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Wooing and Wedding: Courtship and Marriage in Early Modern England

With the British royal nuptials creating a worldwide flutter this spring, we calmed ourselves long enough to wonder about the state of courtship and marriage in Shakespeare’s time. Without benefit of online dating and wedding planners, how did people come together and wed in early modern England? Amazingly enough, we learned, they managed somehow.

One path to wedded bliss in early modern times can be seen in The Courtship Narrative of Leonard Wheatcroft. Born in 1627, Wheatcroft was a Derbyshire yeoman who trained as a tailor and also served as a parish clerk and registrar. His courtship diary records several love affairs prior to his marrying at the relatively ripe age of 30. His first love, one Frances Smyth of Higham, so enchanted him that he was inspired to write verse in praise of her:

I’ll never marry, I will tarry
The time that thou has set apart;
For none but Frances, as it chances,
Evermore enjoys my heart.

Frances’s reaction is not recorded, but her father was less than enchanted, bolting the door against poor, lovelorn Leonard. He apparently rebounded, for his diary contains at least two other poetic offerings dedicated to women he admired. But once Wheatcroft did get married, what was that experience like?

The early modern era in England (1550-1700) ushered in a variety of changes in the way people lived and how they viewed themselves. New economic opportunities, the weakening of family and community ties through greater mobility, and an increased awareness of individual rights and responsibilities led to a larger sense of independence and self-possession. While historians debate the extent to which these societal and individual changes led to new ideas about marriage—or, conversely, whether evolving views of marriage and the family actually brought about these changes—the fact remains that the early modern period helped define what we think of today as marriage.

Illustration by Sherrill Cooper

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

In Medieval England, marriages were often arranged—although mutual consent was generally desirable—and focused on kinship bonds and a rearrangement of property.  Personal liking—or love—was not a requirement. This changed to a certain degree in the early modern era. While redistribution of resources still played a role in marriage choices—and loomed large in the essential negotiations of courtship—the emphasis on the wider collective interests of kin, community, and lordship began taking a back seat to warmer domestic values and greater individual choice.

Parents still exercised considerable control over marriage selection—and few people married without regard for questions of property and financial well-being—but children were now being given the right of veto and a somewhat greater latitude to follow their hearts in the choice of a spouse. The fact that many young people left their towns and families to seek service and apprenticeships elsewhere also meant that they were freer to pursue courtship with a relative lack of supervision. While the early modern period did not etch an inviolable demarcation between “arranged” and “free” marriages, historian Robert Ingram notes that it did usher in “a more subtle system… in which love had a part to play in combination with prudential considerations, the pressures of community values and (at middling and upper-class levels) the interests of parents and sometimes other family members.”

Illustration by Sherrill Cooper

Such freedom of choice, however, was not always an option for the upper classes, where arranged marriages remained common. Girls who had strong ideas about the choice of a husband which were not in tune with their fathers’ wishes either had to risk parental disapproval by “stealing a marriage” or accept an arranged marriage with however much grace they could muster. As historian Lisa Hopkins writes, “aristocratic marriages were often strikingly—if perhaps not pleasantly—different from those lower down the social scale: they tended to operate as a much looser tie and to function less in terms of a lifelong bond than of a union whose specific purposes were the cementing of alliances and the production of children.” It is perhaps no wonder that, between 1595 and 1620, an estimated one third of the old nobility lived separately from their wives.

Who Wears the Pants?

The Protestant Reformation also played a role in redefining marriage. With its shift away from a Catholic relationship with God mediated through a priest to an emphasis on a more interior nature of communicating with the divine, the Reformation added to the growing rise of the individual. Surprisingly, perhaps, given their popular image as rigid and zealous, it was the Puritans, at the extreme wing of the Protestant church, who came to view secular love as a gift from God. They saw marriage as the bulwark upon which all families and communities were built, children brought forth, and minds knit in perfect union.  While the father within the household still took full responsibility for the moral, physical, and spiritual well-being of his wife and children, he was no despot. Hopkins notes that his wife was generally seen as his partner, and was frequently called upon to act as his second-in-command in domestic situations. “The advocates of the new Puritanism,” she writes, “placed great stress on the need for consent rather than coercion in marriage.”

Professor Frances E. Dolan reinforces the notion that the Protestant Reformation led in early modern England to “a radically visionary model of marriage as a living partnership between equals.” “While the ideal was not wholly new,” she writes, “it first found stable institutionalization, full articulation, and broad dissemination in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” This emerging ideal of marriage as a contract between equals may not have fully replaced the more hierarchical “the man wears the pants” model, but it nonetheless added new expectations for what constituted a marriage.

