Annulments in Regency England
Regency romances often feature the threat of annulment or the fear of a partner asking for one. Sometimes the plot has an agreement to marry for a while and then quietly annul it, especially if the marriage wasn’t consummated.
Not possible in regency England, my friends.
An annulment is a legal proceeding that declares a marriage invalid or void. Unlike a divorce, an annulment makes it as though it never happened. Nowadays, there are several grounds for an annulment where I live–let’s hope my husband doesn’t look at my search history and get concerned–but in Georgian England, it wasn’t that simple. Even a full divorce as we think of one today required a lot of money, time, and left everyone humiliated. Divorce took an act of parliament, there was an investigation of the sexual conduct of the couple, and after the trial the guilty party was barred from marrying the co-respondent.
It was incredibly more difficult to secure an annulment and it would still leave all parties involved in social disgrace. Unlike today, an annulment made the children of the union illegitimate and disinherited the eldest son. An annulment could only be granted on the grounds of fraud, incompetence, and impotence.
So non-consummation was not grounds for an annulment but impotence was. The man had to be examined and prove that he was incapable of consummating the marriage. You can imagine how many men were willing to have that happen and be an official part of the public record.
More often, it was fraud or a void marriage that led to an annulment. Fraud could include using a false name with the intention of fooling your intended spouse, or making promises in the marriage settlement you had no ability to carry out. The other grounds for annulment were insanity at the time of the wedding so that the person did not know what they was doing, having an undissolved previous marriage or another spouse still living, or being related either by blood or marriage to the spouse.
The myth that non-consummation was grounds for an annulment continues to be perpetuated in regency-set stories. They’re fun, don’t get me wrong. But the reality is, in Georgian and Regency England, a marriage that had not been consummated, if it could even be proven, was not grounds for divorce nor annulment.
Do you like regency romances that use annulments, especially with the non-consummation trope? I don't think I could ever use it since I know how difficult or impossible it was to get one. (That's why it's never mentioned as a possibility in An Affectionate Heart even with a marriage of convenience plot)