History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 July 2007

Matters of Marriage

It's not easy living in a world where romance is maligned. I rationalize it: anything done by -- and for -- women is going to be maligned. But it's not easy defending my reading choices, to say nothing of answering the question, "Why do you want to write romance?"

Over the years, I've come to realize that one of the key elements of romance is that it explores women's choices and validates the importance of those choices. Even today, one of the most important decisions a woman makes is whether or not to marry. And those of us who decide to marry know that few choices more important, more life-changing, than the specific man we choose to marry. Romance novels validate that these are important choices for women.

Imagine how much more important the choice of a husband was in Regency times. If the man turned out to be a louse, you couldn't get a divorce and a new job, or go to Jamaica to get your groove back with a younger stud. Many of my own stories involve the "forced marriage," so I thought I'd use today's entry to share a few facts I've learned about marriage during the English Regency.

The Legalities of Regency Marriage

The Marriage Act of 1753 (sponsored by Lord Hardwicke), invalidated any marriage not preceded by either 1. the posting of banns, or 2. an official license. In addition, the marriage had to be carried out publicly in a church or chapel by a clergyman during the afternoon hours (marriages after dark were not legal). The act also ended "contract" marriages, and prohibited the marriage of people under age 21 unless their parents consented.

Note the "in a church or chapel" requirement. During this time, Jews, Quakers and Roman Catholics were required to submit to an Anglican ceremony in order to have valid marriages. Not until 1836 was the marriage act revised to legalize ceremonies conducted under the auspices of other faiths, as well as in registry offices instead of Anglican churches. Couples who married in a registry office were often labeled "Married, but not Churched."

Contrary to popular belief, Special Licenses were available only to the wealthy and well-connected. A Special License cost 50 pounds, as opposed to 5 pounds for a ceremony by reading of banns, and were given only to persons of very high rank or prestige. It was a mark of distinction to be married by Special License. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennett is in alt when she hears of Lizzy's engagement to Mr. Darcy. Her first words are, "Special License! You simply must be married by Special License!"

Besides the age requirement, there were other prohibitions to marriage. These included mental incapacity (usually referred to as "lunacy" or "idiocy") and incest. Incest had a much broader definition during the Georgian period: for example, a widower was not permitted to marry his deceased wife's sister, nor could he marry his niece by marriage or his stepdaughter. Insanity before the marriage was grounds for an annulment, but insanity that came on after the marriage was not.

Circumventing the Law

Of course, clandestine marriages did take place despite everyone knowing the marriage would not be legal if ever challenged. Many couples who were under age 21 simply went to a large city and asked the local clergyman (who had no way of knowing whether they were locals or not, and no time or motivation to look into their backgrounds) to post the banns and perform the ceremony.

According to published records, dashing off to Gretna Green (where a Scottish marriage ceremony could be held to avoid British law) wasn't nearly as popular as romance fiction would have us believe. One published diary reports that there were 72 such weddings in one year circa 1798, but the average was closer to 40 or 50. The Scottish frowned on the practice, and the men who performed the ceremony were ostracized. As of 1801, there were only three men willing to perform such ceremonies. They did not have to be clergymen; in fact, one was a Tobacconist by profession.

In 1856, a law was passed that invalidated the Gretna Green marriages of English couples, unless both parties had resided in Scotland for a minimum of three weeks prior to the ceremony.

The most famous clandestine marriage was between the prince regent and Maria Anne Fitzherbert. Their marriage was invalid for many reasons: the prince regent was under the age of 21 and hadn't gotten the King's permission to marry; they had no license; and Fitzherbert was a Catholic widow. A clergyman was bribed to ignore all those facts and perform a ceremony.

Marriage Settlements

It's nice to think that marriage settlements were intended to provide some financial security for a woman and her children, both during the marriage and after the husband's death, but the reality is that the marriage settlement was designed to keep the estate intact for future heirs, while providing a modest income for the maintenance of the mistress and her children.

A wife's allowance, or pin money, was written into the settlement, as was her "jointure," or the amount to be paid to her upon her husband's death. Usually, the jointure was proportionate to the amount the woman had brought into the marriage as a dowry. Sums would also be listed for each child to be paid upon death of their father, and daughters' marriage portions were also in the settlement.

Breach of Marriage Contract

Breach of Promise was punishable by law, but damages were usually moderate, ranging from 100 to 500 pounds. Legitimate defenses against Breach of Promise charges included physical infirmity or evidence that the other party had acted immorally.

Married Women and Property

A married woman might be given a separate estate by inheritance, or as a gift from her husband or another relative. She could glean income from activities on the property, such as leasing it to tenants for farming or raising livestock. The bestower often placed restrictions upon the gift forbidding the woman from selling it or willing it to someone outside the family. It was also typical to forbid mortgaging the land.

