Proposal Traditions: Myth vs Fact of 18th Century Marriage Proposals
"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
This post is part of a series on marriage traditions, including a post about Banns and Licenses, a post about wedding traditions (forthcoming), and more to come. While not necessarily part of the series, other posts related to engagements and marriages that might be of interest include the Breach of Promise, Widows, Entailments, and Ladies' Accomplishments (to attract suitors).
Although plenty proposers will break the "rules," we have a clear vision of how a marriage proposal might occur, something along the lines of the proposer bending onto one knee and presenting a diamond engagement ring while asking, "Will you marry me?" There are variations of this, such as the engagement ring featuring a different gem than a diamond or the more avant garde rulebreakers who choose skydiving instead of one-knee kneeling, and so forth. Regardless, we share this basic image of how a traditional proposal will occur. Is this how our heroes would have proposed in the 18th century and early 19th century? Would he have gotten onto one knee? Would he have presented an engagement ring? Would said ring feature a diamond? Would he ask the iconic question of will you marry me? Let's explore!
This part of the series on marriage traditions will look just at the proposal itself, namely the ring, the question, and the posture. A forthcoming post will look into the wedding traditions from the banns through to the honeymoon, including dresses, guests, invitations, marriage settlements, and more. To be clear, I'm focusing here on the actual "will you marry me" proposal rather than the customs of courtship. The actual courtship process is fascinating, of course, and the basis of the majority of hist roms, so check out this article from the BYU production of Pride and Prejudice, which details some of the dos and do nots of courtship.
We'll approach this in a myth/fact way by first debunking the myths surrounding the traditional proposal, and then we'll look at both the history of the tradition in an attempt to trace back when each tradition began, followed by an exploration of what our heroes would have done in the 18th (and early 19th) century. I've separated this into two sections: the bended knee proposal and the engagement ring. Within those two, I have the "myth" and then the "fact."
Short Answer: Not to give any spoilers but the short answer to the questions is no, our 18th/19th century heroes would not have gotten onto one knee or presented a diamond engagement ring, as this proposal tradition was crafted by Hollywood. That said, Hollywood didn't invent the tradition, merely marketed it into a pretty package, pulling from inspiration set by historical figures, artwork, and literature, then adding a bow and confetti to the whole of the proposal so that we now have a clear vision of what a proposal should be if following "tradition." Now that you have the short answer, let's dig deeper.
Bended Knee & The Question
We'll start with the short answer of the bended knee, and then we'll go into some history and some myths.
Short Answer: Prior to the 20th century, the beau did not go down on bended knee to propose. This is a modern convention that began in America, fueled by Hollywood, then popularized as "tradition" in the 1960s. One of the first places we see bended knee proposals is in the silent films of the 1920s. Bended knee proposals in the silent films of the '20s was not an uncommon method to visually represent what was happening in the scene and create drama (or comedy) rather than have two people standing on screen staring at each other, which wouldn't tell the audience much outside the captions mentioning marriage. The visual of the bended knee in the silent film accomplishes the goal much more effectively for viewers and seals the future of this becoming part of the tradition.
Now, let's unpack the myths with this whole bended knee business.
First of all, we should make clear what we already know about the the 18th/19th centuries: marriage was business. This was an alliance between two families, rarely to do with the partners themselves, as all was arranged by the parents/guardians, or arranged between the man and the parents/guardians, with the bride often to be the last to know. Being the business arrangement that it was, the proposal typically took place with both parties standing or seated. There are any number of artistic depictions of 18th century proposals, and those artistic depictions show the standing/sitting situation, not a gentleman on bended knee. The few artistic depictions of a beau on bended knee from the 18th century are typically caricatures mocking the rake who is trying to seduce the maiden or a gentleman pleading forgiveness of a lady after a quarrel. We do see an increased number of paintings from the late 19th century and early 20th century showing bended knee proposals with characters from the 18th century, but do note the date on those paintings despite the 18th century fashions. As for the actual 18th century paintings, the rake-seducing-from-bended-knee art can be found throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, but don't be fooled into thinking the scenes are marriage proposals. It's altogether likely such art inspired Hollywood to choose the bended knee for their visual of a proposal--but that's pure speculation on my part.
