Negotiating Marriage Settlements During the Regency Era

We have all likely read the part in a Regency romance where marriage settlements were discussed, but how did those come about? 

“A marriage settlement in England was a historic arrangement whereby, most commonly and in its simplest form, a trust of land or other assets was established jointly by the parents of a bride and bridegroom. The trustees were established as legal owners of the assets, and the bride and bridegroom as beneficial owners of the assets during their lifetimes, and after their deaths, beneficial ownership would descend to one or more of the children of the union. It was a means of ensuring the proper use of a dowry provided by the bride’s father to be used for his daughter’s financial support throughout her married life and into her widowhood, and also a means by which the bride’s father was able to obtain from the bridegroom’s father a financial commitment to the intended marriage and to the children resulting therefrom. It also was an instrument by which the practice of primogeniture was affected by the use of an entail or fee male.”

800px-Sir_William_Blackstone_from_NPG In 1765, William Blackstone, an English jurist, judge and Tory politician of the 18th Century and most noted for writing the Commentaries on the Laws of England, provided this interpretation of English law regarding laws affecting women’s legal rights in marriage. 

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.

We must remember that married women were not permitted to make contracts, purchase property, have custody of her children, sign legal documents, etc. Widows had more freedom. It took the Married Women’s Property Act of 1884 to provide married women some of the rights of those who chose to remain unmarried or were widowed. 

The fathers of both the groom and the bride, as well as the solicitors representing each family, customarily came together to decide on the terms of the marriage settlement. Believe it or not, betrothals occasionally were broken off and marriage plans abandoned when the fathers could not agree. The person who had control of the money and property on both sides took part in the discussion of settlements. The solicitor usually was there to put the agreement into proper contract form and to provide advice where necessary. It should be noted that the bridegroom, for example, in the case of Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, could negotiate with the father of the bride if the groom had his own property and money. Otherwise the groom and his father did the negotiating.

The heir also took part in the negotiations for a younger son. Even if the bridegroom had met his majority and was one and twenty years, his father, if alive, would take part in the discussion. Only if the man were in full possession of money and property and his father was either dead or not expected to give him more, would the bridegroom be the one doing the negotiating. In those days, an heir had expectations but rarely owned anything outright. The bride usually owned nothing in her own right so her father, guardian or trustee laid out what she would be bringing to the marriage as a dowry or, sometimes, for her sole use. Saying something was for her sole use was somewhat of a mischaracterization, for the husband quite often had the use of the income. He was not supposed to touch the capital or the property itself, but allowing her to have the income from property or money in the funds had to be specifically mentioned in the settlements.

The marriage settlements set the inheritance of certain properties for any children sired during the marriage, set out dowries for any daughters and allowances for younger sons. Provisions were made in case there were no children or only girls. The wife’s pin money and jointure were set, usually as a percentage of the dowry. Some even set out what alimony she would have if they separated. Some property was left to the woman’s sole use. If the groom had not yet succeeded his father or if the groom was a younger son, he was usually dependent on the  allowance his father presented him. Some heirs had property for their use, and his allowance was increased when he married. The larger the woman’s dowry the more she should have as a dress allowance and pin money and the greater her jointure should be.


My dear friend Sharon Lathan explains the process perfectly. “For our purposes of the Regency Era, step one, especially if either [meaning bride or groom] were under twenty-one, was gaining parental permission. First this would be verbal from the father and/or mother. Next came the nitty-gritty of the “settlement” documents. These were actual legal papers, drawn up by lawyers with input from the groom and the bride-to-be’s legal guardian (the father, in most instances).

Covered in the settlement contract:

  • Dowry – Daughters of wealthy families had a specific dowry amount set aside for them. This may include a portion of the dowry her mother brought to the marriage. The dowry was an amount well known, such financial matters expected to play a role in why a woman was chosen as a wife.
  • Pin Money – An annual allowance allotted to the wife for her personal needs during her husband’s lifetime.
  • Children – Some settlements detailed specific provisions for future children, such as a base dowry amount for any daughters or a monetary inheritance for sons beside the heir.
  • Death – Details were specified for after the husband’s death, this called the “jointure.” This may include where the wife could live, if any properties were to be given to her or made available, the jewels she could keep, an annual allowance, provisions for minor children, and so on.

“It is important to note that everything a woman brought into the marriage became the possession of her husband. EVERYTHING. Women in the Regency had few individual rights. It was imperative for her family, or the woman herself if older, to negotiate for her financial future, binding it in the legal settlement. What happened to her and her children depended upon this.

victorian-courtship“You may be able to guess that with all these legalities, courtship was not wholly the fluffy period we think of. The couple did not enjoy all the perks of being married, and had not taken the vital step of being blessed by God, but legally they were bound. If an engaged person terminated the agreement before the marriage, he/she could face legal action in a “breach of promise” suit. These types of legal actions were not common with broken engagements, but it did happen often enough that taking the official step to accept a marriage proposal and enter the courtship phase was seriously considered.”

Often it took several months to draw up the settlements and, so, they were started early. There was generally no rush, for those in Society would never consider the simple calling of banns to marry. An ordinary license or a special license would be employed. 

As was mentioned earlier, every once in a while a wedding would be called off because the men working on the settlements could not come to an agreement. It would soon become known that the fathers could not come to an agreement about the settlements. Or it could be the husband would not agree to the extent of the money left for the sole use of the wife. If the couple really cared for each other, they could marry when both were of age. Having trustees or fathers disagree about settlements cast no aspersions on  either the young man or the young lady.  People were more apt to gossip when an engagement fell through and no one would say why.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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