Marriage in Georgian England was rarely the stuff of great romances like Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It was a male-dominated world, and when they married, women passed from the control of their father to that of their husband.
Remaining single was seen as a misfortune and was not a viable option for women of any class. Long referred to by the disparaging term ‘old maids’, unmarried women could face a life of penury – even those from affluent families. Jane Austen famously never married and after her father’s death suffered from relative poverty and lack of freedom, always dependent on the goodwill of her brothers.
The age of consent was 12 for girls and 14 for boys, but parental consent to marry by licence was needed for minors under the age of 21. Even if they were betrothed at an earlier age, most couples did not marry until their early 20s, when they were more financially secure and apprenticeships had ended. Apprentices tended to be bound for seven years from the age of 14, during which time they were not permitted to “commit Fornication, nor contract Matrimony”.
Marriage was a lifelong commitment, and so choosing a companion required great care, particularly for women. For those contemplating marriage, here are 10 tips worth bearing in mind…
Choose your partner
Superstition, love, finances and convenience all played a part in finding Mr or Miss Right in the Georgian period
Marriage took place for several reasons: perhaps a couple was in love, or it was a marriage of convenience to produce heirs, combine finances and families, or escape from poverty and loneliness.
Various superstitions could help find a partner. On St Agnes’ Eve (21 January), the advice was to “take a row of pins, and pull out every one, one after another, saying a Pater-noster on sticking a pin in your sleeve, and you will dream of him or her you shall marry”. Walking under ladders, it was said, “may prevent your being married that year”.
Sex before marriage was not illegal, but under the Bastardy Act unmarried pregnant women were coerced into naming the father. Such couples could be forced to wed, as happened with Elizabeth Howlett and Robert Astick in January 1787 at Ringland church near Norwich. The ceremony was conducted by the Reverend James Woodforde, who noted that Robert was most reluctant to marry and “at the altar behaved very unbecoming”. To Woodforde, forced marriages were cruel: “It is very disagreeable to me to marry such persons”, he later wrote.
Keep to your class
Flaunting a lower-class mistress was preferable to marrying outside of one’s social sphere
In an age with rigid class prejudice, it was easier to marry someone from a similar background. In any case, if a woman did not have a decent dowry (such as money, property and land), male suitors from good families were likely to be scarce.
Although well-to-do men kept lower-class mistresses without censure, they faced criticism and were even shunned if they married beneath them. In 1810 Nelly Weeton was a governess in the Lake District. Her employer, Mr Pedder, had married his dairymaid after the death of his first wife. This led Nelly to confide in an unmarried friend: “If you knew the sorrow that a person must undergo who marries above herself, you would never be ambitious to marry out of your own rank”.
William Holland, vicar at Over Stowey in Somerset, frowned upon any of the lower classes who did not show due deference towards their betters. In December 1800, when his servant Robert attended his brother’s marriage to a farmer’s daughter, Holland was worried that it “has turned poor Robert’s head and he begins to think that both he and his family in a short time must rank with the principal men in the kingdom”.
Prepare for the big day
Weddings were public affairs from the start, but elopement was always an option for star-crossed lovers
For prosperous couples, the wedding preparations meant amassing everything for the new household – from linen to carriages. A marriage settlement might also be drawn up to give the wife some financial independence, such as the interest from her dowry.
Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 stipulated that notice of a marriage (the banns) should be read out on three successive Sundays in the parish church. This announced the event to the congregation and invited parental and other objections, particularly for minors. When his embarrassed servant Dyer left the church before his banns were read out, Holland commented: “This is a piece of modesty [that] might suit the female very well, but I cannot see why it should affect him… He was much more conspicuous in marching out of church.”
Where a couple was desperate to marry against the wishes of parents, elopement was the solution – over the border into Scotland, where the law on marriage was less restrictive.
Enjoy the occasion
Low-key and local formed the basis of Georgian nuptials, where wedding dresses, and even clothes, were optional
There were good and bad times in the year for marrying, and Sundays and holy days were to be avoided. Most weddings took place in church, during the morning, although Jews and Quakers could perform their own ceremonies.
It was rare for guests to travel any distance and nearly all weddings were low-key affairs. It was fashionable for brides, and sometimes bridesmaids, to wear white, but most brides simply wore their Sunday best.
‘Smock weddings’ (often involving widows) were more modest, because the bride wore no clothes, only a shift, in the erroneous belief that her new husband would not be liable for her deceased husband’s debts.
When marrying bricklayer Richard Elcock at Bishop’s Waltham in September 1775, it was observed that widow Judith Redding “went into one of the pews in the church, stript herself of all her cloaths except her shift, in which only she went to the altar, and was married, much to the astonishment of the parson, clerk, &c.”
