Courtship in the Georgian Era

Leah Rhiannon Savage

The Rules of Courtship

Courtship was the standard and most engaged form of establishing a relationship during Georgian times. Courtship became a social construct that allowed both arranged marriages and the process of seeking out an advantageous marriage, to exist with a set of socially accepted rules put in place to protect the interested parties. The process of courtship was partially about the idea of seeking out a suitable match (perhaps with the possibility of romance thrown in) but also centered around the business of marriage, as many parents aimed to persuade their children into making advantageous matches that could improve their child’s social standing. There were rules and advisory guidance placed upon those engaging in the prospective marriage scene, for example, a courting couple were not allowed to be on their own together, such as not travelling together without a suitable chaperone, or not promenading in the park alone together. This was for the protection of both parties so that they could not be perceived to be engaging in relations before marriage as this would be seen as scandalous in this era. Other rules were seen as primarily a formality, or to avoid certain familiarities with one another before the couple had agreed formally to marry. This included not using Christian names before being married. Only engaged couples were exempt from this rule as they were perceived as practically married and so close enough with one another to be slightly more familiar with one another. This kept a certain distance between those courting so that if a couple decided that the courtship was no longer suitable then, the couple had not become too intimate that it would be deemed unsuitable for them to seek out another match. Similarly, there was no physical contact deemed appropriate by a courting couple. No hand-holding, no kissing and no romance. Any romance that was engaged in by the courting couple, tended to be included in letter writing as this allowed them to be able to express their thoughts and affections that they weren’t allowed to do in person, but even this was discouraged by society. It is believed that the prospective bride had little say in her choice of marriage, but this was not always the case. Yes, the bride’s parents may have pre-arranged the marriage or may have encouraged her to make an advantageous marriage, but ultimately it was down to the woman how she chose to engage or present herself as to whether she would be deemed desirable to the prospective husband. Courtship during the period tended to last from a few months to a few years, but the average courtship length was around two and a half years. The longest length of a courtship recorded in this period was seven years. The length of courtship during the period, could be dependent on many factors such as finances, the interferences of a potential couple’s family relations and the length of time it took to be able to gain a marriage licence or permission to marry. It can be primarily seen as more of a business or financial transaction, but if a couple was lucky the marriage was also based on a love or at least mutual affection amongst the couple.
Courtship in the Georgian Era
Courtship in the Georgian Period

The Historians Magazine

One of the fastest growing Independent history magazines in the UK, championing emerging historians.

