Rules of the Game: Love, courtship, marriage, sex and married life from the 19th century until 1939

Introduction and disclaimer:

In today’s society (speaking from a Western standpoint) endlessly analysing relationships, discussions of sex and being open about one’s feelings are the norm; we live in an era saturated with sex. People are bombarded with books, articles, films and TV programmes about sex and relationships and to have the slightest hint of celebrity is enough to provoke outright speculation about one’s love life or lack of it. However this was not always the case; a cursory survey among the older generation born before World War 2 would unveil a reticence and reluctance about discussing personal matters. To this generation the obsession and endless analysis of the state of one’s emotions and relationships was anathema and the same with sex; if it was ever talked about or discussed then it was cloaked under various euphemisms.

Along with an exploration of what lay behind this reticence will be a discussion of the rituals of courtship which have changed beyond recognition; the experiences of the previous generation are now dismissed as archaic and restrictive. The next two entries will talk about love, courtship, marriage, sex and married life from the late 19th century until the outbreak of the Second World War. As this is a fairly broad topic and quite complicated, we will try our best to explore attitudes then and emphasise how different norms and attitudes applied then and now.

All details are based on research, reading contemporary accounts and academic and popular studies. Contemporary accounts concerning sex should be read with caution as it is highly likely that they were embellished, sanitised or simply outright fabrications.

Some parts of both entries might have mature content and maybe considered NSFW.

Part 1 – Courtship and Marriage

Courtship and the rules of the game:

Unlike today where men and women mix freely and there are endless opportunities to meet in order for love to blossom and end in marriage, in the late 19th and early 20th century such opportunities were limited owing to more restrictive norms and ideas of propriety that were pervasive in 19th century society; and many of these ideas persisted even into the late 20th century.

Why was this the case? By the middle of the 19th century, there was an emphasis on respectability which was not only confined to the expanding middle class but also spread to the upper and working classes. In Britain, leading the charge was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who were both determined to rid the court of the excesses of the Georgian era, and crucially in a period of political instability with the threat of revolution pervasive, present the royal family as the beacon of respectability and the middle class values of thrift, sobriety, industry, self-reliance and austerity.

Thus, “respectability” became a watchword beginning in the middle of the 19th century. Even if privately people fell short of the standards set by society, outwardly at least people of all classes strove to meet this standard of respectability and this applied even more when it came to courtship and marriage.

The lack of opportunities for both genders to mix freely was common across all classes. For the upper classes and as mentioned in an earlier blog the balls, parties, charity functions and events during London Season were opportunities for men and women to meet. Outside the season were the rounds of house parties, hunts, shoots, teas, calling on neighbours and family members, bazaars and fetes. With regards to the middle and working classes there were the public spaces such as parks, churches, the sea side, shops, markets, theatres, concerts and music halls (later the cinema) as well as events such as family gatherings, fetes, bazaars, dances and street parties where both genders could mix and socialise. By the late 19th century, the rise of sports such as tennis, golf and roller skating became another popular way for men and women to get to know each other. Roller skating and especially cycling did play some part in emancipating women and facilitated ways for young men and women to meet.

1899_Ladies_Camera_Cycling  1382167_593455074025170_747369340_n

All the same, interaction between the sexes was rigidly controlled. Upper and middle class girls had to be chaperoned all the time and while working class girls ostensibly had more freedom than their upper class counterparts, what girls of all classes had in common was parental interference being a given and parents even sometimes grandparents had the right to control every aspect of a girl’s life until she married. Vera Brittain noted this in the early days of her courtship with the man she wanted to marry:

Sophisticated modern day girls…have no conception of the difficulties under which courtships were conducted by provincial young ladies in 1915. There was no privacy for a boy and girl whose mutual feelings had reached their most delicate and bewildering stage; the whole series of complicated relationships leading from acquaintance to engagement had to be conducted in public or not at all…the parental habit, then almost universally accepted as “correct” where daughters were concerned, of inquisition into each day’s proceedings made private encounters, even with a young man in the same town, almost impossible without a series of subterfuges and intrigues which robbed love of all its’ dignity.

It was also the same with the working classes; Mollie Moran wrote of the admonitions she received from her mother about how to conduct herself around boys. Permission had to be asked before going out and once both parents said “out of the question” then that was it. Any thoughts of sneaking out was always met with a stern “you’ll feel the cut of my hand across your backside if you so much as try and sneak out” or a variation thereof. When she went into service as a 14 year old kitchen maid, in the absence of her mother the head cook acted as a sort of loco parentis, a job she took seriously.

This rigidity, which was strongly influenced by Christian morality (more in part 2) was also due to society’s expectations on how the young should behave and again was consistent across all classes. Mollie Moran’s recollection could have also been the same as that of an upper or middle class girl:

“Do I need to remind you about Granny Esther?”  added Mother ominously.

I shook my head and for once had nothing to say. It was absolutely unthinkable to get pregnant out of wedlock back in them days. All girls were brought up with the fear of God drilled into them at the prospect of having an illegitimate child. You would never dream of bringing such shame on your house. Besides which, everyone knew everyone’s business in the country so if you put a foot wrong it would be round the Friday market before you could say “family way”. (p. 40)

Girls (and young men) were ignorant of the birds and the bees but the fear of being pregnant out of wedlock was drilled into them from an early age. It wasn’t just the bringing of shame to their family but there was also the fear of the workhouse, jeopardising one’s marriage prospects and that of her siblings’ and moral censure. The modern day idea of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” was unthinkable, in social circles and in country society; it was hard to keep secrets, one way or the other they did have a way of seeping out and resulting in scandal.

