‘It is an action like a stratagem in war where man can err but once’ – Choosing a spouse in 16th century England

During the 16th century, as in the centuries both before and after, marriage was a state that most aspired to – it gave both men and women status not only as full adults but, in the case of men, that of householder. Without marriage, women had few opportunities to independently support themselves.

Except for those at the upper levels of society, marriage was not possible until the prospective bride and groom were in a position to maintain a family by their own efforts. For most this meant waiting until their mid-twenties with men marrying slightly later than women.

In the latter part of the 16th century in England, the marriage service followed the rite set out in the 1559 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Here it said that God had instituted marriage for three reasons, ‘the procreation of children, … for a remedy agaynste sinne and to avoide fornication, …[and] for the mutual societie, helpe, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, bothe in prosperity and adversitye.’

Throughout the service, the husband was enjoined to love his wife – from the vows to ‘love her, comforte her, honour, and kepe her’ to the scriptural readings which stated that ‘men are bounde to love their owne wyves, as their owne bodies. … let every one of you so love his owne wyfe, even as hym selfe.’ Women, by comparison, vowed to ‘obey hym and serve him, love, honour, and kepe him,’ and were enjoined to ‘submitte youre selves unto youre own housbandes, as it is convenient in the Lorde’. This love was not the heady mixture of infatuation and desire of romantic love but a more sober state involving benevolence and care as well as affection.


Family life
William Brooke, Baron Cobham, and his family at the dining table, 1567
attributed to the Master of the Countess of Warwick
(Wikimedia Commons)

With the family the basic social and economic unit of society, choice of a marriage partner was a serious business, not something to be left to the vagaries of emotion. Financial matters such as dowry and jointure (which would provide maintenance for a woman if she outlived her husband) were of fundamental importance. Consequently, these negotiations were often detailed and could result in a proposed marriage not going ahead, particularly with second marriages. Widows needed to ensure that the children of their first marriage were not disadvantaged in any arrangement. At the lower levels of society, marriage usually involved some exchange of property, even if it was no more than a woman bring her spinning wheel and cooking pots. Lack of a suitable dowry lowered the value of a potential bride, her personal attributes rarely being seen as enough. Marriage could also create alliances between families with the hope of advancement of not only the individual but his or her family’s influence as well.

While material considerations were of primary importance, other matters were brought in to consideration too. It was generally believed that parity of age was important, and that parties to a marriage should be of similar rank although a woman was more likely to marry up if her family was wealthy. Personal character was of importance and it is here that a great deal of advice was given. Affection was the lowest in the list of factors to be considered, yet it was part of the equation. Most thought that a marriage should begin with a degree of liking, and that if the parties were well matched in other aspects affection would develop later.

Parents, other family and friends, no doubt gave anyone considering marriage advice on who best to choose but also through this period a number of printed works appeared offering advice on the conduct of life, including the choice of a marriage partner. Many were directed specifically towards young men, but some were created especially with women in mind.


Princess Mary attributed to Lucas Horenbout
‎(Wikimedia Commons)

Juan Luis Vives’ (1492-1540) The Instruction of a Christian Woman was written in 1523 and published in Latin. Dedicated to Catherine of Aragon, it was intended for the education of her daughter Mary. Translated into English by Richard Hyrde about 1529, and republished throughout the following century, it was popular with both Catholics and Protestants. The book is a practical manual covering the whole of a woman’s life from childhood through to widowhood and advocates strongly for the intellectual education of women. The small section on the choice of a husband stresses intellectual companionship over procreation. Vives advises young women not to involve themselves in the process of brokering a marriage but to leave it to their parents who have more experience and wisdom, and love their daughter as well as she does herself. It is not ‘comely’ for a young woman to devise her own marriage or to show that she is longing to be married. Vives also points to the common wisdom that ‘they that mary for loue, shall leade their lyfe in sorowe’ as once the heat of love has passed, it is often followed by hate. Yet he sees love as central to marriage – ‘wedlocke is a bande and couplyng of loue, beneuolence, frendshippe and charitee’. This is love as a virtue not a passionate emotion. While her parents are attempting to arrange a marriage, she should ‘helpe the matter forwarde with good praier’, particularly that her future husband be one who will ‘not hinder hir from virtuous liuying’.

In The Court of Good Counsel Stefano Guazzo (1530 -1593) suggests that young men-look at not only at ‘the modest behaviour and of the honest caryage’ of the young woman’s mother but also her father to get a sense of how his prospective bride has been brought up. He considers it unseemly for a young woman to marry an old man and thought that such young women ‘goe as willingly to such husbands, as to their graves’. Couples should be of similar ages and men should marry while they are young enough to expect to live until their children have grown to adulthood.

As with Vives, Guazzo counsels against marrying for love, particularly if the wife brings nothing of material value to the marriage. A man should ‘choose a wife that is young, well born, well bred, reasonably rich, indifferently handsome, of a sound and good constitution, and of a ready wit and capacity’. He is insistent that a husband ‘must resolve, above all things, to love her sincerely and unfeignedly for so the Law of God commands’.

