Courting and Marriage in the Regency by Cheryl Bolen
Are you planning a big wedding scene in your next Regency novel, the bride in a brand-new white wedding gown and veil, a flock of bridesmaids in matching gowns, and a church-ful of guests throwing rose petals as the happy couple leaves the church? You may want to re-think all of that after you read the article Cheryl Bolen has for us today.
How couples really courted and married in Regency days …
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Engagements and marriages in the Regency were so vastly different than they are today that when an author "modernizes" these customs, it makes her book a wallbanger (as in throwing at the wall) to me.
The Regency was not the era of arranged marriages, unless these pertained to members of the Royal Family. However, royals whose marriages were arranged — as was the Prince Regent’s — participated in the selection and rejection of proposed suitors. English royals typically married those born to other Protestant European royal families.
In the Regent’s case, he had never met the cousin he wed until the actual wedding ceremony. He was not happy when he saw her. He turned to the peer who had brought her from Germany and said, "Harris, I am not well; pray get me a glass of brandy."
Love matches were definitely the norm in the Regency but were not the same as today’s. A significant difference in so-called love matches was that the upper class had to pick potential spouses from a select pool. Aristocrats wed other aristocrats or persons who shared their social sphere.
A title holder could (but rarely did) marry beneath him. In 1812 the lecherous 42-year-old Lord Berwick married the 15-year-old courtesan who was sister to the famed courtesan Harriette Wilson. And the Duke of St. Albans married a former actress in 1827. Younger aristocratic sons, however, could be cut off completely if they married a woman from the lower classes.
Genteel young ladies almost never engaged in premarital sex. They were shielded from sex and not permitted to be alone with gentlemen. Even Lady Caroline Lamb, who later became famous for her adultery with Lord Byron (and others), was a complete innocent when she married William Lamb (later Prime Minister Lord Melbourne) at age 19. She was shocked and unhappy over the action that robbed her virginity, and it took her some time to recover.
It was also extremely common to marry first cousins. When Lady Caroline Ponsonby fell in love with William Lamb and agreed to marry him, it caused much consternation in her mother’s family. Her first cousin, who would become the 6th Duke of Devonshire, became hysterical when he learned Caroline would marry because he had always thought to marry her himself, even though she was four years his senior. And her uncle, Earl Spencer, was furious because he’d always wanted Caroline to wed his heir.
Slightly later than the Regency, Queen Victoria married her first cousin. The Regent’s daughter had wed the brother of Queen Victoria’s mother.
In some quarters, uncles could even wed their nieces. In 1824, the powerful banking magnate James Rothschild, age 32, married the 19-year-old daughter of his brother. This may have been practiced only within the Jewish faith.
It was unlawful in England for a woman to marry her deceased husband’s brother, or for a man to marry his diseased wife’s sister.
Sheltered young brides-to-be from Britain’s "Upper Ten Thousand" often thought themselves in love with gentlemen they scarcely knew. Men, too, were known to become besotted over ladies with whom they had barely spoken.
Since there was little opportunity for intimacies, these lovelorn couples had to proclaim their marital intentions before being accorded the opportunity to initiate any intimacies.
A gentleman would lose his honor were he to "cry off" a prospective marriage. A man’s honor, in those days, was valued above everything — even happiness.
The Duke of Wellington suffered a miserable marriage to a woman he loathed rather than cry off. Arthur Wellesley (later Wellington), a career soldier, had little exposure to well-born ladies. When he met Kitty Packenham he immediately fancied himself in love with the 27-year-old. But since he was a younger son with no financial prospects, her parents would not consent to the marriage.
In the next ten years he made a fortune while soldiering in India, and his continued interest in Miss Packenham (whom he had not seen) was communicated to her. Her family then deemed him acceptable for their now 37-year-old maiden daughter. He, therefore, fled to her but was repulsed at what he saw. “She has grown ugly, by Jove!” he announced to his brother, but he was honor bound to marry her. Once they were wed, he came to know that she was also stupid and irritating to be around.
One man who did cry off was wealthy gentleman land owner Edward Turner, who jilted one of the most widely read authors in the Regency, Hannah More (1745-1833). Interestingly, neither of them ever married, and he always revered her. He just had a deep aversion to marriage. As was a custom of the day, Turner bestowed on More "pecuniary heart balm" in the form of a £200 annuity (roughly equivalent to $60,000 in today’s dollars) she would receive for the rest of her life.
Did a gentleman declare himself to the lady first or to her father? Sometimes a gentleman asked a maiden’s father for permission to court the daughter; sometimes the gentlemen declared himself first to the girl, then upon receiving encouragement, would seek out the father.
