Courtship Tokens

Gift giving has always been an element of courtship, in the Tudor period as much as at any other time, with gifts often marking the progress of a relationship from early courtship, through pre-betrothal to the formal rituals of betrothal and on to marriage. These gifts were given as tokens of ‘love and goodwill’ to tempt the other party to agree to marriage, as a sign of affection, or to seal promises made. Gifts exchanged in public provided a strong statement of the nature and progress of a couple’s relationship. Men, most often, gave these gifts although widows were more likely than other women to be gift givers.

The range of gifts given was wide – from the simple nosegay wound about with a slip of poetry to jewellery and substantial amounts of money. Clothing was a common gift and included items such as handkerchiefs, gloves, scarves, lace and girdles and girdle ornaments.

Girdle and ornaments – prayer book and pomander
Girdles were sometimes given as wedding gifts symbolizing the bride’s new domestic responsibilities

Gifts given by commoners were not so grand but could include lengths of lawn, caps, gowns and petticoats. A petticoat was more likely to be given later in the relationship; as an initial gift it could suggest that the suitor was presuming too much and a bit too confident of his chances.

Where money was given, the amount depended on the means of the giver, it could be as little as groats and pennies or as much as the 100 marks offered in 1564 by the widow, Elizabeth Godfrey.

Some gifts were unique to the gift-giver such as the picture bracelet made from a young woman’s own hair, or lace made of human hair – they were truly giving something of themselves.

Gifts could be unique to the giver in other ways. John Hayne, a godly merchant of Exeter, bestowed on the object of his affections a puritan tract, a bible and two sermon books. It is to be hoped she was as godly and not likely to be disappointed.

Bracelet and poesy rings

Jewellery was a common gift among those of more substantial means and included rings and bracelets. Rings were more often given by men to women than the other way around and were given as tokens of the impending marriage. Poesy rings, popular from the 15th through to the 17th centuries, were used not only as love tokens but were also given as signs of goodwill, friendship and loyalty. They usually had a short poem or sentence inscribed inside or enamelled on the outside.

The giving of these gifts had no legally binding role but were used more as corroboration of a relationship. If the relationship fell apart and so did not proceed to marriage, the gifts were meant to be immediately returned to the giver. What the owner of the returned gift did with it was up to him. He could sell it, reuse it in a later courtship or else, in the case of a ring, flick it into the Derwent with the observation that the young woman’s family would probably drain the river to find it.

This post draws on ‘The language of tokens and the making of marriage’, Chapter 2 in Courtship and Constraint by Diana O’Hara (Manchester University Press, 1988). The chapter examines the symbolism of the wide variety of gifts given and the expectations they could entail. Many of the examples are from cases of ‘love gone wrong’ as revealed in Consistory Court depositions from the diocese of Canterbury. The whole book is well worth reading.

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