Upon occasion, it is difficult for those who read Regency romances to understand all the nuances of the word “honor” or “honour”. Obviously, the idea of “honor” is quite different in nonfiction books. One rarely finds information in a nonfiction book on a gentleman’s sense of honor. Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, provided extensive advice to his son, but much of his instruction is not what I would consider honorable behavior.
If you are interested, you might read the entire book or excerpts on particular subjects at this link: Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son, on men and manners: or, A new system of education. In which the principles of politeness, the art of acquiring a knowledge of the world, with every instruction necessary to form a man of honour, virtue, taste, and fashion, are laid down in a plain, easy, familiar manner, adapted to every station and capacity. : The whole arranged on a plan entirely new.
In truth, I have not discovered much—perhaps, I just have not looked in the right places, about the gentlemen’s sense of honor. There is some discussion of the concept in books on dueling.
Most often one reads a man would pay his gambling debts, those so-called debts “of honor” before he would pay his tailor, with the result being the tailor went bankrupt.
Another aspect of “honor” was a man’s word was his bond. This meant he could give his word instead of taking an oath, except for before parliament.
One comment on honor I read was that a man’s honor was involved even when the law could not be. Gambling debts of the plain IOU (vows, not vowels) type could not be enforced by law, so they had to be enforced by a concept of a gentleman’s honor.
Once the Hardwicke Marriage Act made marriage contracts of the old type unenforceable, it became a matter of honor that a gentleman marry where he promised. There was a breach of promise suit, but ladies and gentlemen of quality did not customarily avail themselves of that legal process. Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington both married women who appeared to feel they had a claim on the gentleman. Wellington was told a Catherine Pakenham had waited for many years because she felt they had agreed to marry. Wellesley(as he was then) did not recall it in the same manner, but felt bound by honor to marry the lady with an offer of his hand.
Catherine Sarah Dorothea Wellesley, Duchess of Wellington (née Pakenham had met Wellesley in Ireland when they were both young, and Wellesley, after numerous visits to the Longfords’ (her father was Baron Longford) Dublin home, made his feelings toward her clear. At the time her family disapproved of the match: Wellesley was the third son of a large family and had little in the way of prospects. After the rejection by the Pakenhams, Wellesley became serious about his military career, was posted to the Netherlands and India, enjoyed a spectacular rise, and seemingly forgot Kitty. Although she remained hopeful they would be reunited, she admitted to a friend, Olivia Sparrow, after many years, she thought the “business over.” She became engaged to Galbraith Lowry Cole, the second son of the Earl of Enniskillen, but Sparrow, who was in contact with Wellesley, revealed he still considered himself attached to her. After much soul-searching, Pakenham broke off the engagement to Cole, although she believed the stress of the affair damaged her health.
There is much speculation about their unhappy marriage. One sees bits of it play out on the PBS series, Victoria, for Wellington was British Prime Minister from 1828 to 1830. During the Napoleonic War, Wellesley remained in Portugal and Spain during the entire Peninsular War, not returning to England until 1814. Kitty aged quickly, becoming short-sighted, causing her to squint when talking. Wellesley found her vain and vacuous. It appears she indeed loved him, but contented herself by doting on her sons and four adopted children. Wellesley confided to his closest female friend, Harriet Arbuthnot, that he had “repeatedly tried to live in a friendly manner with her … but it was impossible … & it drove him to seek that comfort & happiness abroad that was denied him at home”. Harriet, the nature of whose own relations with Wellesley remains a subject of speculation, had a rather low opinion of Kitty—”she is such a fool”—but disputed Wellesley’s claim that she cared nothing for his happiness; in a rare moment of sympathy, she wrote that Kitty wanted above all to make her husband happy, but had no idea how to do it.
Lord Byron did propose to Miss Annabella Milbanke with whom he had been corresponding. She had initiated the correspondence. She hinted she was expecting an offer from another and the subject and the correspondence was dropped.
