MERCENARY MARRIAGES: The market for brides in eighteenth century England

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29 Mar 2015

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The eighteenth century in western Europe has been identified by historians as the period when marriages made for practical considerations gave way to marriages based on love. But new research by Anne Laurence, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2015 annual conference, finds that pragmatic marriages –  those made for the preservation or transfer of wealth – became more not less important during this era.

Her study reveals how the marriage market worked in England. For example, from about 1711, the London-based newspapers routinely carried announcements of marriages in which the wealth of brides was spelled out. The brides were mainly the daughters of merchants, businessmen, MPs and professional people. The volume of such notices had declined by the 1760s and by the 1790s it was unusual to find them.

Fortunes were given either in thousands of pounds or described as ‘large’, ‘ample’, ‘considerable’ or ‘handsome’. We don’t know who was responsible for the announcements: sometimes details are given of the bride’s family, sometimes of the groom’s. We are rarely told anything of the financial status of the groom, but 65% of almost 400 notices specify the amount of the bride’s fortune (ranging from £1,000 to over £20,000).

In 1742, a fortune-hunters’ guide was published: A Master Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury: of a Widower and Batchelors Directory. Listing over 1,000 women (widows and spinsters), their place of abode, their reputed fortune (minimum £5,000) and the amount of money they had in the stock market. The anonymous author had cast his net wide: several of the women were in their seventies and eighties.

The evidence of these two sources suggests that in the minds of the landed and commercial elite, marriage remained the most important occasion for the transfer of wealth.

But it was the transfer of wealth from a woman’s family to that of her husband that was the public part of the transaction. While fathers signed over large cash sums with their daughters, all that husbands were required to do was to agree to an arrangement under which if they predeceased their wives, an income for life was assured. This is a clear case of asymmetric information.

Pragmatic considerations have a particularly important part to play in making marriages in societies where there is no safety net of money and services. An appropriate marriage may make the difference between survival and destitution. In much of Europe from the middle ages, marriage was a necessary safety net for survival.

In seventeenth century England and other parts of north-western Europe, there was enough of a safety net (in England provided by the Elizabethan Poor Law) to allow for relatively high numbers of people not to marry (as many as a third of the adult population) and those who did marry normally didn’t do so until their mid-twenties. The only people who married very young were the children of the aristocracy where marriages were arranged for dynastic purposes.

Historians identify the eighteenth century as the period when, in western Europe, arranged marriages or, at least, marriages made for practical considerations, gave way to marriages based on the love of a man and a woman. Lawrence Stone in the 1970s identified the rising age of marriage of the elite from 1700 with the rise of companionate marriage and freer choice of partners.

But at the other end of the social scale, it was also the period when the proportion of poorer people marrying rose and when the age of marriage declined. It would appear that, far from becoming less important, pragmatic marriage became more important. Mercenary marriages became the subject of much criticism, but it would seem that the zeitgeist was against the moralists.

Anne Laurence notes the similarities to today:

‘Much public attention has been given recently to the subject of forced marriage, particularly in pursuit of a passport or to preserve intact a distant landholding that would otherwise be dispersed between different heirs.

‘Western sensibilities react against the idea that marriage might be for reasons other than love of a partner and a desire to spend the rest of one’s life with them. We recognise that no one has to get married to survive.

‘At the same time, the very rich make prenuptial agreements and ever-larger divorce settlements make the news weekly. The preservation of a fortune concentrates the mind on pragmatic considerations.’


Anne Laurence
History Department
The Open University
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA


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