The Age of Consent to Marry in the Regency Period

18th and 19th Century: Gretna Green - The Place for Elopements 18thcand19thc.blogspot. com

18th and 19th Century: Gretna Green – The Place for Elopements

During the Regency, despite what some authors may include within the story line, the age of consent for females was twenty-one, not twenty-five as some would lead the reader to believe. Although I do not know from where the idea of the female having a guardian until age 25, what I assume is happening is the author (and many times the reader) is confusing the idea of a female’s guardianship with the age of majority. The confusion likely comes from fathers or another person setting up a trust for a female. The trust would provide the woman a “fortune” at age 25 or when she married (if she married with the approval of the man named as guardian of her money.)  

If the woman did not have her guardian’s approval (and was less that age 21) and chose to marry, she just would not receive the money.  So age of consent was not the issue as much as age of majority. In most places it was 21. In the Danish West Indies it was 25. 

If an underage lady eloped to Gretna Green without her guardian’s consent, can the guardian have the marriage declared illegal and annulled? The answer is “No.” One could marry in Scotland at 14 without permission, so as long as the girl was 14, the marriage could not be annulled.

English males and females considered a journey to Gretna Green when permission was withheld because Scottish Law meant they required only a witness, not even a priest, and as long as they were fourteen or over then English Law accepted a marriage that was witnessed in Scotland. For the aristocratic class, there were fewer mad escapes to Scotland than the Regency romance genre would lead the reader to believe. The “Smithy” was just the first building one came across over the Scottish border, and that is how the Smithy became the place the deed was done (or generally not done), but when English Law first changed there were some ten different people all over Gretna who set themselves up to offer to be a witness to couples crossing the border.  

A book about Robert Elliot: Gretna Green Anvil Priest 1814-1840 describes his stint

as a “marriage priest” in Gretna. “Elliot was born in Northumberland, the son of a farmer. While working for a stagecoach company, he met Ann Graham, the granddaughter of Joseph Paisley. They were married in January 1811 at the village church in Gretna Green, as was considered proper; very few of the local people were married in the irregular way.

“The couple lived with Paisley, and Elliot assisted the old man with his marriage ceremonies. When Paisley died in 1814, Elliot was a natural successor and he continued the marriage trade.

“In 1842 Elliot had his memoirs published. In them he states that he performed between 4,000 and 8,000 ceremonies. He also claims that he was the only priest working in Gretna Green at that time and had been for the last thirty years. However, it had been put beyond doubt that there were at least two other priests at the time. 

Gretna Green and the Runaway Regency Bride | Shannon Donnelly's ...

Gretna Green and the Runaway Regency Bride | Shannon Donnelly’s …

“The majority of Elliot’s history is taken from his memoirs in which he also gives accounts of ‘noteworthy elopements’ but it is likely that the events of some of his stories occurred before he became a Gretna Green Priest. Unfortunately the majority of his registers, and those of Paisley, were lost when Elliot’s handicapped daughter set fire to her bed one night, and burned herself to death together with the registers that were stored on the bed’s canopy.” (Visiting Gretna Green)

“He [Elliot] gives the form of service he used for celebrating marriages – which, though much abbreviated, appears to be taken almost direct from the Marriage Service of the Church of England. He also narrates several stories of runaway marriages – some of them tragic ones. The most dramatic, if I remember aright, told of the shooting of a bridegroom, immediately after the consummation of the marriage, by the father of the bride – infuriated to find that his pursuit had been in vain…. These tragic occurrences, however, would appear to be matters of the far past. Nothing of the kind was ever mentioned by Mr Linton – who succeeded Elliot as Priest – as I was informed by Mrs. Armstrong, his daughter, when I came to examine Gretna Hall Registers; which, together with copies of the marriage certificates, are in her keeping. In these Registers – which date from the year 1825, and some of which are in the handwriting of Robert Elliot appear, among many of less note, the names of a Bourbon Prince of Naples, Duke of Capua; of a Duke Sforza Cesarini, a Lord Drumlanrigh, and a Lady__Villers, a daughter of one of the Earls of Jersey. (The Scot’s Magazine. Volume 4, June-November 1888-1889, Edited by the Rev. W. W. Tulloch, B. D., Perth: S. Cowan & Co., Printers and Publishers, 1889)

The Scottish “priest” asked the couple their purpose in appearing before him and then asked the traditional question of whether the male took the female to be his wife and if the female took the male to be her husband. He also presented them with a marriage certificate and recorded the marriage in his books. Scotland had a civil register years before such a recording appeared in England. One could be married merely by going to this registrar and having him record the marriage. Quite often the man was willing to predate the entry back several months if the woman was pregnant even though it legally did not matter when the child was conceived. All that mattered was whether or not the parents were married when the child was born.

