This chapter concerns courtship and marriage, subjects which have provoked a lively debate amongst historians in recent years. One writer, Lawrence Stone, sees our period as one when a more companionate and affectionate type of marriage developed and he claims that it was the London bourgeoisie who were the innovators in the development of this 'modern' marriage. However, Stone's numerous critics find little change in marriage and plenty of love and affection long before the late seventeenth century. Our period is far too short for any real contribution to be made here to a debate on long-term changes in the nature of marriage, but some comment on the relations between the sexes will be attempted. The first consideration, however, is just what did constitute a marriage in Augustan London.
The Marriage Ceremony
There were four different ways in which Londoners could get married. The cheapest and most private was simply 'a full, free and mutual consent between parties'. No public ceremony was necessary; all that the couple had to do was to say to each other some such formula as 'I take you Margaret to and for my wedded wife' or 'with this ring I thee wed my dear Peggy'. This elementary but perfectly legal type of marriage required no parental consent, nor indeed were witnesses necessary, though it was politic to make sure that someone else was present in case of future dispute. Such marriages were common in the middle ages and were probably still fairly common in our period. However, although accepted as a complete marriage by canon law, they were increasingly not thought good by the common lawyers, who held that a marriage must be solemnized
according to the rites of the Church of England if the parties were to be able to have 'any interest or property in the other's lands or goods or to legitimate their issue'.
Since such matters were important to middling people, it seems probable that most got married in a rather more formal way. There was still plenty of choice. One common, cheap and private method was to undergo a 'clandestine' marriage. These took place in parts of London claiming exemption from ecclesiastical jurisdiction, such as Holy Trinity in the Minories or St James's Duke Place, a parish of 160 households which was celebrating nearly 2000 marriages a year in the second half of the seventeenth century. Clandestine marriages at these two churches were brought to an end in the 1690s but they were replaced by the 'Fleet' marriages, which were held in the area round the Fleet Prison known as the Rules. Such marriages required no publication of banns, no parental consent nor any other formal interference from outsiders.
Fleet marriages were normally celebrated in inns and taverns, and the ceremony took the form of an abridged version of the Anglican marriage service conducted by someone who at least appeared to be a priest of the Church of England. Nearly everything to do with such marriages had a sordid and semicriminal reputation—the 'marriage houses' whose main interest was in selling drink, the 'pliers' who touted for particular houses, the dissolute parsons and the dubious registers which recorded the marriages—yet they remained amazingly popular. A recent study estimates that there were between 3000 and 5000 Fleet marriages a year between 1694 and 1754, when the practice was ended by Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act. These numbers were swelled by people from outside London but they still must represent a large proportion of all marriages in the metropolis, mostly those of artisans and other working people but including a substantial minority of middling people.
The attractions of Fleet marriages were their cheapness, about 7s.6d. before the drink, and the fact that they could be had 'without loss of time, hindrance of business, and the knowledge of friends'. However, it was not very respectable to be married in a Fleet tavern and hardly accorded with the genteelness of most of the middle station. Nevertheless, most people in this class still valued a private and fairly secret
marriage and so got married by licence from the diocese of London. Marriage by licence avoided the publicity of having the banns called in church, most people with 'the slightest claims to gentility' objecting to the public theatre involved, the giggling and the nudging, not being 'willing to have their affairs declar'd to all the world in a public place, when for a guinea they may do it snug and without noise'. Middling people also objected to the expense created by a wedding proclaimed by banns; the publicity led to pressure to invite large numbers of guests; it also advertised the wedding to the poor who had a habit of making a filthy row outside the house in which the couple were consummating their marriage until they were paid off.
A licence required a sworn statement that, if either party was under twenty-one, they had the consent of their parents or guardian, but this was seldom a problem. The marriage itself was held in church, but as quietly as possible according to Misson, who saw such weddings as typical of 'people of a middle condition' in London. The party would consist of bride and groom, their parents, two bridemen and two bridesmaids who 'go early in the morning with a licence in their pocket, and call up Mr Curate and his clerk, tell him their business; are marry'd with a low voice and the doors shut'.They then 'steal softly out' to a tavern or the home of a friend for the wedding dinner and then home for the formal undressing and bedding of the bride and groom, this prima facie proof of consummation being seen as very important.
The fourth type of marriage, and the commonest, was the normal marriage of the Church of England in which banns were called on three occasions and the ceremony held in open church. This cost more than a Fleet marriage and less than marriage by licence, but was open to the objections mentioned above of greater publicity. In the early seventeenth century, some five out of every six marriages in the diocese of London were celebrated by banns, but this proportion was dominated by the marriages of artisans and the poor. Marriage by banns remained important during our period, but its proportional significance fell as the number of licences increased and as the trickle of clandestine marriages became a flood in the early eighteenth century.
What significance should one attach to the middle-class predilection for a private and often secret wedding? The actual wedding by licence cost more than a wedding by banns, but the total cost of the celebration would have been less and this was certainly a consideration for young people at an early stage in the accumulation process. A distaste for publicity and a desire to distance themselves from the common people are also apparent and this could well reflect a growing understanding of what was seemly and genteel. A desire for privacy can be seen in other aspects of middle-class life, though it was often thwarted by the fact that much of such lives was acted out before an avidly curious audience of servants, lodgers, customers and neighbours. It should finally be noted that the desire for private weddings may well provide a clue to the grounds on which middling people chose their marriage partners. This will be discussed later, mainly in terms of the relative importance of love and money. Without prejudging the issue, it can merely be noted here that, if marriage was a rather sordid business transaction with little love involved, the partners would probably prefer it celebrated in the stealthy and self-effacing way described by Misson, rather than before the eyes of the whole parish.
