Marriage in the Regency Era
Part One: The Legalities of Courtship and Marriage
To begin, let’s talk about the legalities of courtship and marriage in England during the latter half of the 1700s onward to approximately 1840. By the end of the 18th century, marriage by prior arrangement between parents, or strictly with a business mentality, fast became obsolete. This is not to say wise elders had no voice, or that sensible factors played no part. A wise marriage between equal social statuses with stable finances and security was sought after to be sure. Nevertheless, issues of compatibility between the couple based on acquaintance gained popularity. The two persons most directly involved in the marriage were allowed to mutually decide on the union – a new concept!
As the century turned, the idea of marrying for love gradually became a standard. How the man and woman met, how well they came to know each other, and how they made their intentions obvious varied considerably. Often times the young man boldly declared his preference for a certain young lady directly to her. Sometimes he approached her father first to gain permission to pay suit to the daughter. More often than not he said nothing up front, instead relying on group activities or casual encounters to grow more familiar and fall in love. In any scenario, this early stage was not the courtship.
Official courtship came after the man proposed marriage. He might first ask a father’s permission to marry, but even if the father’s permission is granted, he was required to ask the lady herself. And, she may well say no! Presuming she said yes, courtship then commenced. So what did that mean? On the personal level, the couple were permitted slightly freer rein to express their interest and affection. They would never intentionally be left unchaperoned—not that clever lovers haven’t always found a way to secret time alone—but they were able to converse privately, sit together, touch in small ways, exchange tokens and gifts, and that sort of thing. Courtship was a period of getting to know each other in a deeper way, while still being regulated and watched. Yet, as beneficial as this time could be for personal reasons, the true purpose of the courtship weeks were the legalities. Romance may have entered the realm of marriage, but it was still a business transaction in many respects.
The Laws of Marriage in England—
Until 1753, the requirements for a legal English marriage were merely that the two parties exchange words of consent, two witnesses were present, the vows were said in the present tense, and the marrying couple be at least fourteen for men and twelve for women. In an effort to curtail the plethora of rash unions, England passed the Marriage Act of 1753. Thereafter, both the man and woman were required to have parental permission if they were under twenty-one. Interestingly, after 1823 the minimum age to marry without a parent’s consent dropped back to the previous fourteen and twelve age limits. Go figure!
For our purposes of the Regency Era, step one, especially if either were under twenty-one, was gaining parental permission. First this would be verbal from the father and/or mother. Next came the nitty-gritty of the “settlement” documents. These were actual legal papers, drawn up by lawyers with input from the groom and the bride-to-be’s legal guardian (the father, in most instances).
Covered in the settlement contract:
- Dowry – Daughters of wealthy families had a specific dowry amount set aside for them. This may include a portion of the dowry her mother brought to the marriage. The dowry was an amount well known, such financial matters expected to play a role in why a woman was chosen as a wife.
- Pin Money – An annual allowance allotted to the wife for her personal needs during her husband’s lifetime.
- Children – Some settlements detailed specific provisions for future children, such as a base dowry amount for any daughters or a monetary inheritance for sons beside the heir.
- Death – Details were specified for after the husband’s death, this called the “jointure.” This may include where the wife could live, if any properties were to be given to her or made available, the jewels she could keep, an annual allowance, provisions for minor children, and so on.
It is important to note that everything a woman brought into the marriage became the possession of her husband. EVERYTHING. Women in the Regency had few individual rights. It was imperative for her family, or the woman herself if older, to negotiate for her financial future, binding it in the legal settlement. What happened to her and her children depended upon this. You may be able to guess that with all these legalities, courtship was not wholly the fluffy period we think of. The couple did not enjoy all the perks of being married, and had not taken the vital step of being blessed by God, but legally they were bound. If an engaged person terminated the agreement before the marriage, he/she could face legal action in a “breach of promise” suit. These types of legal actions were not common with broken engagements, but it did happen often enough that taking the official step to accept a marriage proposal and enter the courtship phase was seriously considered.
