WOMEN: COURTSHIP, BETROTHAL, AND MARRIAGE IN LATE MEDIEVAL ENGLAND
by L. Clement-Hobbs
The fifteenth century concept of love may be perceived as anything but ideal to twentieth century sensibilities. The romantic, colourful images of medieval chivalry were more in the minds of poets and troubadours and had nothing to do with the reality of the day. In an age of arranged marriages, women had little to say regarding their own future happiness. Whether peasants or nobility, they were assigned the role of pawns in an endless stream of negotiations and machinations that carried on in pre-nuptial intrigues.
Girls were brought up to marry, ending up either being the victims of arranged marriages, or the vital agents in the advancement of their husbands. Only those with wealthy parents could afford to enter a nunnery, which was the only alternative to matrimony. By the fifteenth century, women outnumbered men, thus making the marriage market unfavourable. Some were forced to marry beneath them (“Distaff” 2). But whatever social status a young woman held, whether rich or poor, she spent most of her life under the guardianship of a man – whether it be a father or a husband.
A woman might seem subordinate, but she was not left defenseless at a man’s mercy (Hibbert 107). Women did have some legal status and economic power. A married or single woman could hold land, sell it, give it away, make a will, make a contract, sue and be sued and plead in law courts acting on her own or as her husband’s attorney. If widowed, she might be assigned the role of guardian of her children (Gies & Gies 30). She could also appeal against her husband to her family when in urgent need of their help.
Strangely enough, even with these rights, women, under English common law, were looked at as legally non-existent.
“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection and cover she performs every thing…A man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her; for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence…”(Gies & Gies 30).
Women were guided and protected by their spouses who were liable for her debts and had to answer for her misbehaviour, and therefore, had the right to ‘chastise’ her. One can only guess by what punitive measures a man was permitted to use when admonishing his wife. As one fifteenth century gentleman cried out when fined for thrashing his servant and comparing that incident with married life, “I don’t know what the world is coming to, that the day would soon come when a man may not beat his own wife.” (Hibbert 107)
But medieval women were also treated with respect. Some, at least, were able to attain positions of importance and economic power in their capacity as household managers and wives. The fifteenth century felt the model middle-class woman should be an expert housewife, a manager, an intelligently supportive wife, and a competent and shrewd mother (Gies & Gies 228). Fifteenth century theologian, St. Bernardino of Siena remarked to an assembly, that women must also possess a “dowry of virtue to boot, if you would have them beloved of their husbands.” (Bernardino 3).
Marriage was a basic economic device of medieval society. Not only kings, but barons, gentry, merchants and peasants maneuvered on the matrimonial field, where a few strokes of skill or luck lifted families from obscurity to greatness (Gies & Gies 223). The medieval family environment was austere and often harsh and the economic function that ensured the family’s survival tended to take precedence over other considerations. Marriage partners were chosen to help perpetuate the estate, the farm, or the business and children were the key factor in that enterprise. In marrying off a daughter, the best of possible worlds with the trade-off of dowry and dower would be to negate any debts and further one’s social position. Parents normally took their initiative in choosing their children’s mates and negotiating the marriage settlement and although, in some cases, they might pay some heed to their offspring’s feelings on the question of love, that particular emotion was not part of the modus operandi for marriage (Gies & Gies 223).
The Church allowed only two official reasons to get married: procreation and avoidance of fornication. Twelfth century theologian, Peter Lombard, listed three other “decent” motives: the political one of reconciliation of enemies, money, and – the nearest to a mention of love, – beauty (Gies & Gies 33). The Church set the age for marriage at puberty, when girls reached the age of twelve and boys, the age of fourteen. Children could be betrothed at seven years of age, although this would not be binding for another five to seven years. If any marriage took place before the age of seven, the partners, not the parents, (although it would be a difficult task to separate one from the other) had to confirm their consent when they reached maturity. The lay authorities accepted the Church’s doctrine on marriage, but betrothals and marriages did occasionally take place before the parties were seven years old. For example, Richard Neville was aged six when he married Anne Beauchamp, the daughter of Richard, earl of Warwick, a marriage which resulted in him succeeding to the Warwick earldom in 1449. There are instances where children were married at the age of nine or ten, but in most cases, marriages took place when they were in their teens. When marriages were arranged early, the children usually remained with their own families until they were of age to consent to the marriage and to consummate their union, though the girl might go to live in her future father-in-law’s household (“Noblewomen” 13).