What about marrying by common license?  Did those have to be done at the local parish as well, or could they be done at any church? Also, how common were common licenses?  

Some sources lead us to believe that most aristocratic marriages were done by common license and only the lower classes had the banns read.  Is this true?

Marriage Banns were read for three consecutive Sundays. Minors wishing to marry had to provide proof of parental/guardian consent. One of the pair who was marrying had to be a resident of the parish in which they were to to be married. The banns were read in both the parish of the groom and the parish of the bride if they came from separate parishes. The curate of the parish where the vows were to take place could not conduct the ceremony without a certificate from the curate of the other parish, warranting that the banns had been duly read three times. Banns were good for three months. After that time, the process would need to be repeated. Weddings were conducted between 8 and noon only. From the first reading to the third, the time required to wait for the publishing of the banns was 15 days. Generally, people think of the period being three weeks. Theoretically, if the couple resided in the same parish and no wait was required for verifying the proper reading in another parish, they could wed on the sixteenth day. 

“I publish the Banns of marriage between [Groom’s Name] of [his local parish] and [Bride’s Name] of [her local parish]. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first [second, third] time of asking.” 

A Common or Ordinary Marriage License could be obtained from any bishop or archbishop. The use of the common/ordinary license meant no public announcement of the wedding was necessary. The wedding could take place with only a seven-days’ waiting period. Another name for these licenses was Bishop’s Licenses. Proof of parental or a guardian’s consent must be provided for minors under 21 years of age, as well as a sworn statement was given that there was no impediment [i.e., the couple were not related to one another in the prohibited degrees or proof of a deceased spouse if one of the pair was a widow/widower]  The name of the parish church where the ceremony would take place was required on the license. Witnesses were required, and either the groom or the bride had to have resided in the parish for at least four weeks prior to the marriage. [Do you recall this issue when Mr. Wickham married in Lydia Bennet in London in Pride and Prejudice?] The license, like the banns, was good for 3 months from date of issue. The cost of a common or ordinary license was 10 shillings to one pound. According to the parish registers, many people of the gentry and middling sort, as well as aristocrats married by common license. It seems that some felt that the ribald remarks and boisterous fun executed by some of the villagers/friends kept them from having the banns called. 

“La! You are so strange! But I must tell you how it went off. We were married, you know, at St. Clement’s, because Wickham’s lodgings were in that parish. And it was settled that we should all be there by eleven o’clock.”

A special license could only be obtained at Doctors Commons in London from the Archbishop of Canterbury or his representative. With a special license, the couple could marry at any convenient time or place, as long as the ceremony was presided over by a clergyman from the Church of England. The names of both parties were inscribed on the license, so no “surprises” as we often see in romance novels. One could not fill in the certificate AFTER the ceremony. There was also NO such thing as marriage by proxy in England at the time. An average bloke off the street (assuming he could fork over the money for a special license) could not purchase one. They were available to peers and their children, members of Parliament, Privy Councillors, baronets, knights, Westminster court judges, etc. Originally, special licenses cost 20 guineas (approximately one pound + one shilling), but the Stamp Duty imposed on the actual paper, vellum or parchment upon which the license was printed, in 1808 brought the price to £4, which increased to £5 by 1815.

Did couples need to receive special approval to marry at a local church, like St James or St. Peter’s? A couple married at their parish church unless they had a special license so they could marry at any place a clergyman would conduct the ceremony, including a drawing room in a great house or even a village green. 

Although it was legal to marry in Scotland at 14 without permission, English children needed permission until they were 21.  However, a child could be married off at age seven in England with parental permission. Supposedly this child had the right to deny the marriage at age 12. Any marriage after age 12 for girls and age 14 for boys was considered valid if done with parental permission. The number of marriages of infants decreased during the age of enlightenment until the 18th century when people started to think age 16 was too young. Also, the trend of the day was towards “nuclear families,” instead of  more communal living with many generations in the same house. Marriage statistics take in all classes of people. A peer of the realm or his wealthy heir could marry at any age, for he had the fortune to provide for his new family, as well as his widowed mother and siblings. A man of lower status had to be established in his profession or job to be able to afford a wife. In such cases, quite often the would-be bride was also working in some way to acquire money for the new home.

The fact that it was legal to marry at fourteen does not mean it was common. There are statistics that say during the early 19th Century the average age for women to marry in the British Isles was mid-twenties. As for the short life expectancy, one must look at how the statistics were developed. For example, many who passed early on did so in the first few years of infancy and childhood. If one had six children, and three passed before the age of one and the other three lived to be fifty, their average life expectancy was only twenty-five. We must remember that numbers can be manipulated to prove whatever we wish. 


