Marriage Settlements of the 18th century: Land, Money, or Love
"A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!"
Continuing our blog series on marriage, from courtship through the honeymoon phase, let's talk about marriage settlements. The settlement was, arguably, the primary purpose of marriage in the Georgian era, and thus the most important document pertaining to marriage. So, let's explore what a settlement includes, look at a few examples, and consider how settlements changed from the 17th-19th centuries.
A Record of Marriage
In terms of record keeping and genealogy, marriage settlements are one of the (if not the) most important documents to determine marriage in the 18th century.
Parish registers were notorious for inconsistencies, from not existing altogether or containing errors to being illegible. The only physical records kept of a marriage were in the parish registers. Neither common nor special licenses were filed once the clergyman agreed to conduct the ceremony, and the application for said licenses was not kept past 3-4 months (which is when the license expired). Were there exceptions? Sure. There were plenty of fastidious bookkeepers, as well as bishops who insisted on meticulous recordkeeping, but they were the exception rather than the norm. Just consider the differences between the two images provided above and below, one from 1790 and one from 1784, one being notes in a journal compared to one being in a formal register. Such variations existed across the country. Another complication with marriage records was that marriage certificates, like birth certificates, did not yet exist, not until 1837, and even then were not required until 1874. There was only the parish register, which marked banns, marriages, baptisms, and deaths, but the registers were, as mentioned, not entirely reliable. I recommend exploring this page on History House to see a little about the history of parish registers as they moved from scraps of paper to uniform books with columns, including images and links to view parish chests, parish register records, and more.
There are countless examples where the name in the banns doesn't match the name in the marriage register or the name in the marriage register doesn't match the parental name on the baptism, or there isn't an entry at all where there should be, and other mysterious errors. Some can be blamed on simple human error or illegible handwriting, others blamed on the use of alternate or pet names, and we'll leave the remaining errors to imagination.
The marriage settlements, however, are of significant importance to families and, as such, are (mostly) well preserved in family archives. In many cases, the settlement is the only proof of a union, but even that can be tricky in terms of genealogy since a settlement is signed before the marriage takes place, so there may not have been a marriage after all. While it didn't prove a union, it could often serve as proof (possibly the only proof). Curiously, one of the goals of the Hardwicke Act of 1753 was to ensure better documentation to avoid clandestine marriages (which could not later be proven as having happened, could be too easily coerced, could prove to be bigamous, etc.). An interesting presentation to watch, which is more to do with tracing ancestors and the implications of the Act, but thought-provoking for sure, is offered by Rebecca Probert in Tracing Marriages in 18th Century England and Wales: A Reassessment of Law and Practice.
The majority of marriages in the Georgian era were arranged rather than love matches (and in many cultures, this is still the case). The arrangement was typically to do with a mutually beneficial arrangement, each household having something to offer the other, be it connection, power, property, protection, money, or otherwise. Something that is often difficult to envision from within a culture based on love matches is that while this seems like it's a heartless business transaction, it is not seen in that way within the cultures that prize arranged marriages above all other types.
An arranged marriage is considered superior for many reasons, one of which is that the trusted family can vet the best match based on the person's reputation, personality, situation in life, stability, and family, ensuring to the best of their abilities that this will be a successful marriage wherein lasting love will grow. A love match is risky because the only factor driving the match is passion, and passion is likely to fade. The idea is to ensure a lasting and loving marriage rather than a mistake-of-a-moment, especially of a young girl with a rake. Now, I think we can agree that not all families have their children's best interests at heart, thinking instead of wealth and status by association, but I believe it's important to see the wisdom and potential of an arranged marriage as we dive into the legal settlements since dowries and settlements have that tendency to make it seem like a marriage is just a business deal to do with money, money, and more money. Not so. In part, but not in total.
Marriage Settlement Contents
The dual purpose of a settlement was to ensure the unbroken passage of the family's estate and coffers to the next generation and ensure the survival of the family line via (male) children. The future of the peerage depended on the marriage settlement. But it was not only the peerage who signed marriage settlements, and it was not only inheritance detailed. So, what is included in the marriage settlement?
