Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Regency Elopements: Mary Ann Stanley and Captain Bontein

Every year for the past ten years, I've taught Romeo and Juliet to ninth graders. Every year, students balk at the idea of a thirteen-year-old girl getting married (most of the freshman are fourteen). This always spurs discussion of shorter lifespans in days gone by--the need to marry early being greater because you never knew when you might catch a fever and die, etc.

Thirteen may have been a more acceptable age to marry in Medieval times, but in the Regency era thirteen was practically unheard of. Twenty-one was the age of consent. Before that, parental consent was necessary. Unless one eloped to Scotland ... which is what makes Mary Ann Stanley's story so intriguing.

Mary Ann Stanley was born in 1801 in Ireland, the only child of Sir Edmond and Jane Talbot. Her life up to the age of thirteen was not particularly eventful other than frequent travel with her parents and education commensurate with that of any other young lady of status.

On June 7, 1815, The Morning Chronicle announced the elopement of thirteen-year-old Mary Ann Stanley to Captain Edward Trant Bontein, a twenty-nine-year-old widower. Although Mary Ann's mother had known of the relationship with Captain Bontein, she had no idea of the serious nature of Bontein's intentions.

In a similar fashion to Lydia Bennett's famous elopement with Wickham in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mary Ann and Bontein acted under a pretense of normality before fleeing to the Scottish border town, where so many couples made secretive marriages. As The Morning Chronicle reported, "On Sunday morning, the 21st ult. the parties went to the Chapel Royal, and thence to the house of Lady BONTEIN, where they partook of a cold collation; they then proceeded in a tilbury to Barnet, under pretence of taking an airing before dinner, where a coach and four was in waiting, and bent their way for Gretna Green, with all the dispatch possible. Lady STANLEY waited dinner till 7 o’clock, and her daughter not coming home as usual, inquiries were made, and circumstances came to light which rendered it evident that the lovers had taken their flight for Gretna."

Somewhere around three-hundred marriages a year were performed in Gretna Green. If a couple traveled from London, the journey could take up to four days. Even one night alone with her intended (even if they didn't lay a finger on each other) would forever ruin a young lady's reputation. Therefore, elopements were considered scandalous, as demonstrated by the hullaballoo when Lydia departed Brighton with Wickham.

If an elopement was confirmed, a male relative or two would ride like the wind in an attempt to catch up with the couple before they reached their first night's lodging. Virtue was not the only thing to be lost during an elopement. Fortunes were also at stake, as a young heiress's money immediately became her husband's after marriage.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that many took a dim view of elopements. Mary Ann Stanley's was no exception. Whereas The Morning Chronicle simply laid out the facts of the elopement, The Northampton Mercury blatantly suggested the poor girl had been duped. "An elopement (if it will bear that term), of a very singular nature has recently taken place, which is likely to undergo a severe legal investigation. It is that of a female child of only thirteen years of age, being induced by some means yet unaccounted for, to be carried away by a captain of dragoons, (a widower), from a barrack near town, where this child was left a visitant to the officer’s mother."

There is little information to confirm whether or not Mary Ann and Captain Bontein lived happily or not. She gave birth to two children and Bontein died at the age of thirty-four, only five years after they married.

I'll be writing about Regency era elopements for the next few weeks. Next week's scandal: Lord Erskine and Miss Sarah Buck.

Have you ever known a couple who has eloped?


  1. I have not heard of someone close to me eloping. Honestly, its a great way to save a lot of stress in planning a wedding, provided one is old enough to do so. Fascinating story here. Looking forward to reading next week's.


    1. Both of my sisters eloped. My grandmother also eloped when she was sixteen. It seems terribly romantic, but sometimes traumatic for unsuspecting family members. Ha!

  2. Actually, yes. My high school girlfriend eloped with her first husband. I think she regretted it long term. Sadly, she regretted the marriage more.

    1. Oh, no. Unfortunately, I hear that story a lot. I think elopements are often rushed and not very carefully considered.