By the 19th century, young people had more say over their choice of the person they wanted to marry; however parents still exercised considerable influence over the choice of spouse. Pat Jalland in her study of women, marriage and politics before the first World War, likened it to Walter Bagehot’s view of the role of the monarch – the right to be consulted, to advise and to warn. For upper class and upper middle class girls, control over the choice of spouse was exercised through elaborate courtship rituals during both the London Season and the sporting calendar. This was to ensure that a young person would meet others of the same social background. Courtship was a very public affair given a girl could not go anywhere without a chaperone and several public spaces were designated as no-go areas; Loelia Ponsonby (later Duchess of Westminster) recalled that her mother advised her against going to Burlington Arcade alone and to avoid looking into windows of gentlemen’s clubs. (Curious as to why this was forbidden she discreetly peeked into the window of one such club and found that it was occupied by mostly elderly gentlemen slumped asleep on chairs with a newspaper or book). In order to ascertain if a couple had something in common and liked each other acquaintanceship, friendship or anything more romantic had to be conducted in public and with the likelihood of someone listening in. When Vera Brittain’s fiancé returned to the front, even then they could not be alone – it was considered correct and inevitable that my aunt should cling to me like a limpet during the precious hours that I spent with Roland. Letters could provide a degree of privacy where both parties could express thoughts and feelings away from prying eyes and ears, but for someone living at home, four posts a day made lying in wait for the postman impossible – and as Brittain observed, letters were observed and commented on by parents and relatives as a matter of course.

In some cases, parents did also take an active role in attempting to secure desirable matches for their children – Louisa Duchess of Abercorn for instance decreed that all her daughters should marry peers but not lower than an earl and succeeded in her aim; while others actively scanned the peerage and enlisted the help of siblings and other relatives to help find suitable spouses for their children. They also actively intervened to ensure that their children were prime marriage material (even then double standards were applied – with a daughter her moral conduct was very strictly monitored while with sons, parents simply admonished them if they looked like going astray and intervened only as a last resort), prevent them from making unsuitable marriages or hurrying along a courtship between an offspring to someone they approved.

Woe betide a son or daughter who made an unsuitable marriage but more often than not, parents would end up reluctantly accepting their child’s choice of spouse especially when the son or daughter was already aged 21 or over where parental permission for contracting a marriage was no longer required.

For the middle and working class, courtship was less elaborate but still conducted in the public domain; the middle classes placed emphasis on having the same religious affiliation, shared intellectual interests and philanthropic concerns as well as compatibility. Just as with upper class parents, middle class parents also actively intervened to ensure that their offspring made marriages appropriate to their station. Those who like the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning made unsuitable marriages by eloping like her found themselves shunned by their families (as well as being disinherited); her father never spoke to her again.

It was the working class who had the most freedom compared to the upper and middle class when it came to courtship. There was less parental control owing to the fact that many young people already in employment from the age of 14 were already living away from their parents and had more opportunities to meet other people. Most of the courtship took place while at work, strolls in the park or going to church and during events such as fetes and bazaars. However, courtship also depended on the type of work; while those who worked in factories and shops had more time to meet other people, those who were in service did not have the same advantage. Long hours and less time off meant that those who worked as maids, footmen, and kitchen staff did not have the same opportunities as a ship builder or shop assistant to pursue relationships that could blossom into love and eventually marriage.

It was even harder for those who were at the top rung of the service hierarchy. Butlers, housekeepers, valets and lady’s maids had even less free time than the junior servants, as Rosina Harrison (lady’s maid to Lady Astor) puts it:

Marriage was the goal of nearly every woman servant. It wasn’t easy for them. After the war, men were scarce, the demand far outweighed the supply and a maid’s irregular time off was an added disadvantage. Then there was the having to be back by ten o’clock which made every date like Cinderella’s ball, only that you didn’t lose your slipper, you could lose your job. There was no status in being in service, you were a nobody; marriage was the way out of it. (p. 24)

However this freedom only went so far. Parents were consulted on the choice of spouse and fathers were asked and either gave permission or refuse a man to marry their daughter. Even those who for reasons of work lived away from home, informed their parents of a suitor through letter and if there was a proposal, the young woman would take her suitor home where permission would be sought and when consent was given resulted in an engagement and the reading of the banns in the run up to the wedding.

The main criteria for selecting a spouse were more or less uniform across all the classes. Apart from the usual requisites such as health and religion, the most important were family, respectability and the ability to provide. Family and respectability went hand in hand, for the upper and middle classes, where marriage was a matter of consolidating and furthering status and wealth. One of the factors taken into account when agreeing to an intended marriage was the conduct of the parents, siblings and the rest of the extended family of the intended spouse – having a black sheep who had disgraced the family one way or the other could be enough grounds for consent to be refused.

Money or at least the ability to provide was another important factor. Since women generally were not expected to work, it was important that the man had sufficient income, a good job or excellent career prospects in order to maintain a wife and family in a comfortable lifestyle. Even for the working classes where women sometimes did work even after marriage, a man who earned more than his wife and had good career and promotion prospects was seen as desirable. The ability to provide was also a vital motivating factor for the upper classes marrying into upper middle class or middle class families; while many aristocrats would have preferred their children to marry peers or peers’ offspring, the economic realities from the beginning of the late 19th century meant that it was increasingly these middle class families with their wealth derived from commerce and manufacturing who could provide the lifestyle that befitted the son or daughter of a peer.

Love and Marriage:

Many Victorians liked to think that they were marrying for love but to paraphrase what the Prince of Wales said during the press conference announcing his engagement to Lady Diana Spencer, the reality was that it was whatever “for love” really meant. While it’s true that many couples across all classes found love that led to marriage and a happy one at that, for others marriage was primarily seen as a political, social and economic necessity. In 19th century Britain, for those with land, money, titles or money to think about, marriage was almost always a business proposition between families rather than a romantic love match. Love was seen as a bonus if the couple happened to like each other from the beginning or grow to love each other after the wedding.