Age at Marriage
It has been drummed into historians in recent years that England belonged to something variously called the 'Western' or 'Malthusian' marriage system, one of whose characteristics was that both sexes got married much later in life than was normal in the rest of the world, where most people married soon after puberty. A recent study has provided some statistical precision for this observation by showing that, in the late seventeenth century, the median age of a sample of English brides was twenty-six at their first marriage and their husbands were two or three years older. However, this sample was drawn from villages and small country towns. What one needs to know is whether the metropolitan middle class conformed to this general pattern.
In answering this question, it is fortunate that large numbers of middling people got married by licence since the age of the
parties was entered in the licence applications. Vivien Brodsky Elliott has studied the applications for the period 1598 to 1619 and her work shows that the average age of London-born women married by licence was only 20.5, nearly four years younger than women who were immigrants to the metropolis and nearly six years younger than the small town and rural women mentioned above. So, although London women did not marry at puberty, they married much younger than was normal in England, a high proportion marrying in their teens. Another interesting finding of Elliott's analysis is that, generally speaking, the higher the social status of the groom, the younger was the bride and the greater the difference in age between the bride and groom.
The patterns discovered by Elliott are reflected amongst middling people in our period. Table 7.1 overleaf sets out the ages at first marriage of those members of the sample and their wives for whom there is sufficient information to make this calculation. These figures allow us to say with some confidence that middle-class wives in London married young by contemporary standards, over 80 per cent being under twenty-five and over 40 per cent under twenty-one at their first marriage. There was also a fairly big age difference between bride and groom, five years on average, with the result that middle-class men typically married at a similar age to men in other classes and other parts of the country. When this age difference is broken down, as in Table 7.2 overleaf, the same relationship is found between wealth or status and age difference between bride and groom as Elliott found for London generally. If fortune at death is taken as a proxy for comparative wealth at marriage, then the wealthier the husband the older he was when he got married and, in the case of the richest group, the younger his bride. The same pattern can be found when age at marriage is broken down by various occupational groupings with different social status. Wealthy young men and those of high status tended to marry when they were thirty and chose girls on average ten years younger; poorer men and those of lower status tended to get married at twenty-five to a girl only two or three years younger than themselves.
Economic considerations normally govern discussion of the ages at which people got married in the past. Men are thought
to have deferred marriage in order to 'save up' to pay for the establishment of a new household and the expense of children. They chose wives in their mid- or late twenties, partly so that their brides would also have had a chance to save up and acquire economic skills and partly in order to limit the number of children they might have in the absence of effective contraception. Such hypotheses have been developed to explain the
behaviour of the population as a whole, who were on average relatively poor, and one would not expect exactly the same considerations to be relevant for middle-class Londoners.
Middling people certainly shared the view that marriage would be costly. Thomas Tryon, for instance, stated in 1691 what to his contemporaries was obvious when he started his list of the 'cross accidents attending married persons, as encrease of charge, the uncertain gains and the certain expences', his 'uncertain gains' being emotional and not financial ones. For this reason, men were always advised to wait until they could afford to get married without the 'certain expences' dragging them back down the social and economic ladder they had been patiently climbing as a bachelor. The bookseller John Dunton put it rather nicely when he wrote that he decided to postpone the 'experiment' of marriage until he had discovered 'whether my trade wou'd carry two, and then to proceed upon a safe bottom'. Such considerations probably explain why most of the middle class deferred their marriages until at least their mid-twenties and also why richer or potentially richer men married later, since it would take them longer to acquire a 'bottom' safe enough to support their larger and more substantial households.
So far, middle-class behaviour is little different from that of the population as a whole. Where middling people did differ was in marrying wives much younger than themselves, in their early twenties or late teens. From the man's point of view, the explanation for this is probably that the economic considerations governing the choice of the poor were not particularly relevant to this class. The bride's monetary contribution to the marriage was normally 'saved up' by her father rather than by the girl herself and a dowry was usually no lower if a girl married at nineteen rather than at twenty-five. Nor, as has been seen, was work experience of much relevance, since few wives in this class actually did work. Finally, the cost of young children was not particularly crippling, since middling people would already have servants to look after them and would usually lose no income as a result of their wives' pregnancies and attention to childcare. When children grew older, they were of course an immense expense to the middle class, requiring as they did outlay on education, apprenticeship and portions, but
by then the parents would have expected to have accumulated sufficient to cover such expenses.
In principle, then, there was no very strong economic barrier to middling people marrying young wives and indeed such barriers would be less the richer the husband, since he would have more servants and less reliance on the economic assistance of his wife. If one assumes that what a husband wanted in a wife was some combination of physical attraction and health, good company and conversation, the ability to run a household and a handsome dowry, then such attributes were as likely to be present in a well brought up girl of eighteen or nineteen as in one of twenty-four or twenty-five. There were, in other words, no strong reasons against marrying a young wife.
So far the age at marriage has been discussed from the point of view of the husband, what can realistically be called the demand side of marriage. But what about the supply side? What was the attitude of potential brides and their parents? Here, an imbalance must be noted between the numbers of men and women in London, which Gregory King put at a ratio of 10 to 13, reflected both in a surplus of spinsters to bachelors and of widows to widowers. This female surplus was aggravated by a lack of enthusiasm on the part of many men to marry in a world where the financial benefits of bachelorhood and the easy availability of alternative sources of sexual gratification and of housekeepers made a single life an attractive option. The result, as Moll Flanders pointed out, was that 'the market is against our sex just now'.
In such circumstances, young girls found themselves in a rather desperate race to get the best husbands and avoid being left on the shelf, since a single life for women was not regarded in the same light as it was for men. Contemporary writers advised girls and their parents to be extremely careful in their choice of husband but few advised them to let such care delay their marriages for very long. As a result, middle-class girls who could tended to marry young and it is the attitudes of these girls and their mothers, portrayed in literature and particularly plays, which have been remembered and carried down into our own times, despite the fact that the great majority of English girls deliberately delayed both their sexual initiation and their marriages until their middle or late twenties.
