'Common bargains'?

'Common bargains'?

Phil Wood explores the variety of marriages in Georgian times

Phil Wood, Georgian and Victorian social history specialist

Phil Wood

Georgian and Victorian social history specialist

Marriage, especially for women, was an integral part of life in Georgian England. Indeed, unmarried women faced financial hardship and were considered unfortunate ‘old maids’ if they remained single. However, the entire process, from the courtship to the wedding day, was determined by the social class of the couple.

Marriage provided the upper classes with legitimate heirs to their estates and was also viewed as a way of obtaining wealth. ‘Our marriages are made, just like other common bargains and sales,’ observed Sir William Temple; the only consideration was of ‘interest or gain, without any love or esteem, of birth or of beauty itself.’

upper class wedding at the end of the 18th century
An upper class wedding at the end of the 18th century

Arranged marriages between wealthy families were commonplace early in the 18th century. Families bargained over the financial aspects of a union and then informed the prospective bride and groom of the outcome. ‘People in my way are sold like slaves,’ lamented Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. ‘I cannot tell what price my masters will put on me.’

Nevertheless, it could be argued that it was actually the men who were being acquired. It was customary for fathers of the prospective bride to provide a dowry (such as property, land or money) to attract male suitors and this could be substantial. The Duchess of Sutherland, for example, brought with her an impressive 800,000-acre dowry in 1785.

However, the number of arranged marriages declined steadily as the century progressed and parents began to allow their offspring an element of choice and freedom. ‘I have long since told her that I would not compel her to marry,’ Thomas Blundell wrote of his daughter, ‘much less to marry one she could not love and so to make her miserable as long as she lives.’

The middle and upper classes often met prospective spouses at one of the many balls, assemblies and spas they attended throughout the year. Parents still had the power to veto relationships and could threaten to withhold their offspring’s inheritance or dowry if they disapproved of a match. Moreover, before a courtship could commence, a man was expected to approach the parents of any woman he wished to woo to receive their blessing.

As there were no enormous dowries or vast estates to be bequeathed on the working classes, parental coercion played a minimal role in their courting rituals. Nor did they meet their intended at a glamorous ball. Instead, life partners were frequently found in significantly more mundane settings such as the workplace, at a fair or at church. Furthermore, the offspring of the working class, in contrast to the wealthy, were not born to inherit their parents’ wealth but in the hope that they would be able to support their parents in old age.

Gretna Green
Gretna Green was a popular destination for irregular and clandestine marriages after the 1753 Marriage Act was passed

There were occasions when those lower down the social spectrum were forced into marriage. Unmarried pregnant women were regularly brought before the magistrate, under the 1733 Bastardy Act, and compelled to name the father. The named man was then faced with a choice of jail, supporting the child or marrying the woman. In one case, the Reverend James Woodforde recalled in his diary entry for 25 January 1787 that the groom in a forced marriage ‘was a long time before he could be prevailed on to marry her when in the church yard; and at the altar behaved very unbecoming.’

Prior to 1754 there was no clear definition of how a marriage was made. Indeed, a marriage was considered legal if both husband and wife simply agreed to the union.

forced marriage
Arranged – or indeed forced, as depicted here – marriages were commonplace in the early half of the 18th century

Clandestine marriages
Marriages that were lawful but did not follow ecclesiastical edicts (for instance, those undertaken without a licence or banns) were known as irregular. Clandestine marriages were also popular and were irregular ceremonies that contained a degree of secrecy and, in some cases, scandal.

he Rake’s Progress
Hogarth’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’ showing a marriage ceremony

Speed and economy were the primary motivations behind the majority of clandestine and irregular nuptials. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these types of marriages particularly appealed to pregnant women, as well as soldiers and sailors who were going overseas.

Nonetheless, people of all social classes and occupations took part in these ceremonies. Apprentices, for example, were typically required to have their master’s permission to marry and marrying without their consent could negatively impact their career. Small wonder then that many apprentices opted to marry in secret.

