Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: Weddings




This page is far from comprehensive. However, I hope that what I've found will help and inspire you in your own plans for a wedding or just a lovely Regency party!

The Engagement

There was no springing of diamond rings on bended knee; all was sealed with a mere conversation (as can be seen in the illustration from Jane Austen's Emma at right), usually followed by a request for the parents' permission. Sometimes a ring might be given as a token of affection in a long engagement, as in the ring made of his fiancee's hair (this was common in the 19th century!) that Edward wears in Austen's Sense and Sensibility, but it wasn't expected.

Today's engagements are usually quite long by Regency standards. Without an elaborate wedding to plan, there was no reason to wait, and with the ban on premarital sex, there was no desire to! Austen's characters are usually married within a few months of their engagement. If not, it is specifically referred to as a "long engagement," and it is almost always because the young man does not yet possess enough of a fortune to keep his wife in the style to which she is accustomed.

Making It Legal

Until the mid-18th century, the requirements for a legal English marriage were merely that the two parties exchange words of consent, two witnesses be present, the vows be said in the present tense, and the marrying couple be of age - fourteen for men and twelve for women! These rules meant that marriages could occur anywhere and at any time. In an effort to prevent clandestine marriages, among other things, the Marriage Act of 1753 changed these requirements. Thenceforth the two parties had to have parental permission if they were under twenty-one; banns had to be read publicly in church on three consecutive Sundays prior to the wedding; an official license had to be purchased; the wedding had to occur before witnesses and an authorized clergyman; and it had to be recorded in the marriage register with the signatures of both parties, the witnesses, and the minister. The only sanctified locations for a wedding were a Church of England church, a Jewish synagogue, or a Quaker meeting.

When the banns were read, someone could stand up and object - probably a better plan than today's call for objections at the very last moment! If you were worried about objections, you could always elope to Gretna Green; Scotland didn't adopt such rules, so you could simply show up there and pledge your troth in the presence of another person. Or you could get married by a license - a license to skip the banns, essentially. Because it cost a few pounds, this was the preferred method among the upper classes, never ones to turn down a little conspicuous consumption. Or if you really wanted to show off you could get a special license, which you had to get from no less person than the archbishop of Canterbury and which cost something over twenty guineas, a huge sum at the time. "A special license!" gloats Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, contemplating Lizzie's marriage to the wealthy Mr. Darcy. "You must and shall be married by a special license." It meant that the purchaser could marry after noon and somewhere other than the church if he chose.

Strangely, in 1823 the legal ages of marriage were returned once more to fourteen and twelve.

In America, marriage bonds took the place of marriage licenses, having been required at least as early as the 1660s. The idea was to prevent illegal marriages (if, for example, one were already married or underage) by making people who knew the affianced couple pay out a large amount of money that would be forfeit if they failed to disclose an objection before the marriage took place. In other words, just a modern bail bond is posted to get someone out of jail and the amount will be forfeited if the jailee does not reappear at the appointed time, likewise in this case the marriage bond would be forfeited, usually to the bride's father, if the marriage did not take place.

The practice of marriage bonds lasted in the U.S. well into the 19th century. The example at left (from the Library of Congress; click on it to see an enlarged version) is dated 1803 and states that fifty pounds has been paid to Kentucky governor James Garrard by Richard Ferguson and P.B. Ormsby to guarantee that no impediment exists to prevent the marriage of Richard Ferguson and Eliza A. Boothe.

Then again, there's an interesting page here on an Indiana couple who bucked the trends of religion and gender-based inequality in 1832.

You can also read about Spanish-influenced wedding customs in California and the Southwest in the early 19th century here.

The Invitations

Wedding invitations were not the official, printed objects we think of now; instead, personal letters were written to each invitee (not to mention all the letters to those who deserved to know, even if they couldn't attend. At right is the letter written by Ann Palmer to her aunt and uncle inviting them to attend her daughter's wedding (click on it to see a larger version; found on Family Tree Maker Online).

