Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Tudor Marriage: Courtship

Those living in Tudor times would scarcely recognize our image of courtship, love, and marriage. Where the modern mind is concerned with inflamed passion above all else, the primary concern in a Tudor marriage was the wherewithal to support a family. Instead of searching for a partner whom one finds attractive and entertaining, the Tudor mind was trained with different expectations. They did not feel constrained necessarily, as we might imagine, but they had reasons for marrying that went beyond our dream of true love.

Call to Arms by Leighton
How this was managed could vary depending upon one’s station in life. Whether one was of common, noble, or royal blood had great impact on what one could expect from marriage. It is interesting to consider that a royal marriage often offered less opportunity for romance than any other with princes and princesses becoming betrothed to worthy suitors whom they had never laid eyes on. That being said, a noble or royal person at least had the means to marry for love if the opportunity arose, while common people would be forced to consider the financial aspect of any relationship. As unromantic as this sounds, it led to a greater proportion of stable marriages than we see in our modern society.

Factors such as geography and distance took on much greater importance than they do today. We might bemoan the difficulties of a long distance relationship, but they were almost unheard of in Tudor times. One would rarely even know people who lived more than a day’s travel from their own village, let alone consider marrying into a family so distant from one’s own. The village atmosphere, where everyone not only knows each other but is related in some way, was quite common.

Regardless of social standing or status, a relationship began with some form of courtship with the hopes of that evolving into a betrothal, which would lead to marriage. These stages could vary depending upon the challenges encountered by any particular couple. The Tudor romance faced greater barriers than those of more modern times. Besides money, the couple had to be concerned with issues such as consanguinity, obtaining royal approval, and having their union recognized by the church.

Tudor courtship often began with the rather unromantic notion of prearrangement. Parents or guardians would consider a match and go through what could be lengthy negotiations before even mentioning the potential engagement to their son or daughter. What would each young person bring to the marriage? A daughter would be expected to bring a dowry to contribute to the couple’s joint estate, and the husband would be required to demonstrate that he could support a family. What would happen if one of them died? Parents would negotiate whether or not the dowry would be returned to them if a daughter died without giving her husband a child. Many of the constraints and considerations of a Tudor marriage are scarcely thought of when planning modern weddings.

Once the parents had come to an agreement, they would recommend the match to their children and have the potential couple spend time together. This courtship period was intended to determine if the young couple liked each other enough to make a life together. Friendship, mutual respect, and fondness for each other was enough. Love was expected to grow as they lived, worked, and struggled in the adventure of life together.

These couples were often older than we tend to imagine. While the legal age of consent for marriage was young, twelve for girls and fourteen for boys, few were married that young. Because of the need to have obtained a set of skills, many people waited until their mid-twenties before partnering with a spouse. By that time, each had considerable talents and abilities to offer the other.

If a couple found that they were unable to meet on common ground, their parents often broke off negotiations. We tend to envision young women being compelled to marry harsh, ugly men as their true love looks on in anguish. Did this happen? Certainly, but not with the frequency that we might imagine. Parents, while looking for an arrangement that would provide for their children’s future, did also wish for them to be relatively happy and would not often force a couple into marriage. On the other hand, most young people understood the need to go into marriage with more practical ideas than romantic notions. There might be another who heated their blood, but they would accept the one their parents had determined was the better choice for their future.

A Marriage Feast at Bermondsey by Hoefnagel
Few accused their parents of tyranny when a match was suggested. For a commoner, this match could be based upon complementary skills or potential inheritances. Today, we might simply hope that a potential partner brings home a large enough paycheck. The reality of supporting a household was a more complicated question than that in the sixteenth century with businesses to run, daily tasks to complete, and a household to manage.

A man whose wife had died may take on another in order to care for his children and keep his household running. Daily obligations made it impossible for him to wait until he was ready to fall in love again. A grieving spouse did not always have the freedom to spend a lengthy mourning period on their own. Life went on, and a partner was often needed for the hard work of daily life. A marriage was more than a love match between two people, having effects upon extended family and the economics of the town in which they lived.

Another man might betroth his daughter to his apprentice in order to keep a business in the family in the absence of sons. In fact, that same daughter may be trained in the business herself to a much greater extent than if her parents had been blessed with sons. Necessity is the foundation of many a nontraditional arrangement, and Tudor women sometimes filled roles that may surprise us, whether they did so because they had no brothers or a husband died unexpectedly young.

Whatever the reason a betrothal was considered, the courtship period would determine whether or not it would take place. Young people understood the importance of the practical preparations of their parents and did not frequently rebel against them. More often than not, the couple respected their parents’ wishes enough to go along with the plan or at least spend time considering it.

The courtship period was carefully controlled for several reasons. A young couple did not spend time alone together for fear of them getting along somewhat too well. Even if the relationship was not taken too far, rumors could be dangerous for their future. If the couple did not end up getting married, unsupervised time together could bring a woman’s virtue into question when another match was proposed.