Part Two: Marriage Licenses and Banns
Marriage requirements in England according to Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753–
- a couple needed a license and the reading of the banns to marry
- parental consent if either was under the age of 21
- the ceremony must take place within a public chapel or church by authorized clergy
- the marriage must be performed between 8am and noon before witnesses
- the marriage had to be recorded in the marriage register with the signatures of both parties, the witnesses, and the minister.
Essentially these five “rules” were the law as applied to legal marriages in England. There were, however, a few caveats and legal options. Number one, for instance, had three different options, as noted below. Which path was chosen depended on the circumstances and wealth of the persons involved.
A. Calling of the Banns. This was the cheapest way, ie- it cost nothing. For three consecutive Sundays prior to the wedding, the Church of England clergyman in the parish where the groom and bride lived would announce the intended marriage from the pulpit.
The following is what would be recited—
“I publish the Banns of marriage between Groom’s Name of–his local parish–and Bride’s Name of–her local parish. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first [second, third] time of asking.”
If the persons marrying came from separate parishes, the curate of one parish could not solemnize the wedding without a certificate from the other curate stating the Banns had been “thrice called” and no objections had been lodged.
The “objections” mentioned were the point to the Calling of the Banns. Banns were not to inform the parishioners of the coming union or as an invitation to the wedding, but to ask of those citizens who presumably knew the couple if there were any impediments to the marriage. This is the origin of the objection line in modern ceremonies. The difference in the Regency was the allotted time — two weeks at least — for anyone to come forward. If there were objections, the person would go to the clergyman directly and give evidence of why one or the other was not free to wed. Once the three Banns were called, with no objections, the couple then had ninety days to finalize the ceremony. If not done for whatever reason, the Banns would need to be called again.
B. Common or Ordinary License was the second option. Clergyman of the Church of England could issue a marriage license for a few shillings to a pound. This license was valid for fifteen days, and the couple could marry in either of their resident parishes. Other stipulations applied, such as being a resident of the marrying parish, and a sworn statement had to be given by both that there were no impediments. With a common license there was not the two-week delay while waiting for the reading of the Banns. However, the ceremony still had to take place in a sanctified church by a clergyman between 8 AM and noon. The other requirements also had to be met.
C. Special License was obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury in Doctors Commons in London. The big differences between the “special” license and the “common” license were the cost – over 20 guineas plus a £4 to £5 Stamp Duty for the paper – and that the couple could be married at any time of the day and anywhere they wanted. All the other requirements were the same. As you can imagine, only someone very wealthy with a very good reason to pay the money, and go to the trouble of traveling to London and gaining an audience with the Archbishop of Canterbury, would hassle with it. Not an easy task even if rich.
Those were the three legitimate avenues in England for a couple to marry. Briefly, I should mention that the only exception to the Church of England rule was for those of the Jewish faith who married in a synagogue, and Catholics, Dissenters, and Quakers who married in churches of their own faith.
And of course, we all know about the famous Gretna Green. Indeed, Scotland had different laws, and minors could marry without parental consent. The town of Gretna Green was not special, as far as the laws go, it was simply the closest town over the border via the main coaching road from London. Fast to reach if a couple was eloping! All that was required was to pledge your troth in the presence of another person. Any person. As it happens, historically the first place reached once crossing into Scotland was a blacksmith. An elopement to Scotland came to be known as “marrying over the anvil” by these “anvil priests.”
Last, but not least to the marriage legalities portion, was the official newspaper announcement. This was for the social aspects rather than an actual law, but if one was of the upper classes it was a crucial step.
Part Three: Wedding Ceremony Preparations and Participants
To understand wedding preparation during the Regency, you must start by erasing everything you envision as part of a modern-day wedding. English weddings prior to the Victorian Era were small, understated events. The primary purpose of the ceremony was the religious solidification of the marriage contract. For the most part, everything was approached with this serious aspect foremost.