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May

No matter what their ultimate conception of marriage, though, a couple first had to meet and court. Young people of both sexes in early modern England were fairly free to mix at work and at markets, fairs and dances. Family members and friends often played matchmaker, setting up meetings between compatible pairs.

Until the Marriage Act of 1653 set the set the marriage age at 16 for men and 14 for women (with parents needing to give consent for those under 21), the age of consent was a vague “years of discretion,” which could be as young as 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Relatively late marriages, however, were fairly common for both sexes. In the middling classes, especially, marriages typically took place only after a period of service or apprenticeship, which could last into the early or even mid-twenties and allowed individuals time to gain the experience and financial resources necessary to establish a new household.

As Leonard Wheatcroft’s story tells us, marrying late also allowed more time for amorous dalliances. Nor was Wheatcroft alone in pursuing a series of prospective brides. A diary kept during the 1660s by Roger Lowe, a Lancashire mercer’s apprentice, reveals that in one year, he was seriously involved with two girls and showed interest in at least three others. Marriage would obviously have put a damper on such pursuits.

Why Wait for the Wedding?

The Marriage Act of 1653, in addition to setting marriageable ages, established parish registrars to keep records of the new unions, transferred authority to perform weddings from clergy to justices of the peace, standardized wedding vows, and required the reading of banns on three consecutive “Lords-days” at a church or on three serial “Market-days” in the “Market-place next to the said Church or Chappel.” So once the courtship negotiations were completed to the satisfaction of all parties, couples could then proceed with publishing their intentions, scheduling a wedding celebration, and beginning their lives as husband and wife.

Illustration by Sherrill Cooper

Exchanging vows was not always a formal affair. Some couples were apparently satisfied with a cursory “I do,” sometimes even in an alehouse or field without benefit of witnesses. Others, such as Leonard Wheatcroft and his bride, Elizabeth, appeared before a justice of the peace before haring off to Leonard’s home to celebrate their marriage. Editors Parfitt and Houlbrooke note that Wheatcroft’s diary provides one of the few detailed descriptions of 17th-century wedding festivities at this level of society. The groom records that the couple were preceded in their journey by riders who raced for prizes from Winster to Ashover, and that he subsequently broke a lance while tilting at the quintain. Apart from jousting and other games, the main event was the feasting, which went on for eleven days, with the cost of the numerous meals footed by the guests in an arrangement called “shot dinners.”  Interestingly, one item not on the agenda was a wedding night consummation. While Wheatcroft had stayed overnight in his intended’s home on previous occasions, he confesses to his diary that he was only allowed to “enter” Elizabeth after their courtship, when he “leapt forth of [his] virgin’s bed” on the morning of the wedding.

Many couples appear to have gotten even further ahead of their nuptials. According to some statistics, between a third and a fifth of brides in Elizabethan and Stuart England arrived at the altar pregnant—which suggests that perhaps an even greater number were indulging in sexual relations before the wedding. Many considered a marriage contract (equivalent to a modern-day engagement) not only license to engage in sex, but an actual mandate. According to researcher Richard Adair, such contracts could be “dissoluble by mutual agreement unless followed by intercourse.” While Houlbrooke “cautions against assuming too readily that a marriage contract led instantly to intercourse,” it’s clear that many couples felt justified in sealing the deal.

Some, of course, gave no quarter for such goings-on, even with a wedding imminent. Phillip Stubbes, whose sputtering attacks on “immorality” were well known, declaimed in his Anatomie of Abuses (1583) that all mutual copulation outside marriage was unlawful and should be punishable by death—or, he conceded, if this was thought too severe, they should be “seared with a hot iron” to shame them in public.  Happily, as Adair points out, “the sanctimonious witterings of the clergy were ignored without qualm and community disapproval of fornication became apparent only when a pregnancy occurred without a subsequent marriage”—and then only because of worries about the financial implications.

So whatever challenges they may have faced, it’s clear that most lovers in Shakespeare’s day did pretty much what their modern equivalents do. They found each other, navigated the sometimes rocky shoals of family ties and obligations, wedded and had sex (not necessarily in that order), and set out hand in hand to make an independent life for themselves. Apparently, it’s hard to beat a winning formula.

This article is from the Spring 2018 issue of  Folger Magazine.