Sexual relations during this time could qualify as consummation of a marriage, and a couple might find themselves in a more serious commitment than they intended. Of course, a woman could also end up pregnant during this transitional state, which could be disastrous for her if the man argued that there had been no marriage agreement. To avoid this problem, courtships were carried out under watchful eyes.

The Wedding Feast by Brueghel
This was a time of conversation and spending time together. Couples would share meals, offer each other small gifts, play games, and get to know one another better. They might enjoy playing music or dancing, strolling through town or wooded lanes, or attending church together. Since group activities were preferred, hunting was a good choice that also allowed each person to show off their riding skill. For those without the means for these noble activities, attending a local market or fair was a common entertainment.

The amount of time spent in the courtship stage could vary wildly. Some couples spent years getting to know each other, especially if they were particularly young when their parents negotiated the match. Others, especially royal couples, met only days before their planned wedding, as was the case for Mary I and Philip of Spain in 1554. In most cases, the courtship would move on at a slower pace to the formal betrothal stage.

Not to say that all conformed to their parents’ wishes. Some things never change, and young people of the Tudor age also fell in love. The father of Tudor marriage scandal, Henry VIII, married six times in his search for love (and a male heir). However, most Tudor contemporaries expected love to grow between spouses after the wedding had taken place. As a couple experienced life together, with all its hardships and triumphs, they would forge a bond that one might argue was often stronger than one built on fading passions.

How much of a choice a young person might be given would significantly depend upon their social and economic status. Ironically, being of more common blood could mean more power over your marriage. Those of noble blood were often married as part of quests to strengthen bloodlines or increase estates. Royal marriages were part of treaties, often created long before a prince or princess was of an age to consider marriage on their own. Those lower on the socioeconomic ladder may have had more paths that could lead them to their goal of a steady, productive household.

Once a couple agreed to the proposed match, they became betrothed. A Tudor betrothal has many similarities to the modern engagement with one vital difference. Under the right circumstances, a betrothal was considered, by the law and the church, to be a binding marriage. This could lead to significant consequences if the marriage was never carried out or one of the parties changed their mind.

A betrothal included a promise to marry, a pledge that was sometimes made as part of a public ceremony. Just like today, a ring was often given as a symbol of that promise. Because a betrothal was considered binding, many couples considered themselves married at this point. The large percentage of babies born within the first eight months of Tudor marriages attests to this fact.

Unfortunately, some people did wish to free themselves of betrothals, and that could make for messy business. A broken betrothal could mean heartache for the couple and difficulties in making any future match. A woman might be viewed as less than pure if she is made newly single. A man might find that his heirs are made illegitimate based on an earlier betrothal.

This was the underlying problem that paved the way for the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. When Edward IV died unexpectedly in 1483, most believed that his twelve-year-old son would succeed him. His succession was quickly opposed by those who believed that Edward had been precontracted to another before his scandalous marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Edward’s brother, Richard, was crowned in place of the young prince, and the rest is history.

While these betrothal scandals occurred, the majority of couples smoothly transitioned from courtship, to betrothal, and on to married life together. The structure of a Tudor wedding was similar for all couples, regardless of status, though ceremonies for the rich and titled were often surrounded by greater pomp, dazzling jewels, and rich fabrics.

More to come in the ongoing Tudor Marriage Blog Series!


Additional Reading:

Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Ingram, Martin. Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England. 1570-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

O'Hara, Diana.  Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England. Manchester and New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000.  

All images in the public domain.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Real 'Bloody Mary'

When I decided to write about Queen Mary, I discovered that most people hold one of two views of her. The first group quickly writes her off as a bloodthirsty butcher who was set upon vengeance. The second is somewhat more sympathetic, still believing her to have killed people with revenge in mind, but not holding her completely responsible because of the difficult life that she lived. What I would like to offer is a third picture of a woman who had a great faith, good intentions, and an unfulfilled desire to love and be loved.

It is impossible to look at Mary without seeing the shadow of the 284 protestants who were burned at the stake during her reign. Elizabeth, a better politician than her older sister, chose to emphasize this image upon her accession. The term ‘Bloody Mary’ comes from the Elizabethan era, not Mary’s own lifetime. While it is difficult to wrap the modern mind around the reasons burning was used as form of punishment, we must attempt to understand if we are truly going to appreciate the history of the sixteenth century.

To the twenty-first century mind, both religious persecution and cruel punishment for crimes are considered unacceptable, but if we are to fairly judge Mary we must look at the expectations and beliefs of her contemporaries, rather than our own. The rulers of the sixteenth century encountered unique issues due to the Reformation. Faith had always been a matter of state and it was one of a monarch’s duties to shepherd their people along the journey to heaven. While some division had taken place in previous centuries, it was nothing like the schism that occurred after Martin Luther issued his 95 theses in 1517.

