The Ins and Outs of a Marriage of Convenience During the Regency Era

I am more than certain many of you have read stories about a “marriage of convenience” in Regency romances, but what does that mean exactly? 

First, such a marriage did not mean “NO” sex forever, not simply no sex for a brief period of time. Remember a marriage without sex is referred to as “mariage blanc.” Mariage blanc “(from the French, literally “white marriage”) is a marriage that is without consummation. The expression may derive from the absence of hymenal blood on the couple’s (white) wedding-night bedsheets; however, the French word blanc also means blank in the sense of empty, e.g. cartouche à blanc = a blank cartridge, one lacking a bullet. Another example is a lavender marriage, one undertaken to disguise the homosexuality of one or both partners. A sexless marriage, on the other hand, may have begun with the standard expectations. he marriages of Thomas Caryle, John Ruskin, Freya Stark, and Max Beerbohm are alleged to have not been consummated through impotence.  The brief marriage of Tchaikovsky might be described as a ‘lavender marriage’.”

A marriage of convenience simply means it is not a love match. It is usually entered into in order to aid or rescue one of the spouses from persecution or harm; or for economic, social or visa advantage. Such plot lines are favorites among Regency romance writers, as love after marriage, or love that is only one-sided at the time of marriage, makes for lots of romantic development and high drama.

Whether or not she chose to sleep with a man or not would have no baring on the contract. Such an arrangement was not likely discussed openly, for no cleric would perform such a ceremony.

From a logical perspective, a woman would usually have very little power in this issue.  If she wanted to avoid a marriage badly enough, she could get herself ruined, but then her family would likely turn her out—a difficult place to place oneself in.  And even if such was known of her, it might not save the woman if the groom did not care whether she was a virgin or not. Such arrangements were more something a man would do—either because he could not or would not participate in the act. As being homosexual was a criminal offence in many cultures, it is unlikely he would ever put anything about not consummating the marriage in writing. It would be an agreement between the two, or he would just not cooperate. If she were to complain, he could beat her, lock her up, banish her, make her life miserable, or even have her killed, all without legal ramifications.  He would just blame her for being barren and send her away. Some family and friends might know the truth, but who was going to say much, especially if the man was powerful?  Some women might be fine with it, but a marriage in the church and a marriage registered with government can have two different purposes.

A marriage contract that spelt out that there would be no sex was unlikely to be enforceable. These types of arrangements would usually be verbal and really involve cases where each person was allowed to go their own way. One must remember, many marriages were arranged ones, a contract between families. Such marriages were “convenient” for the families involved. 

It more modern stories, we might see what we commonly call a sham marriage, but this would not fit for the Regency era, because in the Regency, it took an act of Parliament for a divorce. “A sham marriage or fake marriage is a marriage of convenience entered into without intending to create a real marital relationship. This is usually for the purpose of gaining an advantage from the marriage. Definitions of sham marriage vary by jurisdiction, but are often related to immigration. The essential point in the varying definitions is whether the couple intend to live in a real marital relationship, to establish a life together. A typical definition by the UK Home Office in 2015:

“‘A sham marriage or civil partnership is one where the relationship is not genuine but one party hopes to gain an immigration advantage from it. There is no subsisting relationship, dependency, or intent to live as husband and wife or civil partners.’

“While referred to as a ‘sham’ or ‘fake’ because of its motivation, the union itself is legally valid if it conforms to the formal legal requirements for marriage in the jurisdiction. Arranging or entering into such a marriage to deceive public officials is in itself a violation of the law of some countries, for example the U. S. After a period, couples often divorce  if there is no purpose in remaining married.”

We also have what is known as a Josephite marriage, but the closest we see to this situation in the Regency refers to those who taught at the university or the students themselves. The History of Cambridge or The History of Oxford all report that celibacy was enforced for students. However, I have discovered that if a fellow married, he had one year grace period to finish studies, etc., and leave. I think that was mentioned in the biography of John Scott, the 1st Earl of Eldon. The celibacy rule remained until 1882.

