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The Clandestine Marriages Act of 1753 marked an important development in the history of marriage by putting the requirements for a valid marriage on a statutory basis for the first time. But what was the situation before 1753, and what practical impact did the Act have on popular practice? This thorough reassessment of law and practice is of particular relevance to those tracing their ancestors. First, the universality of formal marriage increases the likelihood that a record of an ancestor's marriage will exist somewhere; secondly, parish-level studies provide us with a clearer idea of where one may need to look for a marriage; and, thirdly, success or failure in tracing a marriage can be set within the context of the marriage law and practice of the time.