In Tudor England, most people who married did so only after they had the wherewithal to establish a household of their own. This usually meant waiting at least until they were in their twenties. Contemporary opinion was against the marriage of people who had not yet built up the means to maintain a family, or had little prospect of doing so. This was especially true at the end of the 16th century, when a growing population and a succession of meagre harvests sharply increased the numbers of poor people needing relief.
Many men and women in the middle and upper ranks of society married for the first time with the help of bequests or lifetime transfers of resources from the previous generation. Parents, if still alive, expected to have a say or even a leading part in arranging a marriage. They could react angrily if they were not consulted. When in 1520 a Buckinghamshire girl, Joan Stevyns, belatedly implored her parents on her knees for their consent to her marriage decision, or at least her father’s blessing if she could not have his agreement or material help, he reportedly exploded: “Void harlot out of my sight!”
Even the children of the wealthy did however sometimes marry against their parents’ wishes. The sixteen-year-old pair Thomas Thynne of Longleat and Maria Tuchet married secretly in 1594 despite the bitter enmity between their fathers (Any similarity between their situation and that of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s play of the same decade was probably fortuitous.)
The nobility and royal family started planning marriages for their heirs at an early stage. The marriage of Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon, for example, was agreed between their parents when Arthur was aged two and Katherine three, and it took place 12 years later. But the need to use marriages to strengthen alliances and secure the survival of a dynasty did not apply to the great majority of the population.
The express consent of the partners was necessary to make a valid marriage. It was common practice for couples to declare their mutual acceptance during courtship. This could be a dangerous moment for the inexperienced, the over-optimistic, or those carried away by their feelings. On 1 January 1519, William Hanwell allegedly contracted marriage with Isabel Riddysdale in a house in Beachampton (Bucks), saying: “I William take thee Isabel to my wedded wife and there unto I plight my troth”. Isabel reciprocated with similar words. In law, these words of consent were a contract that made the couple man and wife in the instant they were spoken.
Isabel evidently changed her mind subsequently, but William had the two witnesses required to prove the contract (though they remembered slightly different words), and he sued Isabel in the local church court to enforce it. In other cases, a jilted partner might be unable to produce witnesses. This was especially unfortunate for trusting young women who found themselves pregnant and their reputation ruined by a suitor who had changed his mind, or had simply taken advantage of them.
To be on the safe side, it was essential to have your contract properly witnessed, or, if you had any doubts about it, to make a promise depend on a condition such as the goodwill of parents or friends. Courtship was usually accompanied by the man’s gift of tokens of marriage: especially a ring, coins, trinkets, or items of clothing such as gloves. William Hanwell had entrusted one of his witnesses with two pennies to give to Isabel.
A couple might contract marriage secretly, and regard themselves as ‘man and wife before God’, but a church wedding was needed to satisfy the expectations of family, friends and community. However, this ceremony only completed the process of making a marriage. Nearly a third of Elizabethan brides were pregnant by the time they came to church, despite the Church’s prohibition on sexual relations beforehand.
When ‘asking the banns’ three times before the church wedding, the priest solemnly called upon anyone who knew any reason why the couple should not be married to declare it. (In Tudor times the most likely such reason was a ‘pre-contract’ between one of the partners and somebody else, rather than their relationship within the ‘prohibited degrees’. Henry VIII notoriously invoked such a relationship between himself and Katherine of Aragon in order to have their marriage annulled, but he was exceptional in this respect. The range of prohibited degrees was greatly reduced during the Reformation.)
The most important element of the marriage service was a full form of trothplight, in which both partners promised to love and cherish each other until death in both sickness and health. The woman also undertook to obey her husband. The man then gave the woman the wedding ring, putting it on the fourth finger of her left hand. He declared that he endowed her with all his worldly goods. The priest pronounced the couple man and wife, and invoked God’s blessing upon them.
A magnificent feast, a week of jousting and banqueting, and then further varied entertainments, followed the marriage of Arthur and Katherine in 1501. Most people who could afford it – the couple, or their parents, if still alive – probably held a wedding dinner and dancing. Finally, guests might see the couple to bed. Neighbours or fellow parishioners could contribute to a ‘bride ale’ for less well off couples. Weddings where guests paid for the entertainment and made gifts to help the couple set up house may have been customary over much of the north of England and in Wales.
