The final step on the road to marriage in the 16th century was, as it is now, the marriage service itself. At its most basic, all that was needed to create a marriage was a mutual promise to marry followed by consummation.(1) Unfortunately for many women, this was often not enough to ensure that the marriage was recognized. Many cases found their way to the church courts where one party claimed marriage and the other denied it, witnesses could not be found or, anticipating the marriage service, the bride had become pregnant and the groom absconded or even died.(2) Such was the case in Oxfordshire in 1606 – Elizabeth Playster exchanged promises to marry with John Symons before witnesses using the conventional form of words but once it was discovered that Elizabeth was pregnant John ‘went away’ leaving Elizabeth to cope with an illegitimate birth.(3) The safest route, and that encouraged by authorities, was to follow the ceremony set out in the prayerbook, performed publicly by a minister of religion in the face of at least family and friends, if not the church congregation.
For those who took this more cautious public route, once matters of property had been settled and the couple betrothed, the marriage could take place within a matter of weeks. Banns were called on three consecutive Sundays to make the congregation aware that the couple were intent on marriage and to give anyone who knew of an impediment to the marriage the chance to come forward.(4) A couple wishing to marry quickly or to avoid the public fuss could avoid the Banns by obtaining a special Licence. The groom applied to the consistory court of their local diocese to obtain the licence and swore on his own and the bride’s behalf that there were no legal or religious impediments to the proposed marriage such as a precontract with someone else or that the marriage was within forbidden degrees of relationship. The groom’s oath, called an allegation, was a written document which he signed or marked. It was supported by two reliable witnesses with an often hefty financial penalty if the allegation should prove to be false. By the end of the 16th century bonds usually ranged from 3/6 to 10/4. Simon Forman, the astrologer and herbalist, promised 8/2 on his marriage to Jane Baker in 1599. Expensive enough but William Shakespeare’s bond had been £40 in 1582.(5) While, at first sight, this could be read as concern about the reliability of either party to Shakespeare’s marriage, it appears that in the Worcester diocese at this time it was the usual fee.(6) The bond would only need to be paid if it were found that there were indeed impediments to the marriage. Calling of the Banns was not without financial costs either, with the usual fee being between 1 and 4 shillings. On top of that the priest and parish clerk needed to be paid for performing the marriage service. At some stage before the wedding the minister would also hear the couple’s catechism and give them both communion.(7)
Marriages were not meant to take place during Advent, Christmas and Lent, or on Rogation and Trinity Sundays; however, examination of parish registers shows that sometimes they did occur in these times. Weddings were required to take place in the morning. Then, as now, the bride’s attendants helped her dress. The bride may have a new gown for the occasion or at least wear her best clothing bedecked with ribbons and favours pinned there by her attendants. Most brides wore a floral bridal garland. The attendants walked with the bride as she went with her family to the church. The group sometimes were accompanied by musicians if her family was wealthy enough to pay for them. When Susan de Vere, daughter of the 17th Earl of Oxford married the courtier Philip Herbert at Whitehall in 1604, the party was accompanied by musicians playing basses and drums.(8) And at the no expenses spared early 16th century marriage of John Winchcombe, the wealthy clothier known as ‘Jack of Newbury’, ‘a great noise of musicians … played all the way before’ the bride on her way to the church. (9)
The bride’s party arrived at the church to be met by the minister and the groom standing in the church porch. With the Catholic ceremony of the early part of the 16th century, the marriage took place in the porch and once the couple were married they made their way into the body of the church for the Nuptial Mass. Following the Reformation the couple immediately proceeded into the church and the marriage took place in front of the steps to the altar and began with the minister setting out the reasons for marriage. The Book of Common Prayer used in the second half of the century said that God had instituted marriage for three reasons, ‘the procreation of children, … for a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication, …[and] for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity’. (10)
The priest then called for anyone with an objection to the marriage to come forward. When no one did, the marriage service proceeded.
The usual form of vows used prior to the Reformation, as found in the widely used Sarum missal, has the groom say
I John take thee Margery to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, til death us depart, if holy Church will it ordain; and thereto I plight thee my troth.
The bride’s promise was similar except that she also promised ‘to be bonaire and buxum in bed and at bord’. In modern English she promised she would be courteous and obedient both in bed and at the table, though I expect the latter extended its meaning to about the house.
The Book of Common Prayer was first published in 1549, two years into the reign of Edward VI. A more reformed edition was produced in 1552 but quickly replaced in 1553 with the previous Catholic practice for the reign of Queen Mary. Following the accession of Elizabeth I, the 1552 book was republished in 1559, slightly altered to make it acceptable to the more traditionally minded. Throughout these revisions to the prayerbook the marriage service was unaltered.
From 1549, except for the period of Mary’s reign, once the bridal couple had come to the front of the church, the minister asked the groom
Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her, in sickness, and in health? And forsaking all other, keep thee only to her, so long as you both shall live?
To which the groom amswered, I will.
The minister asked a similar question of the bride, the main difference being that rather than promising to comfort, she promised to ‘obey him and serve him’. In all other aspects the questions were the same. The bride’s response was also, I will.
The minister asked who gave this woman to be married unto this man? The bride’s father or a friend would step forward and the minister prompted the groom to take the woman by the right hand. The groom then said
I Thomas take thee Alyce to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us depart; according to Gods holy ordinance, and therto I plight thee my troth.
