Agecroft Hall: Discover 17th Century England in Richmond
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Engagements, Weddings, Marriages.

 

   As Manager of Collections here at Agecroft Hall, I have spoken to numerous guests about different ‘facts’ we have been taught about the early modern period. Through extensive research many of these facts, such as people were much shorter, no one lived past the age of forty, everyone only bathed once a year, have been proven false for this time period. There are incorrect beliefs surrounding 16th and 17th century weddings and marriages as well. Please read on for a brief discussion of engagements, weddings, and marriages in early modern England. 

 

   One of the biggest misconceptions about marriage during the early modern period was age of marriage. While age of consent, when two people could legally be married, was twelve years old for girls and fourteen years old for boys, most people did not get married until their mid-to-late twenties. Of course, this was dependent upon a person’s social status, as noble women, landed gentry, and wealthy urbanites married, on average, two to ten years younger than lower class women (1).  The age of first marriage did not stay consistent throughout this time period—it was very dependent upon economic conditions.  If there was no food or money to be had, or there was an epidemic, people waited to get married, by choice or because of circumstance. Most people chose to wait until a bit later in life to wed because there was no known reliable contraception and holding off marriage helped control the birth rate, which was relatively low during the early modern period in England (2). 

 

   Men and women of the laboring classes had plenty of opportunities to socialize, become acquainted with one another, and chose who they’d like to marry (3).  While the higher classes had less control over the choice of future spouse, they did have some say in the matter. But, in comparison, a lower class woman had more opportunity for privacy and physical intimacy with a suitor, her family played less of a role in the match, and there was less emphasis on the wealth of the potential partners (4). Courtship was akin to dating today: a “lengthy series of private negotiations…spread out over many years…usually includ[ing] several sequences or episodes before the woman settled upon a partner or failed to find…a partner [at all] (5).”  Arranged marriages were very uncommon during this time period, unless both parties were of royal blood, and those marriages were usually arranged very early in the bride and groom’s lives. 

 

   Courtship was a complicated ritual for both men and women. The man initiated the courtship, and, during the first stages, he “was to solicit as vigorously as possible (6).”   A woman wanted a man who ‘laboriously’ chased after her, one who would visit her daily, no matter what else might need his attention The man who worked hardest for his potential wife was valued higher than any of her other suitors who might let daily life get in the way of courtship. The woman’s task was called ‘the art of scorning,’ and her job was to attempt to discourage a suitor’s advances with contempt, disdain, jeering and any other words or actions to put him off her (7).  She had the harder job as scorning “require[ed] finely honed judgment to display the exact degree of scorn necessary to turn away undesirable suitors, while keeping a desirable suitor attracted long enough to test his sincerity and fidelity (8).”  The fact that anyone got engaged after this process is somewhat surprising.

 

   Once an engagement contract was agreed upon, it could be years before the wedding actually takes place, but the engagement contract was considered, by many, to be as legally binding as marriage vows. The wedding was seen as “a tying up of loose ends (9).”  As engagements were long, sex before marriage was not frowned upon, as long as there was a contract in place. Physical relations during engagement allowed a couple to ‘test’ a couple’s fertility; a confirmed pregnancy usually sped up the couple’s inevitable wedding trip to the church (10).  That being said, only about 25% of women at this time were pregnant at their wedding (11). 

 

   Once a date was chosen, based on the church calendar, any agricultural needs of the families and the season of the year, the wedding ceremony itself was quite simple (12).    On the three Sundays before the wedding, the intended marriage was announced at all churches in the couple’s parish—this was the ‘calling of the banns.’ The wedding ceremony, following one set out in the Book of Common Prayer, would be performed by the minister in front of witnesses, between 8am and noon. A couple did not have to get married in a church to have a legal marriage. In fact, all they had to do was declare, publicly, in present tense, and in front of witnesses, that they considered themselves married and they were married (13).  A festive celebration usually followed the ceremony and could range from a simple meal at the local tavern to days of feasting and dancing (14).    
   Marriage was for the procreation of children, protection against the sin of fornication, and to provide help and comfort to one’s partner. The idea of marriage changed in early modern England and became a means of social control rather than just a means of moral control (15).  Marriage also changed a woman’s status in society and, once married, a woman was seen as an adult and given the respect due a wife or widow. Her status also rose in local society and she was given more responsibility within her community (16).

 

   As with today, some marriages were good and some were bad, but there were few, if any, options to get out of a bad marriage. Divorces were almost impossible and, even then, the proceedings could not be initiated by the wife. Legal separation was an option, and many times if the marriage was problematic, the husband would desert his wife and his children. Judging by contemporaneous materials (pamphlets, ballads, theatre, etc.), it seems 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 (17).  Of course, as with all other aspects of this time period, a person’s lot marriage seems to have had quite a bit to do with his or her social status.

 

   Engagements, weddings, and marriages in early modern England were in many ways similar to today. Many misconceptions can be traced as holdovers from the medieval period—for example, arranged marriages—or occurred later in history—age at first marriage, especially for women, fell as society progressed towards the Victorian era. Interested in learning more about weddings in early modern England? Please join Agecroft’s living history staff on June 13, 2015 for a day of wedding preparations capped off with an interactive wedding ceremony. Please see our calendar for more details.


Notes and sources:

(1) Mendleson, Sara and Patricia Crawford. Women in Early Modern England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.1998. 129
(2) Laurence, Anne. Women in England: 1500-1760 A Social History. London: Phoenix Press. 2002. 32
(3) Mendelson and Crawford. 111
(4) Mendelson and Crawford. 108
(5) Mendelson and Crawford. 116
(6) Mendelson and Crawford. 116
(7) Mendelson and Crawford. 117
(8) Mendelson and Crawford. 117
(9) Mendelson and Crawford. 119
(10) Brabcova, Alice. “Marriage in Seventeenth-Century England: the Woman’s Story.” Web. 15 April 2015. 23
(11) Brabcova. 23
(12) Laurence, 45
(13) Laurence, 42
(14) “Raising Children in the Early 17th Century: Celebrations.” Plymouth Ancestors. Web. 15 April 2015. 2
(15) Laurence, 56
(16) Mandelson and Crawford. 131
(17) Laurence, 56

 

Libby Howlett, Manager of Collections