Some reasons have been suggested why middle-class men might marry quite late and middle-class women quite early by the standards of the day. The problem of how men and women chose the particular partner with whom they would have to live 'till death us do part' has not, however, been resolved. Did men choose their brides for love or was Moll Flanders right when she claimed that 'money only made a woman agreeable . . . for a wife, no deformity would shock the fancy, no ill qualities the judgment; the money was the thing'?
Choice of Partners
Historians have normally addressed the subject of choice of marriage partners with two questions in mind: the degree to which parents and friends influenced or controlled their children's choice, and the degree to which love or affection or some other, usually materialistic, influence affected the choice made by children. Such questions obviously cannot be resolved statistically in the way that age at marriage can and no more than probabilities can be suggested here.
It now seems to be generally agreed that, by the late seventeenth century at least, the ultimate choice was made by the young people but that this choice was normally very much affected by parents and friends, who suggested and actively promoted possible partners and who would go to considerable lengths to try to break off a match which they thought unsuitable. Most contemporary writers thought that children should follow their parents' advice if they possibly could, though they would normally accept an ultimate right of veto by the children. John Dunton, for instance in the Athenian Mercury, an early example of an 'agony column', thought that children 'ought to endeavour as much as possible to submit to their parents' choice; unless where 'tis a plain case that t'would make 'em miserable'.
Many factors must have affected the actual significance of parental consent, one of which was the sex of the child. Hardly any men in the middle class married under the age of twenty-one when consent was necessary and those over age seem to have had very considerable freedom to marry whom they wished, subject of course to advice. Middle-class parents had a
much greater proprietory interest in daughters, over 40 per cent of whom married under the age of twenty-one and so would require consent unless they married clandestinely. Licence applications suggest that this parental authority often continued long after the age of majority, since consent was often recorded for daughters well over twenty-one and even for some over thirty. Over age widows also often recorded their parents' consent to their second or subsequent marriages. However, no consent is mentioned for the majority of over age brides, who were normally described as 'at their own disposal'. This was often explained by a note that their parents were dead, an important consideration, since in these days of low expectation of life the chances of even one parent being alive at their children's marriages was not all that high.
Another important factor would be the whereabouts of parents if they did happen to be alive when their children were courting. Only a minority of middle-class brides and grooms would have had parents living in the metropolis, since so many were immigrants, and this would surely affect the impact of parental consent. Some of the London middle class married girls from their region of origin and such marriages were probably not only consented to but largely arranged by their parents. The majority, however, married girls resident in the metropolis about whom their parents would have little but hearsay knowledge. This would not necessarily stop them taking a great interest but it would certainly affect the possibilities of strong parental control over the courtship process. Indeed, it is more likely that 'friends' rather than parents would be the main advisers in such cases.
There were, then, a number of factors tending to minimize the significance of parental consent to marriages, especially for young men. For girls, consent was more important, since they were younger when they got married. Girls were also thought to be wilful creatures, ignorant in the ways of the world, who, if left to make their own choice, were likely to pick badly. Parental objection to a girl's choice of marriage partner might be based on virtually any grounds but the two commonest were recorded by the merchant George B.oddington in his autobiography. His daughter, Sarah, was at boarding school in Hackney where she fell in love with one Ebenezer Collier, 'whose circumstances
being not correspondent with what I had to give her and an inquiry having had a miserable bad carracter of him I would not consent he should address her'. Things looked bad for Sarah, for she would not marry Ebenezer without her father's consent nor would Ebenezer marry her without such consent 'lest I should give him nothing'.
This was, of course, the ultimate sanction of the authority of a middle-class father and a powerful sanction it was, for the attitude of Ebenezer was typical of young middling men, who would be extremely reluctant to marry a girl with no portion. Nor was it realistic to defy the father in the expectation that, when he died, the girl would receive her portion by the custom of London, which provided for the equal division of one third of a deceased citizen's estate between his children. The custom was firm on this point: 'If the daughter of a citizen of London marries in his life-time, against his consent, unless the father be reconciled to her before his death, she shall not have her orphanage share of his personal estate.'
The wrath of the father could therefore extend beyond the grave. Nevertheless, one's impression is that the sanction of disinheritance, although often threatened, was rarely carried out. The mere suggestion that there might be no portion or that a portion might be reduced to a beggarly size was enough to drive away a faint-hearted suitor and bring most recalcitrant girls to heel. Persistence could, however, pay off, as it did in the case of George Boddington, who finally agreed to his daughter's marriage 'with great regret . . . and since to my great trouble' after being besieged by the friends and relations of both parties as well as flooded with the tears of his daughter herself. Some fathers may have been adamant to the end, but not a single example has been found of such adamancy affecting the division of estates by the Common Serjeant, the city official whose task it was to implement the custom of London in this respect.
Further evidence that fathers were not as harsh in fact as they might be in fiction can be found in wills. The normal, indeed almost universal, provision in middle-class wills was for legacies and orphanage portions to be paid to daughters at marriage or at the age of twenty-one, whichever was earliest. In 181 wills made by the sample, only 14 have any comment at all to make about their daughters' marriages. Three fathers merely
put in writing what most fathers probably felt. The banker Thomas Williams, for instance, wrote that 'my will and desire is that my children do cohabit with my wife and give due obedience to her and to be advised by her in all matters, more particularly in their respective marriages', but there were no penalties for disobedience. Another eight fathers willed that either a separate legacy or an orphanage portion or both would be void if their daughters married under the age of twenty-one without the consent of their mother or guardian, but there were no sanctions against daughters who married over twenty-one without consent. One man made a legacy, but not the orphanage portion, void for ever if the girl married at any time without her mother's consent. Finally, the brazier Robert Sellers left £600 to his only daughter Mary on condition that, if she married without her mother's consent, she was not to be paid till she was twentyfour and, tougher still, the merchant John Cary willed that 'if any of my [three] daughters marry without consent of my wife and my son Thomas Cary before the age of 30', they were to lose a legacy of £500, which would be shared amongst his other children. However, Cary, who left nearly £30,000, also bequeathed an unconditional £1000 to all his children on top of the £500 legacy. To summarize, the vast majority of fathers provided no sanctions at all against daughters who married without consent, even though they were under age, and hardly any provided sanctions against those who were over age.
