Wealthy Victorians were prim, proper, and known for their propensity for luxury and buttoned-up etiquette. This is especially true when it came to marriage, a practice carried over from the Regency Era which took place before Queen Victoria’s reign. Let’s take a look at what one might expect from a conventional Victorian wedding.
Dowries, Dresses, and Decorum: Uncovering Victorian Wedding Traditions and Costs
Victorian weddings were important and elaborate affairs. The parents of the bride would look forward to them from the day their daughter was born. Once an engagement was announced, duties and responsibilities were carefully mapped out and usually entailed planning that involved:
The Bridal Trousseau
The girl’s father would present the bride-to-be with money for her trousseau — brand-new outfits and other items to wear on her wedding day, honeymoon, and newlywed days. It was very expensive, as was the case for Bettina Rothschild who came from a prominent European banking family. Her bridal trousseau cost a whopping 200,000 francs.
When it came to the bride’s jewelry, there weren’t any hard and fast rules. It could be a prized family heirloom (such as a diamond tiara) that the bride would bring with her to her new home or a gift from her husband-to-be.
Wedding presents were often given according to the bride’s rank and status. It was a source of significant worry for the giver as it is in modern days.
If the bride belonged to a wealthy family, her relatives and intimate friends would give her costly bracelets, rings, and innumerable porcelain. In circles where there wasn’t much companionship, the bride was given teapots, cake baskets, and other gifts that she could use in her married life.
The groom buys the ring — and not just any ring, mind you. It has to be a sleek band made of the purest gold with the date of the wedding and the couple’s initials engraved inside. It should be thick enough not to break and well-fitted to ensure it wouldn’t slip off the bride’s finger.
To get the right size, the gentleman would ask for help from the bride’s sister who would lend him one of the lady’s rings or leave it to the expertise of the jeweler.
Paying the Clergyman
Once the wedding festivities were over and everybody — well, everybody important — had departed, the best man would stay behind to pay the clergyman for the services he rendered which could be between $5 to $500. The remaining ushers would head to the bride’s house to hand out wedding favors.
Interesting Dowries and Marriage Settlements
While dowry is no longer a popular concept today, it was a tradition that Victorians prepared for. Let’s take a look at its intricacies.
What Is Dowry?
Dowry, or the marriage portion, is a custom where parental property, material goods, and money were transferred to a daughter upon her wedding as an early inheritance. It attracted suitors and helped give the woman (and subsequently her children) economic security while helping the family secure a desirable son-in-law.
So, what became of women whose families couldn’t afford dowries?
Women’s limited economic means limited their marriage opportunities, so their only choice was to become mistresses to men who could afford to keep them. If the woman was lucky and had a good reputation in society, wealthy parishioners, who had a penchant for doing charity, might provide her dowry.
Purpose of Dowry in Victorian Society
Dowry in Victorian society served many purposes.
It was a reciprocal gesture made to the groom in exchange for the money he would have paid as the bride price. Otherwise known as “bridewealth,” it proved that the man could support his wife according to the social standing she was accustomed to.
While it was a financial burden for bachelors, dowries and bride prices also gave the newly wedded couple capital to start their new life together.
Another interesting quality of the dowry was it served as a conditional gift. Yep, takebacks were allowed. It was supposed to be returned in case the bride was mistreated or abused by the husband or in-laws so it was an incentive to keep women safe. If the couple divorced, the husband would also have to repay the dowry.
Examples of Interesting and Unusual Dowries
Because the concept of dowries was such an important aspect of the Victorian Era, many families mortgaged their homes to ensure their daughters had good marriage prospects.
Take a look at these interesting dowries, and you’ll see the astounding lengths they went to!
Let’s start with Anne of Denmark, wife to King James I. She received northern Orkney Isles and hundreds of thousands of pounds as dowry.
Meanwhile, the 5th Duke of Devonshire gave his daughter, Georgiana, £30,000 as dowry to convince her to marry Viscount Morpheth. In addition, she was also allowed the use of their striking London residence, Londesborough House.
But wait, it gets wilder.
King Louis VII, the heir to the French throne, received the duchy of Aquitaine — an entire region of France — when he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the wealthiest women in Western Europe. The property was not for keeps though, so Eleanor regained possession of her dowry when the couple divorced.