Once consent was reached and the father involved, the legal documents would be drawn. Most often the girl would bring a dowry. The 5th Duke of Devonshire, one of the richest men in the kingdom, bestowed an enormous dowry of £30,000 on his eldest legitimate daughter and the same sum on his illegitimate daughter but only £10,000 to his second legitimate daughter. (When her brother succeeded, he gave her £20,000 more to make amends for their father’s slight.) Lord Byron received a marriage settlement of £20,000 from the parents of Annabella Milbanke, who wasn’t as much of an heiress as he needed to wed. His lavish lifestyle had put him in debt more than £20,000—which is almost $6 million today.
The marriage agreements would also specify how much "pin money" the bride would receive annually from her husband. In Lady Caroline Ponsonby’s case, the Melbournes agreed to give their son’s wife £400 a year.
Provisions in the marriage contract would also be made for the wife in the event of her husband’s death.
Regency brides did not receive engagement rings.
Once the settlements were reached, the bride and her mother would busy themselves purchasing a trousseau. It was customary to send off a daughter with new clothing, gloves, shoes, and other items of apparel (more on wedding wear later).
I have never seen an example of an official engagement or wedding announcement in an extant newspaper, but it’s possible they may have appeared. Certainly, rumors of nuptials would be printed as well as caricatured in the press. (And many of us Regency writers have certainly used the device of bridal announcements in newspapers.)
The Church of England required the reading of marriage banns for three consecutive Sundays, but this could be circumvented by getting a special license from the Archbishop of Canterbury, a procedure which men of means usually followed. This could be obtained at some considerable expense at the archbishop’s office in Doctors’ Commons in London.
Compared to engagements of today, Regency engagements were typically quite short. Often, a wedding would take place within a month of the couple’s initial declaration.
Few current Regency writers get weddings right. Formal wedding invitations were not sent out. Seldom was a church filled with well-wishers or strewn with flower arrangements because weddings were family affairs. Neither bride nor groom was surrounded by attendants dressed alike in special attire.
In most instances, very few family members attended weddings. It was not the custom for out-of-town relatives to come for a wedding.
When Lady Georgiana Spencer, daughter of the enormously wealthy 1st Earl Spencer, married the 5th Duke of Devonshire, who was probably the richest peer in the realm and indisputably the biggest matrimonial catch, only five people attended the wedding. Georgiana’s parents feared a mob; therefore, the simple ceremony at a village church in Wimbledon was attended by the duke’s two siblings and Georgiana’s parents and grandmother.
The Prince of Wales himself (before he became Regent) was not married at Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s but at St. James Palace in a simple ceremony with just a handful of people present.
Lord Palmerston, the 2nd Viscount and father of the future Prime Minister, married Miss Frances Poole in an extremely simple ceremony when he was 28 years of age. Here is the announcement he sent to his mother: I should have wrote to you a little sooner but could not have given you any certain notice of the time of my being married, but have the pleasure to tell you that before you read this, you will in all probability have a most amiable daughter-in-law, as I believe we shall be married tomorrow.
The 1754 Marriage Act established that brides or grooms under the age of 21 could not marry without parental consent. The act also stipulated that all marriages had to be performed in an Anglican church between 8 a.m. and noon by an Anglican clergyman, unless the couple belonged to the Jewish or Quaker faith.
The wealthy purchased a special license that would allow them to marry speedily and to marry at any time or place. Many aristocratic daughters married at home, as did Lady Melbourne’s daughter, Emily, who married Lord Cowper at Melbourne House in 1805. A favorite church for aristocratic weddings in the Regency was St. George’s Hanover Square.
The bride’s father did give away his daughter, and the groom placed a wedding ring on the bride’s hand during the ceremony. Five people had to sign the marriage register at the church: the bride, groom, clergyman, and two witnesses.
The Wedding Dress
Wearing a specially made white wedding gown with veil did not come into fashion until the Victorian era.
Most Regency brides married in their best Sunday dress, with a bonnet or turban adorning their heads. White or another pastel was typically chosen for the gown. The wealthy, however, might get a special dress made for the wedding day. Lady Caroline (Ponsonby) Lamb’s was made of the softest muslin, with lace sleeves.
Bridal attendants were free to wear whatever they chose.
While Regency weddings were low key, an exception occurred when the Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, married in 1816. The public clamored for details of the Princess of Wales’ wedding. Her elaborate wedding dress was made of silver threads.
Regency wedding dresses would not be put away with moth balls after the ceremony; they would be much worn thereafter. As Jane Austen might say, very sensible.
© 2008 – 2012 Cheryl Bolen
This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass, June 2011.
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.