I have been reading a Social History of Women in England 450-1500 by Henrietta Leyser in between finding out about John of Gaunt’s retinue as it is sometimes easy to impose our own views and beliefs on the events of a particular period. Interestingly it was only in the twelfth century that the Church came up with a consistent view of what constituted a marriage and what wordage was required from the couple who it joined in wedlock and whether the marriage needed to be consummated in order to be legally binding.
So here it is very briefly as I understand it: Peter Lombard of Paris insisted that a couple need only exchange the words “I take you as my wife” and “I take you as my husband.” He argued that the Virgin Mary was married to Joseph but had remained a virgin her whole life according to the theology of the time. Consequentially, if it was good enough for the mother of Jesus it was good enough for everyone else. Pope Alexander III backed this view.
In 1215 Pope Innocent III clarified the Church’s views on consanguinity by reducing the prohibited degrees of relationship from seven to four. When counting seven degrees of relationship the Church simply counted back up the family tree so that would have meant that a sixth cousin would be unable to may his or her sixth cousin which must have made life somewhat difficult for the intertwined aristocratic families. Properly the first degree of consanguinity is the closest one – parent and child; second degree of consanguinity -siblings; third degree aunt-nephew or uncle-neice; fourth degree- first cousins. However, the Church continued to make its calculations by going back up the family tree four generations meaning that the net of consanguinity covered much more than a first cousin. It included anyone with the same great great grandparent. However, there were such things as papal dispensations which fetched in a handy income for the Church.
The need to apply for papal dispensation where cousins removed were to be married often fitted into a rather lengthy negotiation process where the marriage was more of a seal on an alliance than a love match. Prior to a couple’s betrothal a financial settlement had to be agreed. A bride’s family was expected to settle a dowry upon her. This was her share of her inheritance. It often took the form of goods and cash as well as land which her own mother might have brought into her own marriage. In return the bride would receive dower rights from the lands which her groom held i.e. the income from those lands was hers. Once the marriage settlement had been agreed then there would be a betrothal ceremony. Given that these betrothals often took place where at least one of the participants was a very young child the betrothal wasn’t always binding. Effectively where children had not yet reached the age of reason it was much easier to wriggle out of a marriage alliance than after. Margaret Beaufort was betrothed by her guardian to his son John de la Pole at the age of six but was rebetrothed on the orders of Henry VI to his half-brother Edmund Tudor three years later. Seven was regarded as the age of reason and after that time is was harder to break a betrothal. A full coming of age was twelve for girls and fourteen for boys though even at the time Edmund Tudor’s treatment of his child bride raised eyebrows.
There were other considerations to take account of if you were of peasant stock and wished to marry. Family politics and relative wealth acquisition played their parts from the mightiest to the least in the land. However the peasantry or those descend from villeins had to find the money to pay marriage fines and there were plenty of them. Leyser (120) describes Merchet – a fine paid for a licence to marry; legerwite which literally translates as a laying down fine was the fine levied on a woman who had had pre-marital sex (there was no corresponding male fine) and there was also chidewite which was the fee for having an illegitimate child. You might also find yourself having to marry someone your lord had decreed was a suitable match for you – though of course this something that every strata of society had to deal with.
Innocent III also forbade secret marriages and decreed the necessity of the calling of banns. There were also times of the year when the Church decreed that marriages couldn’t occur. Advent and Lent were marriage free times of the year. Banns were called three times and the calling had to be at least a day apart to allow an opportunity for anyone objecting to the union to come forward.
During medieval times weddings did not take place inside the Church. Weddings occurred at the church door – which given the climate in England probably accounts for the number of porches within medieval church architecture. The marriage at the church door was a curious amalgam of vows and financial arrangements. The ring that the bride wears today is all that is left of the symbolism of the groom’s symbolic gift of gold or silver given to represent the bride’s dower. It was apparently quite normal for the groom to arrive with a shield or book stacked with gold or silver. The couple exchanged vows in English. And did I mention that a priest wasn’t needed even if the couple did get married at the church door! Of course having a priest made it easier to prove you were married.
And that leads to an explanation of the word wedding. Dixon Smith explains that consent to a marriage or a pledge to marry was shown by giving and receiving an item referred to English as a ‘wed’. A ‘wed’ could be any gift understood by those involved to mean consent to marry but was often a ring. A ‘wedding’ where a man gave a woman a ring and she accepted it created the marriage. This complicates things still further because if the giving of a gift is enough to have created a marriage there’s an awful lot of room for accusations and counter accusations of being married based on very little evidence other than a he says/ she says sort of exchange in a court.
Once the couple had exchanged their vows they entered the Church and celebrated Mass. Once that was done the couple knelt to receive a further blessing.This was all followed by a wedding feast and there could be no skimping on the food or festivities. Leyser reveals that Robert Juwel was fined for failing to provide a feast at his marriage (109). Obviously this depended on the relative status and wealth of the groom and his family.
And finally the priest would bless the happy couple’s bedchamber and the bed. There then followed an often rowdy and sometimes public bedding of the bride and groom.
All very straight forward except it wasn’t! Leyser goes on to reveal that during the Middle Ages couples got married all over the place – from trees to inns. This of course was because there were two kinds of marriage as anyone familiar with the convoluted story of Edward IV’s love life must be aware. If Edward IV, who married Elizabeth Woodville in secret, had previously been betrothed to Eleanor Butler then he was as good as married which made his union with Elizabeth bigamous. The promise of marriage followed by intercourse was marriage and recognized as such by the Church. So despite the fact that secret marriages were prohibited, the Church recognised that people could and did get married without the consent of either the Church, their parents or their overlords. Law required the irregular or clandestine marriage to be regularised before any children could inherit but the marriage was legally binding even if there were no witnesses, no banns and none of the above negotiations. No priest was required for an irregular marriage either. This makes either proving or disproving such a union rather difficult.
Unsurprisingly there are plenty of accounts in the ecclesiastical courts of couples who’d married clandestinely and which were followed up by objections. And so far as consanguinity was concerned anyone with an interest in English History knows where that got Henry VIII but realistically it was possible to extract yourself from an unsatisfactory marriage if some previously unknown impediment should be discovered and that’s before we even get on to the topic of people being pre-contracted in marriage and then going off and marrying someone else.
All of this seems to be rather complicated and in an age where the wealthy often married without love it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that a marriage could be dissolved if it was proved to have occurred under duress. Marriage by abduction did occur. The reason why there may have been very few annulments for this reason was that once the marriage was consummated or the couple had lived together the grounds for duress was deemed to have fallen by the wayside. Nor was cruelty a grounds for divorce though occasionally the courts threatened errant husbands with a whipping if they didn’t step up to the mark.
Of course sometimes people did marry for love – Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville spring to mind as do Margery Paston and the family bailiff Richard Calle. Katherine of Valois married Owen Tudor in secret rather than face life without a spouse and unable to marry to her own status in society until her son came of age. More surprisingly Edward I’s daughter Joan of Acre married Ralph de Monthermer a squire from her household in secret. Her father was not amused when he found out.
The image at the start of the post is to be found in Reading Museum. It is an interpretation by Horace Wright completed in 1914 of the marriage between John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster which took place in Reading Abbey on 13 May 1359. The happy couple were third cousins so a papal dispensation was required. Their shared heritage was their descent from King Henry III.
Dixon-Smith, Sally. Love and Marriage in Medieval England in History Extra 11 February 2016 http://www.historyextra.com/article/feature/love-and-marriage-medieval-england-customs-vows-ceremony
Leyser, Henrietta. (1997) Social History of Women in England 450-1500 London: PheonIx