The settlement explains
what each party brings to the marriage that is advantageous to the other--dowry and dower,
how the properties, goods, and wealth will be distributed amongst the children of the marriage,
what is owed to the bride during the marriage (i.e. her allowance or other perks),
how the bride will be cared for should she be widowed.
What was included changed over the centuries. For example, in the early 17th century, settlements were used to detail the dowry and the widow's dower, and little else, provisions for children rarely included, and property details rarely established, but by the late 17th century, the bulk of the settlement consisted of the rules of inheritance and provisions for the children, in addition to the widow's dower and what would happen to her widow's dower should she remarry.
Part of this change was to do with families wanting to ensure their estates/land stayed within the family. By the 18th century, the strict settlement was one of the most popular inclusions of marriage settlements, detailing property entails via primogeniture.
Settlements could be simple or complex, depending on the size of the families involved, the number of estates/properties/leases, the type and size of wealth (including investments, expected inheritances, annual income, tenancies, cash, etc.). Often, they could be extremely detailed, such as when listing the provisions for the children, provisions for the extended family, how properties and leaseholds were to be dealt with should the husband pass, how all of this might change if additional property were purchased in the future, and so forth. A great article that details much of the complexities can be found here: Habakkuk's article Marriage Settlements in the Eighteenth Century.
Some settlements looked into the future, including what the daughters of the union would be offered for their dowries and what provisions might be provided for younger sons, not to mention the details of what the eldest son would inherit. The more complex settlements, as Habakkuk explains, detail all of the tails and more to account for every coin earned, every property owned, every everything. This became essential for landed families to ensure generational properties would not be sold or mortgaged. It is within the marriage settlement that we see tails created and broken for properties, be they entails, fee tails, or otherwise, even to the point of creating inheritance rules, such as allowing the female line to inherit or restricting what an heir can do with the properties and goods detailed in the settlement. For a more extensive look at some of the complexities, check out Paula Gobbi and Marc Goñi's article, Childless Aristocrats: Inheritance and the Extensive Margin of Fertility. For a terrific look at how the settlement content changed between the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in terms of jointures and the strict settlement provisions for children, check out Lloyd Bonfield's article Marriage Settlements 1601-1740.
While it might seem that the settlement is just a document detailing what the husband gets from the bride's dowry, the settlement actually has more to do with arranging for the provisions of the children and protecting the bride than anything else, such as by setting up the widow's jointure, wife's allowance, possibly her own properties, and so forth. Understanding the importance of a settlement's contents helps us understand a family's fear of elopement, for if a couple elopes before a settlement has been negotiated and signed, there is little to protect the bride or their children since nothing has been established regarding inheritance, allowances/pin money, jointure, or otherwise. It's not all that safe for the husband either since he would be promised nothing from the bride other than what he already owns, and his heir could suffer if the bride were widowed and enacted the common law rule (we'll talk more about this later).
Elopement wasn't the only worry, but also settlements that offered uneven contributions. If we take a moment to consider what a settlement might look like between an aristocrat's daughter and a commoner, this might elucidate for us (one of the many reasons) why her parents would be less than enthused about approving such a marriage. The dowry would likely include properties that had been in the family for generations, land and estates that were a source of pride for the family. The bridegroom, in return, would offer the bride... what? He would have the run of all the properties offered (and possibly to their ruin since he would not be trained in estate management--how frightening to hand over a beloved home or property to someone who might not appreciate it), but he would have nothing to offer the bride or her family in return, not unless he was exceedingly wealthy and could at least assure she had a sizable jointure should she be widowed. The family would be giving so much to someone who had not yet proven himself trustworthy, not unless he came from a reputable family that had established trust over generations. The contents of a settlement could make or break a marriage and show a marriage to be advantageous or disadvantageous. Who wants to marry their daughter to someone who could potentially ruin her, ruin the properties in the settlement, and spend frivolously any cash offered in the settlement?
The settlement is something to be negotiated, not a pre-written contract, although if tails (entails, fee tails, etc.) were involved or a considerable amount of property, then it's likely the settlement of the parents would be used as the foundation for developing the new settlement for the children, and on through the generations to ensure the exacting of the inheritances, clauses, and tails. (For a quick peek into what an 18th century marriage settlement looks like, check out this example, also shown in the image to the right.)
