June is the month of weddings, and my second son married a fantastic young lady during a lovely, outdoor ceremony overlooking the river on June 3rd. The expression on his face as his bride walked to him brought tears to my eyes.
I enjoyed watching my son and his new bride celebrate with their friends and families; I had a blast joining my children as we danced with the bride and groom; and I loved having all my little birds who have flown the nest together again. However, as a no-muss kind of gal, I envy the simpler weddings of Jane Austen’s time.
Now, as hinted in Pride & Prejudice, even a high-strung woman like Mrs Bennet can make the simple, complicated. But for most people, including the gentry, Regency couples married at the bride’s – less commonly, the groom’s – local parish, or kirk if in Scotland, after the third calling of the banns. The young ladies might wear a new gown, undoubtedly one appropriate for later use as a dinner gown or perhaps as Sunday best – unless one were very rich, like the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte’s 1816 wedding dress pictured below.
Another option for marriage was the Common, or Ordinary, License obtained from a bishop’s office – which depending on the location of Meryton, would be either the Bishopric of London or the Bishopric of Lincoln until 1837. This was different than a Special License: less expensive (at between ten shillings and a pound), required residence of at least 4 weeks by one of the parties in the parish listed on the license, and had a one week waiting period.
Both the banns and the common license mandated that weddings must take place between 8am and noon, giving rise to the wedding breakfast so commonly mentioned in JAFF stories. Typically, only the bride and groom, and their nearest (proximity-wise, not blood relationship) family attended the wedding. In a small locale like Longbourn, where the Bennet sisters had lived their whole lives, neighbours from the village and from Meryton would also attend. For a gentlewoman’s wedding, the church might have nosegays and garlands of in-season flowers. The groom would simply meet his bride and her father at the front with their witnesses – unmarried sisters or cousins – and the minister would read The Celebration and Blessing of Marriage from the Book of Common Prayer.
Of course, weddings at the fashionable St George’s Hanover-square were likely fancier in terms of dress. However, since St George’s averaged 3 weddings a day – and up to a dozen at the end of the Season, all during the aforementioned four hours, there would have been no time for fancy decorations or elaborate processions.
The truly fashionable weddings – those after noon and in a private drawing-room – required a Special License. According to statute, these were solely the purview of the aristocracy, knights, Parliament, Privy Councillors, and Westminster Court Judges, but records prove that there were very rare exceptions to this. Special Licenses could only be obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury at a cost of a whopping 20 guineas (£21) plus a tax of £4 for the paper. Despite their prevalence in Regency fiction, only about a half-dozen special licenses were issued a year.
All three of these weddings – the banns, Common License, and Special License – all required parental/guardian consent for anyone under 21, sworn statements of lack of impediment, proof of previous spouse’s death, and that the bride and groom were not within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity. For those who lacking parental consent – the vile George Wickham and Georgiana Darcy at Ramsgate, for example – took the expedient of eloping to Scotland, where the common law marriage, merely announcing before witnesses that you are married, remained legal.
Of course, after the wedding and the breakfast, couples needed to publish the announcement in the broadsheets, both local and in London. To many, this step was as important as the ceremony itself: Jane Austen wrote to her niece, Anna Austen LeFoy, in 1815: “The latter writes me word that Miss Blackford is married, but I have never seen it in the papers, and one may as well be single if the wedding is not to be in print.”
I hope you enjoyed this cliff-notes version of Regency marriage practices. And please join me in congratulating my beloved baby boy and my newest daughter! Godspeed to you both!
Types of licensing: https://www.kristenkoster.com/a-regency-marriage-primer/
St George’s Hanover-square: https://www.regencyhistory.net/2015/09/st-georges-hanover-square.html
To see my use of three of these four options, read Mistaken Premise, available on Kindle Unlimited.