With 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.
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.
The 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!
Jennifer 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.