In all likelihood, the parent(s) already know what they're going to offer a bride/bridegroom, but everything is under negotiation. If the parties cannot come to terms on the settlement, there's no match. Depending on the size of the estate and family, there could be more parties involved than just the bridegroom (and bridegroom's family) and bride (and bride's family), as trustees and relations would more likely than not be part of the settlement, not only in the negotiation process but within the settlement details, as well. If you might recall from the Proposal Traditions post, if the young lady is from a landed family, the bridegroom should seek the guardian's permission before proposing to the young lady. That's because there's no point in proposing if a settlement cannot be agreed between both parties. You might think the settlement would come after all has been arranged, but not so, as that is the central driving factor of the marriage, so it would come first. Considering negotiations could last for weeks, months, or longer, it's important this is settled before an actual proposal.
If the negotiations are favorable, then the bridegroom may propose. That's not to say everything has been signed, merely negotiated. Once the young lady accepts the proposal, then the settlement can be signed, thus creating the promise to marry, which was a legally binding contract from the moment signed, hence why neither bride nor bridegroom could back out of the engagement or else risk a lawsuit called a Breach of Promise. Let it be known that the verbal promise alone, even before the settlement is signed, is considered enough for a lawsuit via Breach of Promise, but once the settlement is signed, best get married, eh? Now, that's not to say the parties couldn't mutually part ways or even the family mutually agree this would not be for the best, but that does have to be mutual and carefully approached for any split would be seen as a scandal, as it implies something is wrong with one or both parties. When a settlement is signed within the engagement-wedding process can vary. For some, the settlement would be negotiated and agreed upon but not signed until the day of the wedding. For others, it would not be signed until the heir's majority, regardless of his marriage date (but that's also assuming the bridegroom is an heir and is underage, and waiting is not without risks).
Dowry & Dower
The bulk of the settlement detailed the dowry and dower, so let's take a quick look at the terms "dowry" and "dower." In short: one is what the bride brings to the marriage and the other the bridegroom.
The dowry that a woman brings to the marriage differs based on if the bride is from a landed family or not.
If from a non-landed family (which is the case we see in A Counterfeit Wife, as the bride is from an industrial family rather than gentry or aristocracy), then the dowry is apt to include money (and possibly only money). It could, however, have other benefits, such as family heirlooms, jewels, art collections, livestock, etc. If money were included in the dowry (from a landed or not landed family), the settlement would determine if the entirety would be paid upon marriage or if it were to be paid in installments or after a set time, such as a portion upon marriage and then the remainder after a year or two.
If from a landed family, the dowry may or may not have anything to do with money. Money could be part of the dowry, but in all likelihood, it would be land and/or property with an estate/manor/cottage/housing-of-some-sort. Land, in many ways, is superior to money, and especially in the 18th century.
This mentality of land being superior to money changes as we move towards the Victorian era and as the economy changes with the succession of King George IV. While money might have been valued more than land when someone not so good with estate management allowed an estate to fall into ruin, that was not the norm. And let's be clear that while it happened to far too many families, it should be less likely when an heir apparent inherited since most of an heir's education was on estate management in preparation for inheriting the whole of the family's holdings as the beneficiary, as discussed in A Gentleman's Education. More often than not, an estate's ruin occurred when someone other than the heir apparent inherited after the death of the heir since this person was not trained in estate management, but obviously it could happen with a greedy or not-so-great steward, greedy or not-so-great trustees or wards who might have been in care of the estate during an interim period while the heir was still in his minority, or because the heir apparent made poor choices despite his training. There are other factors of course that don't factor in the heir's competence, such as economic factors, agriculture factors, environmental factors, etc. Aside from individual cases when a family was desperate for money because of some failing, whatever the cause, as a rule, in the Georgian era, land was superior to cash. There is infinite possibility to make money from land via farming, industry, and tenancy, and there is infinite power in owning land, right down to having the power to decline the King's Road crossing one's property. Owning land meant power and status, a legacy to leave and be upheld by future generations, a way to ensure the continuation of one's line, especially when an entail was involved. What most aristocratic families were after was landed property, in addition to a connection with a well-respected family.
