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Married to the Facts

We all think we know certain “facts” from Tudor history: people were so much shorter thanks to poor nutrition, no one lived past the age of forty, and everyone smelled bad as no one bathed regularly. However, research has dispelled many of these facts as nothing more than fiction. There are also misconceptions surrounding 16th and 17th century marriages. Since 2022 is predicted to be a booming year for weddings, let’s look at engagements, weddings, and marriages in early modern England.


One of the biggest falsehoods surrounding this period concerns age at time of marriage. While the age of consent was much younger than it is now, (twelve for girls and fourteen for boys) most people did not get married until their mid-to-late twenties. Many people, both male and female, chose to wait to get married, as there was no reliable contraception. Holding off on marriage helped control the birth rate which was relatively low in early modern England. That being said, the age one got married was very much dependent upon one’s social status. Noble women, landed gentry, and wealthy urbanites married, on average, five years earlier than their lower class, female, counterparts did. In addition, the age of first marriage did not say consistent throughout this time, as it varied with changing economic conditions. In times of food shortages or an epidemic), people waited to get married, either by choice or until circumstances allowed. The recent pandemic has caused a similar delay for many young couples.


Another misconception is that people did not have any say in who they married. Again, this was dependent upon your social status. In this one aspect of life, it was far easier to be a lower class young adult. Men and women of the lower classes had many opportunities to socialize with each other and to spend time alone with their intended. Little importance was placed on the wealth of either party so their families would have less of a say in their choice of a partner. All of this meant that lower class women had both more opportunity and more freedom to find a spouse whom they loved


Upper class young adults had less of both, but their marriages were generally not arranged. Because of courting rules and regulations, they were less able to spend time together alone prior to the wedding, and the wealth of both parties was important. Arranged marriages were very uncommon, except for those in the highest social strata, including royalty. Marriages between princes and princesses were arranged very early in the children’s lives. For example, Queen Mary I of England was promised (at different times) in marriage to both Dauphin Francis of France and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, before she was ten years old. Charles V was 22 years old at the time of the engagement. Mary was six.


Courtship was a complicated ritual for both upper class men and women. Initiated by the man, he was to show his intentions by teasing and annoying the woman. She would expect him to chase after her, visit her daily, and, seemingly ignore all of his other obligations. The man who worked hardest for the attention of his potential wife was valued more highly than any of the other suitors. What was the woman’s job during this process? To pretend as though every man was not worthy of her affections. Often called “the art of scorning,” she was to discourage all potential suitors. She needed to display the perfect amount of irritation and indifference to appear uninterested without turning off all her suitors. It was, obviously, a very delicate balance and the fact anyone even remotely liked each other, let alone got engaged, after this process remains shocking.


Once an engagement contract was agreed upon, it could be years before a wedding actually took place. Interestingly, an engagement contract was considered, by most, as legally binding as a marriage. The wedding just put a neat bow on an otherwise done deal. Because engagements were often long, pre-marital sex was not frowned upon - as long as that contract was in place. Physical relations were seen as a test of the couple’s fertility and a pregnancy, obviously, sped up the couple’s wedding date. About 25% of brides during this time were pregnant at their weddings.


The wedding date was chosen in conjunction with the church calendar, the agricultural calendar, and the season of the year. (This is probably why it would take years for a wedding to happen!) For the three Sundays leading up to the big day, bans would be read, announcing the intended wedding ceremony at all churches in the couple’s parish. This allowed people to come forward if there was, perhaps, another engagement contract already in place. Originally, church weddings followed the Catholic rite, but after Henry VIII’s break with Rome, wedding ceremonies followed the service laid out in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. The wedding was performed by an ordained minister, in front of witnesses, between the hours of 8AM and noon. Alternatively, a couple did not have to have a church wedding. They could declare, publicly, in front of witnesses, that they considered themselves married and they would be legally married. As with today, there would be a festive celebration after the ceremony ranging from a simple meal at the local tavern to a days long party of feasting and dancing depending upon the wealth of the couple’s families.


Marriage served multiple social purposes. In addition to cementing a relationship with a helpmate to journey with through life, it was a means for growing the population and as protection against the sin of fornication. During the early modern period, the idea of marriage changed and became a means of social control, not just moral control. Women became the property of their husbands, but they also gained social status in their town and would be given more responsibility in their communities.


Some marriages were good and some were bad, but there were few, if any options to get out of an unhappy one. Divorces were almost impossible to get (think how hard it was for King Henry VIII.!!), and the divorce could only be initiated by the husband. Legal separation was an option, and many times, if the marriage was problematic, the husband would desert his wife and any children. Judging by contemporaneous materials (pamphlets, ballads, theater, etc.), it would seem that many married couples were content. Even with the daily, unavoidable pressures and stresses of life, there was fun to be had and many couples experienced comfortable companionship throughout their married lives.


In the final analysis, engagements, weddings, and marriages in early modern England were, in many ways, similar to today. The goal of marriage was to find a companion of life with whom one could start a family. With the exception of those in the highest social circles, most young people had some choice in the selection of their partner, and the union could be formalized in a church or by secular declaration. The one area where Tudor marriages differ significantly from modern ones was divorce. Since only men could request a divorce women were forced to suffer whether they stayed in a bad marriage or were abandoned and forced to support their children by themselves. A careful examination of the facts of Tudor life reveal that some popular assumptions about life then are not quite true. More importantly, it proves that while politics and technology constantly change, traditional family life and its milestone rituals are constant threads that knit the centuries together. Agecroft sends its best wishes to all the couples marrying this summer!


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