People had varying expectations about love and many parents and even grandparents saw it as their duty to impart advice, sometimes based on their own personal experience. Queen Victoria, who was grand enough to ignore the rules that governed royal marriages on the Continent wrote to her granddaughter Princess Victoria of Hesse about the importance of marrying for the right reasons:

There is another most important thing wh you are quite old enough for me to speak and write to you about. Dear Papa will, I know, be teased & pressed to make you marry, & I have told him you were far too young to think of it, & that your 1st duty was to stay with him, & to be as it were the Mistress of the House, as so many eldest daughters are to their Fathers, when God has taken their beloved Mother away – I know full well that you have no ideas of this sort & that you (unlike I am sorry to say, so many Princesses abroad) – don’t wish to be married for marrying’s sake & to have a position. I know darling Child that you would never do this, & dear Mama had a horror of it; but it is a very German view of things & I wd. wish you to be prepared & on your guard when such things are brought before Papa, & possibly to your Grandmama.

Other parents pointed out the importance of falling in love with head as well as with heart, cautioning that passion was not enough to sustain a marriage. Lady Selborne advised her son that using one’s judgement before giving full rein to emotion was important in the choice of a wife adding that people of their class very seldom succumbed to the clichéd notion of “love at first sight”. She added, “[d]oes this seem like coldblooded advice? It is not really, because the affection that is inspired by the judgement is a much higher and more lasting affection than that which merely depends on the passions.”

Once a young couple had decided to marry, permission must be sought from both sets of parents before the formal rituals leading to the ceremonies began. For the working class such niceties were not observed, many simply announced that they were getting married and the ceremony followed not long after. It is interesting to note here that while the father’s permission was sought and therefore reinforced the idea of the father being the head of the household, the standards of who was acceptable as marriage material, the rituals of courtship and the wedding plans was in F.M.L Thompson’s words emphatically a “woman’s business, with authority and influence being exercised by wives and mothers, and grandmothers.”

With so much more at stake, for the upper and middle classes, the ritual leading to the ceremony itself could lead to issues that might derail or delay a wedding. There was the marriage settlement (which could be the most contentious issue), the planning of the ceremony and reception, the obtaining of the licence, purchasing the bridal trousseau and presents for the bridal attendants – all of which could prove to be a financial burden. The bridal trousseau itself could be a problem; this usually involved shopping trips to London and Paris for dresses, gowns, hats, accessories, gloves, shoes and underwear. Canny girls and their mothers would cut down on costs such as asking for a discount from a leading couturier (usually the House of Worth) or buying one or two expensive gowns with the rest bought off the peg or done by a local dress maker. Wedding presents for the couple began arriving before the wedding and were displayed for the benefit of the family and the guests.

The engagement was then announced and as it was common in those days, there was a short period between the engagement and wedding as the idea of a long engagement was frowned upon. Marriage manuals claimed that “sincere affections could be killed by the restraints and irritations of long engagements” while others believed that long engagements were superfluous when a couple had known each other for years. Another factor in the undesirability was that long engagements can sometimes end in disaster; the received wisdom was it was preferable to have a long courtship followed by a short engagement.  Some young couples’ engagement lasted only six weeks with frenzied preparations for the ceremony, reception and honeymoon.  Even so several couples had to contend with long engagements owing to several factors such as work, travel and lack of money (many couples of whatever class used the long engagement to save up in order to have an acceptable nest egg necessary to set up home).

Marriages often took place during the end of the Season before the various families returned to their estates for the various shooting parties, with March and May being the most unpopular months for weddings owing to the Church frowning on marriage ceremonies taking place during Lent and the latter marking the beginning of the Season.

While Queen Victoria popularised the wearing of white as a bride, the custom did not take root immediately. For many families, the white gown was an extravagance they could not afford and many young women chose to get married in their Sunday best. Those who could afford to purchase a white wedding gown made sure that it was designed so it could be worn again either as a Sunday best or for formal dinners, balls and other events. Orange blossoms which symbolised chastity became popular as wedding headdresses but again owing to the expense and unavailability outside its season, artificial versions became popular and one that could be handed down from generation to generation.



Also contrary to popular belief, majority of the weddings during the late 19th and early 20th century were not lavish affairs. Even the upper classes disdained the idea of huge and profligate weddings and as a result they tended to be simple affairs held in the village church or the house chapel with a small reception afterwards. For landed families however, the celebrations would continue for a few days as receptions for the servants, tenants and villagers would be held and the bride and groom would be obliged to attend to receive the felicitations of the guests.

Honeymoons were also not the same as they are now. For many couples, it involved a simple trip to the seaside while others did go on trips abroad or visit relatives who were unable to attend the wedding. The latter was a common practice among the upper classes and a blessed relief especially if the marriage was an arranged one and the couple had little in common and barely knew each other; it was unsettling, but a time of great excitement. It was an opportunity to get to know each other and failing that, at least to get to know the rest of the family and be among people who could take the strain off being in each other’s company for hours and days on end.

Once the honeymoon was over, it was time to begin married life and thoughts would naturally turn towards starting a family. As wives, they now faced a break with their old home and family to now being mistress and chatelaine of their own household, a daunting task especially if the new wife was young. This responsibility was not just also confined to running a household but also to see to the wellbeing of her family as Queen Victoria advised her own daughter Princess Victoria who married the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858:

It is a very solemn act, the most important and solemn in everyone’s life, but much more so in a woman’s than in a man’s. I have looked on the blessed day which united me to your beloved and perfect Papa – as the cause not only of my own happiness (a happiness few if any enjoy) but as the one which brought happiness and blessings on this country! You have also the blessing of a dear, kind, excellent husband who loves you tenderly devotedly. Let it be your study and your object to make his life and his home a peaceful and happy one and to be of use to him and be a comfort to him in every possible way. Holy and intimate is this union of man and wife as no other can be, and you can never give your parents more happiness and comfort than when they know and see that you are a truly devoted, loving and useful wife to your dear husband.

