Love in Elizabethan Times: It’s Not for Sissies

shakes.img_assist_custom-275x275With the arrival of Valentine’s Day, it’s absolutely natural to think fondly on the romantic days of yore, when Elizabethan couples looked soulfully into each others’ eyes and danced into the sunset. Girl meets boy, couple falls in love, marriage and babies follow.

Or, perhaps not.

The Elizabethans were very practical lot. You didn’t marry for love, you married for social standing and to legitimize your children. While it was legal for boys to marry at age 14 and girls to marry at age 12, Elizabethans “reached the age of consent” at age 21, and many did in fact wait until then to marry. Only among the nobility would you typically find marriages between much younger parties.

Elizabeth certainly was in no hurry to marry...

Elizabeth certainly was in no hurry to marry…

Particularly amongthe nobility, but even down through the middle and lower classes, marriages were arranged between families for mutual enrichment, to stabilize a family line, or by common acceptance that “of course these two families’ children will marry.” It was a situation that proved particularly challenging for women, as women were considered just slightly more important than cattle during this era (a mild exaggeration, but still). As a woman, you had absolutely no say in your future husband, and were expected to accept whatever wise decision your parents (father) made for you. If you came from a noble family, you could expect some of your family’s assets to be pledged in the marriage as well, a custom known as a dowry.

While you didn’t, technically, have to get married if you were a woman… there were these exciting bonuses to the wedded state:

  • You were locked in for life: Once the marriage was consummated, and unless you were the King (or Queen), you were not likely to be able to obtain a divorce … since it required an Act of Parliament. On the up-side, men were persecuted by the community for abusing their wives.
  • You were your husband’s property. However, this was generally considered preferable to being a drain on your birth family’s finances.
  • You could run your own own home.
  • No one would accuse you of being a witch (a distressingly common accusation leveled at single women of time, particularly older single women).

With this in mind, the act of getting betrothed weighed heavily on the hearts of Elizabethan women, and several of their customs live on today. For example, the act of a betrothal was typically sealed with a kiss. A betrothal ring was not always exchanged, but the custom did gain popularity in Elizabethan times. The bride-to-be would wear the ring on her right hand until the wedding, when it moved to her left.

A betrothal was binding but, unlike a wedding, it could be broken without terrible fuss for one of several reasons–including disfigurement of either party, infidelity of either party, or either the man or woman committing treason or heresy. Of course, if it was discovered that either party was already married, that also would be cause for calling off the new wedding.

marriageThe customs of the actual wedding are worth a blog on its own (perhaps in June!) but courtship and weddings are very much on the minds of the Maids of Honor. In Meg’s book, MAID OF SECRETS,  Meg is absolutely determined not to marry. This is a rare attitude for young Elizabethan girls, but she has led a life of relative freedom and personal accountability, and she finds the prospect of being “owned” by a man somewhat less than desirable. In book 2, MAID OF DECEPTION, Beatrice understands marriage for the power play that it is, and readers will discover that the politics of wedded bliss can be difficult… and deadly.

Here’s wishing you a Valentine’s Day filled with wonderful traditions of your own! Who knows–maybe they’ll be practiced five hundred years from now as well.

If you would like to share any betrothal/wedding customs you particularly like, I would love to hear them!


MaidofSecretsJennifer McGowan’s Maid of Secrets debuts May 7, 2013, from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. She is currently at work on book 2 in the series, Maid of Deception.

You can visit her online at, on facebook, or via Twitter at @Jenn_McGowan

36 thoughts on “Love in Elizabethan Times: It’s Not for Sissies

  1. Nevey B. says:

    I am Egyptian so I think I love our wedding customs but also for me the Scottish wedding customs too 🙂 …

  2. Nevey, Egyptian wedding customs must be absolutely beautiful. If you pop back in, please share your favorite! As to the Scots, MAID OF DECEPTION (May, 2014) features a Scottish hero who introduces Beatrice to a very particular betrothal custom–so I agree with you about being intrigued by their customs!

    • Nevey B. says:

      I will share photos whenever I find my favorite because I missed place it on my work’s PC not my laptop …

      My friend’s stepfather is a Scot the wedding was a dream. I myself wish to marry a Scot.

      I will be adding MAID OF DECEPTION to my books to read/review list 🙂 .

  3. Laura Golden says:

    I love this post, Jenn. Fascinating. But scary. So…you can drop me square into the “sissies” category. 😉

  4. I didn’t realize the age of consent was 21. Yet another reason it was better to be a member of the merchant class than the nobility!

    Favorite old & odd wedding custom: When the bridesmaids and the bride dressed the same to confuse the faeries who would try to steal the bride on her wedding day.

  5. […] McGowan posts: Love in the Elizabethan Times: It’s Not For Sissies at Corsets and […]

  6. Ooh, the next book is about Beatrice? I’ve been wondering! I love reading about courtship & marriage traditions!

  7. tulip says:

    wow i never knew that, this is great information.

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    this was awesome information thanks you so much for posting it and i hope you do wonderful on you books.!!!

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