How old were they when they married?
The average age for marriage nowadays is 36 years for men and 33 years for women, a figure which includes first and subsequent marriages. Most couples marry now for the first time between their 25th and 29th birthday.
We tend to think that our ancestors married at a younger age than us but how much younger were they?
Peter Laslett's study of marriage licences applied for at Canterbury for couples marrying for the first time between 1619 and 1660 found that the average age for grooms was 26 years and for brides was 23 years, although when he limited the marriage licences to those of the gentry he found the age dropped to 24 years for grooms and 19 years for the brides. He did find the occasional marriages with particularly young brides including one 13 year old and four 15 year olds.
I did a similar study of marriage licences issued at the Archdeaconry of Lewes between 1772 and 1837 (based on 250 marriage licences), and found that the average age for marriages at this time was 25 years for men and 23 years for women.
There are some limitations to using marriage licences to determine the average age for marriage. Marrying by licence was more expensive than marrying by banns so it tended be the gentry, those who aspired to better status and those who needed to marry quickly who used marriage licences. The wording on the marriage licence says "aged x years and upwards" we are only given their youngest possible age and given the increasing number of couples who married in the 1830s where both were 21 years and upwards it is unlikely that they were all 21 years old when they married.
George Battcock and Mary Patterson Paine married on the 25th March 1813 in Brighton and according to their licence both were 21 years old and upwards. George was baptised in Storrington on the 19th October 1784 so he was actually 29 years old when he married Mary whilst she was baptised in Brighton on the 10th May 1787 which meant she was 26 years old.
Richard Bannister married Ann Roots on the 2nd April 1778 in Framfield and again their marriage licence gives both their ages as 21 years and upwards. Based on their age when they died they were born in 1739 and 1745 so they were actually 39 years and 33 years old when they married.
It seems more likely that the age given is more accurate when the couple were younger than 21 years. Anyone marrying under the age of 21 years needed parental (or other responsible adult) permission and their details should be included on the licence. John Avis married Ann Ovenden on the 17th November 1776 in Withyham, according to their marriage licence they were "20 years or thereabouts" but they were actually about 16 and 15 years old. The minimum age for marriages since 1753 had been 14 years for men and 12 years for women but it was unusual for couples to marry that young. John and Ann's daughter was baptised the month after their marriage so it would seem that they 'had' to get married.
William Bean married Ann Farncomb on the 1st October 1778 in Wivelsfield when they were 19 years and 28 years old, the marriage licence gave their ages as 19 years (William had the permission of his father, William) and Ann's as 25 years plus.
The 17th century average age of marriage is 26 years for grooms and 23 for brides whilst I found the average in the late 18th/early 19th century to be the same. Looking at specific examples I found they were generally older than the age given in the marriage licence which would raise the average age for the latter period. Rather than being much younger when they married it seems that in most cases couples married at a similar age as we do today.
The World we have Lost Further Explored Laslett, Peter Routledge 1983
Sussex Record Society Volume 25 Marriage Licences at Lewes 1772-1837 A-L