Even though the attitudes toward arranged marriages changed in the Regency era, and young people were, by and large, able to choose their own mates, marriage still remained largely a business proposition. Perhaps more significantly, a woman’s legal position changed dramatically at marriage, forever impacting her existence as a legal individual and making attendance to legal matters and paperwork essential for her future.
Women's Legal Position in Regency times
In 1765, William Blackstone presented a common man’s language interpretation of English law, which sets out the law’s approach to women’s legal existence and rights in marriage. These remained largely unchanged until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1884. Blackstone said:
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… and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.
… For this reason, a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: … a husband may also bequeath any thing to his wife by will; for that cannot take effect till the coverture is determined by his death.
… the chief legal effects of marriage during the coverture; upon which we may observe, that even the disabilities which the wife lies under are for the most part intended for her protection and benefit: so great a favourite is the female sex of the laws of England.
Effectively this common law doctrine rendered married women unable to sign Bills of exchange, make contracts, buy property, write a will, act as a business partner, or even own her own earnings or have custody of her children. I’m not sure the law favored women the way Blackstone thought it did.
Ironically, single women and widows were able to act with much greater independence. In many cases widowhood gave a woman the greatest legal freedoms, which many wealthy widows were loath to give up by remarrying.
It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1884 that married women the same legal rights as unmarried women.
Marriage SettlementsIn most cases, women did not bring a great deal of property or money into a marriage (of course, neither did the husband). When there was substantial property involved, legal documents called marriage settlements or articles were required by one or both families.
Lawyers, one representing each family worked together to draw up a legal document know as a marriage settlement or marriage articles. Only about one tenth of marriages had them as the fee for such documents was around £100. (For reference, a family of four could live a comfortable middle class lifestyle on £250-300 a year.)
A marriage settlement was a prenuptial agreement (bet you thought that was a modern invention!) that established the financial terms of the marriage. The terms included stipulations about what was to be done with the wife’s dowry, what her discretionary income would be (known as ‘pin money’), what her income would if she became a widow, and what (total) amount would go to her children from the monies she brought into the marriage. The timing of these payments was also often specified.
Parents could also ‘settle’ money on the couple in the marriage articles. Jane Austen references this in Lydia’s settlement with Wickham in which Mr. Bennet is to allow her £100 per year during his lifetime.
A Woman’s DowryThough Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet referred to dowries as bribes to worthless young men to marry his daughters, dowries were more commonly considered a means by which a responsible family compensated a husband for their daughter’s lifelong upkeep. Thus, a woman’s birth family was responsible for seeing that she could maintain the lifestyle to which she was accustomed once she was married.
Dowries (or more commonly the interest earned off a dowry) provided a woman’s lifetime spending money, her income if she became a widow, and money for her children at the death of one or both parents. Settlements would specify a total amount of money set aside for daughter’s dowries. The more daughters a family had, the more ways the sum would have to be divided. The division of the money was generally not specified, so it did not have to be divided evenly amongst the daughters. A father might add to the sum during his lifetime, but if not stipulated in the settlement, it was not required.
There was no guarantee that a woman’s family would have the cash on hand to pay a dowry on marriage. Often time, that sum was tied up in estate capital or investments. The family might have to take out a mortgage to pay the dowry, or a down payment on it, with the final portion due from the estate at the father’s death.
To replenish the loss of capital, the heir of the estate needed to marry a bride with her own fortune. Marrying a woman without sufficient capital could harm the financial position of the family estate.
Pin MoneyPin money, a woman’s disposable income, was stipulated in the marriage settlement. It represented money she could spend without answering to her husband. Since common law only stipulated that a man had to provide his wife’s ‘necessities’, pin money could supply the ‘luxuries’ that might be required to live the life style to which her family accustomed her.
The concept makes a great deal of sense, but since only a small minority of women enjoyed marriage settlements, most probably did not enjoy the luxury of their own private allowance to be spent as they wished.
A jointure was the typical means of provision for a man’s widow, usually anchored on the amount that a woman brought into a marriage. Generally it was an annuity equal to one tenth of a woman’s dowry. The annuity would be payable by the heir of a man’s estate until the woman’s death upon which the principle would descend to her children. The ratio of jointure to dowry was established by the idea that the average wife would outlive her husband by about ten years. Thus, she would most likely receive back the amount she brought into the marriage over the duration of her widowhood.
Marriage Settlements to the ChildrenMarriage settlements also stipulated provisions for a woman’s children. Special provisions for children from a prior marriage would be included to insure that they received portions from their father’s property if it was in their mother’s hands at the time of her remarriage. If a man were widowed, these same provisions protected a first wife’s children from losing their mother’s fortune to a subsequent wife’s machinations, though it might also limit what a father could pass down to children from subsequent wives. This was the salient plot point for Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
The monies a woman brought into the marriage through her dowry and any other settlements on her, would go to her children, both sons and daughters, upon her death. Additional funds could be settled on the children from the father’s estate. The marriage articles would stipulate the amounts. Typically, only the total amounts would be set forth in the settlement, not the division among the children. This made sense given there was no way to know ahead of time how many children of which gender would be born. One consequence, though, was that a parent might threaten to readjust the division of the funds in order to control the behavior of a child set on thwarting his or her parent’s wishes.
While all these documents and legal requirements make for great plot points in fiction, few actually obtained them. These matters were mainly the purview of the landed and wealthy who made up the top ten percent or so of the population. Most women would have been happy with a dowry of a few hundred pounds; most children did not inherit vast sums or property from their parents; and most widows had to rely on their children and other family for support.
Find previous installments of this series here:Get Me to the Church on Time: Changing Attitudes toward Marriage
To Have a Courtship, One Needs a Suitor
Nothing is ever that simple: Rules of Courtship
ReferencesWilliam Blackstone. Commentaries on the Laws of England. Vol, 1 (1765), pages 442-445.
Dr Amy Erickson, Women and property in early modern England (1993)
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