for 30 or 45 days, or other lengths of time depending on the State legislation at the time.

The surety or sureties did not actually pay money unless there were an escrow procedure in place.  I have not yet seen a specific escrow arrangement described in a document.  But the surety did have to be known to have assets to cover the penalty amount, similar to the performance bonds filed by estate administrators and by certain elected or appointed officials such as sheriffs.  In the latter case I have seen a suit brought by sureties to recover the surety amount from the estate of a deceased sheriff who was found to have pocketed some collected taxes; the County moved to recover the Bond amount from the sureties, in addition to the outstanding taxes from the estate's assets.

The Bonds covered such circumstances as one party's running off with someone else, legislated legal-age provisions or pregnancy.

In my experience with northern WV Marriage Bonds, I have seen some instances where a minister's recorded return of marriage gave the same marriage date as the Bond date.  I have also seen some Bonds filed where there was no parallel recording of the marriage by an officiator.  In the latter case one can not assume that a marriage took place, but must seek further evidence to this effect.  Even where collateral evidence is found that the couple were considered to be married, it can not even be assumed that they married within the Bond's stipulated time period.  One can imagine the pressures brought to bear by the respective family members when one of the parties was recalcitrant.  Neither the groom's family nor the bride's surety really wanted to give up $300 (or whatever the Bond penalty amont was) worth of property, so even in the case of default there might be further negotiations by the parties or their  representatives.

While I have seen parental permissions filed with Bonds, authorizing the County Clerk to issue a "license," the Licenses were more typically sworn statements that the parties met State requirements such as age, residence and relationship (e.g. no closer than 2nd cousin).  While States could set legal penalties for violations or perjury, the Licenses typically were issued upon actual payment of a fee.  They were income for the County, unlike a Bond penalty amount (though there might be a recordation fee in the case of Bonds).  I have not seen instances where there were both Bond and License.  In WV the License procedure supplanted the Bond procedure when a new Court system was implemented ca. 1854.

This is one of the areas in which we can always benefit by knowing what the applicable laws were at the time periods of interest.

I hope this helps a little.