The dower, or jointure, was what the bridegroom (and/or his family) promised to offer (specifically should the bride become widowed. Check out more details on a widow's due in this post on Widows.). Before we dig into the promises for providing for the bride should she be widowed, let's consider what the bridegroom would bring to the settlement. As emphasized, the settlement is supposed to be reciprocal, both bride and bridegroom offering something to the marriage. The bridegroom's offerings in the settlement would often include land, property, percentage of monies earned, and goods to go to the bride and/or the bride's family (including possible dowries for any younger sisters the bride might have). The dower should be equal or proportionate to the dowry. This might offer more perspective on the importance of choosing the right husband. With the right match, namely to a well-off and generous gentleman, the family and other daughters of that family could be well provided for, even including extended family members, depending on the circumstances, and most certainly the children of the union, right down to the dowries of the daughters. Now, let's look at the widow provision aspects of the settlement:
While jointure and dower are often used interchangeably, there is historically a difference between the two, the jointure referring to what the bridegroom offers in the settlement versus the dower referring to the widow provision law (the common law rules of dower) that says if there is no jointure depicted in the settlement then the widow will receive one-third of the income of her husband's estate. The common law rules of dower could prove problematic for both the inheriting heir and the widow, such as the widow receiving nothing once the debts were paid, the widow being willed out of the common law rule, or in the case of the heir, his having the life force of his new estate drained by multiple previous widows, which could happen if his predecessors married younger women--imagine the collection of young widows being supported by the estate going back about three generations, widows that may or may not have been related to the heir, as would be the case with a remarriage after the death of the first wife. Since dower and jointure are often used interchangeably, for our purposes in this post, let us use the word "dower" to keep things tidy, especially since it fits nicely with the dowry--bride offers a dowry; bridegroom offers a dower.
The dower represented the gentleman's family's obligation to provide for the widow or in the absence of his family, whatever allowance, properties, etc. were agreed upon in the settlement, such as the bride receiving one of the unentailed properties to live on with the allowance being the monies earned from certain tenancies under that property. One of the goals of the settlement in detailing the widow's jointure was to avoid the common law rules. In many cases, the widow's jointure would be the return of her dowry, but that depended on what her dowry included, so the more specific the settlement, the better for all parties.
The settlements are intended to be, as aforementioned, mutually beneficial and reciprocal. It is not the case (or at least not often) that the bride's family hands over the daughter along with a banknote, essentially buying a marriage to the bridegroom. The idea is for this marriage to benefit both parties and both families. An example of this would be for the settlement to detail how the bride's family will receive a percentage of money earned from the bridegroom's estate, or perhaps the bride receives one of the unentailed properties along with any money earned from that property, or the bride's sisters are offered dowries, or something advantageous for the bride's family, even if just peace of mind that the bride will be well cared for, even after the husband's death, and that her children will be provided for. The bride's family and even the bride herself should receive something to recommend the marriage as a good arrangement. We should assume more settlements than not were between families of status with their own wealth and no need to "bargain," merely match their son/daughter together for the benefit of both families and the couple. It would be less likely to find a family of status marrying their son/daughter to an impoverished family, but if that should happen, it would be because there's something of mutual benefit, such as one family has the wealth the other needs while the impoverished family has land the other family wants (or an amazing vase the mother has had her eye on all these years--ok, so maybe that was a joke. Or not.). With this in mind, we can again see the importance of the right match--to ensure reciprocity.
The marriage settlements of landed families are typically preserved in family archives, and many are viewable online should you ever want to dig into them. Those of the Georgian era are notoriously complicated. Here is an example of a simple settlement from the 18th century, thanks to the University of Nottingham collection, which details that the bride brings to the marriage a pasture for the bridegroom to use as he pleases, to pass back to her if she's widowed, and for their children to inherit. Fast forward to thirty years later, a new marriage settlement is written for the daughter of their union when she marries, for that same pasture is part of her dowry now, although the original bridegroom (her father) has set that he will continue to receive the profits from the pasture until his death, at which time her husband will receive them. As the notes on the page explain, there is also wording to indicate that since this is unentailed, the new husband can sell the pasture if he chooses, but if he doesn't, their children will then inherit it. The best part of this example? We get to fast forward three more generations to see what became of this pasture in 1800, then in 1820, and finally in 1843. A fun tracing of a plot of land offered in a dowry, right?
