As both a history buff and a lover of Regency romances I've noticed some factual
errors that have become part of the genre and crop up time and again, often in the
guise of important plot elements. On this page I'm collecting the most common ones.
We will not discuss proper modes of address or the peerage, that is a field in its own
right and there are plenty of literature about the subject, see for instance the excellent
Debrett's Peerage & Baronetage, any edition, or Burke's Peerage and Gentry.
Some faulty facts have reach near stardom and here are a few such bloopers!
Selecting Your Own Heir
A peer of the realm could never at any time under any circumstances select who was to inherit the peerage. Titles were governed by primogeniture and only the king, or rather the House of Lords, had power to change that through a new creation, as it's called. Entailed property were not necessarily connected to the peerage although it was possible. The entailment specified who could inherit, usually oldest male offspring. The entailment could under specific circumstances be broken. A person could only select his heir if there was no entailment or for the unentailed part of his property.
Annulment due to non-consummation
One of the most insidious faulty facts is the possibility of annulment because the marriage hasn't been consummated yet, that is, the couple hasn't had intercourse after their nuptials. This is simply not true. There were a few accepted reasons for annulment - impotence, fraud and minors marrying without guardians consent most commonly cited. Although in the eyes of the church consummation cemented the marriage, not doing so was not grounds for annulment.
Although divorce was possible, it was very difficult, and expensive! to obtain. Divorce took an act of parliament, there was a thorough investigation of the sexual conduct of the couple, and after the trial the guilty party was barred from marrying the co-respondent. A Scottish divorce was somewhat easier to obtain, however, it was not always recognized in England, which could have serious consequences for the offspring. Separation was more common, either legal or the couple simply established different residences.
It's a common plot element that the hero/father/guardian/brother places a betrothal announcement in the paper to coerce the heroine to marry somebody, often the hero. However, there is no evidence that people in Regency times posted engagement notices. Marriage announcements, on the other hand, were almost mandatory for the Gentry. Or as Jane Austen expressed it that "one may as well be single if the wedding is not to be in print."
Several misconceptions exist about the special license, in particular where to obtain it and what form it took. In the Regency the only place to obtain a Special License was from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Doctor's Common in London. Only the Archbishop had the privilege to issue such dispensations, which allowed a couple to marry at any place and any time; although still officiated over by a member of the clergy. A regular license could be obtained from any bishop and it allowed dispensation from the reading of banns, yet the marriage had to take place in the morning and at the parish church of either the bride or groom. Both types of licenses were personal and nontransferable, needing the sworn statement by the obtainer that the couple were either of age or had their legal guardians permission to wed. For most situation where Regency authors stipulate the use of a special license, a regular license would suffice.
Gretna Green Marriage
Some authors seem to have misunderstood the concept of Gretna Green marriages. First, there was nothing special about Gretna, it just happened to be the first village after crossing the Scottish border. Anywhere within Scottish territory would do as well. Second, it didn't have to be the blacksmith and over the anvil. As long as the marriage was properly witnessed they were married. If a bachelor told his landlady the woman living with him was his wife she would be. However, most people preferred to marry in a church. Thirdly, if either of the couple was under age, the marriage could be annulled if they'd married without parental approval. There was nothing magical in getting across the border, i.e. the irate guarding must catch up with them before the border. Finally, Scottish marriages had dubious legality in England and the legitimacy of children of such an union were at times challenged.
The Button Fell Off The Point Mystery
Georgette Heyer is the source but, as her mistake has been repeated numerous times in Regency novels since then, it deserves a spot on the Faulty Facts page. In The Quiet Gentleman, Heyer describes a practice sword fight and during the bout the button is said to fall off the point (tip); a very confusing statement since the button sits on top of the handle. How did this come about? It’s a simple mistake. Blunt tipped practice foils are sometimes referred to as having a button-point. Note that it’s the blade itself that is made with a blunt tip as opposed to fighting swords that have a sharp tip (point). Or, as Pantologia* explains it: "BUTTON, in fencing, the end or tip of a foil, which is generally rounded off, and covered with leather."
* - Pantologia. A new cyclopædia,Vol II Bar-Caz by J.M. Good, O. Gregory, and N. Bosworth et. al. First printed 1813 for G. Kearsley.