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, Gretna Green, Living in the Regency, marriage licenses, real life tales, Regency era and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to The Age of Consent to Marry in the Regency Period

  1. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Great Post! Thanks for clarifying. Jen Red

  2. Wonderful post and very enlightening. To date I haven’t had an anvil wedding even though in one of my books the villain did try to kidnap the heroine and take her to Gretna Green.

  3. carolcork says:

    Such an interesting post, Regina.

  4. Jude Knight says:

    Excellent post, Regina. And the point about life expectancy is one I’ve made many times, and one that people often argue about. The idea that people in the past had short lives is deeply ingrained. Yet the gaffer nodding by the fireside is as much a part of our history as the tiny graves in the churchyard.

    Even today, I hear people say that they are over 65, and so have a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years. But 78 to 80 (depending on Western country) is the current life expectancy at birth. For my age cohort (I’m 65), average life expectancy for women is 90.

    Numbers, as you say, can be made to mean all sorts of things.

    • I’ll shoot for age 90, Jude. I am 68.
      I have a scene in my Realm Series where the hero’s aunt, a woman in her early 50s, claims the man her parents would never permit. You have no idea how nasty some of the comments were when I placed this couple in a bed (nothing graphic, but definitely implied). LOL! I wanted to respond that older does not mean dead.

  5. CelesteRegal says:

    Reblogged this on Artes Mechanicae and commented:
    When working one forgets there is a blog to maintain. Here is a post concerning historic realities.

  6. junewilliams7 says:

    So if WIcky and Georgiana wed in Scotland, he would still not get any of her money until she was 25 *and* Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam consented?

  7. Pingback: Annulments, Divorces, Criminal Conversation, Oh My! | ReginaJeffers's Blog

  8. Paula says:

    Fascinating stuff as always, Regina. So just to clarify, if a woman was 21 years of age, and there was no fortune involved, or she didn’t care about the money, she didn’t necessarily need her father’s or guardian’s permission to marry? Was this age different for men?

    • Males and females could marry without permission at age 21 for they would both have reached their majority.
      Some people confuse the terms “age of consent” with “majority.” In most places it was 21. In the Danish West Indies it was 25. I believe the age of marrying without missioner was also 25 in France.
      Adding to the confusion was the fact that fathers or someone (guardian) setting up a trust for a female. The trust will give her money at age 25 or when she married if she married with the approval of the man named guardian of the money. 
      If she didn’t have his approval, she could marry if over age 21, she just wouldn’t get that money.
      Widows and widowers didn’t need permission to marry even if still a minor. However, a widow or widower under the age of 21 was still a minor and needed a guardian for some  things. In practice, a widowed minor of at least 19 or 20 usually was treated as an adult as far as possible even to the making of contracts.

  9. Dani says:

    Could a marriage be annulled if it was never consummated, even if the marriage was with parental consent?

    • Lack of consummation was not customarily considered grounds for annulment, Dani. The church courts in which an annulment took place usually thought that the couple would eventually get around to it.

      • Dani says:

        Do those same rules apply to an elopement?

      • I am assuming you are asking if someone elopes can the marriage be annulled? The answer is “no.” Eloping meant that the person went to Scotland where they could marry at a younger age than in England, making the joining legal under English law. Also, Scotland had non-traditional marriage such as “hand-fasting” that were still legal (Something similar to a common law marriage in today’s terms). Even if the couple was married in Scotland in an elopement, the law of the Church courts (meaning the Church of England) were still the same. Not consummating the marriage was not grounds for an annulment. However, if the couple had the money and was willing to suffer the public humiliation, a divorce was easier to earn in Scotland than it was in England.

  10. Donnalee says:

    Very fine article–thank you. Many Regencies are very creative with these and related details, and if they are completely silly and wrong, it detracts from the story for me.

    • I totally understand, Donnalee. I recently read a book set in 1840, and the characters drank two toasts to the king. As Victoria was on the throne in 1840, there was no King.

      • Donnalee says:

        Or “Regency” set in 1798 or something and not in the actual 1811-1820 era when ‘Prinny’ was Regent. There may certainly have been other regents throughout history, but ‘Regency’ romances etc. seem to refer only to that one. People used to at least look up details of what the heck they were writing about before they stuck them in books, and then editors caught the oversights. I see a lot of random material being published, but I stop reading if a historical-setting book is too lacking in appropriate context, or if the characters act like trashy people from the 2000s and do not get consequences because of it–Upper 10,000 doing passionate kissing and groping in public etc.. and people just acting as if it’s a tacky modern wedding–

  11. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Loved re-reading this post. So many details that are easy to forget. Thanks. Jen Red

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