Marriage laws in Regency England

HighlightingHistromfleet-1024x295 Highlighting History

Highlighting facts behind Historical Romance with Jude Knight’s research into marriage laws.

Most readers of Regency romance have a fair handle on what it was like to be a resident of Regency England, but some of what we think we know is the exception rather than the rule, and some is just plain wrong.

Here’s a brief outline of what I found when I checked into the rules around marriage.

When a man and woman married, the two became one.

marriage-218x300 Highlighting History We know about the economics of marriage. According to the law of the time, when a woman and a man married, the two were considered to be one person, and that person was the man.

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law:  that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert . . . and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.  (Blackstone, 1765) 

What had belonged to the wife now belonged to the husband instead. Only in exceptional circumstances could a married woman own property in her own right. Even then, her husband had the power to control it, if he chose to exercise it.

On the other hand, the husband was legally responsible for the support of the wife. For a gentlewoman without an income or anyone to support her, marriage was the only respectable avenue to gain such support.

Marrying cousins, yes; marrying sisters-in-law, maybe

The list of relations who cannot marry was in the Book of Common Prayer that I carried to my Anglican church every Sunday when I was a child. It was in the Marriage Act of 1540, and remained in place right into the twentieth century.

Cousins, even first cousins, could marry. Brothers and sisters could not, of course. If they did so, the marriage was void. That is, it was considered to have never existed.

Technically, marriage to a brother-in-law or sister-in-law was also forbidden. However, if the marriage took place, it was not void, but voidable. That is, if someone complained about it, the church courts might annul the marriage. This led to some interesting court cases, and in 1835, a new Marriage Act validated such marriages that had already taken place, but made all future ones void.

Stopping clandestine marriages

elopment-189x300 Highlighting History The Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753 established rules about parental consent, and guidelines for banns, licenses, and church celebration. Its proper name was An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage. The goal was to stop private marriages, where no one knew what was going on but the couple, the celebrant, and at least one witness.

The problems the Act was intended to solve included marriage of minors, bigamous marriages, and incestuous marriages.

Lord Hardwicke’s Act made it illegal for a minor (someone under the age of 21) to marry without his or her guardian’s permission.

It also gave three ways that any couple could be married in England:

They could marry in church after the publication of banns. Banns were read in the church where the couple plan to marry for three successive Sundays, and gave people who knew the couple a chance to state objections.

They could marry in church after the couple secured a common license. Archbishops, bishops, and some archdeacons could issue common licenses, which removed the requirement for banns. Someone had to apply, making an allegation under oath that there were no impediments to the marriage, and giving information about the bride and groom to be recorded on the license. The couple had to marry in the church named on the license. Either the bride or the groom was meant to be a resident of the parish for at least four weeks.

They could marry by special license. You wouldn’t know it from our books, but these were very rare. Only the Archbishop of Canterbury could sign them, and they allowed the named couple to marry anywhere, not just in a church.

If none of those suited, the couple could flee England to a place where the Hardwicke law did not apply. Hence, the Gretna Green elopements, though anywhere in Scotland was just as good, or on the Channel Islands, come to that.

Or, as my couple did in To Claim the Broken-Hearted, they can take up residence in a village where they are unknown, and wait for the banns to be read with no objecting guardians to say no. If their guardians don’t catch up with them before the wedding, and if no one else objects, then their marriage is regarded as valid.

Ending a marriage

divorce-300x161 Highlighting History Divorce was difficult to obtain, expensive, and seldom allowed remarriage. The first step was to apply to the Ecclesiastical Court. Marriages could not be annulled unless they were void at the time of the marriage. But the Court could rule that the couple be permitted to separate (a divorce a menso et thoro, a separation from bed and board). They no longer lived together, and the husband was no longer responsible for providing a home for the wife (although he was still responsible for her debts.

A man could be granted such a ruling when adultery was proven against a wife. A woman had to also prove that the adultery was aggravated by life-threatening cruelty, bigamy, or incest.

If she obtained such a ruling, the woman had no right to access to her children.

A husband could also sue his wife’s lover under civil law for ‘wounding another man’s property’ and for depriving him of her services as household manager. Women had no such right.

The next step, if one of the parties wanted to remarry, was to take a private bill to Parliament for ‘relief’. The proceeding were expensive, long, messy, and public.

“Between 1670 and 1857, 379 Parliamentary divorces were requested and 324 were granted. Of those 379 requests, eight were by wives, and only four of those were granted.” (Wright, 2004)

About Jude’s Books

To-Claim-the-Long-Lost-Lover-Kindle-188x300 Highlighting History To Claim the Long-Lost Lover

The beauty known as the Winderfield Diamond hides a ruinous secret. Society’s newest viscount holds the key.

Sarah’s beloved abandoned her eight years ago, leaving her to face the anger of her family and worse. And now he is back, more compelling than ever. Sarah is even lovelier than when she was a girl, but what did she know about her father’s revenge on Nate: forcible enlistment into the navy and years of servitude?

Released 30 July

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To Tame the Wild Rake

To-Tame-the-Wild-Rake-Generic-188x300 Highlighting History The whole world knows Aldridge is a wicked sinner. They used to be right.

The ton has labelled Charlotte a saint for her virtue and good works. They don’t know the ruinous secret she hides.

Then an implacable enemy reveals all. The past that haunts them wounds their nearest relatives and turns any hope of a future to ashes.

Must they choose between family and one another?

Released 17 September

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