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Herencia: 18th Century Marriage Orders and their Consequences

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The following is a guest post by Naomi Welikala, who served as a summer 2021 remote intern transcribing and researching documents in the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress.

Royal Order of March 23, 1776 issued by King Carlos III providing that minors who wish to contract marriage must obtain parental authorization to these effects.
Royal Order of March 23, 1776 issued by King Carlos III providing that minors who wish to contract marriage must obtain parental authorization to these effects.

Throughout my time as one of the Herencia crowdsourcing interns, I have come across a wide variety of themes in the documents. From inheritance disputes to criminal charges between strangers, the collection offers small glimpses into the lives of everyday people in Spanish history, lives that are sometimes not that different from the ones we live today. In the Royal Order of March 23, 1776, King Carlos III of Spain issued an order stating that couples needed parental consent to enter into betrothal arrangements. Though the order and its focus on marriage rights may seem mundane at first, looking further into the document reveals complex political plotting and unintended societal repercussions rivalling those seen in modern society.

The idea that all couples needed parental consent to marry seems stifling in the modern age. One small caveat on this order was that couples who were above the age of 25 could still enter into valid marriages without their parents’ blessing. However, the parents of such a couple would then be entitled to disinherit their children (Saether, 477). With these seemingly arbitrary rules in place, it can feel confusing to try and understand the law’s purpose at all. Nonetheless, it seems that this law was not put in place primarily to inhibit personal choice, but due to the complex goals of King Carlos III. To understand the reasoning behind this order, Spanish laws of succession for this period have to be addressed. Although the king’s children would be first in line to the throne after him, the impending marriage of Prince Luis Antonio de Borbón, the king’s younger brother, threatened that succession. Any male children born from Prince Luis’ marriage would be able to challenge King Carlos III’s children for the right to the throne (Tomlinson, 73). This is where the king’s meddling comes into play (Royal Order, p. 3):

“se eviten los esponsales entre personas notablemente desiguales, y se restablezca el respeto debido à los padres, y mayores, á fin de que en punto de tanta importancia los hijos de familias obren con su precisa direccion, y consentimiento.”

“…that betrothals between significantly unequal people would be avoided, and that the respect due to parents, and elders, would be re-established, so that at such an important point, children of the family would act (according to) their precise direction, and consent.”

By noting that couples needed the consent of parents or elder members of the family to marry, King Carlos III found a way to protect the hereditary line of the Bourbon dynasty and the honor and status of the royal family (Tomlinson, 73; Saether, 477-478). Without approval, his younger brother would not be able to follow through with his proposed marriage. Furthermore, the woman he was set to wed was not a royal, but María Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas, the daughter of a member of the lower nobility. By mentioning status as a reason for parents to withhold approval, the king “made an unequal marriage possible without threatening the honor, status, and heritage of the royal family.” (Saether, 478.) Eventually, King Carlos III did give his consent for his brother to marry, but with certain stipulations. He ensured that any children born of his brother’s union would take their mother’s name, as well as her status. In the end, the order the king put into place benefited his family, but also impacted his subjects’ freedoms.

This sanction’s legacy also extended to those living under Spanish colonial rule in Latin America. The overseas implementation of the order took place during the period from 1778-1803. One of the biggest changes made to the original order pertained to African people in Latin America being exempted from following the law (Saether, 490-492). Illegitimacy rates were elevated across Latin American society in this time, and the pervasiveness of slavery led to rates that were slightly higher for African populations than other groups. Even with similar rates that were only slightly higher than other racial groups, it was just African people who were exempted from the order by the Council of Indies, under the stereotypical reasoning they could not obtain parental consent without knowing their fathers. This adaptation to the law is an unintended yet prejudiced consequence of this order.


Royal Order of March 23, 1776 issued by King Carlos III providing that minors who wish to contract marriage must obtain parental authorization to these effects.

Saether, Steinar A. Bourbon Absolutism and Marriage Reform in Late Colonial Spanish America. The Americas, Vol. 59, No. 4, Cambridge University Press, April 2003.

Tomlinson, Janis. Goya: A Portrait of the Artist. Princeton University Press, 2020.

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