Courtship in the Georgian Era
Establishing a courtship

A Romantic Courtship

Whilst the notion of marriage during this period can be perceived as primarily a functional one in which the couple married for financial stability, to produce an heir and as a part of the social norm, there was the belief and hope of love also intertwined into some courtships during the period. One part of Georgian tradition when courting that could have aided in the sparking of a love connection was the process of gift-giving. This was seen as a sign of showing one's affections to the other, in a way that was not deemed to be intimate but also showed an element of care and commitment to the courtship. However, this could also demonstrate the opposite as if a man was seen to give gifts to multiple women, then his affections towards a woman may not have been perceived to be genuine or could indicate that he would not be loyal in the marriage if his flirtations could go between women. These gifts could be small tokens such as flowers, ribbons and sweets. Or could even be grander gifts, mainly given by the upper classes such as jewellery, perfumes, and clothing and on occasion horses and other animals were also given in serious courtships. The concept of Georgian gift-giving also sheds light on an often disregarded part of Georgian history. This is the fact that it was not just heterosexual couples that engaged in the concept of gift-giving during the period. There is evidence to suggest that LGBTQ+ couples also used this to share their affections, but in a hidden way as this was still not a socially accepted form of love during the period. But this demonstrates how love and affection were still a large part of courtship, it was just often presented in a more subtle manner or through aspects such as letter writing and gift giving, to avoid criticism from society because a couple may be seen to be too intimate with one another before marriage. Another example of a courtship gift was a miniature portrait. Exclusively a gift given by wealthier couples, this gift would be seen to show dedication and a commitment to the courtship as these would have been an expensive and time-consuming gift to acquire for a potential partner. This could also be an example of love as the miniature could be concealed on someone’s person to keep them close and for the recipient to be able to gaze upon the face of their spouse-to-be. Arranging a marriage in Georgian times was not a straightforward process. The prospective couple would have to sign a marriage contract before the wedding, and also gain permission from the Church and all relevant parties to be able to marry. In some cases, a marriage would need to be sanctified by the Crown and the couple deemed as a suitable match for one another. The marriage would need to be viewed as lawful and for the right reasons. A proposal was a serious commitment for men in the era, as should they go back on their proposal they could be sued by the family of the woman they had let down, as a breach of a promise and so the lady was not shamed by the end of an engagement. This could be up to the figure of £250 which was more than most middle-class men made in a year! Engaged couples had to wait a minimum of three weeks to be granted marriage permissions. Therefore, the shortest courtship possible was three weeks. All proposed marriages had to go through the Church of England, and in most cases, the parents of the proposed couple had to agree to the match also. The only way around this for English couples was to marry in Scotland as the same rules did not apply there. Therefore, those who chose to marry people their parents may not have approved of chose to elope and risk the consequences of their actions. This was the case for those who chose to marry outside of their social classes. How scandalous! As much as this article has presented that the process of courtship was a strict and serious affair, not all marriages in the Georgian era stuck to the rules, and it is believed that over a third of Georgian brides were already pregnant before their wedding days! This could have sped up some Georgian courtships if there was deemed a need to marry swiftly to avoid any children being born illegitimately! Many courting couples became impatient at the long courtship process and so may have done this on purpose to speed up the process, or accidents may have occurred that may have forced the situation to speed up. This was also not helped by the lack of available contraception during the period. Condoms did exist but were only seen to be used by men who sought out prostitutes, and ladies from good family backgrounds and high-status families were not educated that such things existed, never mind an option to be used. They were educated that they needed to marry a man and then engage in marital relations to conceive an heir, not in the practice of preventing a child’s creation. The rules for courtship were not always followed, and the consequences of this resulted in forced marriages. If a woman became pregnant before she was married, after the year 1733 women could identify the man who had impregnated her and in some cases force him into marriage. Other single women chose to give their illegitimate children up for adoption, as they were made to feel shame for their situation and the transgression of the social norms. Despite, slight exaggerations for entertainment purposes the presence of a ‘Season’ presented in such Georgian dramas as ‘Bridgeton’ isn’t that far from the truth. There was a marriage season within the era and it was seen as crucial to engage within this for the best possible chance at finding a profitable and suitable marriage match. The Season was only a social event attended by those of the highest social ranks though, to ensure that the best possible matches were only available to those of financial and social significance. These events were exclusive and grand ensuring that the right people all engaged with one another and that a good match could be assured amongst the highest social classes. The events of the Season consisted of balls, parties, dinners, entertainment and assemblies where the eligible ladies of the season could be put on show to gauge the interest of the eligible bachelors at the time. Despite, these events being exclusive to certain classes of society there were still rules about who could engage with who when courting. For example, widows could not marry their in-law's family, yet cousins were allowed to marry each other with their families' blessing. In fact, in many cases marrying one’s cousin was deemed a promising match as the familiarity with the family would mean there would be no unwelcome surprises and the prospective couple may already share a lot of similar life experiences to be able to relate to one another. One example of a successful family marriage was the 6th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough who were first cousins. Their family line would grow and produce their great-grandson Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland. Age restrictions were also a part of the courtship process and eligibility to be included in the Season. The age of consent was considered to be fourteen for boys and twelve for girls. However, couples younger than twenty-one years of age still needed parental permission to be able to marry, but not thereafter. This was established by the 1753 Marriage Act. When looking at the recorded marriages from the period though, most couples married within their 20s.
Ancestry UK