It seems reasonable to conclude that, where parents were present, they felt it their duty to advise, warn and cajole their children, particularly their daughters, but only very rarely to the extent of punishing them financially for disobedience. Children certainly seem to have accepted the role of parents and friends as advisers and were unhappy to marry without consent. The need for consent could also be used as a valuable delaying weapon in the process of courtship, giving daughters time to think, providing a handy excuse to get rid of or put off a suitor for whom they had little taste. Sons used the same excuse to avoid or postpone marriage to girls whom they had got pregnant. It is often convenient to have some shadowy and older outsider who can be blamed for your not doing something that you in fact have no wish to do.
Who did the sons and daughters of the middle class marry
and how did they make their choice? Moralists emphasized that marriage should be based on love, or at least on affection, and warned young people against tying themselves for life to someone in whom they only had a material interest. The ideal of love and the 'home' was a strong one and is attractively recorded in the diary kept by the law student Dudley Ryder, who wrote that he had a strong inclination towards marriage, 'not from any principle of lust or desire to enjoy a woman in bed but from a natural tendency, a prepossession in favour of the married state. It is charming and moving, it ravishes me to think of a pretty creature concerned in me, being my most intimate friend, constant companion and always ready to soothe me, take care of me and caress me.'
It can be seen that Ryder's emphasis was not so much on passion, which most contemporaries regarded as 'the rash intemperance of youth', a dangerous state likely to blind people to reality, as on friendship and companionship. When describing a happy engaged couple, contemporaries sometimes said that they were 'in love', but words like 'kindness' and 'affection' were much commoner. 'They were kind and familiar together', 'he had a great kindness to her' or, alternately, 'she had no kindness for him' are the sort of expressions that appear again and again. One should also note that Ryder has a rather selfish view of marriage in that he assumed that it was to be his future wife who soothed, took care of and was concerned in him rather than that such matters should be truly mutual. This was certainly a common attitude in an unequal society. Men were expected to be kind, but they in turn expected to receive rather more than they gave in emotional terms.
Although contemporaries emphasized the necessity of affection, very few would have thought that this was sufficient grounds for the choice of partner in the middle station of life. Material interest, character, social position and often religion had to be taken into consideration as well and the real problem was to balance such factors against affection. The ideal was equality of fortune, rank and religion, together with mutual affection, but in a society not blinded by passion, most were realistic enough to assume that such an ideal was not easily reached and that marriage in reality involved a trade-off between affection, material interests and social ambition.
Most young men of the middle station desperately needed the money which would come as their wife's portion. For some, a dowry was the only way in which they could set up independently in business; for others, it was a very valuable second injection of capital, which would enable them to develop the business already started with capital provided by their parents. In such circumstances, another £100 of capital was a very important consideration and one that had to be carefully weighed against an attractive, affectionate but poorer girl. The same Dudley Ryder, who has just been quoted on the delights of the companionate marriage, was quite clear in his mind on this subject: 'Cousin Billio said for a young man not in business that had 2 or £3000 to marry a woman of perhaps 1 or £2000 it would keep him low all his life. This I must confess gave a great turn to my thoughts with respect to Mrs Marshall. Why should I think of having her when it would expose us both to want?' Why indeed, and of course Cousin Billio's advice was in fact just as applicable to young men who were 'in business'.
The same considerations applied to girls, most of whom were brought up with a realistic idea of marriage and were discouraged, not always successfully, from filling their heads with romantic ideas derived from playbooks or novels. They knew that their choice of marriage partner would govern not only their future happiness but also their future position in the social and economic hierarchy and, since middle-class girls were bred to believe that to improve oneself was a good idea, they were usually happy enough for parents and friends experienced in the world to vet their suitors. Nonetheless, girls wanted affection too and felt that they themselves were most likely to be the best judges of the possibilities of this, though not all parents agreed with them.
If affection was too much to ask for, then they would at least want to like their husband, as the eldest daughter in Defoe's Religious Courtship said when asked what would be the basis of her choice. 'O! I'll explain it in a few words; a good estate, and a man you like.' Her younger sister had a rather more cynical view. 'Nay; you might have stopt at the first; it's no matter what the man is, if the estate be but good.' Few girls were quite so worldly and the courtship process was one in which conflicts of interest, emotion and duty to parents often gave rise to stress
but, in the end, girls had to make the same trade-offs as men, though, as we have seen, the market was against women and so they more often got the worst of the bargain.
One is in no position to analyse this internal bargaining process, to weigh the money against the emotion, nor indeed to see how it worked out in practice. One simply has to assume that some people were happy and some were not, that some were satisfied with their bargain and some regretted the calculus of courtship and would rather have had more money or more affection. Contemporaries tended to be cynical about marriage and to assume that most marriages were or would be unhappy; 'the greatest plague of human life', according to Thomas Tryon. The Rev. Richard Baxter was very pessimistic: 'There are scarce any two persons in the world, but there is some unsuitableness between them. . . . Some crossness there will be of opinion, or disposition, or interest, or will, by nature or by custom and education, which will stir up frequent discontents.' People are still cynical about marriage today, with some justification, but they still get married. Perhaps Dudley Ryder best explains why: 'At length we came to talk of matrimony, and I said though I had often upon consideration thought that the miseries and inconveniences that attended that state were much greater than the advantages of it and a man runs a vast hazard in entering upon it, yet at the same time I could not suppose myself capable of being completely happy here without it.'