It is important to note that for young women from high to low, marriage represented the first step of freedom away from being chaperoned all the time and the lack of privacy accorded to them under the parental home. With the dearth of any other options and the opportunities to pursue careers denied to them, in the end it was all about getting married. Marriage was something to aspire to; it gave men and women the chance to move away from the parental home and set up their own household. The idea of marriage as freedom for instance was one reason why Diana Mitford was engaged at the end of her first season to Bryan Guinness, the oldest son of the politician Walter Guinness. Apart from being rich and possessing an intelligence that appealed to Diana, being Mrs Guinness would crucially represent “liberation” from the parental home and its rules.

Further Reading:

Susie Steinbach. Women in England 1760-1914 (London, 2004)

F.M.L. Thompson The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900 (London, 1988)

Pamela Horn. Ladies of the Manor (London, 2012)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2014)

Pamela Horn. Flappers (London, 2013) originally published as Women in the 1920s in 1995

Pat Jalland. Women, Marriage and Politics 1860-1914 (Oxford, 1988)

Joan Perkin. Victorian Women (London, 1993)

Loelia (Grosvenor) Duchess of Westminster. Grace and Favour: The Memoirs of Loelia Duchess of Westminster (London, 1961)

Vera Brittain. Testament of Youth (London, 1933)

Rosina Harrison. The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service (London, 2011) originally published as Rose: My Life in Service in 1975

Mollie Moran. Aprons and Silver Spoons (London, 2013)

Francoise Barret-Ducrocq (translated by John Howe). Love in the Time of Victoria: Sexuality, Class and Gender in Nineteenth-Century London (London, 1991)

Richard Hough (ed.) Advice to a Grand-daughter: Letters from Queen Victoria to Princess Victoria of Hesse (London, 1975)

Andrew Roberts (ed.) Letters to Vicky: The Correspondence between Queen Victoria and her daughter Victoria, Empress of Germany, 1858-1901 (London, 2011)


1. photo of women cycling from

2. portrait of Queen Victoria in her wedding dress by Franz Xavier Winterhalter (1847 as a seventh wedding anniversary present to Prince Albert). Held in the Royal Collection, UK

3. wedding photo from


The Bold Grenadier (Part 2)

The British Army regiment in the 19th century had the function of a self-contained social group, based on the ideas of aristocratic paternalism and philanthropy, and each regiment had its own style of uniform and custom. The paternalistic and deferential relationship between master and servant, landlord and tenant corresponded directly to the regimental world and the separation in military rank between officers and men matched directly with the real differences of the circumstances of birth.

Grenadiers in Pretoria


The regimental family imitated the aristocratic family with its dependent families and servants, and the officer’s wife looked after the female members of the regiment just as her husband looked after his men. The Army regiment operated after the feudal system of the landlord-tenant, lord-servant relationship, with its aspects of paternalism and philanthropy, reflecting the values and attitudes of British society as a whole, which might explain why Robert so much enjoyed being in the army. Not only did it appeal to his innate conservatism and sense of duty, but in an all male regiment his dominant male status was unchallenged, his decisions and orders carried out and his rank commanded respect; which must have made a change from being at home.

Lord Grantham is a man’s man – with his education and upbringing he couldn’t be anything else – and the regiment of the 19th century army was nothing if not masculine. The regiment of the 19th century British army was the very heart of the British army, a hierarchical extended family that echoed the status of its members in the outside world. As long as he was in the army a man belonged to his regiment and it was his family; not just his destiny but his upbringing and education had been directed to placing Robert there.

The heart of an officer’s day to day existence was the mess and his life revolved around it; much like a private club, it was the centre of his social existence.  The mess consisted of a reading room, ante room and dining room. Before and after a meal, as well as when off duty, the officers could retire here to engage in various activities such as chess, dominoes, reading, or playing the piano. Because visiting military and civilian guests would be spending time in this room, the officers would want to be able to show off the fact that they were of the upper class by decorating the room with taste and elegance; regimental mementoes, silver plates, cutlery, glassware. The mess was the centre of social activities for the men and became an institution that followed its members wherever they went.

006   Grenadier_Guards_recruiting_poster_Aug_1914


The walls and tables are adorned with trophies, war relics, portraits of commanders, plate and the numerous curiosities which British troops collect in their varied and extensive wanderings. (Grierson). Such a display was a matter of regimental pride.

The officers had their own kitchens run by a “Mess Man” who was usually a capable sergeant. He would train mess servants.  The cook was a civilian, usually French, who was paid with or from mess funds.  The Mess Man was an enviable position because of his connections to the officers and his access to good food. Naturally, the food was of a better quality and more abundant. Officers ate breakfast, lunch, high tea and the main meal of the day, supper which would include several courses. Each officer paid into a communal fund for the upkeep of the mess; 30 days’ pay on his first appointment and monthly subscriptions of two thirds of one day’s pay.

Despite the tables being set with crystal, china and silver, conversation would be limited to trivia. The army had found early on that when men have been drinking there are topics – sex, women, politics, religion and work – that lead to arguments and fights and so talking about these was strictly banned. That doesn’t mean that dining in the mess was dull; after dinner there was often singing, betting and rougher activities such as High Cockolorum when wise mess servants removed the more fragile fittings; while more senior officers retired to play billiard, bridge or read the papers.


In times of peace the day to day life of an officer was not arduous. A typical working day consisted of physical training, drill or manoeuvres before dawn followed by a hearty breakfast followed by more training until lunch time. Battalions were generally run on a day-to-day basis by the commanding officer, the adjutant and the quartermaster. One young officer when asking his commanding officer for leave to go hunting was told – “As long as there is one subaltern left in barracks to do the work on a hunting day I do not want you to ask for leave”. Always go”. To control this (and the running of the mess) the Adjutant always kept a “Warning Out Book” for young officers to notify him of their intentions and get his clearance to be out of barracks without bothering the CO. Hubert Gough was a subaltern in the 16th Lancers in the 1880s

We led a cheerful carefree life….what duties we had to do did not call for much mental effort. Afternoons were usually free for most officers. We played polo and some cricket at the Aldershot Club in summer. We took the coach, with four horses and two men, to almost every race meeting round London. As another (unnamed) source observed “The bachelor is not always the ideal officer, whose soul is centred in his corps or regiment…he is often a somewhat pleasure-loving individual who is very fond of running up to town, and going to balls and race-meetings.” Leave was generous – generally at least two months a year. In the Guards a subaltern could obtain four months leave out of every twelve and a captain could count on six; so there would be plenty of time for travel, social duties and learning to run the Downton estate.