The simplicity factor was one reason why the time between the proposal to the wedding could be very short. For most couples, the two weeks waiting for the three readings of the Banns was plenty of time. A longer courtship period would likely be the result of concerns such as ensuring a house to live in, financial security, and similar practicalities rather than needing time to plan the ceremony itself. Unless a special license was procured, or one was of a faith other than the Anglican Church, the wedding procedure was fairly standard. Those couples of extreme wealth and importance might have a glitzier arrangement and grander celebration, but never the ostentatious affairs we have today.
Location and Timing of the Wedding—
A wedding could take place on any day of the week. All weddings took place in the parish chapel where at least one of the two persons lived. Per Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, weddings occurred during canonical hours of eight AM to noon.
A wedding could take place on any day of the week. All weddings took place in the parish chapel where at least one of the two persons lived. Per Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, weddings occurred during canonical hours of eight AM to noon.
Since most members of the Ton could claim London as their residence and lived in the fashionable districts such as Mayfair, Grosvenor, and St. James, many Regency weddings took place at Saint George’s Church in Hanover Square. From 1725 when St. George’s was established, thousands of weddings were conducted there. In 1816 alone there were 1063 weddings!
Flowers have always been an integral part of any special ceremony. Weddings are no exception. Brides commonly held flower bouquets, perhaps of a simpler variety than we see today, but tied with ribbons and/or lace. Decorating of the church itself was unlikely. Again, the ceremony was solemn and churches were sacred places of worship.
It was unusual for anyone outside the immediate family and closest friends to attend the ceremony. If family members lived further away they would be invited, and time may be allowed for travel, but no one would think badly if they chose not to come. The only requirements were the clergyman, parish clerk to ensure formal logging in the register, and two witnesses. Local citizens often waited outside the church, ready to cheer and congratulate the newlyweds. It was common for these folks to form a processional behind the couple, shouting well-wishes all the way back to their house. The painting above, from 1883, is an excellent example. Note that the cluster of people following the bride and groom is small compared to the number watching from the sidelines.
If sent at all, invitations were handwritten by the bride. Depending on her creativity, the invitation may be fancy, but more often it was a basic letter giving the facts.
A bride was typically assisted by one or two female attendants. The number tended to increase if the bride was of higher society. These women helped the bride in various ways – penning invitations, getting dressed – and one was designated the official witness for the parish registry. She could be married or unmarried. The term “bridesmaid” or more commonly “bridemaid” without the S, was in use since the 1500s. “Maid of Honor” was akin to “lady in waiting” so more specifically referred to royal attendants. The use of “maid of honor” in relation to a bridal attendant was a late 19th century, American addition. The term “matron of honor” to specify a married attendant is an Americanism not seen until after 1900.
Surprisingly, flower girls are an ancient tradition dating back to Rome. Very popular during Medieval and Elizabethan times, having a young girl dressed in white (for purity) preceding the bride to scatter petals, sweet herbs, and seeds (for fertility) was essential. The practice waned during the sedate wedding proceedings of the Georgian Era, although it was not unheard of. By the Victorian period the flower girl again became important, and remains so to this day.
Same as with the bride, the groom enlisted close friends to lend a hand. With the ceremony being a quiet event and no such thing as a bachelor party or extensive reception to give a speech at, their duties were minimal. One man was designated as the “best man” to stand with the groom and serve as an official witness. Historically the groomsmen were “blade knights” who served as protectors of the bride and guards for the couple during their vulnerable hours preceding and following the ceremony. This wasn’t as necessary by the civilized Regency! We see this same tradition today in military weddings where a sword wielding “honor guard” form the saber arch for the couple to walk through.
Part Four: The Wedding Garments
Presuming most of those reading this are women, we are naturally curious about the clothes! Wedding gowns during the understated decades of the Regency (in terms of the ceremony) may not have inspired the massive search or months-ahead ordering as we see today; however, I submit that there have been few females born who did not fuss over looking their best on the day of their marriage!
