While it’s sometimes claimed that prior to the passing of the Married Women’s Property Acts in the later decades of the nineteenth century, married women’s property was entirely in the hands of their husbands,there were ways around this for the moneyed and propertied classes.
Equity law, rather than common law, enabled money to be settled upon a woman in her own right even when she was married, and prudent fathers or guardians would usually take care that husbands did not have a free hand, particularly if the woman in question was a wealthy heiress.
In the industrial and commercial classes, it was not unusual for the wife to be pretty much a partner to her husband in the business they were conducting, in a remnant of the old family workshop tradition.
But marriage nonetheless conveyed severe disadvantages to a woman, who became, indeed, considered a legal nonentity. There was little protection against matrimonial violence or a husband’s sexual demands. If a husband was extremely violent to the point of mortal danger, a woman might be able to obtain a separation in the ecclesiastical courts, which would not allow remarriage but would permit her to live apart from her husband while being provided a maintenance. It was also possible for couples to agree to a deed of separation, but this required mutual consent, as it was a private agreement.
Divorce was rare and the procedure cumbersome and expensive and hardly ever granted to women. To obtain a divorce on the grounds of adultery (the only grounds allowed), the aggrieved husband had to bring a crim. con. – criminal conversation – suit for damages against his wife’s lover. The evidence brought in these cases was widely reported in the equivalent of the tabloid press. The husband had then to obtain an ecclesiastical divorce a mensa e thoro – a separation. He then had to apply for a private Act of Parliament for the divorce itself.
Parental consent to marry was required under the age of twenty-one, in England and Wales, but not in Scotland, which is why elopements to Gretna Green or other places just across the border were a thing. Not only was parental consent not required, mutual agreement to marry before witnesses constituted marriage.
To be valid under English law and thus convey legitimacy upon the offspring, marriages had to be solemnized in the Church of England.(This did not, however, apply to the Jewish community, Quakers, or Catholics.) Marriages were normally conducted in the parish of residence of one or other of the parties and preceded by the calling of banns on the three Sundays before the wedding in order that any impediment might be declared. A Common or ordinary licence could be obtained for a small fee from a clergyman and would obviate the need for banns although the marriage still had to take place in a church between the hours of 8 am and noon. A Special Licence from the Archbishop of Canterbury, obtainable from Doctors’ Commons in London, was expensive, over twenty guineas plus stamp duty, but enabled the marriage to take place anywhere at any hour of day although it still had to be conducted by a clergyman.
The wedding ceremony was a good deal less elaborate than it became during the Victorian period, though usually followed by a celebration for family and friends, and the fact of the marriage having taken place announced in the newspapers.
L.A. Hall, FRHistS