Sport and games were almost as important as the business of soldiering; some regimental histories have more information about sports than battles. Hunting, shooting, fishing, cricket took up more time than regimental duties – “for most officers, soldiering in the 1900s was an endless round of polo, parties and playtime (Cannadine)”. Even at war due attention was paid to sports – brigade orders for the Guards Brigade in South Africa during the Boer War have a list of events for New Year’s Day, including an Officer’s Race and the high jump.

Of course a young officer’s life had its’ serious side. If someone like Robert was serious about his army career, that would mean studying for promotion. By the end of the century formal and practical examinations  were required for every step from lieutenant to lieutenant-colonel and involved increasingly detailed study of Regimental Duties; Drill (practical and written); Military Law; Field Duties; Topography; and Tactics. Additionally Military Law and Duties in the Field included two four month course of garrison duty on either Gibraltar or Malta; and while this knowledge had to be mastered and the examinations passed it was not “good form” to be seen working hard or devoting oneself to practice of one’s military profession. We are given the impression throughout the later series that Lord Grantham is stupid, but it’s a fair assumption that he did not reach the  rank he did simply because he is Lord Grantham. He might not be the sort of officer for whom progression is effortless but as a character he is conscientious and dutiful, and while he might not have been one of the army’s outstanding soldiers there’s no reason to believe he was a dunce.


We know that Robert married because his family was in need of money to save Downton, and series 5 implies that he’s in his early twenties. Officers generally were discouraged from marrying until at least their early thirties – there was an army saying

“A Subaltern may not marry, captains might marry, majors should marry, and lieutenant-colonels must marry” – and young junior officers were discouraged from marrying as it was felt that it could ruin them financially when the cost was added to the initial outlay for commission, uniforms, equipment, subscriptions and the mess. The purity of the mess was disturbed by marriage, as it took the officer out of the all-male warrior clique, and an officer who married without getting permission from his commanding officer severely jeopardized his chances of promotion. Custom, economics, and peer pressure combined to postpone marriage until quite late in life, and the army very much disapproved of it in the same way employers disapproved of servants marrying; it divided and diluted loyalty.

His choice of bride might also have raised eyebrows; not that Robert had to marry for money – that was so usual it wasn’t worth remarking – but being American she would have no influential family and friends who could be lobbied for lucrative postings or staff appointments. Marriage was not just a matter of personal preference and liking for people like Robert Crawley; money, suitability, and in the case of an officer serious about making the army his profession the influence the bride’s family could exert to further her husband’s career were all taken into account. The objection to Cora is not that she is American and half Jewish (although Society in general did not share the Prince of Wales enthusiasm for either Americans or Jews), but that for a professional soldier Robert is marrying very young, which would lead his regimental superiors to doubt his commitment and would affect his progress up the regimental ranks; and his wife comes from outside the ranks of the British peerage and gentry hence cannot make up for that with her family influence and connections. Being young and a stranger to English high society she is probably also inexperienced at the social events she is expected to host as subtle political manoeuvres on her husband’s behalf.

It’s either Robert or Cora who says in series 1 that for the first year of marriage they were miserable, and once the dots are joined it’s very easy to see why – not least the fact they are virtual strangers. Courtship rituals involved a grand social life, strictly regulated by chaperones, and they probably spent very little time alone together before they were married. Robert stays in the army long enough to participate in the coronation of George V in 1911*, so he’s not dilettanting around for a few years until he inherits the earldom and has to run the estates; he’s serious about the army as a profession. His marriage not only reveals that his family are broke and have to chase an heiress to save the estates, but puts his career in serious doubt with his superiors; and no doubt he resented having to dance attendance on a new wife and being expected to produce an heir at a time when he’d rather be attending to his duties. The fact that he did reach the rank of major or lieutenant general after a professional setback like his early marriage shows that he really put his back into it from 1890-1911 to prove himself.



What did Cora think of him being a soldier and being away for months on military duties – did she accompany him to the Mediterranean when his regiment was sent there, or did she stay at the Abbey? We have no idea. If she decided to join him on Gibraltar she’d have found “Officers quarters, commodious and pleasantly situated” and enjoyed steamer trips to Malaga, Seville, Cadiz and Cordoba, garden parties, receptions and balls at the Governor’s residence and plenty of chances for sailing, boating and walking; or perhaps a visit to the Garrison Library, “well-stocked with books &c, and contains spacious reading and lounging rooms.”

I have the feeling from series 1 when they discuss Bates that the army is a bone of contention between them. Clearly Cora knows and Robert knows Cora knows that the army is important because he uses attendance at a regimental dinner as an excuse when he wants to meet Matthew Crawley for the first time – so perhaps Roberts uses the excuse of an army function as a way to stop Cora from arguing with him; she doesn’t necessarily like it but the army means so much to him she knows that it’s not negotiable; and interestingly Robert must know that and use it to get something he wants without the usual argument. In the end I feel that the army was such an important part of Robert’s life that it became both a refuge and shield against the home; he may be devoted to Downton but the army is where he truly feels free and most himself.

Just a shame we never saw Hugh Bonneville in a busby….


*George V Coronation medals were given to members of the armed forces and the police who took part in the parade and lined the procession route. Lord Grantham has the George V coronation medal which would indicate that he did take part in the parade thus would have been in the army until at least 1911. The medal was awarded to certain civilians, but Grantham seems unlikely to have fallen into the categories for this.