From the same collection, we have a more complex settlement to examine, not surprisingly the marriage settlement of a duke. What I love about this settlement is the ample examples of reciprocity. In the settlement, the bridegroom is offering money, jointures, and more to all female members of the bride's family, the offered use of several of his estates to the bride's father, a considerable allowance to the bride for the entirety of her married life, an impressive jointure should she be widowed, and so much more. While any element of the title itself was entailed, all estates and wealth not entailed were set to be inherited by/distributed amongst their children, including daughters. A hefty portion of the settlement is to do with any children they might have and how the estates, wealth, and so forth would be distributed, inherited, or set as dowries for the daughters. What makes this settlement so complex? All of the clauses, namely how the trustees should distribute money earned from the various estates, many of which came with stipulations, such as how it would be distributed should an estate be leased to tenants, what would happen if an estate earned too much money, what would happen upon the death of xyz family member or trustee, etc. There are enough clauses and deeds to make one's head spin. There is even some breaking of entails involved to make the negotiations possible (oh, but you're saying one can't break an entail! Yes, one can, so stop by the Entailment post to learn a little more about how that works). As you'll see from the complex settlement link that includes the marriage settlement of the 2nd Duke of Portland, we get the "what happens next," which shows not only the daughter of that union and her settlement, but also the marriage settlement of the 3rd Duke of Portland and beyond. This marriage settlement is a must for you to read, so follow the link at the beginning of this paragraph! (Just from the first settlement alone, I think it's safe to assume why this chap would have been quite the catch--beyond the dukedom, that is--for what family would not swoon at such generosity?)
Here is a fun little collection in the University of Nottingham's manuscript archives from the 15th century that are short and worth a peruse. In the contract between Stanhope and Rochford (document 2 in the linked collection), you'll notice that part of the dowry was an estate, which then was offered as the bridegroom's dower to return to the bride should she be widowed, and if not, passed onto their children regardless of gender. The contract also included cash, household goods, and her father's estate once he passed away since she was the sole heiress. From this settlement example alone, you can see there is far more to do with estates and goods than money, although she did bring a fair cash dowry, as well. This example also shows some of that reciprocity via the dower. Now, the fourth document of the collection is a strange one, as it is in response to an agreement that if the gentleman (Cador) kills a dragon, he can marry whom he chooses, and if the young lady (Eufemie) nurses Cador back to health after killing the dragon, then she can marry the gentleman of her choice. Naturally, the two fall for each other. But here's the catch--he has to kill a dragon!? I have so many questions! I feel like this needs to be a plot point of a novel--the aged relative (or perhaps the Prince Regent because I could see him doing something like that, although I don't see King George III doing that) stipulates the hero can marry xyz person if he can kill a dragon. Plot is then the hero trying to figure out just how to accomplish that task. Come on--you'd read it, right?
Settlement Changes Over Time & Notes on A Counterfeit Wife
There are multiple types of settlements, especially when dealing with entailed and unentailed properties. Check out this post on Entailments to read a little more about the settlement possibilities. A far better read can be found here in Luanne Bethke Redmond's article on Land, Law and Love as featured in Persuasions from the Jane Austen Society of North America. An even more detailed read would be the previously linked Habakkuk article, which goes into considerable depth about the types of settlements, the typical amounts of jointures for widows, specific historical examples, and legal considerations with property inheritance.
Not to give any spoilers to A Counterfeit Wife, but we should assume that if the hero chooses to marry the imposter even after she's betrayed him by impersonating someone else, he would have his lawyer, as well as one or more people working on her behalf, draw up a settlement for their marriage since the previous settlement with the original intended would be void. Granted, the same provisions could be applied to the new settlement, as everything the hero had to offer originally would likely remain the same, including his proposed provisions for their children, as well as for her should she be widowed. So while it might sound neat and tidy for him to marry the imposter, we must assume that a settlement would be drawn up off-page. It would be careless and thoughtless not to since the majority of that settlement would be how he planned to provide for their children, his wife during the marriage, and his wife after his death. Given he's an aristocrat, the details of the inheritances would be of the utmost importance. (I promise none of this is a spoiler. After all, the hero just might choose to remain married to the original betrothed and ditch the imposter. Or ditch them both and marry someone else. Or keep the imposter as his mistress. Or re-enter bachelorhood.)