Magnates sought marriage alliances among their peers, gentry usually with their equals in their own county society or in a neighboring county, though the daughter of a wealthy merchant would not be despised (Keen 180). But there were also the wealthy gentry who had higher aspirations. The Pastons, with pretensions to gentility, belonged to such a society and are a case in point of a family who took advantage of every matrimonial project, ending up extraordinarily wealthy and eventually a member of the lesser nobility. Only though these marriage alliances that started and ended with the subject of money, could they have risen so far (Gies & Gies 223).
An example of this sort of finagling can be seen in the letters of Sir John Paston, son of Margaret and John Paston, Senior to his mother. In this series of correspondence, the reader is given a taste of the underlying motives that attracted this young man to the women in his life. During the winter of 1468-69, Sir John became betrothed to a certain Anne Haute, a kinswoman of Elizabeth Woodville. This alliance gave the Pastons a new tie with the court, which was necessary to them in order to safeguard their growing fortunes and ensure their rising star in the upper echelons of society. But Mistress Haute, for whatever reasons, held Sir John at arm’s length. It was only after nine long years, that he was able to disentangle himself from the rather messy engagement. By some strange irony, though he was involved in many more marriage-making schemes, Sir John never did form an alliance.
There were seven other siblings to deal with, though, and the wheels kept on turning. Sir John’s younger brother, John III wrote to his mother of the possibility of meeting a certain young lady. “I heard while I was in London where was a goodly young woman to marry, which was daughter to one Seff, a mercer; and she shall have 200 in money to her marriage and ten marks by the year of land after the decease of a step-mother of hers, which is upon 50 year of age.” (Gies & Gies 223).
But even in the midst of this often callous form of selecting a mate, true love could emerge, of course, not without its consequences. Margaret’s daughter, Margery, fell in love with one Richard Calle, the Paston’s bailiff, much to the distress of the rest of the family. After trying and failing to have their betrothal vows reversed, the family turned their backs on Margery. Margaret wrote to her husband, “I charged my servants that she should not be received in my house…But remember you, and so do I, that we have lost of her but a brethel [worthless person] and set it the less to heart…an he were dead at this hour, she should never be at mine heart as she was.” (Gies & Gies 225).
Strangely enough, though the Pastons never forgave Margery what they considered her betrayal, her husband continued in his role as trusted bailiff.
Among the peasant classes, ardor was less inhibited by economics, though land and chattels were, if anything, more important to them than the silks and jewels of their betters. But the lower classes had different concerns. Often they had to get the lord of their land’s permission for any legal marriage. It was especially important if the peasant was a woman because if she married, she left her lord’s land to reside on her husband’s land. If a man married, however, the lord would gain another worker (Gies & Gies 299).
Peasant class marriages were comparatively late for both men and women. In England, many peasant women did not marry until their mid twenties, and prior to that, they worked, usually in service. Besides marrying comparatively later, unlike the wealthier classes, young men and women did not always leave their marriage arrangements to their parents. They actively courted and in some places even organized their own village rituals in order to meet the opposite sex. One might compare these meetings to modern day school dances. In Croscombe, Somerset, young men joined the ‘Younglyngs Guild’, young women the ‘Maidens’ Guild’. On a certain day before May Day, the maidens blocked the village streets and permitted the young men to pass only on payment of a fine. Next day, the Younglyngs blocked the streets and the maidens had to pay the fine, which in both cases went to the parish church (Gies & Gies 242).
The question of dowry and dower were always a concern for both the upper and lower classes. The bride’s family contributed the dowry, or marriage portion, which was commonly seen as a form of reward to the prospective bridegroom for being wise enough in choosing their daughter as a wife. A man was accustomed to receiving a dowry for taking on the burden of a woman, and, therefore, he expected the endowment to be of some significance. If it turned out to be otherwise, a man might not choose to marry his intended. If the marriage dissolved or the husband died before children were born, the dowry usually reverted to the bride.
A man contributed to his dower by jointure, which was usually land settled on his wife for her lifetime, sometimes a third of his holdings, and sometimes as much as a half.
Among the lower classes, dowries might include almost anything seen as valuable. “Treasures” such as goats, sheep, pigs, and other farm animals, plus goods like clothes, lands, money and household goods would be included as dowry.