One can never really tell just why a particular man married a particular woman in the past. Nevertheless, patterns can be seen and they are those one would expect. Roger Pocock was the son of a yeoman who became a wealthy Hamburg merchant and married the daughter of a knight. When his only child Elizabeth was eighteen, she too was married to a knight. One has no idea whether Elizabeth was or believed that she was in love with Sir Thomas Travel; but it seems a reasonable assumption that the marriage choices were governed by the fact that the Pococks were moving up in the world, translating money into status, a common enough process which aroused the interest, envy or admiration of contemporaries, depending on their view of the world or their place in it.
William Melmoth was the son of another yeoman. In 1655,
he was apprenticed to George Johnson, an apothecary and, in 1662, he paid £4 to be released from his indentures four months early 'because he hopes to be partner to his master'. It is not totally surprising to discover that, shortly afterwards, he married Anne Johnson, his master's daughter, for this too was a common scenario, though not quite as common as the story books would tell us. Again, we do not know if Anne and William loved each other, but they would certainly have known each other very well since they had been living together in the same house for over seven years.
William presumably had a business as well as an emotional interest in marrying Anne and such interests are obvious in most of the marriages on which there is any information. A merchant marries the daughter of another merchant; a bookseller the daughter of another bookseller; a mason marries the daughter of a plumber. There is not space here to unravel the details of these relationships, though it would be interesting to do so. Nevertheless, enough hints are given to be sure that the London business world was meshed together by a honeycomb of kinship and particularly marriage relationships, just like the world of the gentry with which it was so closely connected.
Even when a business interest was not in the forefront of the relationship, sons and daughters were likely to marry the sons and daughters of business friends and acquaintances or at least of people of the same economic status. For these were the people whom they would meet or their parents would arrange that they would meet. London was a big place and one where women were not 'mewed up as in Italy or Spain', so it was easier for young people to play the field than it was in most countries. Nevertheless, like tended to marry like and the ideal of equality of fortune and status was the one which most often governed the actual choice of partner. Disparities in status make for good stories and good drama, but good drama does not necessarily mirror social reality.
Courtship and Contract
Women and girls might not be 'mewed up', as they were abroad, but their accessibility to predators, lovers and suitors varied enormously. Many controlled the situation themselves
since they lived on their own, 'at their own hands' in the contemporary phrase. Such women—girls from country families, orphan girls 'at their own disposal' and of course widows—might receive suitors, but they would be wise to find themselves some chaperone, such as a sister, a landlady or a 'friend', for people were always ready to think the worst of single women. It was only too easy to get the reputation of being 'a person of a lewd life and conversation'. Women also seem to have had considerable freedom to move alone about the city and go to public places where they were likely to meet men. There is ample evidence of such meetings—in the streets, in shops, in the park, at church, in taverns and coffee-houses, at Mr Dawson's Dancing School where John Dunton played truant from his master during his affair with the 'beautiful Rachel Seaton', at a milk-woman's where the apothecary's apprentice Simon Mason drank glasses of syllabub in the company of Miss Weston, whose 'charms were chiefly in her father's long baggs, who was computed to be a twenty-thousand pound man'.
Women certainly had more freedom than one might expect in a society whose laws and customs seemed designed to hold them down, but this freedom should not be exaggerated. It seems probable that access to most young girls of the middle station, especially those living at home with their parents, would have required rather more formality, though the degree of formality varied from family to family and there seem to have been few strict rules. Some fathers with marriageable daughters were very free and easy, inviting potential suitors to dine, encouraging them to come regularly to the house, allowing them to be alone for long periods with their daughters. Others kept their daughters much more closely 'mewed up' and it might take much ingenuity, time and argument for a suitor even to be given permission to make his addresses.
Go-betweens and matchmakers might play a part in this courtship process. If you had decided on the girl you wanted to court, on the grounds of her attractions or her father's 'long baggs' or whatever other reason, it was often good policy to find someone to introduce you to the household as a young man 'of estate and of sober conversation'. Thus, in 1677, the courtier John Mazine used his acquaintance with a respected relation to get permission to court Mary Rawlinson, the daughter of a
tavern-keeper 'with whom he intended to give a considerable portion'. Sometimes, there was a price to pay for such an introduction. In 1658, the Londoner Daniel Wright told a Leicestershire country gentleman that he was sure that he could make a match between him and Jane Cheeke, who 'had a considerable portion, . . . by reason of his intimacy' with her widowed mother. However, 'if the said marriage by his meanes did take effect', then he was to receive £200. How common such brokerage fees were one does not know, but given the mercenary nature of much of the London marriage market it seems probable that they were far from unusual. Some people certainly made a business of marriage broking. One went to a scrivener, for instance, not just to borrow money or to draw up a deed but also 'to find out a rich widow'. 'Experienc'd matrons' also played an important role and a young man who 'has not courage enough to trust his own judgment' would be well advised to apply 'to the next matchmaker in the neighbourhood who knows to a tittle the exact rates of the market and the current prices of young women that are fit to marry'.
Mention of the market brings one to the serious side of courtship, the drawing up of 'a treaty of marriage', a business requiring such preliminary work as the investigation of the young man's claims of character, fortune and expectations. Too many people were like Thomas Burton, who, 'pretending himself to be seized . . . of £170 per annum and a personal estate of £5000 . . . was permitted to have recourse to Hannah Southwood', the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Since this quotation comes from a Chancery case, it is no surprise to learn that young Thomas was worth rather less than he pretended. Once both sides were satisfied with the other's credentials, it was time to get down to the details of the marriage contract, a process of negotiation and haggling like any other bargain, which can be illustrated by the 'communication' between John Austen and Hannah Hastings. John's father asked for £200 as Hannah's portion, in return for which he would settle lands of the value of £16 per annum for her jointure. This was a poor bargain and Hannah's father 'did refuse to give so great a marriage portion', offerring £60 instead. John's father 'did then refuse to accept this as not competent to ye condition and way of trade of him' and they finally settled for £85.