The Ceremony

At the turn of the 19th century, English weddings were relatively simple affairs compared to now, even though they loomed larger in people's lives - it was a time when women were defined by their marriages. (Most Americans imitated English social customs in this period, although it depended on their point of origin.) The ceremony was held before noon, invariably at the local church, and were attended only by those close to the family, although locals would hang around outside the church to see the clothes, offer good wishes, and generally rubberneck. The clergyman and the parish clerk would be in attendance also, of course.


William Hogarth, The Marriage of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox, c.1729; Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After the ceremony the couple signed their names in the parish registry in the vestry, the bride signing her maiden name. Then came the wedding breakfast, which was still early enough to bear that name, and finally the couple departed on their honeymoon, if they were wealthy enough to afford one. Shoes were thrown after the departing couple for luck; I suppose it is typical of we lazy modern types that we simply tie them to the bumper of the car!

You can read the text of the banns and the Church of England marriage ceremony at the delightful all-things-Austen site Pemberley.com.

Jane Austen's niece Anna married Benjamin Lefroy at Steventon on November 8, 1814. One of Anna's younger sisters later wrote of it: "Weddings were then usually very quiet. The old fashion of festivity and publicity had quite gone by, and was universally condemned as showing the bad taste of all former generations.... This was the order of the day. The bridegroom came from Ashe, where he had hitherto lived with his brother (the Rector), and with him came Mr. and Mrs. Lefroy, and his other brother, Mr. Edward Lefroy.... My brother came from Winchester that morning, but was to stay only a few hours. We in the house had a slight early breakfast upstairs, and between nine and ten the bride, my mother, Mrs. Lefroy, Anne, and myself were taken to church in our carriage. All the gentlemen walked."

She continues, "Mr. Lefroy read the service, and my father gave his daughter away. No one was in the church but ourselves, and no one was asked to the breakfast, to which we sat down as soon as we got back." She adds that "soon after the breakfast the bride and bridegroom departed. They had a long day's journey before them to Hendon.... In the evening the servants had cake and wine."

The Wedding-Ring

The following appeared in Appleton's Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art in 1869:

Although a ring is absolutely necessary in a Church-of-England marriage, it may be of any metal, and of any size. Some years since, a ring of brass was used at Worcester at a wedding before the registrar, who was threatened with proceedings for not compelling a gold one to be employed.... The church-key was used in lieu of a wedding-ring at a church near Colchester, early in the present century; and that was not a solitary instance within the past one hundred years in England. The Duke of Hamilton was married at May Fair with a bed-curtain ring.

In the Brock illustration at right, Pride & Prejudice's Lydia shows off her new wedding-ring to the servants.

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids date well back in history, and seem to have been a standard part of the Regency wedding - although certainly not in matching pastel outfits designed for the occasion. Near the end of Jane Austen's Emma, we read that "Emma attended Harriet to church, and saw her hand bestowed on Robert Martin." At Anna Lefroy's wedding, the eldest sister of the groom was one of the bridesmaids, and a younger sister of Anna's was the other; both were still little girls. They wore white frocks, such as were the fashion for girls then, and "had white ribbon in [their] straw bonnets."

The Wedding-Clothes

Today a bride may have been planning her wedding-gown since girlhood. The Regency bride usually just wore her best church-going clothes, although sometimes a gown would be made for the occasion and then worn "for best" afterward. The earliest fashion plates of wedding wear I've seen are the 1816 plate at right, which actually is just showing what Princess Charlotte wore for her royal wedding (it looks white but in fact was silver); and the 1823 plate below left, from Costumes Parisien. (Click the plates to see larger versions of the images!) For most brides, the cult of the white-clad, fully veiled maiden would not arrive until the Victorian era; the bride's gown could be any color, and the further down the social scale she was, the more likely that it would be some practical, darker shade or print. Among the wealthier, in the late 18th century the colors considered especially appropriate for weddings were blue, white, and silver - not just for women but for men, who were likely to be married in embroidered silk-satin or uncut-velvet suits. By the early 19th century, light-colored dresses, especially white or white with silver embroidery, were "in" for weddings, while men wore the increasingly standardized formal wear of the time.