This is the world Mary entered with a strong faith but little political acumen. She had been raised with the expectation of being queen – at least for most of her childhood. Therefore, she was well educated and understood her responsibilities to her subjects. Yet she had also been neglected and removed from the political stage for her young adult years, leaving her immature in matters of manipulation and negotiation. When Mary took the throne, she was not out for revenge, she was committed to saving a country that she was certain her brother, Edward VI, had placed upon the highway to hell.

We do not think about salvation and eternity the way those living in Tudor times did. This is likely because we do not experience the high rate of infant mortality, raging illnesses with no cure, and battlefield deaths that they endured. Of course, we experience loss, but death was a much more daily part of life, at any age, to one living centuries ago. It would have been an outrage to the people of England if their queen had not been concerned with their faith and eternal life.

Mary was greatly concerned. Throughout Edward VI’s reign, she had continued to keep the liturgical hours and have the mass said at her estates regardless of her brother’s statutes against it. When the people swarmed to her in support in favor of the usurper Lady Jane Grey, they knew that it meant a return to the old faith, and it was what many of them desired. They would have also expected that to mean punishment for those who were involved with heresy.

It is a significant misunderstanding to assume that rebellions against Mary were a rejection of the Catholic faith. Events such as Wyatt’s Rebellion were actually targeted at Mary’s choice of spouse. Having no experience with a queen regnant, Englishmen were wary of what power her husband would be given, both during her life and after her death. When Mary chose Prince Philip of Spain, many saw England’s future as a part of the Holy Roman Empire which Philip’s father, Charles V, ruled. As unrest grew, the outcry of the persecuted Protestants joined that of the anti-Spanish faction to become one.

Why did Mary choose Philip? He was certainly not her only prospect, despite the fact that Mary was thirty-seven when she took the crown. Her mother’s childbearing history and her own poor health gave rise to fears that her choice would have great effect on the future, and Mary understood this. She could have chosen an Englishman. Distant cousins Edward Courtenay and Reginald Pole were good options, reuniting York and Tudor family lines, but Mary trusted the judgement of her uncle, Charles V, to whom she had once been betrothed, when he offered her his son.

Philip, eleven years younger and with his own domains to rule, entered the marriage somewhat reluctantly but dutifully. While Mary was looking for the love that had long been denied her, Philip was hoping for a promptly born heir.

In the meantime, Cardinal Reginald Pole was recalled to England, not to be king, but to be Archbishop of Canterbury after the execution of Thomas Cranmer. Pole was not an advocate of burning, but he also understood that the idea of coexisting religions did not yet exist. He was one of few religious scholars of the day who enjoyed discussions with Catholics and Protestants alike, leading one contemporary to say of him, "He has been very unfortunate . . . being considered a Lutheran in Rome, in Germany a papist." Even with this relatively tolerant point-of-view for the era, he understood Mary’s need to take control as Head of the Church of England.

So, why did Mary burn Protestants? Was it because she blamed them for her mother’s downfall or her father’s rejection? Did she simply hate those who did not share her beliefs? The answer is a resounding no.

Mary believed, as did those who lived during her reign, that burning was a foretaste of hell. It was specifically chosen as a punishment for heresy to give sufferers a chance to repent of their false beliefs and gain entrance to heaven. What we see as a slow, cruel death (and it was) had a purpose. Those who went to their death this way had the opportunity to reject hell and beg God for forgiveness. Witnesses would see what hell would be like – and hopefully see heartfelt recantation – and examine their own faith. As horrid as it seems to us, burning was intended to save the most people for eternity.

In the end, though, Mary’s efforts failed. She failed to bear an heir, failed to build a happy marriage, failed to reunite England with Rome. Yet, when the heartbroken queen went to her death, she did not attempt to deny her sister the crown. Elizabeth had schemed and was expected to undo all that Mary had done, but instead of denying her right to inherit as Edward had attempted to do, Mary accepted her fate and trusted the future to the God she had tried so devotedly to serve.

It may surprise some to learn that Mary’s council frequently accused her of misplaced mercy. She initially refused to have Jane Grey executed for treason, though the woman had ruled in Mary’s rightful position for almost a fortnight. Reluctant queen or not, there was no doubt that this was high treason. Mary also refused to take steps against her plotting sister besides relatively comfortable imprisonment, despite Elizabeth’s hunger for her sister’s throne. Hundreds of soldiers of Wyatt’s Rebellion were pardoned by Mary, as was Henry Grey, Jane’s father, until he rebelled following his original pardon. The woman we know as Bloody Mary would be shocked by the sobriquet, as would most who knew her.


This blog was originally written for and published at the blog of Poppy Coburn.

Read my version of Mary's story in Queen of Martyrs, available for Kindle and Paperback worldwide.