Our notable mention goes to Violante Visconti who received a massive dowry from her father, the Duke of Milan. In her marriage to Lionel of Antwerp (Duke of Clarence), the groom received 100,000 gold florins, a lavish wedding, and several towns in Piedmont.
Marriage Settlement Agreements and Why Victorian Couples Needed Them
Marriages in Victorian times were typically arranged to benefit the new family. This is why they had marriage settlement agreements.
A marriage settlement was an arrangement that specified what would happen to particular assets and landed estates after the wedding. It was drawn up with the parents of the bride and groom as trustees as assets were passed down to the children sired through the marriage. Eventually, it could be used as the dowry of the newly wedded couple’s daughter.
Victorian Wedding Etiquette in 1852
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. — Pride and Prejudice.
Marriage in the Victorian Era was the be-all and end-all of most women’s existence. They thus had several traditions and etiquette that were carefully observed.
Fixing the Day
Fixing the date is an important part of upcoming nuptials irrespective of whether it was a love marriage or one arranged by the family. While the groom could push for the earliest date possible, finalizing the wedding date was ultimately the bride’s honor.
How To Be Married
Once the date was fixed, the gentleman would decide how he wanted to be married:
Marriage by Banns
Banns referred to “proclamations,” notices that must be given to the Christian church. They were public announcements that were published for three consecutive Sundays from the wedding during which anyone could raise impediments like pre-existing marriages and lack of consent to make their objection to the union known.
If the couple belonged to different parishes, the curate of one parish could only solemnize the marriage if no one lodged any objections.
Banns were valid for 90 days from the date of publication.
Marriage by Common or Ordinary License
Couples could apply for ordinary marriage licenses at the District’s Registrar’s Office. Applications were valid for 15 days in the parish or district where they were residents. They were also asked to give a sworn statement that there were no impediments to their marriage. The license remained in force for three months.
Marriage by Special License
Special licenses were awarded by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Doctors Commons in London so they were restricted to a special few — think baronets, knights, judges at the courts of Westminster, and members of the parliament. If they met the requirements, they could be married anytime, anywhere.
If you didn’t fall into any of these categories but wanted a special license, you’d have to get a personal interview (a letter of introduction also worked) with His Grace which could prove difficult. Once you gain an audience, you’d have to show the Archbishop why he should grant the indulgence.
Consent (in the Case of Minors)
If either party is a minor and cannot legally give their consent, the following authorities could provide consent for their nuptials:
- Guardian (in case the natural and lawful father was deceased)
- Mother (only if the father and the legally appointed guardians were dead)
- Guardians set by the Chancery (typically applied to minors who had no responsible authority to turn to)
If minors didn’t have any of the above, they could consent to the nuptials themselves.
Who To Invite
Weddings typically took place in the bride’s home so wedding guests were usually limited to the father and mother of the couple, their siblings, their immediate relations, and old friends of the families.
Unmarried sisters often played the role of bridesmaids. Often, they were also the bride’s favorite and intimate confidants. Their job was to make the bride look and feel her best while attending to wedding favors, wedding cakes, and other similar matters.
Meanwhile, the groom would invite his companions and closest relatives to be groomsmen — one for each of the bridesmaids. He also had his “best man” who ensured that he carried the ring in the right-hand pocket of the wedding waistcoat.
The Big Day
The day of the wedding would start with a hearty meal. After, the families would head to the church or holy altar in carriages. The bride would be dressed in a white gown and veil. However, other colors like gray or lavender were also acceptable. Bridesmaids would wear outfits that complemented the bride’s dress.
The groom, on the other hand, wore a tasteful black coat with a bow tie.
The wedding procession would be headed by the bride and her father who were followed by the bridesmaids and groomsmen. Once the bride’s father handed her over to the groom, the couple made their vows, and the groom would give his bride the ring — the marriage was then deemed official and binding.
Victorian weddings were strikingly similar to the celebrations we have today. Many of the traditions we honor in modern times came from this distinctive and unforgettable era. If, like us, you fancy Victorian aesthetics, why not wear a Victorian-style dress for your upcoming wedding?