Marriage in 18th century England

Congratulations, Mrs. Snodgrass Bumfrey! You have elected to become a wife. Most women in 18th century England married as you have. In fact, the average age of women when they married was 22.63 32. For men, that age was somewhat older at 26 33. The implications of this later age of marriage were that there were fewer years of fertility available to a couple in their reproductive prime.

Couples were beginning to have more choice in their selection of spouses in the 18th century. Couples were formed on the basis of personal affection rather than obeying parental wishes 34. Two popular aphorisms circulated during this period that best exemplify the prevailing attitude on marriage. One saying is that "that man that is against his sons and daughters to marry, has sons and daughters that wish their father dead" 35. The second aphorism is "the reason why your Great Folks seldom like the Persons you marry is because they seldom marry the Persons they like" 36.

When entering into marriage, women were usually given a lump sum of money or a part of her parents' estate. This sum was known as her dowry. But the married couple needed more than the dowry to establish themselves. They needed 38:

Not every marriage was blessed by consenting parents and friends. Many couples entered into secret marriages known as Fleet marriages. These marriages grew in popularity as official weddings were heavily taxed in the first half of the 18th century. Signs beckoned to prospective newlyweds with phrases such as "Sir, will you be pleased to walk in and be married?" 39. These marriages were helpful to the poor as they were so inexpensive but the ease of the marriage made for many hasty matches 40. The marriages could not be dissolved, even though they would "back-date a registration to legitimize children already born" 41. As an indication of how widespread these Fleet marriages were, one author estimates that one-third of all comedies on the London stage during this time were about these clandestine marriages 42.

Legally, marriage meant subordination for women. Sir William Blackstone summarized in 1753 that: "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: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs every thing" 43. Another contemporary observed that a young gives up "her liberty, she also gives her husband the absolute right of causing her to live in what place, and in what manner and what society he pleases, all her goods and above all, she surrenders to him her person" 44.

Not only does the woman have very few legal rights in marriage but the marriage may not be the deep, emotional bond that she may have thought it would be. In fact, marriages were often isolating. Wives would spend much of their day with female kin and neighbors while men would spend their time with other men 45. The couple would often "eat apart, walk apart, even, most of the time, sleep apart" 46.

The characteristics that men looked for in potential wives deserve comment. One young man listed that his ideal wife should be 47:

  1. A maid, yet willing to become a mother.
  2. Young, yet full ripe. A fair one, and yet black.
  3. The white side turned to me, black unto other.
  4. Silent, yet one that no good tongue lack.
  5. Rich, only to contentment, not to excess.
  6. Wise, not to teach, but her own wants to know.
  7. Holy, striving with lover her faith to express.
  8. Well born, yet not so high to set me low.

You must have some of these qualities as Mr. Bumfrey selected you. How different do these characteristics seem from what men want in the 20th century? I think it is worth noting the ranking of these attributes. It is very interesting that chastity comes before riches and even wisdom. Men wanted their women untouched by other men above all else. (Image: A Wedding at Gretna Green. By T. Rowlandson, 1811)


Your husband, Mr. Bumfrey, is deliberating about taking a sea voyage to see about business opportunities in France. Do you encourage him to go?