He does offer some advice both to young women and to their fathers. Young women should not consider ‘outward Appearanes’. A father should ‘examine the Qualities, Behaviour, and Life of his Son-in-Law. For it is a just Observation, that he who lights upon a good Son-in-Law gets a good Son; and he who meets with an ill one, throws away his Daughter.’

The Christian mans closet written by Barthélemy Batt (1515-1558) was translated in to English and published by William Lowth in 1581 and contains advice of a more practical sort. Batt placed virtue and godliness above beauty in choice of a bride. The most suitable young woman was one who would ‘honor, esteeme and obey both father and mother’, behaviour which doubtless she would extend to her husband. She should also ‘loue, cherish, and make much of infants’ and finally she must be able to sing ‘wel and sweetely’. He considers eighteen a good age for women to marry but men should wait until around thirty. The benefit of marrying a young woman is that the husband could train her in both good manners and the duties ‘beseeming and decent for a wife’. A young woman, Batt believes, is more tractable than a widow who would ‘looke to bee obeied … bicause for the most part they bring greater wealth vnto their husbands then the maides doe.’ Widows also have the disadvantage of having ‘been before acquainted with loue matters’.


William and Robert Cecil c1596 artist unknown
(Wikimedia Commons)
Robert married Elizabeth Brooke in 1589, presumably having taken his father’s advice.

Certain Precepts for the well ordering of a man’s life was written around 1584 by William Cecil, Lord Burghley(1520-1598) and addressed to his son Robert. It circulated in manuscript form until it was published in 1617. Lord Burghley agrees with the conventional wisdom that the best-matched marriage partners are of roughly comparable age, status and wealth. He compares choosing a wife to ‘a stratagem in war where man can err but once’, presumably meaning that the choice of a badly matched wife could as much be ‘the death of’ a man as the wrong strategy in warfare. He advises his son to ‘inquire diligently of her disposition and how her parents have been inclined in their youth. Let her not be poor how generous soever, for a man can buy nothing in the market with gentility.’ Looks are of some importance to Burghley. ‘Neither choose a base and uncomely creature altogether for wealth, for it will cause contempt in others and loathing in thee. Make not choice of a dwarf or a fool, for from the one thou mayest beget a race of pygmies, the other may be thy daily disgrace; for it will irk thee to have her talk, for then thou shalt find to thy great grief that there is nothing more fulsome than a she-fool.’

The Puritan divine, Robert Cleaver’s (1561 -1613) A godly forme of household government for the ordering of priuate families, according to the direction of Gods touches on the duties of various members of a household from husbands and wives to children and servants. His advice is that a man should choose a godly woman. To tell whether a woman is godly, a man needs to consider her good name, her behaviour and her speech, what she wears, the company she keeps and her education and upbringing. ‘Silence is the best ornament of a woman’ – ‘a maides answere should be in a word : for shee which is full of talke, is not likely to prove a quiet wife’ who would listen when her husband is speaking or attempting to teach her. Cleaver believes it is important for the couple to get to know each other well beforehand, three or four meetings are not sufficient. The couple needs to see ‘one the other eating, and walking, working, and playing, talking, and laughing, and chiding too’. With the exception of the importance of silence, Cleaver’s advice would be as useful to a young woman as to a young man.


Sir Walter Raleigh attributed to William Segar 1598
(Wikimedia Commons)

Sir Walter Raleigh’s (1552-1618) Instructions to His Son and Posterity was possibly written during his period of imprisonment in the Tower of London from 1603 to 1616 but was not published until 1632. These instructions contain practical advice on a variety of topics including choice of a wife. Raleigh advises against choosing a wife on the basis of beauty or physical attraction. ‘Remember that though these affections do not last, yet the bond of marriage dureth to the end of thy life’. He suggests that it is a better course of action for a man to choose his mistresses on the basis of beauty because ‘when thy humor shall change thou art yet free to choose again’ adding piously ‘if thou give thyself that vain liberty’.

At the same time it is not wise to marry an ‘uncomely’ woman ‘for comeliness in children is riches if nothing else be left them. And if thou have care for thy races of horses and other beasts, value the shape and comeliness of thy children before alliances or riches.’

He also warns against a man being too uxorious. ‘Have, therefore, evermore care that thou be beloved of thy wife rather than thyself besotted on her, and thou shalt judge of her love by these two observations: first, if thou perceive she have care of thy estate and exercise herself therein; the other, if she study to please thee and be sweet unto thee in conversation without thy instruction, for love needs no teaching nor precept.’

While Raleigh recommends against marrying too young, he also warns against waiting until a man is old. A young wife would end up despising her elderly husband and he would be ‘unto her but a captivity and sorrow.’ Such an older man would not live to see his children grown. They would end up being cared for by strangers and would ‘either perish or remain a shame to thy name and family.’ Men should therefore marry in their ‘young and strong years … Thy best time will be towards thirty’.

Perhaps the most practical advice of all comes from Robert Furse (c1530-1593) of Devon who left written advice to his sons concerning choice of a wife. While beauty, wealth, and well-connected family are all desirable, it is more important to find a woman of ‘good name and fame and of a good and honest kyndered… Lette her be sober, wyse dyscryte gentylle and shamfaste … not given to horedom, drunkenes, a comon scole a gyggehalter* or one that is ignorante how to use and governe thos thynges appertenynge and belongen to her charge.’ He believes that good housewife is more necessary to a well functioning household than a good husband., echoing a popular saying ‘that seldom doth the husband thrive without leave of his wife’.