These were the two main elements of a marriage contract, the portion brought by the girl and a settlement to provide for her maintenance if her husband died before her. A settlement in the form of a jointure, as in the example above, was the usual practice amongst the landed classes and was employed by some, but not very many, people in the London business world. It had the advantage of being fixed and settled in advance, a guarantee that the girl would not starve in widowhood. However, a jointure was far from attractive to a young businessman since it tied up so much capital in land, an asset unlikely to bring in much more than 4 or 5 per cent. For this reason, many men did not actually buy the land during their lifetime, or at least not until they retired, either promising their wives or binding themselves formally to make the purchase of lands of the agreed capital value a first charge on their estates when they died. Thus the Levant merchant Francis March covenanted to lay out £6000 on lands for the jointure of Mary Dunster when he married her in 1680. At his death in 1697, he had still not bought any land and he clearly continued to think that land was a bad investment, for he bequeathed the £6000 to trustees 'to place out at interest upon security'. A debt in his 1699 inventory reads 'To Mary March, relict . . . by her marriage articles for principle and interest from Christmas 1697 to Midsummer 1699—£6540', that is £6000 plus eighteen months' interest at 6 per cent, a sum which amounted to 58 per cent of Francis March's net assets.
Another way of providing a settlement of a fixed value was to bind oneself before marriage to bequeath a certain sum to one's widow, this being a first charge on the estate. Sir John Fryer, for instance, gave a bond to his future wife's father to leave her worth £1500, a sum three times her original portion of £500, though 'sometime after her father observing my industry and ye increase of my buisness added to it and made it up in all £1000'. There is not enough information available to know if such a ratio between portion and bond was typical but, if the normal ratio was some two or three times the portion, it was a real gamble on the husband's accumulation and life expectancy. Even at a 10 per cent rate of accumulation, it takes nearly eight years to double a fixed sum and nearly twelve years to treble it. Such gambles could leave all members of the family, except the
widow, in a desperate situation. The draper John Ewens, for instance, covenanted to leave his wife Winifred £2000 but, when he died twenty-two years later, his net assets were only valued at £694. By contrast, James Tandin agreed to leave his wife Hester '£1000 and such jewels and wearing apparel as she had before marriage'. However, Tandin 'had a peculiar art as a pewterer' which enabled him to accumulate so rapidly that when he died he was worth somewhere between £6000 and £10,000, depending on whether one believes his widow or his executors, who were in dispute in Chancery as to whether the original bond disbarred the widow from her customary thirds, which would have doubled or trebled her inheritance. Of course, some people got such things exactly right. John Skrine married Esther Crosley when he was twenty-four and agreed to leave her £700. When he died just eight years later, he was worth £2144, making her pre-contracted £700 almost exactly equal to her widow's rights to a third of the estate.
Only about 15 per cent of our sample made any provision to leave their widow a fixed capital sum, either by jointure or bond. The wives of all the rest had to take their chances that their husbands would prosper so that their customary thirds would provide them with decent security in the event of widowhood. This was one good reason to marry an older man, as Lucinda explained when her niece asked 'why must I be confined to aged people'. 'That reason is plain, because you don't know what the young ones may come to.' A marriage contract with no settlement was a much simpler document since it normally required no more than a statement of the dowry and the terms on which it would be paid. Sometimes there would also be provision for the wife's 'separate estate' if she had property of her own, for the payment to her of a fixed income as 'pin money' or for the wife to be allowed to bequeath a fixed sum from her portion as she wished. However, such provisions were fairly unusual amongst middling people and most marriage contracts were about portions. 'The money', as Moll Flanders said, 'was the thing.'
There must have been rules and conventions, as well as market pressures, which determined the approximate size of the portion a girl would have to bring to her marriage with men of different fortunes and expectations and so determined in turn
the parameters of the bargaining process. Such patterns have been discovered in aristocratic bridal portions, which increased fairly continuously in value through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The data are not sufficient to analyse middleclass marriage contracts, but it seems probable that if aristocratic portions were rising, this would affect the market for gentry and middle-station portions as well. The middle-class ideal was 'equality of fortune', which appears to mean that a girl should bring a portion roughly equal to the fortune of the man she was marrying. This would make good sense, since, under the custom of London, the orphanage portion of a girl was exactly the same as that of her brother and it would be someone of the same status and fortune as her brother that she would be likely to marry.
However it was calculated, the portion was a substantial sum and was a very important factor in the process of accumulation which lay at the heart of middle-class life. The merchant George Boddington, for instance, got £2000 with his first wife Mary Steele, who died two years later in childbirth. 'Her father and mother manifested a great love and kindness to me after her decease and . . . advised me to marry agayne being young', advice which Boddington took seven months later when he married Hannah Cope, who brought him £3000, a process of multiple accretion to his personal fortune which was not unusual in a city which had very high rates of adult and particularly maternal mortality. Lesser man naturally attracted much smaller portions but, if our interpretation of 'equality of fortune' is correct, nearly everyone could expect to double his original capital by marriage, a fact which might make even the most ardent misogynist a supporter of the institution.
Portions were not always all paid at once; a large sum down and the balance in six months or a year was a common practice. Sometimes, the balance was paid in instalments at the birth of each successive child or on an annual basis. Richard Mackernes, for instance, a London brickmaker, agreed to pay a certain sum down to Mintham Robinson, a carpenter who married his daughter Christian in 1652, and then to pay £13 per annum for the first seven years of the marriage and £3 per annum for the next nine. It was even agreed that some portions
be paid posthumously, such as that of Thomas Robinson, an innkeeper who 'not having ready money' for his daughter's portion, entered a bond to pay his son-in-law £50 after his death. Many other portions had to be claimed posthumously since fathers-in-law did not always pay up what they had promised. Whatever the particular arrangement, the portion was an essential feature of middle-class marriage and it would be very unusual to find one in which the bride brought nothing into the new household. Such considerations take us a long way away from the love and affection which was supposed to be the basis of marriage, even for middling people in Augustan London. However, the emphasis is not misplaced. Moll Flanders was right; money really was rather important in the marriages of this class.
