Breach of Promise: Broken Engagements in the 18th Century
What might happen if the hero met the heroine after engaging himself to another woman?
Until the 20th century, an engagement was a legally binding contract. This was a law seen worldwide, not just in England, although the nature of the law differed in each country. In England, the legally binding nature of an engagement was not changed until the 1970s, the last legal case of a broken engagement being in 1969. We see this situation in quite a few historical romances where a gentleman is engaged to one woman but in love with another and honor-bound to uphold the first engagement regardless of where his heart lies. For a gentleman to break off an engagement, it would be considered a Breach of Promise by the courts.
Breach of Promise allowed the betrothed woman to sue the gentleman should he break off the engagement. Interestingly, it was not true for the reverse, as a woman could break off an engagement without penalty or worry of litigation for the courts. That's not to say there weren't cases where women were brought to court and asked to "prove" that the gentleman was violent, of bad character, or otherwise, but these were extreme cases and few and far between, for it was the gentleman who, by law, was bound by the promise, not the lady. Should you ever come across a gentleman who is unhappily engaged to a woman who claims (truthful or not) to have an understanding with him, know that he is trapped in that engagement unless he can convince the woman to cry off. Does Edward Ferrars from Sense and Sensibility come to mind?
Edward Ferrars in 1995 & 2008 Sense and Sensibility movie adaptations
A Breach of Promise was nothing at which to sniff. Men did not enter engagements lightly for if they were sued for damages for trying to break off the engagement, not only would their reputation be ruined, but so would their pocketbook. Take for instance the 1824 case of Maria Foote who sued betrothed Joseph Hayne and won £3,000 for damages rendered (damages in these cases typically being cited as emotional distress, loss of social standing or reputation, loss of virtue, pregnancy, wedding expenses, loss or expenditure of dowry, etc). This case is interesting because Maria Foote seemed to be the one in the wrong, having been a mistress to another gentleman (including children by that gentleman!). Also interesting was how publicized this case was, the report of it sold all over London at the time. And guess what: she became a countess not long after! In Breach of Promise cases, the law sides with the woman, and so Maria Foote's reputation and wallet were restored when her betrothed tried to flee the scene. There are hundreds of suits of this nature, some quite scandalous. Something of note is that in the eyes of the law, any intimacy (by which I mean consensual) conducted during an engagement that leads to a Breach of Promise could be considered ravishment/rape.
We read so many situations in which a woman worries about being compromised. She's always on her guard to safeguard her reputation, a chaperone of some sort present at all times so she's never caught with a man alone. In truth, the men were more in danger of being compromised than the women. In a time when men ruled, that may seem odd, but consider that a man's social standing was his primary means of credibility, so a bachelor of title and fortune (or one or the other), was a target for enterprising young ladies hoping to compromise him. Should he be caught alone with a woman, should a woman lie about an understanding, should anything untoward happen, he was honor-bound to marry her, even if it was a conniving trap, for if he said no, not only would his reputation be in tatters, but likely so would his pocketbook if she sued. There was, of course, more leniency for a man to say no (hello, rakes and rogues), but the damage to the reputation and social standing was irreparable. What man of good standing wanted to be viewed as a libertine, lose his friends, lose invitations, lose his voice in Parliament, and so forth? Not many.
Now, what are the odds of a woman actually pleading Breach of Promise in a court of law? Well, that depended on how damaged her reputation already was, for taking a gentleman to court could ruin her (and him) for good, so the real question for the woman would be--was it worth it? If she was already ruined, then perhaps she could attempt to clear her name, restore some reputation, and earn some money in the process.
The Breach of Promise action originated in the ecclesiastical courts, not ending until the 20th century, and reaching a peak during the Victorian era of the 19th century. This is an informal article about the BoP that includes several examples of real cases. This book is a must own on the topic. When it originated in the ecclesiastical courts, the possible penalty for a Breach of Promise was excommunication from the Church, as discussed in Edward Manson's article "Breach of Promise of Marriage" in the Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation. The Manson article is a must read for anyone studying this topic, for it goes into the rich history of every act and form of the law from the 13th century and beyond, including variations and law-changing outcomes ruled by judges in specific cases. The Hardwicke Marriage Act (remember that one? We chatted about it in the Banns and Licenses research discussion) removed the suit from the ecclesiastical courts, forcing such suits into the common law courts to avoid couples entering an unhappy alliance for the sake of their mortal souls. This was a legal issue, not a religious issue, the Hardwicke Act declared. This article details the transition from ecclesiastical to common law. This dissertation goes into detail about the 875 Breach of Promise suits seen between 1750 and 1970.
The concern of Breach of Promise is a key plot point in A Dash of Romance, for we find our couple trapped in an engagement in which only the heroine can cry off. They must find a way to break the engagement without ruining their reputations or causing a scandal, as a broken engagement will inevitably cause scandal and harm reputations.
As a brief aside, if you might be wondering why a broken engagement would cause a scandal, think to what is allowed of an engaged couple--they may speak in private without the presence of a chaperone, travel together for short distances without the presence of a chaperone, lay hand on arm or hand to hand, etc. There's a good bit of intimacy allowed between engaged couples that would be called into question later should that engagement break, and lest we forget, there's the question of why the match proved incompatible--is one party unwanted for some reason?