Monday, August 5, 2013

Marriage Law in 1818: The Less Romantic Side of Regency England

by Christy English

Imagine with me, if you will, that you are a young and lovely girl with your whole life ahead of you. The man you met at a ball and fell in love with has courted you, and with the full approval of your parents, he has asked you to marry him. The wedding is sure to be beautiful and swift, because the year is 1818 and you are living in England, and Regency engagements were short.

Bridal Gown 1816

You are a well-to-do young lady and have a sizable dowry. You have always had the pleasure of pin money from your father every quarter and you can expect the same largesse from your husband. But your own money, the 10,000 pound dowry that your father has settled on you on the occasion of your marriage, that you will never see. Your dowry goes into the hands of your husband, and he can save it, spend it, or gamble it away at will. Because, as I mentioned, the year is 1818, and under the law in Regency England, a woman has no right to own property, not even her own dowry.

To quote Jane Ashford in a fabulous guest post on Historical Hussies, once a woman married, she became a "feme covert (English spelling of a medieval Anglo-Norman phrase meaning "covered woman"). She became, essentially, a non-person in the eyes of the law."

Let's hope that your parents were wise and approved a good match for you, and that your husband is generous. Because since you don't exist in the eyes of the law, you'll be beholden to him for your financial survival for the rest of his life, and beyond his death.

To quote Jane Austen's World, "Marriage was the only option for ladies during the Georgian era, since they could not control their own fortunes or possess lands. All they “owned” was held in trust for them. Many a rich spinster or widow preferred choosing marriage over living a life alone."

So in my latest novel, LOVE ON A MIDSUMMER NIGHT, Arabella's situation was not far off the mark. I have made the romance more dramatic by making the man who controls her money a dastardly villain, but any widow would have been just as impoverished in Regency England after her husband died as she was before.

I love writing romances, and I love writing about my fairy tale version of the early nineteenth century. But when I look at the facts of Regency marriage law, I am glad that I am only a tourist in this time period, and not a permanent resident.


After years of acting in Shakespeare's plays, Christy English is excited to bring the Bard to Regency England. When she isn't drinking tea, hiking or chasing the Muse, Christy writes historical novels (The Queen's Pawn and To Be Queen) from her home in North Carolina. Please visit her at


  1. For the most part you're correct, but that's not the whole story. If the future husband agrees, a trust can be set up for the benefit of the young woman where she keeps all her personal property etc. Additionally, the money could be placed in a trust for children or for the young lady in the event of the husband's death. Tweeted.

    1. In fact, that's pretty much what the term "marriage settlement" meant; the money "settled on" the woman, both during the marriage, & in widowhood.

  2. So it's not as grim as my research suggested...good news for Regency ladies :) As long as she had a careful father, and a good lawyer, she might not lose her shirt. Or would that be her gown?


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