Relations between the Sexes
What was marriage actually like in Augustan London? Here, one moves into a field which historians have turned into a jousting-ground where they tilt at each other with quotations proving that there was more or less love, companionship and other desirable qualities of matrimony in the relationships of our ancestors. The lists will not be entered here, for there are no answers to such questions. It would be easy to string together quotations illustrating a close and even passionate relationship between married people. It would also be easy to illustrate relationships in which hate, disgust, despair or total indifference seem to be the main emotions; no wonder, since the records of divorce have been used for much of the evidence. This material will be used in this section to illustrate how contemporaries expected husband and wife to behave towards each other, but first some factors will be set out which suggest that relationships between partners in middle-class marriages of our period would be different, but not necessarily worse, than they are today.
Although no one would claim that there was equality between the sexes in the 1980s, there was certainly much less equality in the 1680s. As has been said, a wife was treated in law as a feme covert, a minor almost totally under the legal subjection of her husband, an upper servant rather than an equal. Law was
mirrored by custom, which supported a 'double standard' of morality in which, for example, adultery by a husband was considered a mere trifle compared with adultery by a wife. Law and custom were supported by even liberal conduct books, which emphasized partnership, love and mutual respect as the basis of marriage, but still made it clear that the husband was the senior partner.
Law and custom, then, were on the side of male dominance, wifely obedience and paternalism in marriage. All these were surely reinforced by the age differences between husband and wife in middle-class marriages. Most girls in this class were married from homes in which they had been brought up to respect and obey their parents in particular and their elders in general. If they then married a man considerably older than themselves, is it really likely that they would be able to consider themselves his equal in any meaningful way? Conversely, would one expect a merchant of thirty who had spent some ten years travelling abroad and trading on his own to treat a girl of twenty as his equal? He would certainly treat no one else of that age as an equal, the age of his servants, apprentices and youngest siblings. This is not to say that our hypothetical merchant might not be very fond of his young wife, even in love with her, but that he would be unlikely to find her 'a person capable of advising with and consulting upon any difficulty or occurrence', qualifications which Dudley Ryder thought would be 'very good' in a wife.
The third point distinguishing middle-class marriages of our period from those of today is the question of money. Whatever one may say about the relative significance of love and money in choice of partners, there is absolutely no doubt that money played a very important, if not predominant, part in the process. Marriage has always been a lottery, whatever the basis of the choice of partners, and a choice based on money may well lead to as good a marriage as one based on love or affection. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to argue that the emphasis on money was just one more factor making the likelihood of a happy marriage even less than today, that is if we use today's criterion of what constitutes a happy marriage. Our ancestors seem to have been less optimistic and perhaps more realistic
in their expectations of what one was likely to get from marriage.
The last point to be made is that the state of marriage was even easier to enter in our period than it is today, but was almost impossible to get out of again if the marriage turned out to be unhappy, except through the very common event of one of the partners dying. Divorce, as we know it, with the possibility of remarriage, was virtually unknown. Mutual agreements to separate were quite possible and a complacent husband might make a generous settlement to support a wife with whom he no longer wished to live. Where such collusion was impossible, an injured wife could sue for divorce in the church courts on the grounds of desertion, cruelty or her husband's adultery. These were divorces 'from bed and board', that is, legal separations with no provision for remarriage. Such cases could be difficult to prove and, when the court did find in favour of the wife, the alimony awarded was rarely attractive to a middle-class wife, the normal rates at the end of the seventeenth century being between 5s. and 10s. a week, the wages of a working woman, enough to live on but hardly enough to support the genteelness of the middle station. A wife who left her husband without sufficient cause or eloped with someone else had no financial claims and was therefore bound either to descend into poverty or be dependent on a lover who had no legal necessity to support her. Better, then, to stay at home, for 'although a wife is very lewd, if she lives with her husband, he is chargeable for all necessaries for her, because he took her for better or worse'.
Contemporaries knew that marriage was unlikely to be perfect, but they had a fairly clear idea of what was or was not conducive to a reasonable degree of harmony in the household. This can be illustrated from the evidence given in divorce cases. The witnesses were giving evidence for or against one of the parties and it can be assumed that they were often exaggerating, if not downright lying. However, their assumptions about what makes for harmony are still quite clear.
It can be said at the outset that they disapproved of what one might expect. They disapproved of 'the foul crime of adultery', but both men and women witnesses applied the 'double standard' to this and disapproved more of women who committed
adultery than men and especially of convinced and repeated adulteresses, such as the one reported as saying 'I would damn my soul to make my arse merry'. Where men attracted particular opprobrium was when they contracted pox from their infidelity and so infected their wives and unborn children, a state of affairs which seems to have been regrettably common. Witnesses also disapproved of cruelty and none of the condonement of physical chastisement of wives has been found, which one might expect from literary evidence of the period. Defoe, for instance, thought that the beating of wives was on the increase, so much so that their screams did not even bother the neighbours. 'The common answer to one another is only thus; "'tis nothing neighbour, but such a one beating his wife"; "O dear", says the other, "is that all?", and in they go again, compos'd and easie.' However, such scenarios do not appear in the legal records; on the contrary, neighbours came right into the house to stop husbands beating their wives and such behaviour was never implicitly condoned by saying that, in this particular case, the beating was done 'without cause' or some similar expression. It seems that husbands were not expected to beat their wives and wives, of course, were not supposed to beat their husbands or 'fly in their faces and tear their hair'.