Before we dig into the art, which I think served as inspiration to the modern tradition, let's take a brief moment to smite the knight-on-bended-knee romance (remember that we're myth busting!). This is a popular misconception touted in bridal magazines.
Historically, a knight kneeling symbolized servitude and obedience, be it in front of a cross during prayer, near a fallen friend, or before his sovereign. If we assume a beau kneeling before his amore is a symbol of servitude and obedience, then there might be something to this knightly connection, but I've read far too many references to the bended knee being a demonstration of courtly love rather than the servitude/obedience symbolism. By definition, "courtly love," historically and literarily, refers to knights who broke their promise to Crown, Country, and Christianity to pursue an affair with a married woman (specifically an older woman, usually the wife of the feudal lord who hired the knight for protection). The literature of courtly love consisted of cautionary tales, showing the ruin of good knights who would break their vows for passion and lust. Courtly love stories all end in tragedy.
Sure, it sounds romantic to think of a gentleman kneeling in a proposal as being knightly and to call that courtly love, but that is simply not the case or the definition of courtly love. Historically, there were what were known as "pure knights" and "courtly knights," which was to say those who kept their vows versus the fallen knights. Here's to hoping the bended knee doesn't represent the beau as a fallen knight, eh?
While the tradition of the bended knee can be claimed to originate from an earlier period (that is, anything prior to the 20th century), there is no evidence to suggest it actually did (and certainly not the Middle Ages). Even the lightest of research in other eras (such as the Middle Ages) reveals a different story, one that does not include bended knee proposals. What I've surmised is that inspiration for this tradition came from the mid-late 19th century. The tradition itself did not come from the 19th century or prior, but inspiration for it might have.
Let me share a prime example of this so-called inspiration, which comes, notably, from 1839. Take a look at the caricature by George Cruikshank, included to the right, as well as linked here: caricature by Cruikshank. Now, let's first establish that Cruikshank was a satirical caricaturist. Second, the image alone doesn't seem to show a proposal rather something more indiscreet. Those two points made, the caricature was featured as part of William Thackeray's The Fatal Boots, Thackeray being a satirical novelist. Here's the excerpt about which the Cruikshank caricature depicts. When the character in the excerpt goes down on one knee, not only are his intentions not exactly honorable, but he does so to express his servitude, claiming the maiden as his idol and he her slave. While there are other similar examples of art depicting a gentleman on bended knee before a lady, I think this example is perfect to show that while we do see in the mid-late 19th century references to bended knee proposals, the action is to do with an expression of passion, manipulation, servitude, or otherwise, rather than of love or adoration or marriage. The proposers in these instances were proposing something a little different than marriage. This piece (also shown below) from Antoine-Jean Duclos should elicit some laughter. Just whose hand is he holding while on bended knee!?
So, a quick recap: when did the bended knee become associated with marriage proposals? The 20th century! Could people have proposed on bended knee prior to that? Sure. The popularity appears to stem from an imitation of silent films, but the branding of this as a "tradition" isn't documented until the 1960s. What inspired this modern proposal etiquette (i.e. the depiction in silent films)? Pure speculation, but possibly art and literature from the mid-late 19th century. Would you say art and literature provide perfect inspiration for the traditional proposal etiquette we all know now, wherein the beau essentially prostrates himself for his lady love to show his devotion?
JUST THE FACTS:
Now that we've busted the myths, what was the etiquette for a proposal in the 18th century? For aristocrats, assuming the marriage wasn't already arranged (as they typically were), the beau would first ask the father/guardian if he could marry the girl. If the father/guardian said yes, then the beau would be permitted to speak with the girl (rarely in private, but it was a possibility) to offer marriage. For gentry, the beau may ask the girl first before soliciting her hand from the father (think Mr. Darcy and his spectacular failure of a proposal). For commoners, it's more likely than not the beau would ask the girl first since commoners were more apt to marry for love/affection.
