In the 16th century, marriage was not a purely personal affair but rather a group effort involving acquaintances, friends or family members. When a young man or woman or, more often, their parents decided it was time to marry, the first step was to find a suitable spouse. After determining that there was no one nearby who possessed the preferred personal attributes, family and friends would be called upon to help locate and investigate suitable prospects further afield. These intermediaries or go-betweens were not described as such but rather as a suitors or messengers on behalf of the interested party, – ‘indifferent men sent to enquire what she was to see if she was fite to match‘.
At the more elevated levels of society, the intermediary would be a patron, a well-connected family member, or even a lawyer who would begin the investigation and suggestion of prospective spouses. Within London’s merchant community, formal marriage brokers appear to have been used. Lower down the social scale, the intermediary was usually a family member or a friend, though the village busybody, the local midwife, or even the religious minister could play a role. Most often the intermediary was a more experienced older man acting on behalf of another man.
At the suggestion of a likely young woman in another town, the would-be groom or his parents would send off the intermediary to investigate. He would bring back his impressions of the prospective spouse, their character, appearance and social and financial situation. The danger, with someone who was not well known, was that they might be misrepresenting their wealth and position to make themselves more attractive in the marriage market. Even William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in Certain Precepts for the well ordering of a man’s life (c1584) counselled that if a man’s estate is not firm and settled he should find a match ‘far off & with quicke expedition’, presumably before the bride or her family discover that he is not the catch they thought him to be.
If the intermediary’s report was favourable, a direct approach would then be made, first to the young woman’s parents or guardian. Parents expected to have a say and were angered if they were not, especially at the middle and upper levels of society as they often provided gifts and grants of property to establish the couple. An intermediary could offer advice, too, on the best method of approach.
At some stage the parties needed to be brought together to see what they felt about each other. Mutual liking was an element to be considered, not romantic love but a sense that this was someone they could respect and live in harmony with, and hopefully something deeper could grow from that. If not the parents, the intermediary could be present at such a meeting. He would be a witness to what transpired and any promises made. This was useful if, at a later stage, one of the parties wanted to back out. At the lower levels of society, or with a woman who was older or had been previously married, a trusted friend could serve the same purpose. A sensible young woman, in full charge of her heart, would ensure that she made clear that her promises were dependent on the agreement of her parents or guardian or, even, her friends. The intermediary, playing the role of a third wheel, could also ensure that emotions did not getting out of hand. He would also assist with ongoing communication between the parties, carrying love letters and tokens between them.
Intermediaries did not necessarily do all this from the goodness of their hearts. In the late 1550s Richard Dennys of Kennington, a thirty year old bricklayer, acted as an intermediary for Edmund Coppyn in his suit to Katherine Richards on the promise of 20 nobles ‘yf he coulde bring yt to passe’. Payment was not always with money but sometimes with clothing, food or drink or else the obligation to do a good turn at a later date. An intermediary was meant to follow the instructions of the person they were representing and could not make any binding decisions but he could, sometimes, accept on their behalf, if explicitly deputed to do so.
Conduct books warned against using intermediaries for a number of reasons. They could be, and sometimes were, bribed by the other party to take back an overly glowing report of their person and their prospects. Occasionally intermediaries did not follow instructions. Their role was tainted, too, by the actions of some in assisting clandestine relationships, carrying declarations and love tokens between parties and organizing opportunities for them to meet.
Mistress Quickly in the Merry Wives of Windsor is the best example of an intermediary whose main interest is the financial gain she can make from the role. She acts for all three prospective suitors of Anne Page, carrying love notes for them with no particular concern for who wins Anne’s hand as long as she is paid. Although this is a fictional example, it would, no doubt, be drawn from real life behaviour.
Simon Foreman (1552-1611), the astrologer and herbalist, used intermediaries to assist in his search for a wife. He was unsuccessful with Sara Atchell because he could not convince her uncle to forward his suit; however, Mrs Blague, the wife of the Rector of Lambeth, did assist him in gaining the acceptance of Jane Baker whom he married in 1599.
Margaret Dakins (1570-1633) married three times. Her marriages to Walter Deveraux (1588-1591) and later Thomas Sidney (1591-1595) were arranged by her father and her guardians, the Earl and Countess of Huntingdon. Both young men were well known to her guardians and to Margaret herself. When Sidney died in June 1595, Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby immediately pressed his suit with letters sent by his mother Lady Russell and by his uncle, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, to the Earl of Huntingdon suggesting the match. Hoby had aspired to Margaret’s hand following the death of her first husband but had been unsuccessful, in part because Thomas Sidney was the Countess of Huntingdon’s nephew. Lady Russell had suggested, at the time, that Hoby abduct Margaret, a suggestion possibly not said in jest. This time the Earl of Huntingdon saw merit in Hoby’s suit and so Hoby’s cousin, Sir Edward Stanhope, was called upon to act as intermediary. Margaret’s marriage to Thomas Sidney had clearly been a happy one and when Stanhope met her first, with Hoby not present, he described Margaret as having ‘payne in her eyes and heade, which I founde to proceede of greate lamentacion for the loss of the worthy gentleman her late husbande, for she could not then speake of him without teares’. He also said that ‘the tender love she bare to him that was dead, made yt grevous to her to hear of any newe’ husband. Despite her deep grief, she did meet with Hoby for a short time in Stanhope’s presence. Hoby was keen to remain nearby to press his suit but took the advice of Stanhope and his cousin Aldred and returned south. Although Margaret was clearly reluctant to marry so soon after her husband’s death, Hoby persisted, even after Stanhope showed him a letter from Margaret saying that she no wish to marry. She may have succeeded in her wish but for the death of the Earl of Huntingdon in the following December. His heir disputed Margaret’s right to the Manor of Hackness which had been settled on her at her marriage to Walter Devereaux. She was counselled by Stanhope to accept Hoby and use his influential connections, such as Lord Burghley, to resolve the dispute in her favour. While even as late as July 1596, Margaret described herself as ‘she that is nothing but grefe and misery’, on 9 August 1596, she married Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby at his mother’s house in Blackfriars. They lived at Hackness, a place that Margaret clearly loved. She retained it until her death in 1633 despite Hoby’s attempts in the early 1620s to convince her to settle it on his nephew. We have no idea of the feelings for each other of either party to this marriage yet Margaret was the perfect example of a 16th century wife—intelligent, hard working, devout and diligent; her only failing (if it was hers) was that she failed to give Hoby an heir.
No doubt, among commoners there were couples who had known each other since childhood, or who met through their daily activities, and married following their hearts. But the further one went up the social pyramid, the more complicated matters were. Even after deciding on the characteristics one wanted in a spouse and searching out someone who met them, there were still the hurdles of negotiations over the marriage settlement, matters of dowry and jointure, to be overcome. The course of true love (or even arranged marriage) never did run smooth.
There are so few contemporary images to illustrate Elizabethan courtship, so diving deep into the anachronism pool, here is an illustration of courtship from the 1970s where permission from a parent or guardian is not even considered and the direct approach used rather than an intermediary.
Cook, Ann Jennalie. Making a Match : Courtship in Shakespeare and his Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
O’Hara, Diana. ‘Movers, suters, speakers and brokers of marriage’ in Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England, 99-121. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.