For aristocrats and merchants, the dowry usually consisted of land or money. In the higher echelons of society, marriages were arranged for dynastic and financial gain. Marriage to someone of a lower rank would be held in contempt (Laing 43). Over the centuries, marriage remained an economic enterprise, the dowry growing larger and more important than ever (Gies & Gies 291). The nobility negotiated its marriages with an overpowering emphasis on money and status. They jealously guarded and aggressively pursued their property interests through any avenues open to them (Keen 180).
However, now and again they did accidentally fall in love. Amid dowries and dowers, morning gifts and jointures, trousseaus and counter-trousseaus, affection, romance and even passion managed to flourish (Gies & Gies 299). Margery Paston and Richard Calle are just one example of love prospering despite parental disapproval. Margery’s brother, John III, became enamored of one Margery Brews and was quite content to accept her with only a small dowry. But once again, the family interceded, impeding the true road to romance by demanding a raise in the dowry. The demands were eventually accepted and the outcome of this romance turned out far better than that of the hapless Margery Paston Calle.
By around 1300, English pastoral manuals began to emphasize the importance of marital love. The text of the marriage service included,
“Eve was made from man’s side, not from another part, for this reason: to show that she was created in a society of love – lest, if she had by chance been made from the man’s head, she should have seemed to be brought forth for domination…From which it appears that a wife is not to be honoured by her husband like a lady, nor be treated vielly like a hand-made, but really loved as a companion.” (Laing 42)
Marriage was essentially a civil contract until the Church made it a sacrament in 1439. Even then, the public plighting of troths was considered the more important ceremony (Laing 43). The mutual promise to marry, made before witnesses, was sufficient to make a marriage binding, and the Church found itself upholding such impromptu weddings despite parental disapproval. The marriage process always began with a betrothal. This played an important part in medieval custom and was so formal and so similar in wording to a wedding ceremony, that the Church had a difficult time preventing couples from beginning marital relations when they were in fact merely engaged (“Distaff” 2). Frequently, couples lived together immediately after betrothal, although common law regarded children born at this point as illegitimate and even the parents’ subsequent marriage failed to legitimize them at first, until the local parish might rule otherwise.
The reading of the banns, or public proclamation, preceded the conventional marriage ceremony. In England, the priest read the banns three times, with intervals of a few working days in between (Gies & Gies 243). The marriage day itself took place before the church door. On her wedding day, the bride wore her best clothes, and, with her betrothed, led a procession to the church. The groom then named or listed the dower and in token of it, presented a ring and a gift of gold or silver coins to his bride, which represented a pledge, in Old English, a wed, hence the English word, wedding. The couple then exchanged vows and if they wished, moved the wedding into the church where the priest said mass. At the end of mass, the newlyweds knelt and cloth was stretched over them; sometimes the children already born were placed beneath the cloth and thereby legitimized.
If the two people involved in the marriage did not marry for love, they might find it once they were man and wife. Choice and attraction, fortunately, played some part in peasant marriages, but marriage among the nobility was far too politically motivated to leave to whim.
The role of women after the marriage vows, despite her rights, was not considered to stand on the same level as her husband and it cannot be doubted that many wives were treated abysmally. They continued to remain subordinate to their husbands, and in some ways, after marriage suffered a diminution of status. On the other hand, they gained the protection of their husbands’ jointure, and continued to exercise major responsibility in estate and household management, sometimes as partners, though, of course only in matters concerning the welfare of the estate (Gies & Gies 270).
Margaret Paston might be considered an exception to the rule. She was a partner in every sense of the imagination. Besides raising eight children, six boys and two girls, she supervised the household, which included breadmaking, ale brewing, winemaking, dairy making, farming, plus overseeing spinning, weaving, sewing and needlework. At times, she was relied upon to defend the Paston properties, even when it meant taking up arms while her husband was away on business. She was also a keen businesswoman, looking after various properties, negotiating with tenant farmers, receiving applications for leases, interviewing judges and fighting lawsuits, besides transmitting a stream of information and advice to her husband on everything from dealing with threats to selling wool (Gies & Gies 215).