An idea of how wives and husbands were expected to behave can most easily be gained by quoting adjectives and phrases which describe good or bad behaviour. To start with the bad, or at least not very good, wife: she was likely to be 'very perverse and morose' or perhaps 'proud, ambitious and passionate', to call her husband 'opprobrious names' and use 'undutifull' language. She might well be 'a person of a very turbulent spirit', almost daily disturbing and disquieting the household, perhaps so much so that by her 'disturbance and noise' she drove her husband away from the warm fire in the dining room to find quiet but freezing cold in another room. She was likely to go to taverns and keep lewd company and her 'goings abroad' and 'stayings out late' and 'keeping of loose and strange company' would be 'without the consent, well likeing and contrary to the desires and admonitions' of her husband. Such a wife who 'would not keep at home' would also probably be 'a very extravagant wife' who 'wore more new cloathes than became her condition . . . and hath wasted and mispent a great
deal of money'. Wives like this quite often stole from husbands or took goods from his shop to support their extravagance. Bad wives also damaged the husband's business more obliquely by shouting at him in his shop, being 'perverse' or 'proud' towards the customers or calling the female customers 'whore' when their husband shook their hands to seal a bargain. Some wives might take a perverse pleasure in such destructive activity, glorying in their husband's failing business and swearing before witnesses that 'she would ruin him and make him rot in a jayl'. Finally, a bad wife would not only lose her husband business but would destroy the good name of the family by making herself 'the town talk' or by using such 'horrid oaths and imprecations' that she caused 'a mobb to come about his house to his great disgrace and the disturbance of the neighbourhood'.
The good wife would do none of these things. She would be 'a person of a modest and civil behaviour and demeanour' who 'carried and behaved herself towards the said George her husband as a loving dutifull and observant wife'. She would be 'an honest woman and as vertuous as the Virgin Mary', 'very obedient and loving', 'sober', 'affectionate' and 'obliging'. She would cause no trouble in the family nor amongst her neighbours, who would describe her as 'a person of good creditt and reputation' of whom they had 'never heard any ill'.
These epithets, from men and women, rich and poor, servants and householders, make it clear what the world expected from a wife. She should be obedient, dutiful, affectionate, modest and self-effacing, frugal in her household management, and should be careful to control her temper and not allow herself to be proud, ambitious or passionate. She was, in short, expected to know her place and to behave accordingly. She should give her husband no cause to treat her badly and she should love him or at least be affectionate to him. Nothing much is said about marital sexual relationships in these depositions, but it is clear that the wife was expected to sleep in the same bed with her husband and be available for his embraces, though under some circumstances, such as his catching the pox from his whores, it was accepted that a wife might well want to 'part beds'.
What did a husband have to do to deserve such a paragon of a wife? He should first of all be 'a person of a sober and chaste life and of very civill conversation . . . and of very good
character and esteem amongst his acquaintance'. He should 'behave and demean himself very kindly and affectionately' towards his wife, 'as a kind and loving husband'. 'No angry word or frown', let alone a blow, a kick or the threat of a 'naked sword' should 'proceed from him to his said wife'. 'Mildness and gentleness' were praised, in addition to 'a great deal of affection and respect'. He should 'provide for and furnish . . . all things that were necessary and convenient for her and suitable to his condition and circumstances'. Indeed, he should also think of her 'condition' and would acquire praise if he did 'att all times and upon occasions with great readiness and willingness of mind allow [his wife] all necessaries and conveniences suitable to her quality and estate', though in doing so he should not go 'beyond his circumstances', 'a frugall saveing man' being an object of praise in the accumulative world of the middle station.
Needless to say, the sort of husband who appears in the records of a divorce suit rarely behaved with such generosity, consideration and affection. He tended to be 'an extravagant man in his expenses and much addicted to drinking' or 'a person of a harsh temper and disposition' who would call his wife 'severall opprobrious names as bitch and whore', without cause. He might well treat his wife 'in a very unkind and cruel manner and often quarrell with her . . . without any cause . . . in a violent passion'. He was likely to be described as 'surly', 'morose', 'inhumane' and 'debaucht', but much the commonest epithet used for a bad husband was that he was 'unkind' to his wife, the sort of man about whom a servant might say that she 'seldom or never observed him to be any wayes loving or tender to . . . his wife'.
What do these brief extracts tell us about relations between the sexes? Most of them, in different language, could be found in any manual on how to conduct a marriage. People then, as now, expected couples to try to conduct their relationships in a harmonious manner, giving no pain to each other and offering no disturbance to the rest of the household or the neighbourhood. Couples were also, as one might expect, supposed to be affectionate to each other. However, there are some aspects of marriage in our period which distinguish it from modern marriage. The emphasis on wifely obedience, duty and respect
is an obvious example, but there are other slightly more subtle aspects of the same thing. The wife more often has to have 'cause' if she does anything out of the ordinary, such as the wife who was said never to 'call her husband any opprobrious names or use any undutifull language saving that once upon [her husband] calling her . . . whore, shee did . . . call him pitifull fellow'. The wife has to be much more chaste and in general has less latitude in behaviour. She was more confined, less able to go out and about as she wished, 'without the consent' of her husband, though she was certainly not so much confined as most European wives of the same period. There is also a subtle difference in the quality of the affection expected between the sexes, with the wife being expected to be more 'loving' and the husband more 'kind', an emotion which could be interpreted as slightly patronizing or paternalist.
Nevertheless, despite these rather different expectations of the behaviour of husband and wife, the records do make it clear that the wife is not a downtrodden creature whom a husband can treat as he likes. What is striking in the depositions is the fact that wives so often gave as good as they got, or better. They were independent individuals who would strike and abuse a husband they did not like or who treated them badly. They would say that they would do as they please and then proceed to do as they pleased. Mild and meek they were supposed to be, but in reality the women of the middle station were quite capable of holding their own on the battlefield of marriage.