Josephite marriage, also known as spiritual marriagechaste marriage, and continent marriage, is a religiously motivated practice in which a man and a woman live intimately without engaging in sexual activity.  A feature of Catholic spiritual marriage, or Josephite marriage, is that the agreement to abstain from sex should be a free mutual decision, rather than resulting from impotence or the views of one party. In senses beyond spiritual marriage, chastity is a key concept of Church doctrine that demands celibacy of priests, monks, nuns and certain other officials in the Church. The doctrine established a ‘spiritual marriage’ of church officials to their church; in order to better serve God, one had to disavow the demands and temptations of traditional marriage.”

Occasionally, we come across a book where the heroine is a widow who had lived in a platonic marriage with her husband because he was not interested in sex with women. She understands the restrictions before they marry, but she does so because he paid to pull her family out of a financial hole.

Arms of Wallop, Earls of Portsmouth. The supporters, Two chamois or wild goats sable, are here shown off duty; the crest is: A mermaid holding in the dexter hand a mirror in the other a comb all proper

In real life, we have examples of a marriage of convenience, such as that of John Wallop, 3rd Earl of Portsmouth. “The Earl was known from an early age to have an unsound mind, and his estate was placed under the control of four trustees. While Portsmouth had periods in which he appeared sane, he often engaged in a variety of bizarre and sadistic behavior. He whipped his servants, beat and bled his horses, and slaughtered cattle, shouting, with an axe. The Earl showed a remarkable mania for funerals, which he referred to as ‘black jobs.’ He attended them frequently, insisted on tolling the bells at Hurstbourne for funerals there, and sometimes flogged the ringers with the bell rope afterwards.

“On 19 November 1799, Portsmouth married Hon. Grace Norton, the sister of one of his trustees, William Norton, 2nd Baron Grantley. The marriage was encouraged by Portsmouth’s younger brother, Hon. Newton Fellowes, as Grace was 47 years old at the marriage (Portsmouth was 31) and unlikely to produce an heir to displace Newton. However, Grace also played an important role in moderating Portsmouth’s behavior and keeping his eccentricities out of the public eye. When, in 1808, she found herself no longer able to control the Earl, her relative, Dr. John Combe, was added to the household, to help suppress Portsmouth’s manias.]

“One of the trustees, Portsmouth’s solicitor John Hanson, saw an opportunity at Grace’s death in 1813. Without informing the other trustees or Portsmouth’s brother Newton, he quickly arranged a marriage between Portsmouth and his daughter, Mary Anne. They were married on 7 March 1814; Lord Byron, another one of Hanson’s clients, gave the bride away. When Newton attempted to have Portsmouth declared insane that autumn, Byron’s affidavit as to the circumstances of the marriage was instrumental in getting the charge dismissed.[2] However, the new Countess was by no means equal to the task of controlling Portsmouth; his behavior grew more erratic, while Mary Anne carried on an adulterous affair with William Alder, who fathered three children on her. Eventually, the pair of lovers grew so bold as to have intercourse in the same bed with the Earl (who was almost certainly impotent).

“A new commission de lunatico inquirendo took place in 1823, at the instigation of Portsmouth’s nephew Henry Wallop Fellowes, and it was revealed that the Earl had been badly mistreated by his new wife and her lover, who had spat on him and beaten him. He was adjudged to have been insane since 1809. In 1828, his second marriage was annulled, and Mary Anne’s children were declared bastards. A judgment for the £40,000 cost of the trial was issued against her, and she fled abroad. Portsmouth died in 1853; his brother Newton succeeded him for less than half a year before his own death.”

Some readers assume that the act of consummation is what made a marriage legal—made it a union, as far as the church was concerned. But until the mid 19th Century, this was not a true statement in England, for consummation was not required. Non consummation was not grounds for an annulment, though inability to consummate was. The church held the belief that men and women  were more likely than not to have sex if living in close proximity, so it was assumed that non consummation was something that time could cure. The inability to consummate was different. If a man or woman proved that no amount of time would provide them the ability to consummate the marriage it could be annulled.

