Regency Marriage ~ The Legalities
Continuing the theme of romance, more or less, I am starting a five-part series on marriage during the Regency Era. Each Monday a post will publish covering the legalities, garments worn, ceremony procedure, and more. Lots to look forward to!
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.
Here are the links to all FIVE parts of the series —
Part 1 – The Legalities
Part 2 – Banns and Licenses
Part 3 – The Ceremony Prep
Part 4 – The Garments
Part 5 – The Vows & The Celebration
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A clergyman has always been required for legal marriage in England except for the time during the Commonwealth ( Cromwell) .A spousal where they just said vows without a clergyman was half a marriage which deprived the wife of widow’s rights and made the legitimacy of the children questionable. The requirement for a clergyman was what made the Fleet weddings so popular.That is why the Hardwicke act made spousals invalid and required a church wedding with witnesses and a record of the wedding in the register after banns had been read.
Rebecca Probert marriage law and practice in the long 18th century.
I wanted to ask you a question if you will allow it.
Do you know if a document written by the guardians/parents of a lady/gent containing the wish that they married, was legal?
Like Lady Catherine deBourgh in P&P, says she had a agreement with her sister Lady Anne Darcy but then a written.
That is a answer I can’t find anywhere. I read that if the groom or bride said ‘no’, the clergyman couldn’t wed them. That made me wonder if a forced or unwanted marriage couldn’t go forth if so spoken, with loss of reputation of course.
Oh my goodness. It really does seem like a business transaction, no wonder love didn’t factor into marriage for a while! The last part reminds me of a kind of prenup. Thanks for the interesting and fun facts Sharon!
Indeed it was much like a pre-nup, now that you mention it Vee. Wise, in a very real way, when so much money was at stake.
this was really interesting