A Marriage Ceremony, an illustration from 'A Book of Roxburghe Ballads’. (Private Collection/Bridgeman Images)
The Prayer Book service mentioned three reasons why God had instituted matrimony: the procreation of children, the avoidance of fornication (by keeping legitimate sexual activity within the bounds of marriage), and “the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity”.
Each partner undertook to love the other, and the duty of husbands in particular to love their wives was emphasised with quotations from letters of St Paul. In principle, love was at the heart of marriage. Love could mean liking; affection (which might grow with shared experience), and physical attraction. But a ‘common proverb’ said that ‘hot love is soon cold’: sexual passion was an unsafe basis for an enduring marriage.
Many men and women were quite hard-headed about the material aspects of a possible marriage agreement – it was important to know what resources the other partner would provide. Marriages between people of wealth were usually preceded by negotiations concerning the wife’s dowry, and the jointure that would provide her maintenance if she outlived her husband.
According to conventional wisdom, the best-matched partners in marriage were of roughly comparable age, status and wealth. Marriages between partners of very different ages were thought to be particularly unwise. The 52-year-old King Louis XII of France, who in 1514 married Mary, the 18-year-old sister of Henry VIII, died only three months later, supposedly worn out by his efforts in bed. (The age gap in this case was exceptional, but people of both sexes marrying for the second time quite often chose partners younger than themselves.)
A Devon gentleman farmer, Robert Furse (d 1593) left his heirs careful advice about the choice of a wife. Looks, wealth, and connections were all desirable, but most important were upbringing; reputation; personal qualities such as sobriety, wisdom, discretion, gentleness, modesty, chastity; and the ability to manage a household.
The husband was the head of the household, but his rule had to be discreet. Sir Thomas Smith (1513–77), writer on English government and society, saw the family household not as a monarchy, but an aristocracy “where a few and the best do govern, and where not one always: but sometime and in some thing one, and sometime and some thing another doth bear the rule”.
John Fitzherbert, author of an early Tudor agricultural manual, envisaged the husband’s and wife’s roles on the family farm (then the commonest sort of economic unit) as broadly complementary. The wife largely worked in the house and garden, but she might have to join in the heavier labour in the fields. Nor was she a stay at home: she was to go to the mill, and to buy and sell in the market. No wonder there was an old saying ‘that seldom doth the husband thrive without leave of his wife’. Robert Furse strongly echoed this sentiment: in his view, a good housewife was even more necessary to a household than a good husband.
Fitzherbert emphasised that when either partner went to market, they must make a “true reckoning and account” to the other. If one deceived the other, he deceived himself, and was unlikely to prosper. They must be true to each other.
Surviving family correspondence reveals the close partnership of some husbands and wives. Engaged in a struggle to recover lands at law, Sir Robert Plumpton depended on his wife Agnes to defend his manor of Plumpton and raise money for him, though she urged him to end the ruinous litigation. He addressed her in a 1502 letter as his “dear heart”, describing himself as “your own lover”.
In the 1540s, John Johnson, merchant of the Staple in Calais, largely relied on his wife, Sabine, to manage his affairs in England while he was in Calais working as a wool merchant. They signed their letters as ‘loving husband’ or ‘loving wife’, and John concluded one by wishing that Sabine was in his bed. John Thynne, who inherited Longleat in 1580, received advice from his wife, Joan, on matters ranging from his behaviour towards other family members to his ultimately successful efforts to obtain a knighthood. She managed his estates during his absences in London.
One must not paint too rosy a picture of Tudor marriage, however. ‘An Homily of the State of Matrimony’ (1563), intended to be read in church, remarked, no doubt with some exaggeration, how few marriages there were “without chidings, brawlings, tauntings, repentings, bitter cursings, and fightings”. The homily’s main message was that husband and wife needed to treat each other with patience, understanding, and self-restraint. Once love had been banished, they still had to live together.
The homilist was not quite right: even though the church courts could not decree divorces of the sort common today, they did grant separations on grounds of cruelty, adultery, or continual quarrels. However, these were uncommon. In reality, death was the only sure release from unhappy marriage.
Life expectancy was far lower than it is today. Sadly, death all too often cut short happy marriages rather than unhappy ones.
Professor Ralph Houlbrooke from the University of Reading specialises in the history of religion, society and the family in England between the late 15th and 17th centuries, and in mid-Tudor politics. He is the author of 'The Making of Marriage in Mid-Tudor England: Evidence from the Records of Matrimonial Contract Litigation', which featured in the Journal of Family History (1985).