From getting down ‘on one knee’ to the leap year proposal: a brief history of proposing marriage

Where do engagement rings come from? What’s the history behind the leap year proposal? When did men begin asking their prospective bride’s father for permission? And why do people traditionally get down ‘on one knee’ to suggest marriage? Historian and author Emily Brand considers how customs and traditions around engagement have developed over the years

c1960s photo showing a man places an engagement ring on a woman's finger.

In an age when people generally hope to star in their own grand love story, popping the question is a moment of great importance – and one to be captured and posted on social media. But despite a new obsession with sharing these most private moments publicly, many central aspects of the traditional proposal echo down the centuries…

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When did we start using engagement rings?

Engagement rings have a long history. The giving of a gold ring to signify a promise of marriage existed in the culture of ancient Rome, and the bride-to-be was expected to wear it in public.

The practice of proposing was also widespread in the Middle Ages, although it was perhaps not taken seriously enough by male suitors. Church legislation was introduced in the 13th century in an attempt to crack down on proposals made by gentlemen to women “in jest, so that he might more easily fornicate with them”,  but it was not until the Restoration that a gentleman could face legal action and a fine if they abandoned a woman to whom they were engaged (or had implied marriage to). 

Instances of offering diamond rings appear among the wealthy from the 1470s, and became a common feature of the 19th-century proposal as they became a cheaper commodity – but it was not until a marketing push of the 1940s that demand for diamonds was set into ‘tradition’.

When did the tradition of getting down ‘on one knee’ begin?

The reason for conducting proposals ‘on one knee’ is hazier. There may be some truth in the idea that such declarations of love might be inspired by medieval courtly love, in which a man demonstrated his devotion tohis ‘lady’, who he existed to serve but who was unobtainable (and he therefore would not marry). However there is little evidence to suggest that the attachment of this kneeling position, while implying general servitude and admiration, was adopted during a marriage proposal specifically before the 19th century.

Comic actor Buster Keaton gets down 'on one knee' for a formal proposal in a scene from 'Seven Chances', a silent comedy he directed.
1925: Comic actor Buster Keaton gets down ‘on one knee’ for a formal proposal in a scene from ‘Seven Chances’, a silent comedy he directed. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Women as ‘property’ and the origins of the leap year proposal

Other elements of the traditional marriage proposal are beginning to lose popularity. With the rise of women’s equality, the tradition of a suitor formally asking the bride’s father for permission to propose – a hangover from the long-accepted idea that any woman was ‘property’ to be transferred between men – is increasingly considered outdated.

As with courtship, tradition has dictated that the man should take the active role in the proposal – with two exceptions. The custom of ‘permitting’ women to subvert the process and propose on a leap year has elusive origins, though it was already a subject for amusement in 1816, when one newspaper cheekily declared that Princess Charlotte had chosen her own husband, “being privileged by the courtesy of this being a leap year”.

The folklorists of the 19th century spread their own myths: one claimed it as an Elizabethan ‘Commun Lawe’ practice by which “the ladyes have the sole privilege [of] making love unto the men”; another pointed to an Irish legend about a deal struck between Saint Bridget and Saint Patrick; a third claimed it was a law introduced by a 13th-century Scottish queen. Whatever the case, the commercialisation of the idea in the 20th century has cemented it in popular consciousness, though it now applies only to 29 February, rather than the entire year.

The second exception can be seen in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s engagement in 1839: being the reigning monarch, etiquette dictated that she requested his hand in marriage – though he still presented her with a serpent-shaped gold ring.

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Emily Brand is an author and historian specialising in the long 18th century, especially the trials and tribulations of romantic (and not-so-romantic) relationships in England. Her new book, The Fall of the House of Byron, is due for publication by John Murray in April 2020 and is available for pre-order now