17th century Cork couples needed ‘insurance policies’ of up to €200k to get married

Michelle Horan from Ancestry.com with the newly digitised historic marriage bond documents from the 1690's to 1700's showing how Cork couples had to pay an insurance policy before they could get married. Picture: Moya Nolan

Seventeenth-century Cork couples had to lodge expensive ‘insurance policies’ of up to €200,000 with their local bishop before they were legally cleared to tie the knot, newly-digitised documents show.

Thousands of the so-called Cork marriage bond documents, dating from 1673 to 1750, show couples signing bonds ranging from £40 to £200 but in some cases, up to a whopping £1,000, to ensure their marriage could legally proceed.

The equivalent cost today would range from €8,000 to €40,000, but in some cases up to a staggering €202,000.

The bonds, lodged with the then Bishop of Cork and Ross, were to prove that the parties to the marriage weren’t committing adultery or marrying a relative. They had to be submitted to the bishop before he granted the marriage license and it was held as a guarantee that there was no reason why the couple could not wed.

The bond itself contained names of the people proposing the marriage, the person who joined the bond with the bridegroom, and the parish and names of relatives of the couple.

Couples pledged to forfeit the money if it turned out they were related or if they were due to marry another person.

The original documents were among a vast trove of genealogical treasures which were lost in a devastating fire at the public records office (PRO) in Dublin in June 1922, during the Irish Civil War.

The PRO housed a massive collection of genealogical documents including Irish census returns, originals wills from the 16th century, and more than 1,000 Church of Ireland parish registers filled with baptism, marriage and burial records.

Apart from a few fragments, the Census returns of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were destroyed in the blaze, along with more than half of all the Church of Ireland registers deposited there after 1869. All pre-1900 documents from the legal courts were lost, as were local government records for the same period.

However, it was common practice to create indexes to the wider records, indexes which were often held in different locations, or published.

Herbert Webb Gilman visited the PRO in the 1890s, read through the marriage bonds records and created an index to the collection, publishing it in 1896-97. The historical significance of this and other such indexes increased substantially when the original documents were destroyed in the 1922 fire, and are now the only evidence of the marriages which occurred at the time.

Ancestry.ie, which has now digitised almost 12,000 of these bonds, says the large sums of money in the documents underlined the serious nature of the oath.

Accounts of several interesting cases appear in the records, including a bond of £1,000 from the Curraheen area, west of Cork city, which was sealed and dated by John Gillman of Curraheen and Anthony Codd of Rathcony on June 28, 1679.

The bond, for the “just and full sum of one thousand pounds sterling current money of England”, secured the right for John Gillman to marry Mary St Leger, daughter of Hayeard St Leger of Rathcony.

The bond, which allowed John and Mary to “solemnize matrimony”, also stated the couple had promised they were not involved in any prior contract of marriage with another and had the consent of both parents and friends to the marriage.

Another document shows a bond of £500 in Mallow, in north Cork, sealed by Francis Brettridge of Mallow and James Weekes of Cork City on September 22, 1890. This bond “secured the marriage by canon law and forbid anything that would impede the marriage” of Francis Brettridge to Mary Gillman, from the parish of Brinney.

The bond records are available to view at the National Archive of Ireland and now online at ancestry.ie, on a free 14-day trial, or for around €18-a-month subscription thereafter.

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