Irish History Live

Marriage settlement

Marriage settlements were legal documents typically drawn up shortly before a marriage and detailing the financial arrangements that the two families were making for the intended couple and for future generations. They were normally only used by the wealthier families and in some ways can be seen as the forerunner to modern day pre-nuptial agreements. The major difference is that they described how money, land and possessions would be allocated to the husband and wife during a marriage and in the (inevitable) event of the death of one of the spouses, rather than explaining how any goods would be divided up as part of a divorce, which was an extremely rare occurrence in this period.[1]

Settlements typically dealt with how much money a potential wife would bring to the marriage in the form of her portion (also known as a dowry) and what income, or jointure, she would receive from the estate in the event of her being widowed. The two were usually proportional to each other and the normal ratio used was around ten to one. [2] In other words, a widow would receive an annual jointure which was roughly ten per cent of whatever her dowry had been. Some settlements stipulated that this money be provided in cash (and therefore a specific sum was established), while others allowed for the income from a piece of land to be granted to the woman for life, which meant that the jointure could fluctuate according to the value of land and the interest rates of the day. In some cases, she might also be granted a certain amount of spending money each year during the marriage (called pin money). This was for her personal use and was in addition to the money she would receive from her husband, in order to run their household and raise their children. [3]

The money which was to be provided for the yearly maintenance of any children born to the marriage was also frequently laid down in the settlement, as was the amount which would be granted to any daughters of the union for their own dowries, payable either at their marriage or when they attained their majorities (meaning the age of eighteen or twenty one). The problem of what to do if the marriage produced many daughters who survived to adulthood and required portions, was often solved by setting aside a specific sum of money to be divided up between these girls, rather than naming a specific amount to be paid to each. [4] So for example, a marriage settlement might allow a single surviving daughter a portion of twenty thousand pounds, while multiple daughters would have to split thirty thousand pounds between them. Younger sons could also be granted money in the settlement, although, as they would be able to work for a living, their options were not as limited as a daughter, who needed a portion or husband to support her to avoid becoming either destitute, or a financial burden on her family.

Settlements also generally explained what was to happen to the estate should the marriage be childless, or if one spouse died and the other remarried and went on to have children with a future husband or wife. Large sections of the document could therefore be devoted to naming all the potential heirs to a couple’s property in order to allow for any eventuality.

As aristocratic marriages constituted the union of two families, settlements were rarely entered into by only the couple involved. Their fathers, mothers, guardians and extended families frequently managed marriage negotiations and were involved in the eventual settlements as well. Although those who were not marrying for the first time, or who were adults and in control of their own money, might have more flexibility and control over the details of their settlements, it would be extremely unusual to see a settlement executed and signed only by the couple involved.

Lastly, many settlements allowed for alterations to be made to them in later years by one or more of the parties named in them. However this was not the case if a strict settlement was used. Such settlements could only be broken by either an Act of Parliament or with the consent of both a father and adult son. [5] This helped to ensure that an estate could be passed intact through the generations and could not be broken up at will by any one individual.

[1] Sybil Wolfram, ‘Divorce in England 1700–1857’ in Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, v, no. 2 (1985), p. 157.

[2] John Habakkuk, ‘The rise and fall of English landed families, 1600–1800’ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, xxix (1979), p. 192.

[3] John Habakkuk, Marriage, debt and the estates system: English landownership, 1650–1950 (Oxford, 1994), pp 79–80.

[4] Christopher Clay, ‘Financial provision for the family, and sale of land by the greater landowners 1660–1790’ in Journal of British Studies, xxi, no. 1 (1981), p. 33.

[5] Ibid, p. 20.


This entry was written by Rachel Wilson. At time of writing, Rachel Wilson is a third-year Ph.D. student in the School of History and Anthropology, Queen's University Belfast. Her research focuses on the women of Irish aristocratic families c. 1697 - 1737 and she is supervised by Professor David Hayton and Dr Marie Coleman. She co-organised the international conference entitled '"The Ideal Woman": Interrogating Femininity across Disciplines and Time' at QUB on 11th and 12th March 2011. Further details about the conference can be found here.

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