The all-encompassing veil attached to a tiara had not yet taken hold either; the Regency bride likely wore a bonnet, as women did any time when out in public, keeping them on in church. It could be anything from a straw bonnet to a simple turban, however, and could certainly have a veil attached to it, as did much stylish daytime headwear of the time. Indeed, after Emma's own wedding, which Austen describes as "very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade," the neighborhood snob "thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. 'Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!'" The size of the audience is referred to in the same paragraph, as "the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony."

The wedding-clothes of Austen's niece Anna Lefroy were described by the bride's sister as "a dress of fine white muslin, and over it a soft silk shawl, white shot with primrose [yellow], with embossed white-satin flowers, and very handsome fringe, and on her head a small cap to match, trimmed with lace."

Cathy Decker's Real Regency Clothing pages offer images of a lovely 1820s wedding dress and various images and information on Princess Charlotte, including more on her wedding clothes and detailed descriptions of the clothes worn by the wedding guests.
Since wedding gowns were often worn - to the point of being worn out - after the wedding, brides had to cherish something else. Often this was one of her wedding shoes, a natural choice given the lucky connotations of shoes in this context. Many carefully preserved satin slippers remain with notes inscribed in the instep attesting to the wearer's wedding; find out more about this at the Museum of the City of New York online.

Shoe, c. 1795-1800, in the Museum of the City
of New York; gift of Clarence F. Michalis.

Flowers and Other Decorations


Jan Frans van Dael's Vase of Flowers on a Ledge, in the Fitzwilliam Museum.
I don't have any information specifically about Regency-era wedding flowers, I'm sorry to say. But flowers have been traditional at weddings since time immemorial, in both bouquets and garlands. I would look at late-18th and early-19th-century still-life paintings such as the one at left to get a good sense of the floral arrangements and combinations popular at the time. Plump damask roses and peonies seem to feature heavily; today's narrow modern tea roses would be right out.


The Wedding-Cake

I've seen conflicting information on wedding cakes. They certainly existed and were a standard part of the party after the wedding; at the beginning of Austen's novel Emma, there's a discussion of having a piece of wedding cake sent round to the people who couldn't come to the celebration. But how big, how fancy, and whether or not layered I can't pin down. (The lovely stand at left is available from MarthaStewart.com.)

The idea of the wedding cake came from the old medieval tradition of breaking little wheat cakes over the heads of the bride and groom (for fertility, like the Romans - and modern Westerners, though we've forgotten why - tossing rice on the couple). Even after we were civilized out of actually putting crumbs in the couple's hair, it was still traditional to have a little pile of cakes in the center of the buffet. Then, the story goes, a French chef organized this custom by making the cakes out of something yummier and icing them together.

However, I can't determine whether by the Regency this iced confection was just a regular layer cake, or was beginning to approach the tiered type we see today. I've heard that the tiered cake wasn't invented until the wedding of one of Queen Victoria's daughters or neices in the 1850s, and that even then it didn't have columns and the upper layers were pure sugar, so they wouldn't crush the bottom layer, and I've seen what purported to be a description of the cake at Victoria's own wedding in the 1830s, in three layers and encrusted with the most incredible sugar cupids and so on. So I don't know whom to believe.

But most people made their own cakes at home, in any case. Elizabeth Gaskell, referencing an 1812 letter of Maria Branwell's in her Life of Charlotte Brontė, reports that Maria and her cousin "intended to set about making the wedding-cake in the following week, so the marriage could not be far off." Period cake recipes I've seen seem mostly to produce varieties of fruitcake involving large amounts of spice and alcohol as preservatives, which makes sense when you consider that slices of the cake had to survive being sent to absent guests, and that young ladies tucked slivers wrapped in napkins under their pillows so they would dream of their future husbands! Clearly this was not a fluffy white cake as we're accustomed to thinking of wedding cakes today. There are a couple of period recipes for ambitiously enormous cakes here (twenty pounds of flour!).

