“Rule of Thumb”: The Wife as Property in the Regency Era, Part I

I have written several scenes in my 55+ books in which the wife is abused by her husband, sometimes mentally and sometimes physically. During the Regency there was no laws against such abuse. The wife held no rights. In fact, if we take a closer look at the actual laws on the books in the Regency, we discover a woman was only an extension of her husband—not a person in her own right.

Women, for example, were not permitted to buy property, write a will, make contracts, own her own carriage, or even have custody of her children. In Darcy’s Temptation, which will rerelease toward the end of this calendar year, Elizabeth fears Darcy will send her away after she delivers his heir.

Back in 1765, English jurist, judge, and Tory politician, William Blackstone published the first of four volumes of Commentaries on the Laws of England, considered his magnum opus; the completed work earned Blackstone £14,000 (£1,990,000 in 2022 terms). Blackstone’s four-volume Commentaries were designed to provide a complete overview of English law and to provide it some consistency.

Of women’s legal rights in marriage and without, he explained . . .

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 anything 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.

What this meant was a woman could NOT make contracts, purchase property, write a will, perform the duties of a business partner, sign bills of exchange, own the money she made in performance of a job, or even claim custody of her children.

A single woman or a widow possessed more rights than did a married one. In my tale, “His Christmas Violet,” the main character Lady Violet Graham is a widow, and she refuses Sir Frederick Nolan’s offer of marriage, for she does not want again to place her life in the hands of a man.

It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1884 that married women enjoyed the same legal rights as unmarried women.

In my tale, “Lady Joy and the Earl,” Lady Jocelyn “Joy” Lathrop has married a man who takes great “pleasure” in beating her. When he dies, she declares she will never again place her life in the hands of any man, not even the hands of James Highcliffe, 10th Earl Hough, who she has loved since childhood. I received some “criticism” for including this reality in the tale, but I wished to make a point regarding the lack of rights women possessed during the Regency. She was safer as a widow than she would have been in placing her life in the hands of another. In the 1970s, the “rule of thumb,” so to speak, was a man could not beat his wife with a limb that was larger around than his thumb. Whether this was true in the Regency, I cannot say with any certainty, but the thumb has long been used a unit of measurement. The old English “ynche” was defined as the breadth of a man’s thumb at the base of the nail. Yet, I digress.

According to Wikipedia, “A modern folk etymology holds that the phrase is derived from the maximum width of a stick allowed for wife-beating under English common law, but no such law ever existed. This belief may have originated in a rumored statement by 18th-century judge Sir Francis Buller that a man may beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb. The rumor produced numerous jokes and satirical cartoons at Buller’s expense, but there is no record that he made such a statement.

“English jurist Sir William Blackstone (yes, Blackstone again) wrote in his Commentaries on the Laws of England of an “old law” that once allowed “moderate” beatings by husbands, but he did not mention thumbs or any specific implements. Wife-beating has been officially outlawed for centuries in England (and the rest of the United Kingdom) and the United States, but continued in practice; several 19th-century American court rulings referred to an ‘ancient doctrine’ that the judges believed had allowed husbands to physically punish their wives using implements no thicker than their thumbs.”

According to Blackstone (1765)

The husband also, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children; for whom the master or parent is also liable in some cases to answer.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to “Rule of Thumb”: The Wife as Property in the Regency Era, Part I

  1. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Some of this I knew, but didn’t realize a single woman or widow had more rights than a married woman. Oh for a benevolent husband..

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