If you had lived 200 years ago, would you have wanted a dowry? Would you have received a dower? What do these mean?
We must first consider the status and social function of women at that time. For most of the last thousand years, it has been considered necessary to the continuation of our species, to produce many children and provide child care for the many years that it takes to equip a child to be self-sufficient physically and mentally. Women exclusively have the biological function of child bearing and early child feeding. Children were produced at approximately two-year intervals, and only about half of them survived to the age of five years. Life for a woman was a constant round of births, childcare, and funerals.
The social structure devised to accommodate this important human function of reproduction, was marriage. The wife promised to bear the couple’s children, and to keep the house. Her area of operation was the home. In return, the husband promised to provide the necessities of life, and protection for the wife and children. His area of operation was outside the home. Since matters involving finances and education related to the husband’s area of operation, he controlled the family finances, and received any available formal education. Successful management, whether inside or outside the home, required brains and skill, but the system was based on biology, not merit.
Most women married. Sexual urges are fundamental, and obeying them outside marriage was a sin and often also a crime. Women were also brought up to be married in their teenage years, and teenagers want to be like their peers, act like adults, and satisfy their fundamental biological urges.
Women today would probably reject any social arrangement, which is compulsory. But we must look at the life a woman of that day from her perspective, not our perspective. We must remember that medical care ranged from primitive to non-existent; that public welfare assistance was primitive; that the birth control pill has only been with us for 40 years; and that life was hard in most areas because science had not yet discovered what makes us well-fed and well-housed today. Most women accepted their reproductive role, and therefore were happy with the benefits provided by marriage. We, after all, are the results of the overall success of that system.
When a couple married, they were considered to merge into one from the perspective of an outside observer. Since the responsibility outside the home belonged to the husband, he was that person. Whatever the wife owned, therefore became owned by the husband, and he could use it, keep it, or dispose of it. (Some areas practiced wife-selling, in which a husband claimed to own his wife and could therefore sell her. Prices ranged from 4 pence to 50 pounds. But wife-selling was not strictly legal. )
A couple who had recently married had to set up a new household, a difficult and expensive activity in those days. Both families could contribute to the establishment of the new household by donating money, furnishings or land. The things brought by a woman to the marriage, and therefore to the ownership of her husband, were known as her DOWRY, also called MARITAGIUM.
Even today, our marriage ceremonies may involve the wife’s father “giving” her to her husband, and statements that she is endowing him with her worldly goods. The words “to have and to hold” in a marriage ceremony have the same meaning as the same words in a deed of land. They transfer ownership and possession.
Sometimes, especially with wealthy families the wife’s relatives wished to make sure that the husband did not squander what the wife brought to the marriage, and to make sure that the wife and the children got the benefit of it. The two families would therefore negotiate a MARRIAGE SETTLEMENT, by which each family would appoint a representative to hold ownership of everything that the wife brought to the marriage, and some of what the husband brought to the marriage. Those persons were known as trustees. They controlled ownership so things could not be wasted, but the things could be used by the couple and their children during the lifetimes of the couple. Following the deaths of the spouses, the trustees transferred the remainder to the children. The wife would therefore technically own nothing at the marriage, so she brought no dowry.
Similarly, anyone wishing to transfer something to a wife during her marriage, usually did so to a trustee for the wife’s benefit. This made sure that the item remained her separate property, and was not controlled by the husband.
During the marriage, the wife could make contracts as the husband’s agent, ordering food, hiring servants, and so on, but not on her own behalf. She was entitled to PIN-MONEY to dress her in a manner suitable to her husband’s rank, and to provide for her ordinary personal expenses. Her husband could dispose of anything she bought, except clothing and footwear during their marriage.
Upon the husband’s death, his widow was entitled to the remainder of the dowry, if any, and to one third of any land her husband owned during marriage, for the rest of her life or until she remarried. This interest in land was known as DOWER. If the husband owned copyhold land rather than freehold land, the widow’s share was known as FREEBENCH. A wife who committed adultery during her husband’s life lost her right to dower or freebench.
Although dower provided some security for a widow, along with her share of her husband’s other assets as set out in his Will, many women preferred to make another arrangement. A husband and wife could make a marriage settlement before marriage, whereby he promised to allow her a fixed income from his land following his death, to continue for her lifetime or until she remarried. This was known as JOINTURE. If a wife chose this, she was not entitled to dower or freebench , as it was a substitute for them.
Husbands could also use trustees. If a husband wished to avoid dower or freebench, he would ensure that any land he received was transferred to trustees for his benefit, rather than directly to him.
It may be of interest to note that married women became able to deal with assets in their own right without involving trustees, in England in 1882 and in Ontario in 1884. Dower continued to exist in Ontario until 1978.
References to dower and jointure will be found in many old land documents, and Wills; and to free bench in manor court records. Marriage settlements can be found among family document collections deposited at record offices.