The Pastons were one of the lucky couples that had a successful marriage. Then, as now, not all marriages worked out. Of course, divorce in the modern sense did not exist in the fifteenth century, but a couple might separate, though not remarry (Gies & Gies 33). On the other hand, they might have their marriage declared invalid, in which case, they could marry again. A couple might attempt to divorce but it was expensive and required papal approval, thus effectively barring the process from the majority of the population. It was possible, though, for a man to ‘discover’ that he was related to his wife thus becoming eligible for annulment. However, though common, this procedure was costly, since it meant pleading the case in Church courts (Laing 43). Grounds for dissolving a marriage included adultery, impotence, leprosy and consanguinity. St. Boniface, the English missionary of the late seventh, early eighth century, authored the extension of degrees of kinship. He limited the definition of consanguineous marriage to four degrees – father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, uncle or aunt, and first cousin (Gies & Gies 84). Since consanguinity also included distant blood relationships, relationships by marriage and even the relationship of godparents, it supplied a convenient excuse for annulment. However, blood relationship marriages were often contracted and allowed to continue until one or the other of the parties wanted to end it, whether for lack of male heirs, or for political or economic advantage, or simply because other fields looked greener. King John and his first wife, Isabella of Gloucester, were related in the forbidden third degree; she was his niece. The Archbishop of Canterbury forbade them to cohabit and put an interdict, or prohibition of most of the sacraments, on John. The interdict was tentatively lifted by the papal legate, in anticipation of John’s appeal to the Vatican, but the king delayed appealing. When Isabella remained childless he induced seventy-six bishops to declare the marriage void. Isabella did not protest, and both parties found other marriage partners (Gies & Gies 33).
In other cases where annulment was granted, one English study showed the commonest ground to be bigamy ahead of consanguinity or affinity (related by marriage) (245). Non-consummation, after a reasonable period, was sometimes accepted as grounds, following examination of the wife and even the husband (245). Church courts also arranged formal separations, short of divorce – separations “from bed and board” on grounds that included cruelty, adultery, impotence and even mere incompatibility (246).
A woman’s life expectancy was short; she might, if she were fortunate, reach the age of twenty-four. Few people, men included, could expect more; most people died before the age of thirty. If a woman survived her childbearing years, she stood a good chance of outliving her husband and marrying again. People who made it to the thirty-year milestone might well live to a ripe old age of fifty or sixty. The age differential between husbands and wives created early widowhoods and consequent remarriages in which, paradoxically, the differential was likely to be even larger, older men, widowers or not, showing a distinct preference for younger women (283).
On her husband’s death, a widow automatically received a third of her late husband’s property for use during her lifetime, unless his will specified otherwise (“Distaff” 3). If a woman outlived her husband, she often profited from the marriage contract that might include far more of her husband’s property than the original one third that was due her. On occasion, she might even receive all of it. In most cases, though, the widow’s claim was only a life interest; the land remained permanently in the husband’s bloodline and the widow had no power to dispose of it. And if she remarried, the original dower usually reverted back to her husband’s family.
In this case, a peasant’s widow fared better. She often inherited all of her husband’s worldly goods and land. Though she might be pressured to remarry to ensure that the lands would be worked, she could maintain her independence by hiring workers. English law demanded, though, that peasant widows pay heriot, or death tax, to their husbands’ liege lord. Heriot usually consisted of the family’s best beast or its equivalent in cash (“Distaff” 3). Manorial court records show that widows often took control of their husbands’ entire holdings without having to pay the entry fees of heirs, suggesting that they were recognized as co-tenants rather than inheritors. For example, Alice Benyt took over a Cuxham tenement on her husband’s death in 1311 and on her own death thirty years later, left it to her unmarried daughter, Emma. And at Broughton, Christina Neel and Agnes Kateline, managed holdings after their husbands’ deaths (Gies & Gies 168).
Some widows used their wealth to attract other suitors, others used remarriage to increase their wealth, while still others preferred to remain as they were. As widows and dowagers, aristocratic women could be powerful and influential figures in their own right, managing their own estates and households and presiding over their own councilors. If, when her husband died, and her children were under age, it would be the widow who was responsible to hold the family and household together, to arrange family marriages, supervise the estates and conduct lawsuits (Keen 182).
Women’s roles in the fifteenth century were certainly limited, especially where matters of marriage alliances were concerned. Fathers, brothers and even mothers kept young girls, usually of the upper classes, under strict control, until a suitable suitor could be found. Still, a certain degree of independence might be derived in marriage. At the same time, male perspectives of women during the Middle Ages were confused. On the one hand, men did their utmost to denigrate and relegate women to the roles of slaves and baby factories. On the other hand, prompted by an age of chivalry, there was an honest attempt to elevate their roles. Whichever way the wind blew, even though woman might be an equal partner of man in many ways, in the end, it was the man who was involved in war and politics and laying down the rules and it was the woman who was expected to obey those rules and stay at home.
by Lou Clement-Hobbs
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