‘In time meet and convenient’ – Betrothal in Early Modern England

Once a man had settled on the qualities he wanted in a spouse, and with the help of family and friends had sought such a woman out, courted her and secured not only her own agreement but that of her family, the next step to be taken on the path to marriage was betrothal.

Betrothal was the promise made by the parties to a proposed marriage in the presence of witnesses to marry at a future date. While the form of words used may have varied slightly between couples, the intention of the future promise was clear. The clergyman William Gouge (1575–1653) describes a betrothal in his popular conduct book Of Domesticall Duties (1622).

First the man taking the woman by the hand to say, I A. take thee B. to my espoused wife, and do faithfully promise to marry thee in time meet and convenient. And then the woman again taking the man by the hand to say, I B. take thee A. to be my espoused husband, and do faithfully promise to yield to be married to thee in time meet and convenient. This mutual and actual taking of one another for espoused man and wife in the time present, and a direct promise of marrying one another afterwards, settleth such a right and property of the one in the other as cannot be alienated without license had from the great Judge of heaven, who hath by his divine ordinance settled that right.

It is interesting that, here, the woman’s promise, while similar, is not identical, reflecting, perhaps, the contemporary view that the man was the active partner in bringing about the marriage.

In 1680, Samuel Jeake (1652–1699) of Rye, a wool-stapler, merchant and astrologer, became betrothed to Elizabeth Hartshorn who was fifteen years his junior. He described the progress of his courtship in his diary.

…taking her by the right hand I said ‘I Samuel take thee Elizabeth to be my betrothed wife, and promise to make thee my wedded wife in time convenient: in token whereof is our holding by the hand.’ Then loosing my hand, she took me by my right hand, repeating the same words mutatis mutandis.

Although late in the period, the diary entries follow the progress of Jeake’s marriage negotiation which would have been similar for many through the whole period. In June 1680 Jeake decided that he wished to marry Elizabeth Hartshorn whom he had known since her infancy. He approached her mother, Barbara Hartshorn, and immediately began discussions over dowry and jointure. The following day he acquainted his father of his intentions. A week later, with her mother’s consent, Jeake proposed to Elizabeth who said she wanted time to consider the matter. It took her only two days to make up her mind. Jeake then drew up the marriage contract and continued discussions over the financial settlement with Barbara Hartshorn. On Monday, 12 July at 2 o’clock in the afternoon Samuel Jeake and Elizabeth Hartshorn were betrothed. Immediately before the betrothal Jeake and Elizabeth’s mother had signed the contracts setting out dowry and jointure. The following February Barbara Hartshorn agreed to the date of the marriage and, nine moths after Samuel Jeake had decided to marry Elizabeth Hartshorn, the couple were finally married on 1 March 1681.(1)

English wedding ring 16th century
Sometimes the betrothal ring was used as the wedding ring.
Victoria & Albert Museum

The intended groom would also give his espoused bride a keepsake such as a ring, a brooch, a comb, beads, or money, depending on his means. A coin broken in half was a common gift, with one half to be kept by the groom and the other given to the bride, as a sign of the unity to come.(2) There were, in some cases, regional differences in the nature of the gifts. In the diocese of Canterbury it was customary to give money at a betrothal, though there were some exceptions where rings were given.(3) The gifts were a token of the verbal promises made. Espoused brides also gave gifts in return.

Provided intercourse had not taken place, a betrothal could be broken by mutual consent. In such cases, gifts should be returned. Problems arose where betrothals were made clandestinely and the couple did not proceed to marriage but went their separate ways. It was here that the issues of pre-contract arose such as those that had had dire consequences for both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

The time between betrothal and the formal wedding was used to ensure the financial settlement between the couple was in place for those with wealth and property. For couples without such means, it was used to ensure that they had sufficient means to set up house to together – at its most basic a roof over their heads, a bed and cooking pots.

Although the betrothal promises were conditional on a future date, they became absolute once intercourse occurred. Possibly up to 20% of brides were pregnant at time of marriage between 1600 and 1640, which has been interpreted as showing that the betrothal was seen as binding and progression to marriage inevitable. In some parishes, though, where a child was born less than six to eight months after a marriage the couple was made to do penance; the punishment was worse if the marriage did not eventuate because the groom had died or disappeared and the woman was left to give birth unmarried.(4)

A Wedding at Bermondsey
Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

But for many a betrothal was a time of celebration, promises were made publicly, gifts exchanged and a feast followed and the betrothed progressed to formal marriage a few months later.

(1)Houlbrooke, Ralph (ed.) English Family Life, 1576–1716: An Anthology from Diaries. (Basil Blackwell. 1989) pp.35-8
(2)Abbott, Mary Life Cycles in England, 1560-1720 : Cradle to Grave (Routledge, 1996) pp.99-103
(3)O’Hara, Diana Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England (Manchester University Press, 2000)
(4)Abbott op cit. p.101

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