In a similar vein, Mount Vernon offers Martha Washington's favorite cake recipe:

Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to a froth. Then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream and put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work'd. Then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manner then put in the Yolks of eggs and 5 pounds of flour and 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it. Add to it half an ounce of mace and nutmeg half a pint of wine and some fresh brandy.

Goodness! Little wonder it's referred to as Martha Washington's Great Cake. Mount Vernon's curatorial staff tried this recipe out; since the recipe didn't specify what five pounds of fruit were to be used, they tried two pounds of raisins, two of apples, and one of currants. The wine chosen was cream sherry. Although Martha apparently made her cake as a single very tall layer (no wonder it took so long to cook), no pan large enough was available to hold all the batter, so two 14" layers were made and stacked after baking at 350 for an hour and a half. According to the site, such cakes were typically iced with a very stiff egg-white based icing, flavored with rosewater or orange-flower water.

If these ambitious concoctions are a bit too formidably "period" and not bridal enough for you, try this lovely-sounding recipe from 1859 for a cake delicately flavored with rosewater (or even rose butter!) and iced with a baked-on lemon-sugar frosting.

The Wedding Breakfast

Because weddings were held before noon, the celebratory meal eaten afterwards was considered a breakfast. In Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin, we read that "The breakfast was such as best breakfasts then were: some variety of bread, hot rolls, buttered toast, tongue or ham and eggs. The addition of chocolate [note: this would have been drinking chocolate] at one end of the table, and wedding cake in the middle, marked the specialty of the day."

If your meal will not be an actual breakfast, you might like to offer white soup, mentioned in many Austen novels. It was served at every festive evening gathering, a sort of posh chips-and-dip of its time. There are instructions on making it here. Also, a popular drink served at balls was negus, a hot spiced wine. You can find a recipe here. The really ambitious may wish to try some unmodernized Regency-era recipes in The Regency Collection, or these American ones, or perhaps you might rather tackle the modernized 18th-century ones from Colonial Williamsburg.

Music

Dancing and music were standard at every gathering; the only differences were levels of refinement according to social standing. Music could mean simply someone at the piano (middle class) or playing the fiddle (lower class), or there could be an entire string-and-wind orchestra such as is seen in various Austen films. Mostly people country-danced, rather like square-dancing but quieter and not "called," but the waltz came in in the 1810s and became quite the thing by the end of the decade.

Below is an illustration of a late-18th-century country wedding. Two fiddlers attend and take turns playing for the dancers. The work is The Penny Wedding, by David Allan.


Although officially abolished in 1645, "penny weddings" were popular subjects for genre paintings in the Regency, as shown by the image above and the one below (Sir David Wilkie's 1818 The Penny Wedding, click on it for a larger version). It was an old Scottish tradition wherein the guests literally paid for the privilege of attending the wedding, in order to discharge the expenses and give the bride and groom a little something with which to get started. I must admit, it's more straightforward than the more "genteel" modern habit of providing the guests with elaborate lists of expensive gifts they're expected to buy! A later version of the custom, still apparently practiced in remote parts of Scotland today, was simply a sort of potluck, in which the guests brought their own food and drink to the celebration.

Music and dancing were intimately associated with penny weddings, which were thought to be especially boisterous. Even the old marriage contracts threatening forfeits were not necessarily enough to dissuade such activities; in 1703, "James Riach in Giles and Christian Gaderer in Covesea were matrimonially contracted and he consigned for himself and her of...money to the value of three pounds Scots, consenting that the same be forfeited if he had a penny wedding, fidling, dancing, drunkenness, plays, or any irregularities thereat, contrar to acts of parliament and assemblys, was married Aug. 17th and forfeited their pledges by having a penny wedding."

(By the way, don't be confused by a later use of the term: In the late 19th and early 20th century in London's East End, a penny wedding was a service marrying up to twenty couples, so that each impoverished couple needed to contribute only a penny to the total cost of the service.)

I hope some of this information helps. If you have turned up any sites with information on Regency weddings, regardless of what country they focus on, please share them with me! As I say, I get a lot of questions and am always trying to improve my knowledge.

Copyright 2004 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.