With that in mind, what about the bride’s gown? Exactly how “special” a bride’s gown directly paralleled her class and fortune. Ladies of the lower or middle classes often had no choice but to make do with the nicest garments already in their closets. Typically in possession of at least two or three finer dresses for Sunday church services, a bride would select one of those and, if time and money allotted, augment with new lace or trim. Hopefully she could purchase a new bonnet, shawl, or gloves to add an air of uniqueness.
Women of the gentry and aristocracy were usually more fortunate in their financial situation. They could, and would, have a new gown and accoutrements made/purchased. This, however, did not translate to meaning a gown ONLY for the wedding. In general an ensemble would be worn again, practicality not an unheard-of virtue even for the wealthy. A wedding gown being new was understandable, but with the expectation to wear it in the future, the dress design often followed the fashionable trends and nothing more. Finer materials might be used, such as rare silks or satins with embellishments of extravagant lace and embroidery, but this too depended on the bride’s taste and desire. Ostentation was uncommon and frankly frowned upon.
Whether the gown was white or another color also depended on the bride’s taste and desire. A wedding gown was not necessarily white! Any color, with the possible exception of black, was acceptable. White gowns were popular during the first decades of the 1800s, primarily for the upper classes because the intense care required to keep the fabric clean was a sign of social status and income. Thus, having a wedding gown in white was common, but not universal. Nor would white have been chosen due to the color’s ancient association with purity since a Regency bride was assumed to be virginal and pure. Not until Queen Victoria donned a white gown for her marriage to Prince Albert in 1842 would white as the proper color for a wedding gown become a standard, although even then it was a gradual evolution as the century unfolded.
The vast majority of paintings from past eras show aristocratic brides wearing gowns of silver, gold, or costly fabrics in rich colors. Fashion plates are surprisingly devoid of specific wedding gowns, and the ones seen are primarily French. As evident in the fashion plates below, the French are credited with introducing the concept of a “wedding gown” per se, as well as popularizing the veil and fancy accessories.This images below are rare samples of designated wedding gowns from the Regency Era. When considering the wealth of preserved garments from the Georgian and Regency periods, it is fascinated to note how very, very few are labeled as a “wedding gown.” Why? I do not know for sure, but personally speculate it relates to the fact that the gown worn at one’s wedding was worn again and again. To the lady it may have a certain special memory attached — depending on her fondness for her husband! — but over time was merely one of her many elaborate gowns. After all, a woman in the Regency dressed every day much like the average modern bride does only once!
The images below are rare samples of designated wedding gowns from the Regency Era. When considering the wealth of preserved garments from the Georgian and Regency periods, it is fascinated to note how very, very few are labeled as a “wedding gown.” Why? I do not know for sure, but personally, I speculate it relates to the fact that the gown worn at one’s wedding was worn again and again. To the lady, it may have a certain special memory attached — depending on her fondness for her husband — but over time was merely one of her many elaborate gowns. After all, a woman in the Regency dressed every day much like the average modern bride does only once!
The bride’s accessories would match her gown and personal style, reflect the solemnity of the ceremony, and fit into the standard formality of the era. Tall gloves, white slippers, silk stockings, simplistic jewelry, and of course a head covering. Whether the latter was a full bonnet, turban, flowered and/or jeweled hairpiece, tiara, veil, etc. varied with nothing standard. She may or may not add a veil. At
She may or may not add a veil. At one time, wedding veils were essential. The purposes were to hide the bride from evil spirits, shield from her husband-to-be’s gaze in arranged marriages or to prevent the “bad luck” in seeing her before the vows, to symbolically declare her submission, and other superstitious beliefs. These ideas had died away by the rational 18th century. Instead, veils of all types and sizes had become common additions to the varied headgear donned at formal occasions.
