Widowhood in Georgian England

Ages ago, I wrote a post about British mourning customs . In a slightly related note, for my Regency/Georgian romance story I’m currently tinkering with–The New Bride of Banner’s Edge–I needed to know a few salient points on being a widow in those days because early on in the story, Jane Windham is widowed. The story is about her finding a second chance at love with Miles Keegan, Pearl’s employer in Pearl and father of the two girls Pearl nannies.

Miles is a widower, but things were different for men.

Feme covert
In the Georgian/Regency era into the mid-19th century or so, when a woman married, anything she’d inherited or owned–money or property–became her husband’s. In law terms, a married women didn’t exist as her own separate legal entity. It was known as coverture and a married woman was legally called a feme covert–a covered female, under the care of her husband.

If she went into the marriage with a good fortune but no safeguards like a marriage settlement in place, her husband could spend that money the way he saw fit and the wife had no legal recourse. If they separated, he could leave her destitute and she had no rights to their children, property, or money. If she earned any money during the marriage, it was his. She couldn’t even deny him conjugal relations.

Baby Princess Victoria (future Queen Victoria) and her mother in mourning, 1819

Marriage Settlements
A lot of aristocratic and upper middle class families hammered out a marriage settlement for their daughters, which outlined how much she brought into the marriage (her dowry), how much of the dowry was set aside for her children to inherit and for the woman to live on if she was widowed (a jointure), and how much pin money (an allowance) she got from her husband.

So really–any girl with a decent fortune who was stupid enough to run away to Scotland to get married quickly (the Vegas of the late eighteenth and early ninteenth century) was truly stupid if the marriage went sour.

Poorer, working class women had it differently, naturally. They often didn’t bring anything into a marriage anyway, so they didn’t do marriage settlements. If she worked, her earnings belonged to her husband. Her children belonged to her husband. And divorce was practically impossible to get (you needed an Act of Parliament in England), so I suppose many women simply endured if their marriage went bad or their husband was ill, abusive, alcoholic, or a bum.

If a woman went into the marriage with a marriage settlement (Jane absolutely does), legally she’s entitled to her dowry and to one-third of her husband’s estate to live on. Also, she becomes her very own legal entity once again–a feme sole–and is allowed to own property and keep her own money.

Working class women also became feme sole in widowhood, but their position could be either livable  or precarious. A husband’s death could mean ending up in the poor house. Working class men and women, if they lost their spouse and were left with a lot of children, often married fairly quickly because they needed financial stablilty or someone to care for the kids.

Jane’s husband is a baronet, which isn’t aristocracy but gentry and is one of those inheritable titles. They don’t have a son to inherit, so when Jane becomes a widow, she has to move out of her home. In her social circles, she’d be expected to wear black for at least a year. She would be well-off enough to not have to marry soon after and in fact, it would be frowned upon if she married too quickly because, like, what if she happened to be pregnant by her dead husband?

Men, though? They could marry quickly after if they needed to. Who was going to raise the kids if he didn’t?

Widows generally had more social freedom than married or single-never-married women. Yes, they were expected to swaddle themselves in black for a year, but they could live comfortable lives if the finances were good. Having been married, they didn’t have to be as sheltered as a never-married woman was, so if they were discreet, an affair or travel or a profession wouldn’t be completely out of place.

If she married again, everything she had became her new husband’s and she became a feme covert again.

Jane Austen’s World: Dowagers and Widows in 19th Century England
Historical Hussies–Marriage Laws in Regency England
Status of Women
Heroines in an Era Lacking Women’s Rights
Survivors’ Guide to Georgian Marriage
Show Me The Money: Marriage Settlements in Regency England

6 thoughts on “Widowhood in Georgian England

  1. This is very interesting. The only thing I really knew was the Scotland thing. And a little bit about dowries and about property going to the next male heir, which I learned from Jane Austen. I had no idea the men could keep the children! Omg! Good to know there was something in place, even if it wasn't available to everyone. I want to watch Pride & Predjuice again now, the long one. The stuff with Lydia and Wicham is making a lot more sense now. Lol!


  2. Lydia and Wickham–so 1) it's seen as shameful because they eloped and so, it brings shame on the other Bennet sisters and 2) Yup, Lydia wouldn't have anything in the event of Wickham dying or deserting her until Darcy and Mr. Bennet settle some money on her.


  3. Good to know that they had some type of protection in place (no matter how slight). I really thought there was no safety net. Lol! Makes one wonder why a woman would want to get married again…of course, love. But the benefits of a widow seem like a 'get free'card.


  4. I suppose for a working class woman, they would need to rely on family, if they had any, if anything went wrong. Of course, a lot of women in that social range worked themselves. i *think* if a widow has a dower third and they get married again, they can lose the support of her late husband's estate. Of course it's very sad to lose a spouse–if it was a love match–but there were benefits to being a widow for sure.


  5. Thanks for sharing this fascinating information. I'm not a huge Jane Austen fan, but I suspect the books will make more sense now I'm armed with this knowledge. 🙂 Reading how precarious many women's lives were in this age makes me more grateful for how much progress we've made.


  6. If you happen to be a Regency romance reader, this will really help you with some of that. Women's education wasn't really done then either and working women had it tough, since they weren't paid anywhere near a man 's salary.


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