Life in Elizabethan England Next

Betrothal and Wedding

With parental permission, boys are legal to marry at 14, girls at 12, though it is not recommended so early. One comes of age at 21.

Sir Thomas More recommended that girls not marry before 18 and boys not before 22.

In non-noble families, the most common age for marriage is 25-26 for men, about 23 for women. This is because it's best to wait until you can afford a home and children. Also, most apprenticeships don't end until the mid 20s.

Noble families may arrange marriage much earlier. Robert Dudley's sister Katherine, who became the countess of Huntingdon, did go to the altar at age 7, but that was extraordinary.

When the participants are very young, it is principally to secure a dynastic alliance. They generally do not live together as man and wife (by any definition). Often, the bride may go to live with the groom's family to be brought up in domestic management by her mother-in-law.

The Contract

Marriage is a contract that begins with a betrothal.

At a betrothal, the two people join hands. He gives her a ring to be worn on the right hand. It changes to the left at the wedding.

They seal the contract with a kiss, and signatures.

A marriage contract includes provision both for the bride's dowry and for a jointure, or settlement, in cash and property by the husband's family, which guarantees her welfare should her husband die first.

If he breaks the marriage contract without good cause, he has to give back any tokens or gifts received.

Betrothals can be terminated by mutual consent. In certain circumstances, one can withdraw unilaterally if the other is:

  • guilty of heresy or apostasy (conversion or re-conversion to Rome)
  • guilty of infidelity
  • seriously disfigured
  • proved to be previously (and still) married or contracted to marry
  • guilty of enmity or wickedness or drunkenness
  • if a long separation has occurred between them

A proper wedding is based on three things: consent, exchange of tokens (such as the ring) and consummation. It can be annulled only if it is not consummated.

It is luckiest to have the wedding before noon.

The Wedding

Bridesmaids see to the floral decorations, make little flower bouquets as favors for the guests, and make the garland.

The wedding garland should be rosemary and roses.

The bride carries her garland till after the ceremony, then wears it on her head.

The father of the bride usually pays for the festivities, including favors or small gifts to everyone. Common gifts include ribbons, gloves, and scarves. According to Machyn's Diary, James Sutton gave away 100 pairs of gloves when his daughter was married in 1559.

On changing names

The bride takes her husband's family name on marriage.

In some deeply rural communities, however, women and men alike are still known as much by their occupation or location as by surname. Lucy Baines who lives at River Farm becomes "Lucy at River" in the parish record. When John Baines buys the mill, he may become known as John Miller.

Where there are many families of the same surname, wives may also be known by their husband's first or first and last name. Adam Tychy's wife Bridget could become Bridget Adam or Bridget Adam Tychy as well as Bridget Tychy. (This is a common form in the Germanies as well.)

Cressy: Birth, Marriage, and Death
Duffy: Voices of Morebath
Jones: Elizabethan Age
Orlin: Elizabethan Households
Pearson: Elizabethans at Home

::  Love & Marriage
::  Naming the Baby
::  Children & Childhood
::  Heirs & Inheritance
::  More Wedding Customs
::  The Marriage Ring

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25 March 2008 mps