Therefore, wearing a veil at a Regency wedding, especially if the bride kept abreast of French fashion trends, might occur. If so, it appears uncommon to have the veil cover the face or for the ritual “lifting” of the veil to be a part of the ceremony. This practice seems to have come back into style later in the Victorian era. Most of the paintings from the past, well into and beyond the Victorian years, depict veils hanging behind the head and not covering the face.
Lastly, the bride would hold a bouquet, as well as often weaving flowers into her hair or attaching to her gown. Flowers, as I mentioned in the previous post, have an ancient history of meaningful significance. Along with sweet-smelling herbs, flowers added fragrance and freshness to the ceremony. The color from the flowers also added a touch of beauty. Instilling a measure of nature into the ceremony held deep significance, partially from pagan fertility beliefs, but also due to the elemental aspect of life and creation reflecting the sacred purpose of marriage. Unless in London, florists selling flowers were rare, so the bride would select from a garden or orangery within the community she lived.
What about the groom? Good question without an exciting answer, I’m afraid. Formal wear for men was strictly established – thank you Beau Brummell – and a groom would not deviate much from this. Considering the vast majority of weddings were in the early morning hours, dressing in one’s finest evening ensemble was lifting the bar far enough!
The groom’s valet would begin with a white shirt of linen or muslin. Black or dark-colored breeches buckled just below the knee were the likely choice, although buff or lighter hues were allowable. Trousers were in style for day wear and very gradually creeping into style for formal evening wear. Whether he chose to don trousers or pantaloons rather than breeches is difficult to pin down precisely and probably greatly depended on the individual’s status. Natural silk stockings were set off by black pumps. Boots would be taboo as they were not considered formal attire.
Lastly would be the jacket, a black cut-away or swallowtail with covered buttons left open to show off the chosen waistcoat. A white silk cravat and black top hat would complete the ensemble. As with the bride, adornments would be minimal due to the seriousness of the marriage ceremony. A fancy pocket watch and fob, perhaps, and maybe a signet ring would be about it.
Attendants and guest would dress nicely, similar to how one would dress for church or a formal engagement. They may purchase new garments specific for the wedding, but if so it would be their desire for another gown rather than an expectation. No matching Pepto Bismol pink gowns with pouffy sleeves for the bridesmaids!
Part Five: The Ceremony and Vows
The previously mentioned simplicity and standardization of an Anglican marriage ceremony meant there was scant deviation. Held in the parish church where at least one of the soon-to-be-marrieds lived, the couple and guests would either walk or ride in a carriage – depending on the distance – and may or may not be together. The belief in superstitions of bad luck if seen before the vows were passé, but traditions continued to be clung to and since the bride and groom dwelt apart they probably traveled to the chapel separately.
Once at the chapel, I couldn’t find definitive proof as to whether the couple walked down the aisle arm-in-arm, or if the bride walked the aisle alone to meet her groom at the altar, or if the father escorted. I read a couple of bloggers claiming a Regency Era bride walked alone or with the groom, yet historical traditions are clear that the father escorting and giving away is an ancient tradition.
Also, the official vows (as I’ll cover in a second) include this line of instruction: “The Minister, receiving the Woman at her father’s or friend’s hands, shall cause the Man with his right hand to take the Woman by her right hand.” My personal conclusion to this is that, once again, there were no absolutes. This portion of the ceremony would vary depending on the situation and desires. From thereafter, no matter how they approached the altar and the rector, the procedure was straightforward.
Traditional Anglican marriage vows came directly from The Book of Common Prayer.
Originally published in 1549 under the rule of King Henry VIII, The Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1662 and has undergone minimal revisions since. Containing prayers and songs as well as the words of structured liturgical services of worship, “The Solemnization of Matrimony” is merely one portion of the book. I should also note here that The Book of Common Prayer, along with the Bible, was owned by nearly every citizen, not just the clergy, so well-known.
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer can be read online by clicking the link. Select the “Table of Contents” and then select the “Solemnization of Matrimony” for the details. As you will see, it is very specific.
