What Courting In Regency England Was Actually Like

Courtship during the Regency period was serious business. Finding a partner involved a series of practical and romantic considerations as well as a strict adherence to Regency courting etiquette.

The Regency era - which technically lasted in Great Britain from 1811 to 1820, but was part of the larger social and cultural era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries - might have had a reputation for licentiousness when it came to matters of the heart. But it also was an era of politeness and gentility, and rules governed how middle- and upper-class couples should interact with one another. 

As the novels of Jane Austen, period dramas on television, and contemporary Regency romances like Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series make clear, Regency era social customs and Regency courting etiquette left little room for error - the stakes were high, especially in a period when women were expected to abide by different moral codes than men. Courting the right or wrong person could make or break fortunes and reputations. Marriage proposals didn't end the rules, however, and Regency engagement etiquette continued to dictate how future spouses could behave.

Regency courtship may have been rule-bound, but for many, the end result was worth the effort: finding a well-matched spouse who provided stability, support, and even a little bit of love.

  • The 'Marriage Mart' Season Was A Very Real Thing
    Photo: British Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The 'Marriage Mart' Season Was A Very Real Thing

    For fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the Regency, the best time to begin a courtship was during the so-called "Season," when the most important people in the land came to London for court and Parliament. As a "Marriage Mart," the Season allowed the sons and daughters of privileged classes to mingle during a seemingly endless parade of assemblies, dinners, parties, and entertainments. 

    The Season served a practical purpose: to ensure that members of the upper classes met the right people and found the right mates to keep dynastic money and power in the right hands. Indeed, many of the events that animated the Season were exclusive in nature, and none more so than the balls held at Almack's assembly rooms.

    As Regency memoirist Rees Howell Gronow recalled, "Many diplomatic arts, much finesse, and a host of intrigues, were set in motion to get an invitation to Almack's."

  • Cousins Could Court Each Other
    Photo: Pride & Prejudice / Focus Features

    Cousins Could Court Each Other

    Regency ladies and gentlemen were bombarded with advice about who would be a suitable person to court and marry. Suitability wasn't just about class or temperament - it was also about family ties. Consequently, in-laws were off limits. A widow, for example, couldn't marry her brother-in-law after her husband's passing.

    One relative was deemed acceptable, however: cousins. Marriage between cousins checked a lot of boxes. A cousin likely grew up with a similar worldview, and the family background wouldn't contain any surprises. Marriage between cousins in the aristocracy ensured that generational wealth stayed in the family.

    Winston Churchill's Regency-era great-grandparents - the 6th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough - were first cousins before they married in 1819.

  • The Age Of Consent Was 12 For Girls And 14 For Boys
    Photo: Various / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Age Of Consent Was 12 For Girls And 14 For Boys

    The age of consent in the Regency period was young: Brides could theoretically be as young as 12 when they tied the knot, and bridegrooms could be 14 years old.

    Teen couples needed their parents' permission to marry. Only when a Regency person reached the age of 21 could they make their own decision to marry, as stipulated in Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act from 1753. If a young couple in England failed to secure permission to marry, elopement was an option - they could always high-tail it to Scotland, which didn't have the same marriage laws as England. 

    Those ages do not necessarily represent the average age when most people married in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Most Regency-era brides and bridegrooms - especially non-elite ones - were in their 20s when they tied the knot. 

  • Only Engaged Couples Could Be On A First-Name Basis
    Photo: Emma / BBC One

    Only Engaged Couples Could Be On A First-Name Basis

    In the stratified world of the Regency, social hierarchies were reinforced through the use of formal titles and last names. To refer to someone by their first name was an intimate privilege reserved for family members or the closest of friends. 

    Courting couples would continue to refer to one another through their correct, formal forms of address - for example, Mr. Darcy, Miss Woodhouse, or Lord Bridgerton. When couples became officially engaged, they could refer to one another by their first names when out of the public eye.

  • Regency Courtship Was About Finding The Right Partner, Not Just Snagging The Richest Spouse
    Photo: Pride and Prejudice / BBC1

    Regency Courtship Was About Finding The Right Partner, Not Just Snagging The Richest Spouse

    By the early 19th century, people weren't just looking for spouses with the biggest bank account. Finding harmony and compatibility in the marriage was also important, because many believed that couples who had things in common or whose values complemented one another would have a stable marriage. One manual for young women advised:

    Sobriety, prudence, and good nature; a virtuous disposition, a good understanding, and a prospect of being above the reach of want, ought never to be dispensed with in this matter [of choosing a husband]: where the man is defective in any of these, the woman is to be pitied.

    But there was also room for love in a Regency marriage. One Regency-era father wrote to his daughter's potential fiance that he believed "happiness consists only in reciprocal affection."

    Money wasn't irrelevant, however. Financial matters often factored into whether or not a would-be spouse was suitable, stable, and worthy of marriage. According to historian Amanda Vickery, "Even for the perfectly matched, courtship always culminated in tedious financial negotiation, in which the interests of the parties were usually represented by their legal guardians."

  • The Law Forced Unmarried Pregnant Women To Identify The Man Who Fathered Her Unborn Child

    Just because rules governed courtship didn't mean people always followed them. Though women were expected to be virtuous and celibate before marriage, plenty of unmarried women became pregnant. Under the so-called Bastardy Act of 1733, single, pregnant women had to identify the man who had impregnated them.

    Unmarried mothers in the early 19th century had few options, especially because society made them feel shame for their situation. Many women made the decision to leave their children at London's Foundling Hospital, which took in children whose parents couldn't support them.