The proposal was an offer of marriage, not a question. The "will you marry me" question is, much like the bended knee, a modern tradition. "Popping the question" would not have occurred in the 18th century. Interestingly, the phrase "to pop the question" was used in the 18th century but had nothing to do with marriage, rather to do with asking an important question. For example: "Sir Reginald looked to his brother and said, 'Now's as good a time as any to pop the question.' Peter nodded for Reggie to continue. With a deep breath, Reggie asked, 'Should we wallpaper the billiard room?'" For the 18th century, "I wish to offer you marriage" is about as close as we would get to the "will you marry me" question. When the offer became a question is historically hazy. There have been references as early as the 1830s, but we don't see it in common use until the 20th century.
Now, once the father/guardian has granted permission and the girl has said yes, that doesn't mean the proposal/engagement is a done deal. The parishioners of residence must agree to the marriage, as well! This is where the banns come into play. My old blog post on licenses to marry covers banns in small part, but I'll go into more detail about them in the next post in this series on wedding traditions. For now, let's leave it at the fact that the couple first had to get permission from the parish clergy to marry. If the clergyman agreed (after receiving the proper documentation from the couple), then he would read their intention to marry (the banns) to the congregation for three Sundays in a row, which was not exactly an announcement of betrothal rather a question of impediment from the parishioners who knew the couple best. During the three weeks of banns, any parishioner could oppose the marriage. The intention of the banns was to seek the approval (or disapproval) from the townsfolk. From this alone, we can surmise why there might be temptation (among the wealthy) to obtain a license rather than have banns read--to avoid naysayers ruining the big day (which could prove problematic. Cue the nearly bigamous Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre.).
Engagement rings have been popular for a long time, but not diamond rings, and definitely not wedding rings for husbands.
Not until WWII did husbands wear wedding bands, both as part of a war effort to promote marital fidelity while the soldiers were at war and so husbands could have a token of love from their wives back home.
In terms of engagement rings, it would have been more likely to find a wealthy heroine sporting an engagement ring than a commoner, but even then it would have depended on family and personal preferences rather than social traditions or marriage customs.
Since most marriages were business deals, most arranged, and most openly known by all acquaintances and beyond, there wasn't a need to visibly brand oneself as affianced. The presentation of and then wearing of an engagement ring would have been a personal preference on either the beau's side or the bride's, such as wearing a family heirloom, presenting a customized gem to show wealth, offering a contractual promise, etc. No one at a soiree would expect to see or ask after the engagement ring of a newly affianced heroine, but should a newly affianced heroine have one, she wouldn't have hesitated to show it off. It would have been viewed more as a "so your beau is wealthy enough to shower you with jewelry" than "lovely token of affection and engagement."
Short Answer: it wouldn't be unusual for our novel heroines not to have an engagement ring, but it likewise wouldn't be unusual for them to have an engagement ring. It's writer's/reader's preference!
Fun fact: Any and all references to engagement rings would have been to "betrothal rings" until after the 1640s. The word "engagement" was a battle term until the 1640s when it finally became affiliated with marriage. Even then, it was not a popular term to use for marriage, so people would have more than likely been betrothed or affianced rather than engaged and would have worn betrothal rings rather than engagement rings.
Fun fact 2: Speaking of etymology, and not at all to do with rings, the term for an engaged person is "betrothed," not "fiancé" (m) or "fiancée" (f), as we now know it. Fiancée was not used to reference a betrothed woman until 1844, well beyond the Regency era (which ended in 1820) and soundly in the Victorian era (which started in 1837). Curiously, the masculine form to indicate an engaged male (fiancé) was not used until 1864 (twenty years later!).