Most of the advice is directed towards men as, in the writers’ view, they are the ones who do the choosing of women, the objects of choice. Doubtless, not all young women were so passive. Mothers would have advised their daughter but their advice has not found its way into print. I would imagine their advice to their daughters would not be dissimilar to that given to young men – look at his parents, how does his father treat his mother, does he have a temper, drink too much? Is he hardworking and godfearing?

All this advice points to common concerns that probably reflected the prevalence of less than ideal marriages – marrying for love or for position or riches alone, all brought their problems as did great disparity in age and status. From the number of warnings about marrying for love and the transitory nature of romantic love, it is clear that some did just that and lived to regret it.

The best marriages were seen to be those where the partners were well matched in age, status and disposition. Robert Furse’s advice most explicitly sets out the idea of a wife as ‘helpmeet’, though it underlies much of the other advice such as Raleigh’s concern that a wife should ‘have care of thy estate’. Sir Thomas Smith (1513–77) in De Republica Anglorum, published in 1583, sums up best the way the better sort of marriages worked. ‘So in the house and in the family is the first and most natural (but private) appearance of the best kinds of commonwealth … where a few and the best do govern, and where not one always: but sometime and in something one, and sometime and something another doth bear the rule.’


A Marriage Feast at Bermondsey attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder c.1569
(Wikimedia Commons)

* Anita Travers editor of Robert Furse’s memoir suggests that this is possibly the Cornish dialect word gijoalter (part of the rigging of a ship) used here to mean a giddy girl cf. giglet – a giddy, laughing, romping girl (OED)



Batt, Bartholomew The Christian mans closet Wherein is conteined a large discourse of the godly training vp of children: as also of those duties that children owe vnto their parents, made dialogue wise, very pleasant to reade, and most profitable to practise, collected in Latin by Bartholomew Batty of Alostensis. And nowe Englished by William Lowth. Imprinted at London : At the three Cranes in the Vintree, by Thomas dawson, and Gregorie Seton and are to be solde at the signe of the Hedgehog in Paules  Churchyarde, 1581.

Cecil, William Certaine precepts or directions, for the well ordering and carriage of a mans life: as also oeconomicall discipline for the gouernment of his house: with a platforme to a good foundation thereof, in the aduised choise of a wife: left by a father to his son at his death, who was sometimes of eminent note and place in this kingdome. And published from a more perfect copy, then ordinary those pocket manuscripts goe warranted by. With some other precepts and sentences of the same nature added: taken from a person of like place, and qualitie. London : Printed by T. C[reede] and B. A[lsop] for Ri. Meighen, and Thom. Iones, and are to be sold at St. Clements Church without Temple Barre, 1617.

Cleaver, Robert A godly forme of household government for the ordering of priuate families, according to the direction of Gods word. Wherevnto is adioyned in a more particular manner, the seuerall duties of the husband towards his wife: and the wiues dutietowards her husband. The parents dutie towards their children: and the childrens towards their parents. The maisters dutie towards his seruants: and also the seruants dutie towards their maisters. Gathered by R.C., At London : Printed by Thomas Creede, for Thomas Man, 1603.

Guazzo , Stefano The court of good counsel Wherein is set downe the true rules, how a man should choose a good wife from a bad, and a woman a good husband from a bad. Wherein is also expressed, the great care that parents should haue, for the bestowing of their children in mariage: and likewise how children ought to behaue themselues towards their parents: and how maisters ought to gouerne their seruants, and how seruants ought to be obedient towards their maisters. Set forth as a patterne, for all people to learne wit by: published by one that hath dearely bought it by experience. At London : Printed by Raph Blower, and are to be solde by William Barley at his shop in Gratious Streete, 1607

Raleigh, Walter Sir Walter Raleighs instructions to his sonne and to posterity London:Printed for Beniamin Fisher, dwelling in Aldersgate-street at the Talbot,1632.

Smith, Thomas De Repvblica Anglorvm: The Maner of Gouernement or Policie of the Realme of England, Compiled by the Honorable Man Thomas Smyth, Doctor of the Ciuil Lawes, Knight, and Principall Secretarie vnto the Two Most Worthie Princes, King Edward the Sixt, and Queene Elizabeth. Seene and Allowed, London: Printed by Henrie Midleton for Gregorie Seton 1583.

Travers, Anita (Ed.) Robert Furse: a Devon Family Memoir of 1593. Exeter: Devon and Cornwall Record Society, 2012.

Vives, Juan Luis A very fruteful and pleasant boke called the Instruction of a christen woman, made firste in latyne, by the right famous clerke mayster Lewes Viues, and tourned out of latyne into Englishe by Rychard Hyrde [1529]

One thought on “‘It is an action like a stratagem in war where man can err but once’ – Choosing a spouse in 16th century England

  1. Pingback: The Elizabethan ‘Suter’ | Catherine Meyrick

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.