Getting Married in the 18th Century (and Earlier!)

These 18th century ladies,
Lady Georgiana Cavendish,
and Elizabeth Foster Cavendish
both married at 17.
In Installment 2 of Mr. B Speaks! Leslie Quinn--the popular non-fiction writer--comments that 12 was the legal age for marriage in the 18th century.

While this is true--despite the wince it causes--innocent teen girls were not married off to grumpy elderly men (or youthful teen boys to robbing-the-cradle elderly ladies) as often as you might think.

When Elizabeth--or Bess's--husband
died, she moved in with Georgiana and
shared her husband whom she married
after Lady Georgiana's death.
According to G.J. Meyer, during hard agricultural times in the 1500s, merchants and farmers actually married "in their mid-twenties or later." Even amongst the nobility, later marriages were not uncommon. Although Henry VII's mother was married at age 12 and bore Henry VII at age 13, she didn't bear any more children, likely due to complications with Henry VII's birth.

Medievals may have been callous (debatable), but they weren't stupid. If you wanted kids, you waited for maturity to hit. (During the divorce between Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine, those against the divorce argued that Catherine's prior marriage to Arthur, Henry VIII's brother, was never consummated. This is not unlikely: Arthur was sickly and may not have undergone puberty despite Catherine and Arthur both being approximately 15 when they married.)

However, while not condoning marriages to early adolescents (and not all parents of the past did), the denouncement of the act as perverse would have confused anybody up until the 20th century. When middle-age is 35, old-age is 50, and princes are leading armies at 18, getting married at, say, 13 wouldn't seem quite so strange and icky as it does now.

It still wasn't the norm. As suggested above, marriage, at least for the nobility, was as much a political maneuver as a sexual one. Mr. B's sister marries "up" by marrying a lord despite the fact that Mr. B is far wealthier than all the other characters both in Richardson's novel and in my adaptation. For you Pride & Prejudice fans, Darcy is a step up from Elizabeth--whose mother's family comes from trade--and from Bingley--whose father was in trade--but not as far up the scale as someone with a title.

Even without titles, the landed, untitled gentry of the 18th and early 19th centuries considered themselves, justifiably, to be far more powerful and far more respected in their small enclaves than the average aristocrat. This would change by the mid-19th century after which dozens of wealthy Americans would pursue English marriages on behalf of their daughters for titles rather than for land or money. None of them were 13 although Consuelo Vanderbilt was 18 when her mother forced her to marry the 9th Duke of Malborough.


Joe said...

Ah, one of my pet peeves. The notion that girls marrying at 15 was common is pure poppycock. When you look at actual records, the average age for marriage for both sexes was in their mid-twenties!

The early to mid 20th century was a historical anomaly. (And Mormons a super historical anomaly.) Women marrying before 17 have always been extreme outliers (except, perhaps, for some primitive tribes.)

"But on farms..." Nonsense. Farmers weren't a bunch of hicks marrying off their daughters. Quite to the contrary; teen daughters were invaluable around the house. People don't realize just how much work it was to simply maintain a house pre-20th century, let alone cook and take care of the younger kids. (Moreover, fathers weren't about to let some guy just marry their daughters--the man better have something to show first. Some stability.)

Kate Woodbury said...

Farmers weren't a bunch of hicks marrying off their daughters. Quite to the contrary; teen daughters were invaluable around the house.

Absolutely! In fact, after delving through several centuries of English history, I've formed the conclusion that if I, a woman, had to be born in England at any point during the 16th to 19th centuries, I'd take the growing merchant class (which was similar to, though obviously more urban than, the cautiously growing number of self-supporting farmers from the peasant class) over everything.

As a member of the merchant class, rather than the aristocracy or gentry, I would, no matter how disenfranchised, have a better chance of marrying as I pleased (or at least marrying someone I knew), marrying later in life, avoiding complications in childbirth (since I would be attended by other women who had given birth, not by court physicians who were totally clueless), and of staying alive.

The "staying alive" bit extends to males as well. The amazing thing about Henry VIII's reign is how incredibly dangerous it was to be a noble-person of either sex. An appalling percentage of the nobility were placed in the tower, executed, stripped of their lands and wealth, bullied, and otherwise persecuted for failing to prop up Henry VIII's ego.

But here's the really wacky thing: many of them continued to try to curry favor anyway. Despite growing evidence that Henry was willing to execute so-called friends at the drop of, well, a wife's head, some noble families still kept maneuvering for royal patronage.

Which has led me to the conclusion that the political mindset is, to put it in psychological terms, nuts.