JUST THE FACTS:
The tradition of the engagement ring can be traced back to Ancient Rome, the ring typically made of ivory, copper, iron, flint, or even bone. The concept of the "betrothal ring" as we know it comes directly from Pope Nicholas I. In 850, he claimed engagement rings were a gentleman's financial promise to uphold his intention to marry, and that the betrothal ring ought to be made of gold. This is steady on until we meet a trendsetter in 1477. The first recorded diamond engagement ring was in 1477, a specially crafted ring by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria for his bride, Mary of Burgundy. This is a fun little page by art enthusiast Hilde with all the art you could possibly want related to this couple, including images of the ring. I'm going to include an image below of the diamond engagement ring, but let it be known that Mary of Burgundy received two engagement rings, a promissory ring mailed to her in a letter and the official ring received shortly before they married. The promissory in the letter has the diamond inset, while the "official" engagement ring has an M shape crafted. Check out the previously linked page to see the "official" ring with the specially crafted M shape. Now, back to diamond engagement rings. While we see that date of 1477, don't think the diamond suddenly became popular. Au contraire! This was simply the first diamond engagement ring (and even then, it was only the promissory ring). The popularity didn't catch on for a few centuries.
Gimmel Rings became popular in 1525, which were individual hoops that fit together. The bridegroom and his bride would each wear part of the band until the wedding ceremony, at which time they would connect the hoops to make one complete ring for the bride to wear. Moving up to the 1600s, posy rings became popular, often including engraved messages inside. The spelling varies, so we see this as posy, poesy, posey, etc. Posy rings are fantastically interesting, so definitely check out this history of them, as there are plenty of images, as well as popular inscriptions one might find on them. I think of all the ring types, these would have to be my favorite! See what you think by checking out the pictures, history, and popular inscriptions (not surprising, the idea of engraving rings is still popular! How about the ring in that link that has a pictorial message instead of words?).
All things are moving along swimmingly with betrothal rings until we reach a 17th century complication that shifts their popularity. In 1650, Puritans protested jewelry as being immoral, even as marriage symbols, sparking a war on engagement and wedding rings. Additionally, the commonwealth turned away from rings, associating them with the clergy rather than with marriage (and besides, who had money for such frivolity!?). We see a significant decline in betrothal rings (and wedding bands) for approximately two centuries.
Did that mean no one wore an engagement ring in the 18th century or early 19th century? Not so! There was merely a decline in popularity. The wealthier the family, the more inclined towards continuing the tradition. King George III, for example, presented Queen Charlotte with a betrothal ring, but not just any ring--a diamond ring! Before you read on, check out the full story of this ring and the set she received. Seeing the image of the ring is a must, so check it out here at the Royal Collection Trust. We've not seen a diamond ring since 1477. Diamonds were discovered in Brazil in 1727, providing a perfect opportunity for King George III to present a unique ring for his bride in 1761.
The decline in engagement ring popularity lasted until circa 1840 when engagement rings became popular again, but only in America, not England (yet). In 1867, a diamond mine was discovered in South Africa, leading to a surge in diamond engagement rings in America, still not England (yet). It was not until the Edwardian era (1901-1910) that engagement rings made a comeback in popularity in England, especially among the nouveau-riche, but not diamond rings (yet).
If we fast forward in time to 1947, we meet the moment in history when the diamond ring is sealed forever as the iconic engagement ring in popular marriage culture, all thanks to a combination of Hollywood and the British-owned De Beers' slogan of "A diamond is forever." Leave it to advertisements to create traditions, eh?
Without getting into a debate about historical accuracy in hist roms, I would argue that given the readership, authors have leeway on how they want their proposal to appear, be it on bended knee and with a diamond ring or otherwise. Who is to say our heroes aren’t trendsetters in their own right? Outside of a Regency hero proposing while skydiving, which might raise eyebrows, I think as long as the proposal fits the character and the context, he can propose any way he would like.
In another post, we'll explore the engagement-wedding stages, including engagement/wedding announcements (newspapers and invitations), wedding dresses, wedding ceremonies (vows, guests, breakfast, etc), marriage settlements, marriage register, and honeymoons.