Observe local customs
Honeymooning in foreign climes was out of the question for most newly-weds
For those who could afford to pay the bellringers, the church bells rang out. In addition, the bride might be saluted, something that clergyman John Brand witnessed: “It is still customary among persons of middling rank as well as the vulgar, in most parts of England, for the young men at the marriage ceremony to salute the Bride, one by one, the moment it is concluded.” It was also considered a good omen “if the sun shines on a couple coming out of the church after having been married”.
A wedding breakfast, or a dinner and supper later in the day, might be laid on, together with dancing and sports. Various ancient rituals were performed to induce good luck and many such customs involved the wedding cake. Honeymoons were rare – most newly-weds returned to work the next day.
Plan for a large family
The pitter-patter of tiny feet, although welcome, was not an event that could easily be controlled
The main point of marriage was children. Upper-class men needed male heirs to continue the family name and fortune, while working-class couples wanted children to contribute towards the family income and for support later in life, as there were no old-age pensions. For a man seeking a wife, it made sense to marry a young widow with children since she was obviously fertile.
Too many children could be a burden, but it was difficult to restrict the number of pregnancies because reliable contraceptives were unknown. Condoms were used mainly with prostitutes, in an attempt to avoid disease.
Large families were generally thought a blessing, though, not least because of the greater chance of some children being spared during epidemics. In just two weeks, William Holland lost four of his five children to scarlet fever in 1795, although another son was later born.
Death during childbirth was a common occurrence and not a tragedy limited to the lower classes
One of the biggest threats to a long marriage was a wife dying in childbed. Many women had a succession of pregnancies and were in this state for much of their married lives.
For upper-class women this was merely an inconvenience, but poor women were forced to work right up until the birth of their baby, even when employed down coal mines. Most women gave birth at home, and although the dangers of childbirth affected all classes, the poor tended to have “very ignorant midwives, some of them much worse than none at all”, according to Charles White, a Manchester man-midwife. Some poor women were admitted to lying-in hospitals, which put them at greater risk of infections.
At birth, a cake or a ‘groaning cheese’ was presented to the mother for luck. A few weeks later she was ‘churched’, a ritual purification and thanksgiving undertaken by the local clergyman for a fee.
Take care of your children
The modern concept of a carefree childhood was virtually unknown
It was still fairly commonplace to employ wet-nurses and even to send babies away from home until they were weaned. Upper classes would hire nursemaids and governesses; working families did whatever they could until children were old enough to be employed.
Boys and girls as young as five were put to work, not always earning money but apprenticed away from home to relieve the family of their keep.
Nine-year-old Mary Puddicombe’s childhood ended when she was apprenticed to a farmer at Bridford in Devon. Her arduous work included “driving bullocks to field, and fetching them in again; cleaning out their houses, and bedding them up; washing potatoes and boiling them for pigs; milking… digging and pulling turnips”.
Except in wealthy families, the modern concept of childhood was unknown and the idea of teenagers was completely non-existent.
Prepare for death or desertion
The loss of a partner could drive families into the workhouse
It could be devastating for men or women to be widowed and to be left with numerous children; the most practical step was to find another partner as quickly as possible. There was no stigma to remarrying soon after the death of a spouse, although a formal period of mourning was starting to become fashionable.
Apart from death, women especially could suffer from the loss of a husband if he deserted her or was imprisoned or transported for some criminal offence. During this era of prolonged warfare, many married men were also lured into the army or forced into the navy by the press-gang. These abandoned wives were not only prevented from remarrying or having more legitimate children, but they could become destitute and driven into the workhouse.
If all else fails…
Marriage was a lifelong commitment, unless you could sell your wife
The options for those trapped in an unhappy marriage were limited – especially for women, who risked losing their wealth and children (since they belonged to the husband).
A private act of parliament was needed for any divorce, something beyond the reach of most people. Warring couples might choose to separate and drew up legal documents acknowledging this, but they could not remarry.
Lower classes could resort to the ritual sale of wives in the marketplace, which they treated as an acceptable form of divorce; the woman was invariably led to market with a halter tied round her neck.
In March 1815 “a most disgraceful scene was presented at the Cross, York, in Thursday Market… by a man of the name of Tate, exposing his wife for sale, amidst a great concourse of people, when 25s. was offered and accepted for her, and she consequently delivered in a halter”.
For most unhappy marriages, though, the only escape was if the husband or wife died.
Roy and Lesley Adkins have written a number of books on Georgian England, including Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago (Little, Brown, 2013).
This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine