By Cheryl Bolen
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
marriagfes, 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 deceased wife's
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
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
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
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.
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
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.