**I’m assuming Robert’s regiment was the Grenadier Guards for two reasons. One, in series 2 his uniform has Grenadier collar insignia, in the 2012 Christmas special he’s wearing a Grenadier regimental tie and in the 2013 a Grenadier dress uniform. Two, the Grenadier Guards is the senior regiment of the British Army and I can’t imagine an earl’s heir considering any other regiment as a suitable one to serve in. Robert Grantham is nothing if not traditional. As the leading infantry regiment of the British army, the Grenadiers, with a history dating back to 1659, was one of the most prestigious regiments, socially and militarily, that a man could join.


1. Officers of 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards at the Modder River 1899

2. Guards at the funeral procession of Edward VII May 1910

3. Social Life in the Army 4. Grenadier Guards recruitment poster (1914)

5. Grenadier Guards during an inspection

6. Lord Grantham Series 2 pictures


David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1992)

Lieut Colonel James Moncrieff Grierson.  From Khaki to Scarlet – The British Army of the Eve of the Boer War (London, 1899, 1988) – as a note to a previous blog about Robert at 50 being too old to fight in 1916 – Lieut Col Grierson died in 1914 aged 55 – “in the prime of professional life” according to the introduction to this edition.

Byron Farwell. For Queen and Country – A Social History of the Victorian and Edwardian Army (London, 1981)

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)

John Masters. Bugles and a Tiger (London, 1956)

Army & Navy Calendar for the Financial Year 1883-1884

Syllabus of Subjects For The Examination Of Officers For Promotion

Hansard 19 October 1899

The Bold Grenadier (Part 1)

Disclaimer: All the details about army life are based on research, contemporary accounts and later third hand analysis. The comments on Robert Crawley are pure speculation based on research about real life soldiers, and the society in the late 19th century in which he would have lived; and examination of the character by way of the DVDs and the series scripts.

One of the many weaknesses of the writing in Downton Abbey is the undeveloped backgrounds of the characters – we don’t know how they come to be what we see on the screen, and why they behave as they do; what it is in their past that drives their present. Of particular interest to me is the character of Lord Grantham – on the face of it a straightforward, dull and not very bright man and who suffers from Fellowes’ determination to show the female Crawleys in the best possible light – or what he thinks is the best possible light. There are hints of Lord Grantham’s military past – Bates, South Africa medals, the expectation when was breaks out that the army will want him back and the acute disappointment when it does not – but the details are only vaguely suggested.

Fellowes describes Robert as a professional soldier and the medals he has suggests that Robert served in the army for as long as possible*; being a soldier was not at all incompatible with a life as a peer, a landowner or a member of Society. Did he think that he could allow himself to go soldiering while his cousin looked after the estate? Perhaps he envisaged a life as a soldier, allowing his cousin to marry and raise heirs for the earldom and eventually inherit the title, and it was only financial necessity that drove him to an early marriage. There is an interesting tension set up in the earl’s character that I’m not sure the writer is aware of – in series 1 we hear that the Abbey is so important to Lord Grantham that it’s as dear to him as his family and that he’ll do anything to ensure its’ survival – and yet in series 2 he looks around a room full of soldiers and says “This is where I belong.”

Robert S2 ep1 Robert_S5_uniform close up

Robert CS uniform HB CS filming

I strongly feel that for Lord Grantham being a soldier means loyalty, duty, if necessary dying for your country. In series 2 he knows that there’s fair chance one or both of him and Matthew will be killed at the Front, leaving the estates and title in limbo without an heir and the family in financial disarray (as the money goes to whoever inherits the title) but for Robert being a soldier and fighting for his country is a higher calling even than being Earl of Grantham; it’s a part of his being, as much in his blood and bones as the Abbey, and I have wondered if his care for the Abbey is something into which he channels those energies that were previously given to the army, or do the two exist side by side as the twin passions of his life? What was the background that made his army service so important to him and what was the life to which he longed to return? It’s a very great shame that this was left wholly unexplained and unexplored. If we don’t know why this character is like he is then we cannot hope to understand him, and my suspicion is that understanding and hence sympathising is something we are not meant to feel where Robert is concerned.


In the 19th century class structure filtered into every facet of people’s lives, even an event as simple as eating, and it was very difficult to escape your “breeding”. Lord Grantham’s breeding and upbringing was that as a peer, society looked to him to lead, and that for a man like him there were higher needs and duties than hearth and home. As a peer, he would have  been trained from cradle that his standing in society demanded more of him than the average man on the street; if you like, the rent he paid for his privileges.  As Joseph P. Kennedy always told his children, to whom much is given much is required and I’m sure that Robert would have been told the same thing by his father.

We do not know if Robert, Earl of Grantham came from a family with a history of military service; his father was a courtier and they were very often recruited from the ranks of the army. We know that Viscount Downton attended Eton, the leading public school of the day for the privileged elite. The school had a cadet force known as the Eton College Rifle Corps, founded in 1860 as a volunteer battalion of a local regiment and designed to act as a pool of potential officers; so either a boy with an interest in military matters joined the corps, or it stimulated his interest in a military career.

Public schools such as Eton were not intellectual but designed to instil attitudes of mind and patterns of behaviour and moulded their pupils into British gentlemen through emphasis on house loyalty, an obsession with sporting achievement and obedience to authority. They produced men who had a deep sense of duty, an awareness of hierarchy and a habit of command, were extraordinarily brave and unquestioningly obedient – qualities particularly suited to a career as an army officer. Skill at games was more important than academic achievement, manliness and godliness more important that knowledge.

