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|
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|
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|
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!
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.