The banns of marriage, commonly known simply as "the banns" (from an Old English word meaning "to summon"), are the public announcement in a Christian parish church that a marriage is going to take place between two specified persons. It is most commonly associated with the Roman Catholic Church and with other denominations whose traditions closely match that of the Roman Catholic Church.

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

Roman Catholic Church

Under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, publication of the banns is no longer required. Formerly, banns were read from the pulpit along with other parish announcements, and were usually published in the parish weekly bulletin. Under Canon Law before 1983, the banns had to be announced, or "asked", in the home parishes of both parties on three Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation prior to the marriage.

In some places, the form of words that were once spoken by the priest is as follows: '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'.

The original Catholic Canon law on the subject, calculated to check the increase of clandestine, or secret, 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 (i.e., pastors) of both parties on three consecutive Holy Days (Waterworth, The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Œcumenical Council of Trent, London, 1848, 196 ssq.). While the requirement was normally straightforward in canon law, complications sometimes arose in a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, where one of the parties to the marriage does not have a home Parish within the Roman Catholic Church.


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. The present legislation relating to banns of marriage is contained in the Marriage Act 1949.[1]

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.[2] These details often figure in melodramatic literature set in the period [3].

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)


Austria and some other civil law countries have their own, secular, publication requirements in order to obtain a marriage.

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 conseqeuence 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.


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.[4] 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.[5]

In the Canadian province of Québec, equivalent formalities are required for all marriages, although the statutes do not use the word "banns".[6] 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.[7]

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.


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