A public school education, nonetheless, was deemed invaluable because of the qualities of character which the schools were thought to develop. These included the training of the mind in the classical tradition, with its emphasis upon order, authority and discipline and the training of the body and spirit through the cult of team games. If boys played rugby and cricket, it was widely assumed that they would develop not only the physical attributes of health, strength, co-ordination and quickness of eye – all essential military requirements- but also moral virtues like self-discipline and team spirit – qualities with could be transferred into regimental service. Above all, as Geoffrey Best argues, the public schools were thought to inculcate loyalty, which ‘began with loyalty to your house…….and rose through loyalty to your school (a paradigm of the nation) to loyalty to your country, faith and leaders.’ Boys possessing such attributes were readily welcomed as potential officers.” (pp. 97-9) Edward M. Spiers. The Late Victorian Army 1868-1902 (Manchester, 1992)

It’s certain that Robert was trained to be a soldier at Sandhurst. He could have come via the militia, but that would have been very much a second best option for those who could not pass the entrance exams. Lord Grantham’s father was a courtier, so it’s reasonable to assume that the family had powerful connections and access to patronage that could have been used to ease Robert’s entry into Sandhurst if that help was needed.

Attendance at Eton would have prepared Robert Crawley for a career in the army by making every effort to teach him the subjects the army would require for the competitive entrance examinations to Sandhurst, but there is evidence that very many candidates found the examinations difficult. The first one, the Preliminary, tested elementary skills – handwriting, geography, composition, grammar, elementary mathematics, geometrical drawing and languages. About one fifth failed geography, a quarter failed spelling and nearly half failed languages. Once he had passed this Robert could apply to take the Further, a comprehensive test of knowledge and academic skills for eight hours a day for six days and starting with a strict physical examination. He also had to submit details of his birth registration and a certificate of moral character from the head of the school he had attended for the past four years. Both parts of the exam could be taken up to three times and there were no practical tests of aptitude for leadership. This had the effect of confining entry to public schoolboys, often from families with a military connection.

Should Robert feel the need for it, there were “crammers,” usually retired army men, who could  teach him what he needed to know to pass the entrance exams; and very many of the candidates for Sandhurst resorted to them. It’s tempting to wonder whether the young men of the late Victorian era were spectacularly stupid, the public schools very bad at teaching or the Sandhurst exams especially difficult.

Once successfully through the Further exam (Robert could choose four out of Mathematics, English composition, Latin, Greek, French, Experimental Sciences, Physical Geography and Geology, Drawing Freehand and Geometrical), he would pay his fees (the cost of which were based on the rank his father had attained in the army, with fees reduced for the sons of serving or former officers) and become what was known in a formal manner as a “gentlemen cadet” and addressed as ‘Mr’ followed by his name and title – in Robert’s case, Mr Lord Downton –  followed by ‘sir’, even if he was on the receiving end of a drill sergeant’s rollicking – and not even cadets from the royal family were spared.

“Mr Lord Greenleaf, you look like a bloody monkey on a stick – SIR!” Terrible oaths, vile abuse, always preceded by ‘Mr’ and ending in ‘sir.’ We looked at each other out of the corners of our eyes and trembled in our huge hobnail boots.

There was a story that an exasperated sergeant had bawled at him (Prince Henry, later Duke of Gloucester) “Mr Prince ‘Enry, if I was your father, I’d ——” a pause while the sergeant realised he could hardly, speaking of his sovereign, finish with the traditional words, “I’d shoot meself.” Instead he bawled, “I’d habdicate – sir!” (Masters).

Unlike modern Officer Cadets, who are technically private soldiers and are paid and clothed as such by the Ministry of Defence, gentlemen cadets were not subject to military law. Their parents paid tuition and boarding fees, in the same way as at a public school or university, and also paid for uniforms (of the same pattern as worn by subaltern officers, but without badges of rank), books, and mathematical instruments. Cadets were between 17 and 19 years old, the course lasted one to two years and Robert would be surrounded by others with backgrounds similar to his own.


The author John Masters attended Sandhurst  in the early 1930s and in essence his experience was probably very much the same as Robert’s.

The Master of Wellington.. had once cause a great uproar by describing the RMC as “that little hell over the hill…I began to find out what he meant. The RMC was undoubtedly brutal… it was an amazingly free life but a violent one just the same. No notable intercompany fight took part in our time, but that was not due to any inherent gentleness on our part. But as Masters says, War is a dirty business and we are training these young men for war. If Robert had survived Eton (Victorian public schools were notoriously brutal) he could survive Sandhurst, physically if not intellectually. According to Masters in his first weeks

Bedlam burst open its gates…Wellington was a militarily minded school and we prided ourselves on our drill. This that they were expecting us to do at the RMC was quite different. The sergeant shouted the opening part of each command in a loud but fairly clear voice; on the executive word his voice broke into a meaningless screech. At the screech we were supposed to react as if a bomb had gone off under us. Crash, we hauled the rifles into our sides, simultaneously bawling One! Then we shouted Two, three in cadence, but stood motionless. One! We smashed the rifles on to our left shoulders and smote their butts with the heels of our left hands. Two, three – motionless. One! The right hands cut away to the sides and the movement was completed….for nine weeks the drill parades seemed to be continuous and endless. We must have eaten and slept, and I know we went occasionally to the classrooms and the gymnasium, but I remember only the Square.

When Robert was not learning infantry field drill he would have attended classes in Military Administration, Military Law, Elements of Tactics, Fortifications, Military Topography, riding and gymnastics. It was not all work – during the hunting season leave was easily obtained on Saturdays, and permission to visit London could be obtained from Saturday afternoon to Sunday night. As the end of his period at Sandhurst came near, he would be examined on the knowledge he had acquired over the previous eighteen months and would apply to the governor of Sandhurst for the regiment of his choice. If he chose the Grenadier Guards** for family reasons his appointment would have to be approved by the commander in chief. As his father was a courtier family influence might also have helped here. The culmination of his eighteen months career at Sandhurst was the Sovereign’s Parade.

(To get a sense of how this looked and sounded in the 1890s the last three versions of the film “The Four Feathers” re-enact a Sandhurst parade of the period).