The View of Marriage

Marriage was perceived as a crucial milestone in adulthood during the Georgian and Regency periods. The main ‘marriage market’ was centered around the marriages of the elite society, but marriage was just as important for those of the lower classes in society too. Of course, it was desirable to pick a partner for wealth, social security and rank, but it was also essential to pick a partner who would be a suitable partner for childbearing too, as many men during the period, especially those high-ranking men needed a male heir for the continuation of their titles. For those families who only had daughters, it was necessary they made good matches for financial security and to be able to keep family titles and lands within the family, or face them being taken back by the crown or passed to a distant relative. Many marriages in Georgian England began their courtships in ballrooms where members of high society gathered. But these balls had strict rules and etiquette that had to be followed, which meant that even if you had found someone you deemed a suitable wife or husband, you had to stick to the rules of the ball and you couldn’t spend the whole night with them. One of the main rules was that both men and women had to dance with multiple partners at the ball and many ladies were equipped with dance cards to aid in this process. The men also deemed who danced with who as only men were allowed to extend a hand to ask a lady to dance. They may be encouraged to dance by others around them, or if a pre-existing arrangement had been organised, but the men had to ask the ladies to dance. Dancing also provided potential partners with an opportunity for physical contact that was otherwise not permitted. A Cultural Shift During the Georgian Era, the concept of love and expressing this love saw a cultural shift of opinion. Eighteenth-century letter writing and works of literature during the time encouraged more and more young people to search for love and passion as part of their courtship thinking. Whilst romance and love had previously been a second thought in the process of marriage, with stability and a good social match taking priority, the emergence of expressing one's feelings through letter writing flourished during the era, meaning that potential couples could attempt to get to know one another through writing, if they were not able to on the dancefloor of a ball or whilst socialising but accompanied by chaperones. Letter writing was a crucial part of the ‘getting to know one another’ stage of the relationship. If a couple knew they were going to get married, letter writing was an essential way to be able to get to know each other better before they lived together, or to provide more information about one another to give them better talking points when they crossed paths at events. Some couples may not have even met each other before they were pushed together in marriage, for example, if it was an arranged marriage or the potential partner lived overseas. Therefore, letter writing could help build the bonding bridge between the couple. One example of this was King George III and his Queen Charlotte. Their marriage was arranged and the first time they met each other was on their wedding day. Their marriage lasted for 57 years and together they had 15 children, of which 13 reached adulthood. The couple were believed to have written frequently to one another both prior and during their relationship if they were apart. Unfortunately, only a few of these letters still exist today. But these letters give an insight into the devoted and loving relationship the couple had. This was also probably an inspiration to their people of how love can blossom from a suitable marriage if the couple are willing to work at it and be devoted to one another, even during difficult times. Charlotte in particular in letters also used her penmanship in order to encourage and support her husband in his role as King, reassuring him that he was loved both by her and by his people, demonstrating the powerful effect letters had during the time. The couple’s letters demonstrate the importance of a successful royal marriage during the period and how their love and devotion were expressed through letters during the reign. In one letter Charlotte wrote to George it can be interpreted that letters were an important part of keeping their courtship and relationship strong in times of long absence as Charlotte wrote: “There never was anybody so agreeably surprised as I have been an hour ago by the arrival of your Majesty’s letter, for which I return you a thousand thanks. I am glad to find that you continue well, and that your journey as far as you are come affords you pleasure, and I look forward with great impatience for Wednesday evening to embrace and congratulate your Majesty upon your return amongst us.” Romance novels that also emerged during the Georgian era also encouraged the idea that love didn’t have to be a happy benefit of marriage, but that it could be an essential part of seeking out a successful marriage. Romantic poetry was also a prevalent part of Georgian culture. This was inspired by the rise of the Romantic Movement and significant social changes that emerged in England during the time.
Courtship in the Georgian Era

Leah Rhiannon Savage

Leah Rhiannon Savage Specialist in Early Modern British History, with a focus on Scottish History | Dissertations on John Knox and the Scottish Reformation & The Social Experiences of the Female Relatives of Robert the Bruce during the Scottish Wars of Independence (1296-1314) | Published articles on John Knox and the Scottish Reformation, The Four Marys, William Wallace and the Fight for Scottish Independence, Imprisoned and Punished: The Female Relatives of Robert Bruce, Outlaw King: Film Review, Margaret Thatcher: Britain's First Female Prime Minister, Remembering the Holocaust, Memory History: The History of the Holocaust (1939-1945) | Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education and Masters in History | Linkedin Profile:
images (1)
Nellie Bly: The Woman Who Inspired Investigative Journalism and The Fictional Character of Lois Lane
The Fictional Past: Historical Novels and Their Uses
George IV (2)
From Monroe to Biden - the Complex Role of American Presidents During Royal Coronations