Historically there were slight variances between the England and Scotland versions, and minor alterations depending on which revision a clergyman owned, but these did not affect the marriage vows in any significant way. Were the couple unable to insert their own words if they wished? As I noted above, I am not a big believer in absolutes, so will not submit that it never happened. I can say with fair certainty that IF the bride and groom interjected a personal message, it was rare and would not negate or be in lieu of the official vows. The Book of Common Prayer solemnization of matrimony was required for the marriage to be legally and spiritually binding. So, the vows were recited and repeated.
A ring was blessed and placed on the bride’s finger as the groom declared, “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” *sigh…. Isn’t that lovely?
The vows were followed by the taking of communion, and then the clergyman reciting Scriptures on marriage and saying prayers. There wasn’t a “you may kiss the bride” moment, or ringing introduction of the newly married couple. No wild cheers or clapping either. The solemn ceremony ended on the same note, lasting until the parish registry was filled in.
Once outside the doors — usually greeted by crowds of local citizens shouting congratulations as they tossed seeds and rice — the celebration could begin!
Interestingly, research into what precisely the “wedding breakfast” contained revealed a startling fact: the term was not universal in the early decades of the 19th century, and practically unheard of before.
According to John Jeaffreson’s 1872 publication Brides and Bridals, and George Monger’s elaboration in Marriage Customs of the World, the term was gradually popularized as the century progressed. Still, whether referred to as the bridal- or wedding- feast, breakfast, luncheon, dinner, or banquet (all terms used at varied times and places) there isn’t any debate about an after-ceremony celebratory reception to honor the newlyweds with food, wine, entertainment, and cake!
Due to the ceremony occurring early in the day, attendees would either fast or eat lightly prior to the ceremony. In this sense the meal was “breaking their fast” or the first substantial meal of that day, hence the evolution to the term. Listing a “typical” wedding breakfast menu is impossible. Just as today, the choice of dishes served depended upon finances, individual style, regional tastes and favorites, and skill of the people cooking. The luncheon may be very simple or an elaborate feast with rare imported fruits and fine cuisine. In general, the era was one of temperance, as noted before, but it wasn’t a concrete rule or law!
At this point, it bears noting that historically a wedding was an event worthy of great celebration. The wealth of wedding-related customs we still practice today have roots in the long ago centuries. The diversity of cultures and classes in Britain translated to a plethora of traditions and entertainments. The bottom line, in my opinion, is to avoid blanket expectations on what a “typical” wedding party would entail.
Except for the cake! We can be almost one-hundred percent sure there would be a wedding cake! The history of wedding cakes is as long and interesting as the one on wedding rings, so I’ll save that for a later essay. For now, trust me that there would be a cake, and whether small or large, plain or grand, it would be the focal point. Cutting the cake and distributing the pieces was a necessary task steeped in symbolism.
In addition to the food and cake, a wedding reception would include entertainment. This might be no more than a fiddler or piano player, but it could also be a minstrel group or larger orchestra. Depending on the newlyweds’ plans for their wedding night, the celebration might include dancing. Marriage between persons of importance often included a complete ball or soiree, and the lower class county folks might grab onto the opportunity for a community revelry. Whatever the level of amusements, at some point the couple must bid adieu. Even if merely walking upstairs or driving a short distance, a final and formal toast for luck would be extended. Goodbyes and additional congratulations done, the new Mr. and Mrs. were off to begin their life together!
Literally, the “honeymoon” originally referred to the first month of marriage (a moon) when sweetness ruled between the lovers. Not until about 1800 did the word begin to mean a specific post-wedding holiday, and the concept truly did not catch on until the 1900s. Also called the “bridal tour,” one purpose was for the couple to visit those relatives who were unable to attend the wedding. This might have included widespread or Continental travel with sightseeing as a perk, but not as a standard.
Most common during the Regency was for the couple to settle into their home, quietly passing the heady weeks of exploration and fresh love in comfortable surroundings.
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