In a few cases  when a man had a marriage annulled on such grounds and then went on to marry another and father children, some of the church judges and bishops wanted to  annul the annulment and invalidate the second marriage. Wiser heads prevailed, and  it was decided that God works in mysterious ways.  It helped that the number of such marriages was very small.

The wife’s adultery was just about the only grounds a husband could claim in order to be  rid of his wife. Wives were laughed out of court when they claimed he abused them and brought in mistresses to humiliate them. The wives were told to have Christian forbearance and that there was still a chance for them to have a marriage. The church might grant a legal separation in some of the worse cases. Generally, the wife was supposed to suffer in silence. The two women who were able to obtain a parliamentary divorce in the early years of the 19th century did so because there was no way for them to go back to live with their husbands. In each case the husband took the wife’s sister as his mistress, which made him guilty of incest. It was an odd system that considered sleeping with your wife’s sister a greater crime than beating her.

While the church required that both bride and groom come voluntarily to be married there were many cases of clergymen looking the other way or of girls being too frightened or intimidated to voice a protest.

A rare extant copy of a common marriage license from 1806. Licenses were a quicker, more private alternative to reading of banns, but they cost a bit of coin. This one was 10 shillings. BTW, this is not a SPECIAL license, which would have been a lot more expensive and harder to obtain. –Elisa Braden

Marriage contracts were not legally enforceable. The Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753– in force as of 25 March 1754– says that such contracts were no loner enforceable. One thing the church insisted on was that each person standing before the cleric to be married be there of his or her own free will. Of course, they interpreted free will somewhat differently at times. 

However, while there was no legal way to enforce the contract, which a person of age never signed nor agreed to, family and social pressure often did what the law would not. That is why so  often we hear about a person being left money if he/she married so and so. If he did not marry the designated person the money went elsewhere. The man usually was the one guilt tripped into marrying.

The court might say that if he knew about the contract since he was 16 and did nothing to spurn it, he had agreed to it. Usually a breach of that contract would only be a breach of promise, and he could say he never made the promise. Promises made by parents and guardians for a minor could be revoked when the minor became an adult if he knew about it and acted on it. If he just let it go, he might be said to have agreed to it. The courts of the era gave odd decisions sometimes.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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8 Responses to The Ins and Outs of a Marriage of Convenience During the Regency Era

  1. foreverHis says:

    Very, very interesting. Thank you!

  2. Hollis says:

    Wow, my illusion have been shattered.

  3. Carol Cork says:

    Such an interesting post, Regina.

  4. Michelle H says:

    I think I’ve read at least one (probably 40) Regency for each item of law and/or circumstance mentioned in your very informative article. I’m wondering if in some of these cases the writer just made it up and came remarkably close to the reality, or if they actually researched it. There’s a lot of repeating of inaccuracies in Regency Romance…..which took me a long time to learn after starting to read the genre. Older and wiser and choosier. I’d heard of ‘White Marriages’ referred to in stories, which usually covered the situation of the lavender sort.

    I tend to think of the idea of an independent sort of heroine, who doesn’t want to marry too soon or ever, being way too modern. It is always stressed that marriage was the only honorable and respectable position for a woman. I’m thinking more like Charlotte Lucas about a woman’s chances at happiness. Actually she had her rose-colored glasses on with that idea. I wonder how much poor Grace Norton Wollop was pressured into marrying.

    I know I’m not making any new point here. Sorry for the ramble but your articles do spark a person’s mind.

    • Many cite Georgette Heyer’s books as the “Bible” of Regency conventions, but the lady was known to make up words and “customs” to fit her story.
      Those of us who belong to the Romance Writers of America have the option of joining the Regency-based chapter known as “The Beau Monde.” Many of us say we could not justify our membership in RWA if not for the Regency group. One can ask a question on the chapter email loop and have a dozen responses.

      • Michelle H says:

        I’d heard that about Heyer, but it wsn’t from an expert so I haven’t passed that on. Thank you for the nod to The Beau Monde.

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