On September 17 1814, Lord Byron receives Annabella Milbanke’s letter accepting his marriage proposal. Her letter reads:
I have your second letter—and am almost too agitated to write—but you will understand. It would be absurd to suppress anything—I am and have long been pledged to myself to make your happiness my first object in life. If I can make you happy, I have no other consideration. I will trust to you for all I should look up to—all I can love. The fear of not realizing your expectations is the only one I now feel.
Convince me—it is all I wish—that my affection may supply what is wanting in my character to form your happiness. This is a moment of joy which I have too much despaired of ever experiencing—I dared not believe it possible, and I have painfully supported a determination founded in fact on the belief that you did not wish it removed—that its removal would not be for your good. There has in reality been scarcely a change in my sentiments. More of this I will defer. I wrote by last post—with what different feelings! Let me be grateful for those with which I now acknowledge myself Most affectionately yours.
A.I.M. (You may read more at Past Now.)
I am not certain whether or not Miss Milbanke was being honest when she hinted at someone else making an offer. Months later, when she again began corresponding with Byron, she let it be known she had not accepted another offer. He then felt obligated to make her an offer which she did not refuse. The whole world must know theirs was a very unhappy marriage.
Anyway, this all goes to prove, in the Georgian era, a man’s word was his bond.
The question of honor and the best outcome for all also comes into question if a man is betrothed to a lady in a marriage of more convenience than love and then he encounters the lady who he knew was the lady of his heart.
Honor might demand he follow through on the marriage with the one to whom he is betrothed, but is it really more honorable to marry one person when you really love another? The thinking of many is that love is a fleeting emotion, and one can get by on shared life, children, and tepid emotions. I sometimes wonder though whether it wouldn’t be better to have the man break the engagement, leaving one person unhappy, rather than marrying where he had promised and making three people unhappy?
The thing to remember about honor was that it only applied to one’s peers. Such is the one reason a gentleman had to pay his gambling debts, but not the tailor’s bill. If another gentleman insulted him, he might challenge the person to a duel. If a servant insulted the gentleman, he might have him thrashed or thrash him himself. The gentlemanly code of honor is inseparable from the class system.
Honor was a person’s reputation. It had more to do with the gentleman and his family receiving the ‘proper respect’ due their station. A gentleman expected to “be honored” for who he was, and not whether he followed a particular morale code. Such is why Regency men “defended their honor.” Men fought for “honor and glory”—to uphold their reputations. Such was for what gentlemen strove, even more so than society wealth, though the trappings of wealth could add to one’s honor. It seems to make more sense on a society-wide basis if honor is seen as the score card, determining who they were and whether they were respected.
The drive for “glory” in monarchs and princes during the 1700s was rampant, either by spending money on monuments and/or on wars. Louis XIV stated that he fought wars and built palaces to “uphold his honor and that of France.”
Acceptable/expected behaviors such as paying one’s debts to another gentleman was important, because the aristocracy and good families were the only ones who recognized or valued ‘honor’ as far as social class was concerned. It was very much a class issue. To say a poor man was without honor was more of a comment on his reputation and standing in society than commenting on his morals. Certainly, individuals would have personal moral codes they would feel ‘honor-bound’ to follow. Yet, ‘Honor’ as a code of conduct or some statement of what a moral person should conduct himself was simply one of many minor trappings surrounding the notion of honor. A man ‘without honor’ was someone who did not conform to society’s norms for a honorable gentleman and had a bad reputation. The two were often being seen as inseparable, regardless of the man’s actual behavior or morality.
Such is why ‘Honorable’ or ‘Honourable’ was a ‘honorific’ title during the Regency as is referring to a Judge today as ‘your honor.’ It is the recognition of one’s position, not their character or morals. During the Regency, saying someone was “a man of Honor” was not the same as saying he was a “man of Character” even though the implication was a man of honor had “breeding” or an aristocratic character, with all the expected norms in behavior being considered as such implied.
It is a complicated subject because we are looking at it from two hundred years and lots of definitions of ‘honor’ since then.