Now he was a soldier of the Queen Empress.  Every step of his army career, from ensign to lieutenant colonel would require study, hard work and success in formal examinations along with the fulfilment of his day-to-day duties. He was now subject to Queen’s Regulations, liable to be sent to die for his country and in the process to show others how to die well.

The business of leadership is essentially the manipulation of other people’s emotions. To that end, the young officer had to learn to control his own feelings – and anyone who had been to public school had been hiding his emotions for years. A good officer could raise his men’s spirits from gloom to good humour, a bad officer could count only on sullen acquiescence. This…demanded that the officer develop self-confidence and a public readiness for self-sacrifice…(Paxman p 233).


The British Army officer in the nineteenth century was a man of his time. The social aspects of wealthy society, such as fashion, participation in social activities, and gentlemanly behaviour, were duplicated in the army officer corps. Officers were connected to the ruling class by ties of family, lifestyle, education, and politics, as the officer corps was almost exclusively drawn from the wealthy landowning aristocracy and gentry, the class that would have the most to lose in the event of a coup d’etat. The centre of political power in nineteenth century Britain lay in the landowning class, a remnant of the feudal system of the landlord-tenant relationship, and also the emerging merchant and industrialist middle-class.

Civil leaders and military officers were recruited from a very narrow social group, partly to ensure that the Army and civilian institutions expressed common interests, maintaining the link between the two and the status quo. The lifestyle and attitudes of the landed class and the Army officer were identical; like the Church or Parliament, military service was seen as another way to fulfil a sense of obligation to public service. Often these were the respectable occupations entered into by the younger sons of wealthy families. The fact that the military officer and the politician were of the same social group, along with the stability of the British Government relative to those of the other European counties during this time can explain the absence of revolutionary activities in which the powerful officer corps might be tempted to join.

The officer corps was largely an apolitical force during this time, not because of a lack of interest in political manners in general, but a lack of interest in politics affecting military interest. The Army officer was frequently a dilettante, in the tradition of the amateur officer, and had little career commitment to the army. The military career in itself rarely led to much financial reward, but entrance into this exclusive club offered the young members of the aristocracy and wealthy landowners an avenue to status

The relationship between the officer corps and the landed class also acted as a socializing agent for the young men of the wealthy. For many young aristocrats who did not intend to make it a permanent career, the Army regiment was effectively a gentlemen’s club, in which they gained for themselves a gentlemanly air and the necessary contacts for success in later life. As Cannadine says “because they were the leisured class they were also the fighting class, duty bound and conditioned to protect civil society from invasion and disruption. Honour and glory, courage and chivalry, gallantry and loyalty, leadership and horsemanship were quintessential patrician attributes, inculcated in the country house and learned on the hunting field.” The army was one useful training ground for an eventual career in politics or running the family estate, (Robert’s eventual destiny); and the discipline of the regiment and the demands of warfare reinforced that noblesse oblige that was demanded of the men of Robert’s class.

The Grenadier Guards though ranking first in army seniority, are not the oldest of the three; but by Charles II’s own order in 1660  “Our own regiment of foot guards shall be held and esteemed the oldest regiment” and was one of the most socially exclusive in the British Army in the 19th century – along with the Life Guards and the Household Cavalry “a regimental haven of social security” (Cannadine). The better British regiments (Guards, Household Cavalry) had tremendous social cachet, and class was a huge factor in the relatively small officer cadre of the Victorian era. To be an officer in the British Army in the Victorian period usually required a certain amount of private income to supplement the government pay. In some regiments the extra income required was significant – Guards regiments, some of the elite Rifles units…and of course the cavalry. Mess (dinner and drinks) bills were a high cost, in addition to the cost of uniforms, weapons and accoutrements, none of which were provided by the State, and this acted as an effective social filter to ensure that only those with a private income (the nobility and gentry) were able to join these regiments; and thus preserved their social exclusivity and restricted army service to the classes whose natural occupation it was.

Windsor 1890 3rd Battalion GrenGuards at the Modder

Colours and drums 1896

If Robert had wanted peacetime adventures in foreign climes then the Grenadiers were not the regiment to choose. There were three battalions and they rotated a year of garrison duty in the Mediterranean (Gibraltar or Malta) with ceremonial duties in London or Windsor. Such duties would have allowed an active social life only restricted by the amount of money he had and the demands of his duties. Being a soldier was no bar to being part of Society or taking part in the social and sexual pleasures it offered a young single man of Robert’s rank –  the size of the army meant that it was a given that whoever you were, you probably were friends with or related to a soldier or former soldier.  Robert must have had a fairly active and extensive social acquaintance through being a soldier, his cousin being a diplomat and his father a courtier, so there would be houseparties and shoots and balls to attend when military duties allowed; and as a young aristocratic Victorian male, he was regarded as a carefree bachelor to whom only single women of his own class were off limits; whatever his personal sexual behaviour, he benefited from a universal double standard that held women should be chaste, men were expected to be experienced.

As a newly commissioned officer the young Lord Downton would have been taken in hand by the senior ensign and taught the traditions of the regiment and how he should and should not behave (among other things, Guards officers did not carry their own suitcases, smoke Virginia cigarettes or reverse while waltzing). Robert would probably have agreed that the young officer joins his regiment with the consciousness that it will be his home for the best years of his life…he shares with his regiment joy and sorrow, war and peace, pleasant and unpleasant garrisons but always in the circle of his comrades….(Grierson) and looked forward to what his army career was to bring in the way of challenge. Every step of that career from Ensign to Lieutenant Colonel would be taken as a member of his chosen regiment.


1-4. Pictures of Lord Grantham taken from various fan sites

5. Grenadier Guards at Windsor in the 1890s

6. Officers of 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards at the Modder River 1899

7. Colour and Drums 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards 1896

Next: The Bold Grenadier Part 2