In Britain, engaged couples were held to be legally husband and wife
until the middle of the 18th century. Many Churchmen were unhappy about
this but powerless to move against a tide of social custom which held
that a publicly acknowledged betrothal was as good as a church wedding.
1753, the Hardwicke Marriage Act changed everything by setting up a
process of registration. Verbal betrothal was no longer legally binding.
Couples had either to get a licence or have banns called in the parish
to which one of them belonged and the marriage had to take place in
front of witnesses.
Many working class people tried to continue the old customs but,
forced to comply when children born outside the officially recognised
marriage ceremony were branded as illegitimate even though their parents
subsequently married. The middle and upper classes used the new ceremony
to achieve social respectability. There was little unsupervised contact
between couples during an engagement period which was followed by a ritualised wedding
with a white dress to symbolise the bride's purity.