It was quite rare for a married woman to have property of her own. By 1850, only ten percent of the women in England had income from separate estates.

Gillis, John. For Better, for Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to Present.
Hartcup, Adeline. Love and Marriage in the Great Country Houses.
MacColl, Gail. To Marry an English Lord.
Perkin, Joan. Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England.


Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Thanks for the great post, Doreen! I, too, am fascinated by the utter risk of marriage during these times. Not only was there no getting out of it, but it seems that the husband and wife barely knew each other in most instances!

Can you even imagine having married one of the many boys you had a crush on in high school? Eeek. Of course, if you had even that initial attraction, I suppose you were lucky!

9:46 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Very interesting post, Doreen. I'll make the sweeping generalization and say medieval marriages seemed to have fewer constraints by comparison.

Women could own property and even retain it after marriage in some cases (usually noblewomen). There were no real age restrictions, just a gentlemen's agreement as to when the marriage should be consummated if the bride were a child. It seems ceremonial requirements were dictated by the local clergy and ruling class.

Seems like the marriage rules were made up as they went along in the 13th century, and the rules were subject to change via geographic location, and by those in power at the time.

Pretty much anything was possible---as long as you didn't marry a sibling or your parent. ;-)

But then again, the ancient noble Romans and the Egyptians thought nothing of that!

9:55 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

I think you're right, Kathrynn, that the rules were becoming more strict during the Regency. The Regency period was sort of "the last hurray" of the more free Georgian period, but the social shift towards the Victorian had already started in some circles.

I'm always interested to see when laws took effect. Oftentimes the appearance of a law meant that the social shift was well established -- politicians are often the last to catch up to social trends.


11:37 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

I'm cracking up from your post, Victoria! I actually DID marry a man I had a crush on when I was 16!

What strikes me about the Regency (and something I neglected to mnetion in my post) was how little opportunity there was for the lady to get to know a prospective husband. A few dances, a handful of thirty minute morning calls, and you were expected to answer his proposal.

Oh and congrats on TO TEMPT A SCOTSMAN! Such a luscious cover. :)


11:40 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Doreen wasn't it also true that a man couldn't marry his brother's widow either? I seem to remember a Catherine Cookson novel that turned on that plot point.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Sounds like you chose the right crush, Doreen! Personally, I had lots of random crushes on boys I never talked to before the infatuation or after. *g*

12:19 PM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

I'll make the sweeping generalization and say medieval marriages seemed to have fewer constraints by comparison.

The number of people covered by the rules regarding consanguinity were huge, though. That could be considered a constraint except that it actually gave some flexibility to the nobility, because they could have marriages annulled on the grounds of previously "overlooked" consanguinity (unless they'd got a dispensation first). There are more details about the degrees of consanguinity here if anyone's interested. I get confused just trying to work out what second cousins are, so fourth, fifth etc. degrees of consanguinity are far, far, too complicated for me.

It also counted as "spiritual incest" if there was a relationship through being godparent and godchild.

What definitely made a marriage easier to contract (but harder to prove) was that

By late medieval church law, a contract of marriage was the speaking, by the prospective husband and wife, of the words of consent to the union ("I William take you Agnes as my wife"; "I Agnes take you William as my husband"), words that in themselves made the sacrament of marriage, regardless of where they were spoken or whether or not a priest was present. (from here

3:04 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Hey Elizabeth,

You're right, there are a lot more relationships that were forbidden as "incestuous." I didn't take the time to list them all.

My own Italian ancestry is full of people marrying their dead wives' sisters, or of widows being passed from brother to brother. They lived in tiny remote villages where everyone was related, so if they'd had Regency rules they'd have died out long before my time.


6:33 PM  
Blogger Courtney Milan said...

On the consanguinity issue (and other marriage notes):

One thing that should be made clear is that there was a pretty big difference between a void and a voidable marriage. Some marriages are void from the start--marriages without proper consent, for instance. Other marriages are merely voidable, meaning they're recognized, but if someone takes the matter to an ecclesiastical court, it'll get voided.

Marriages inside the consanguinity decree are a special case. Before 1835, they're voidable--NOT void. You could, in fact, marry your brother's widow. (In fact, I believe Jane Austen's brother did.) But it was rather risky to do so. The marriage was voidable, and that left matters very, VERY unsettled.

A number of prominent people had such marriages and were a little unhappy about the prospect that they could be set aside at a later date, destroying the lives of everyone involved. So in 1835, Parliament passed an act which did two things.

1. It legitimized prior marriages that were inside the consanguinity line, and made them unchallengeable.

2. It changed the law so that marriages inside the consanguinity line were not simply voidable, but void.

2:55 AM  

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