Dowries. Settlements. Portions. Modern readers hear these words and cringe. We hate to think of women being treated like commodities, having value and worth assigned to them in monetary terms. We especially hate the idea that a father might “pay” someone to marry his daughter. But is that what was really going on with marriage settlements in regency England? Let’s take a closer look at the purpose behind dowries and marriage settlements.
First, let’s remind ourselves what dowries and settlements were. Marriage settlements were legal arrangements used by upper class families, ones that had enough money to “settle” on a daughter who had reached marriageable age. Once a man and woman had formed an engagement the two families involved would sit down to discuss how this marriage would work from a financial perspective. With the help of a solicitor they would sign an agreement to formalize whatever agreement they came up with. The families would proclaim themselves satisfied and the wedding could now take place!
It’s important to remember that in this time period, middle and upper class women did not earn a living for themselves. Their job was to maintain the home and rear children, not to earn an income. In fact a married woman could not even enter into a contract or own property in her own name! Her husband was supposed to provide for her during his lifetime and provide funds for her to live on after he died. But what if the husband didn’t or couldn’t do that?
In that case the marriage settlement was rather like an insurance policy. Theoretically the husband would not touch the principal of the dowry set aside for his wife. Instead it would be managed by trustees. The settlement might also stipulate that a certain percentage of the settlement money would be given to the wife each month as “pin money,” or an allowance. If the wife outlived the husband, her marriage settlement would then be used to support her as a widow. All of this would be in addition to whatever her husband provided for her.
While the husband was earning a living for his family and hopefully setting aside money to support his wife some dayt, he was also expected to set aside funds for any daughter that was born to him, so that he could one day transfer that settlement to her future husband. (Pity poor Mr. Bennet with five daughters!) And so the cycle would continue.
Does this sound complicated? It could be! Let’s look at what a typical settlement might involve for an upper class girl (“Amelia”) who has accepted an offer of marriage from the oldest son (“Matthew”) of a landed gentleman from Berkshire.
Amelia’s father meets with Matthew, with Matthew’s father, and with each family’s solicitor. As they begin negotiations he is relieved to find that Matthew’s father earns a clear four thousand a year. He’s even happier to hear that Matthew is the oldest son, so he can look forward to the same income himself one day. Matthew is set for life!
At the same time Matthew’s father is delighted to hear that Amelia’s father has five thousand pounds settled on her. This settlement comes partly from Amelias’s mother, who was quite well off when she married, and from money that Amelia’s father has managed to save up over time. Amelia is the only daughter in a house with four sons so if Amelia’s mother becomes a widow one day, there should be plenty of support for her. Thus the family can afford to settle a generous amount on Amelia. It looks like this will be a good match for both families.
Now that the basics are out of the way everyone gives a sigh of relief and the details begin to sort themselves out. Amelia’s father wants her money to be invested in the Bank of England in the four percents, and he tells Matthew that Amelia will need a hundred pounds annually for pin money. (Our Amelia is a bit of a spendthrift!) The solicitor for Matthew’s family tactfully suggests that this hundred pounds can be taken from the interest that her settlement money will earn in the bank. After all, five thousand pounds at four percent will yield 250 pounds annually, and this interest (but not the principal) will belong to Matthew. Everyone agrees that this is acceptable and the solicitors draft these terms into the agreement they are creating.
Next, Matthew’s father offers to have a thousand pounds settled on Amelia in case Matthew dies without any sons. Amelia’s father counters that a thousand pounds may do well for Amelia alone, but what if Matthew dies and Amelia has unmarried daughters to support? Matthew’s father has two daughters of his own to supply with settlements, as well as two younger sons to settle in careers some day, so this is a complication. He briefly confers with his solicitor and then offers a generous portion of land along with the proposed thousand pounds. Amelia’s father decides that will do nicely and the solicitors add that in.
Both families believe that Matthew and Amelia will have sons one day and when Amelia becomes a widow, one of them will support her. Her settlement money at that point will be divided among any unmarried daughters the couple may have. But if the worst happens and Matthew and Amelia never have a son, the widowed Amelia will have all the money and the property in her settlement under her control and for her benefit alone. If Amelia dies before Matthew, her marriage portion will be divided equally among all her children.
Everyone is happy with this arrangement. Amelia’s parents know that she will be provided for. one way or another, for the rest of her life. Matthew’s parents are confident that their son’s future wife will be an asset to the family and not a drag on their finances. Matthew and Amelia haven’t had much say in any of this but since they’re madly in love they’re not worried about the details anyway. That’s for their parents to figure out. It’s time to get married!
This is just an example of how a settlement might be arranged. The more money involved, the more complicated a settlement could become. Just hiring a solicitor to write all this out and have everyone sign it could be quite expensive, so it was obviously not something carried out by lower class or poor families.
By now it should be obvious that a settlement (or dowry, or whatever you might call it) was not a means of oppressing women. Quite the opposite. It was a way of securing their financial future and providing for them in a world that treated them as second class citizens. A well off man who did not provide an adequate settlement for his wife and daughters, a la Mr. Bennet, put them at serious risk of impoverishment one day.
This is a complicated topic and I have barely brushed the surface here. It’s also possible that I may have some details wrong 🙂 , so anyone with more knowledge in this area, please feel free to correct me or fill out any areas I’ve missed. Below are some good resources I found while researching this topic.