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Unscrupulous fortune hunters also used clandestine marriages to marry young and naive heiresses without their parents’ approval. The unfortunate Miss Ann Leigh, ‘an heiress of £200 per ann. and £6000 ready cash’, was a typical victim. After her having been decoyed ‘away from her friends in Buckinghamshire’ the Original Weekly Journal of 26 September 1719 revealed that she was subsequently ‘married at the Fleet Chapel, against her consent.’

It was to prevent abuses such as this that Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 was passed (and became effective from 1754). The Act decreed that a marriage was only legal if it had been conducted in a licensed premises by an Anglican clergyman, after banns or with a licence. Moreover, marriages had to be recorded in a register and parental consent was required for any person under the age of 21 marrying by licence.

Although the Act regularised the marriage process it did contain several loopholes. Indeed, for those who could afford to elope to Scotland, where the Act didn’t apply, Gretna Green became a popular destination for those desperate to get married quickly and without any questions asked.

Wedding clothes
All social classes dressed for the wedding day itself. The working classes wore their Sunday best while the wealthy showed off their finest attire with the bride in white. According to Mary Curzon her sister wore a white ‘figur’d sattin gown, a fring’d silk petticoat, white fring’d slippers, a beautiful white hat trimm’d with blond, a long figur’d white sattin cloak trimm’d with fur, & arm-holes’ on her wedding day in 1778.

All wedding ceremonies after 1754 had to be conducted in a licensed premises such as a church or a chapel between the hours of 8am and 12pm. Then, as now, the bride and groom, who could legally be as young as 12 and 14 respectively, would recite their vows and the groom gave the bride a ring.

For the working and middle classes the day was often a relatively low-key event with few guests. ‘It was a sensible wedding as ever was,’ Horace Walpole declared when describing his niece’s nuptials in 1759, ‘the company my brother, Mrs Keppel, Lady Elizabeth Keppel, Lady Betty de Waldegrave and I.’ After the ceremony, the wedding party would typically dine and perhaps dance and play games to celebrate the occasion.

The Fleet weddingThe Fleet Prison
The Fleet Prison was a popular destination for irregular and clandestine marriages

Grand spectacles
However, upper class weddings could be grander and far more lavish spectacles. The marriage of Sir William Blackett and Lady Barbara Vilers in 1725, for instance, was celebrated with bonfires and the sounding of bells and gunfire in Newcastle. Furthermore, the Newcastle Weekly Courant recounted that the crags at Wellington were illuminated at night and a ‘large Punch Bowl was cut in the most elevated rock, which was filled with such generous liquor as was more than sufficient for the vast crowd of neighbouring inhabitants.’

There were a plethora of local customs associated with the wedding cake. In some regions, for example, it was tradition for pieces of the cake to be passed through the bride’s ring and given to unmarried guests so they might be wed next. Another popular custom was for the cake to be broken up over the heads of the newlyweds.

Honeymoons were not yet customary in the Georgian era and the majority of married couples simply began their everyday lives together. Indeed, many working-class couples were expected to return to work the very next day after their wedding.

It’s impossible to gauge how satisfied Georgian men and women were with their spouses. It can only be hoped that most were as content as Thomas Turner. Contemplating his wedding anniversary, in his diary entry for 15 October 1756 he wrote, ‘Doubtless many have been the disputes which have happened between my wife and myself during the time,’ but, ‘if I was single again, and at liberty to make another choice, I should do the same – I mean make her my wife who is so now.’

Further reading:

  • Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, Roy and Lesley Adkins (Little Brown, 2013)
  • English Home Life 1500-1800, Christina Hole (Batsford, 1949)
  • Daily Life in 18th Century England, Kirstin Olsen (Greenwood Press, 1999)
  • Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century, Julie Peakman (Atlantic Books, 2005)

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