A bit of interesting history and something to mull over is the changes in settlement terms as the 18th century moved forward into the 19th century. One of the primary changes is that the settlements increasingly became more in favor of the husbands than the original mutual negotiation of the 18th century. This is something we would see on the rise during the Regency. According to Habakkuk's research, there are two important causes for this change. One being the number of available marriage-ready young ladies far exceeded the available men because of the recent wars and the losses of so many men in those wars. The other reason being the increase in daughters from merchant families. The dowries of these daughters were almost exclusively money, but the amount of money was often ludicrous, and given there were no entailment concerns or primogeniture when it came to industry money, those same daughters were often heiresses to the entirety of their father's merchant fortune, future money that the husband would legally have rights to. The majority of landowners, including aristocratic families, were unable to compete, especially as we move closer to the Victorian era where industry became more valued than land and more families moved into or around London and other industrial cities. (These changes come to an end in 1882 when settlements become a thing of the past with the Settled Land Act.) Habakkuk does discuss other reasons for this change from the mutual settlement to the husband-favoring settlement, but those two reasons are of highest consideration. For the definitive guide to the changes in marriage and settlements, check out Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800. For a thoughtful look (and splendid literature review) at the settlement changes from the 16th century forward into the rise of love matches and a thought-provoking discussion of the dowry vs the dower, check out Anne Laurence's article on Marriage and the Market in Eighteenth-Century England. Another great place to trace the history is in the previously linked Gobbi and Goñi article.
In the case of A Counterfeit Wife, we see the rise of the industry heiress and the temptation to marry for money over property, but we also see the lingering reluctance of aristocratic families to marry into industry or be tempted by money, especially when at the time, land equaled power and wealth was determined by landownership rather than what was "in the bank," so to speak. By the time we enter the Regency period, we should be seeing more aristocrats tempted by money and more industry daughters welcomed into that once impenetrable social circle, all of which had heavy consequences, but I'll leave it to reader's discretion to decide if those consequences were for good or ill.
Closing Notes for 18th Century Settlements
Moving us back into the 18th century, we see the preference in marriage to be to daughters of landed gentlemen who had land to offer, not money. Interestingly, those husbands who did have money included in the dowry from the bride would often use the money to... *drum roll* …purchase more land! Yes, sometimes it was used to pay debts or make renovations or whatnot, but primarily the money was used to purchase more land. The land-hungry 18th century!
When thinking of a "dower," think in terms of "what the bridegroom's family can offer the bride and any children of the union" both during the marriage and should the bride be widowed, which can include allowances, properties, dowries for your siblings or relations, provisions for children, inheritances by children, and more.
When thinking of a "dowry," think in terms of "what the bride's family can offer the bridegroom." Think in broad terms. Until we move more towards the reign of King George IV, dowry is not synonymous with money, nor does it have to be land, although land was the most tempting of dowries in the 18th century. A dowry could be anything that would be seen as having value. The father's best horse could be a dowry. The mother's family jewels could be a dowry. The uncle's art skills and offer to paint family portraits as a courtesy could be a dowry. It's anything the family can offer. In many cases, it was the family's reputation up for offer, as the bridegroom (and his family) would want the match to ally themselves with a respectable and socially popular family. However impoverished a family might be, their family name could be worth its weight in gold. It comes down to if there was anything to offer and if the bachelors available at the time were interested in that offer. Would a young lady have as fair a chance at securing a husband if her family was impoverished compared to another young lady with land to offer? Not likely, but that did not mean her chances were moot. Perhaps the perfect gentleman was in want of the very donkey her father had to offer as a dowry. Perhaps.
As this is a series, we'll explore more about the engagement to honeymoon stages in other posts, including engagement/wedding announcements (newspapers and invitations), wedding dresses, wedding ceremonies and traditions, and honeymoons. For previous posts related to marriage, check out Proposal Traditions, Banns & Licenses, Widows, and Breach of Promise.