The couple swapped hands with the bride now taking the groom by his right hand and repeating the same vow promising to obey as well as to love and to cherish.
The groom placed the wedding ring on the prayer book, along with the ‘accustomed duty’, payment for the minister and parish clerk. The minister took the ring and gave it to the groom who put it on the fourth finger of the woman’s left hand saying
With this ring I thee wed: with my body I thee worship: and with all my worldly goods, I thee endow. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Ghost. Amen.(10)
The bride made no similar promise. The ring could take many forms. It could be a courtship or betrothal ring reused, it could be something the groom had especially designed for his bride complete with inscription such as the ring commissioned by the Court musician Thomas Whythorne in 1569 – ‘The eye doth find, the eye doth choose, and love doth bind til death doth loose’.(11) It could be a gimmel ring or joint ring with interlocking bands.
The earlier Catholic ceremony had intricate instructions for both the holding of hands and the placing of the ring on the bride’s finger. An unmarried woman should have her hands uncovered, a widow her hands gloved. The priest blessed the ring with holy water. The groom then held the bride’s right hand in his left and took the ring in his right hand, holding it in his ‘three principal fingers’ and placed it on the bride’s thumb saying ‘In the Name of the Father’, then on her second finger saying ‘and of the son’ and on the third saying ‘and of the Holy Ghost’. Finally he said ‘Amen’ as he slid it on her fourth finger where he left it.(12)
With the service that followed the rite of the Book of Common Prayer, once the ring was firmly on the bride’s finger the minister prayed that the couple be blessed and keep their vows. He then joined their right hands together and pronounced, ‘Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.’
The minister completed the marriage by saying
For as much as Thomas and Alyce have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God, and this company, and therto have given and pledged, their troth either to other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of a ring, and by joining of hands I pronounce that they be man and wife together. In the name of the father, of the son and of the holy Ghost. Amen.
The minister then delivered a sermon speaking of the duties the husband and wife owed to each other. Prayers and psalms were said and the couple were required to receive holy Communion on that day.
With the earlier Catholic service, once the couple were married in the porch they then went into the church accompanied by their family, friends and neighbours for the Nuptial Mass. The bride and groom knelt together before the altar steps with a fine linen cloth called a care cloth placed over their heads until the final blessing. The groom received a benediction kiss from the priest which he then passed on to the bride. The bride and groom were to kiss no one else.(13)
Once the couple stepped out of the church the secular celebration began with wine or ale, sweetmeats and bridecake distributed through the congregation in the churchyard. The festivities then progressed to either the bride’s home or to another prearranged place, the size and spectacle depending on the wealth and position of the bridal couple. With poorer couples the guests brought dishes of food, the couple providing bread and drink, a warm fire and a place to celebrate within their new home where there would be singing and dancing, toasts and jests. The wedding gifts they received were usually amounts of money and household goods.(14)
Some marriages were celebrated in more muted style. Edward Barlow, a seaman, married Mary Symans in 1678 at Deal. Symans had travelled from London where she had been working as a servant and Barlow had obtained a marriage licence to expedite the marriage before he put to sea again. The couple were married at the parish church at Deal by the local minister in the presence of ‘acquaintances and several witnesses’. Following the marriage they went to the King’s Head for their wedding dinner. Their guests included a number of commanders and passengers from Barlow’s ship, ‘persons of good repute and credit’. There they partook of ‘music, wine and good victuals’.(15) Rye wool-stapler, merchant and astrologer, Samuel Jeake (1652–1699) married Elizabeth Hartshorn on 1 March 1680/1 at 9.35 in the morning. In his diary he does not provide much description of the service and celebration other than to say that he was married in the presence of several friends and family members and the church sexton. He remarked, though, that their marriage was ‘so much incognito that there was no concourse or notice taken of our going or coming’.(16)
Even among the wealthy and well-connected there were weddings without a lot of public display. Margret Dakins‘ unwished for third marriage to Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby in August 1596 took place at the Blackfriars house of Hoby’s mother, Lady Russell. Margaret’s second marriage had clearly been far more welcome than her third given the grief she felt at her second husband’s death and was still suffering at the time of her marriage to Hoby. Her second husband was Thomas Sidney, the younger brother of Sir Philip Sidney. That marriage was similarly quiet and done quickly, though ‘in affection’, partly to ensure that Margaret was safely married to someone who met with the approval of her father and her guardians, the Earl and Countess of Huntingdon. Hoby had been a suitor in this earlier marriage too, his mother even suggesting that in order to secure marriage to Margaret he should ‘steal her away’.(17)
The wedding celebrations of those with means lasted at least a couple of days, even longer for the wealthy and more highly placed. These marriages were elaborate with banquets, masques and dances. The marriage of Elizabeth I’s maid of honour, Frances Radcliffe to Thomas Mildmay in July 1566 was held at the Bermondsey house of her brother, the Earl of Sussex, and was attended by the queen herself. As well as the usual festivities, there was a masque-oration celebrating the superiority of marriage over chastity.(18) Another of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting, Anne Russell, was married to Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, in November 1565. The service took place in the Chapel Royal at Whitehall Palace. The banquets and entertainments, including a tournament, that followed the wedding are considered among the great court festivities of Elizabeth’s reign.
The bridal couple also provided mementos or tokens for their guests. The less well off gave nosegays or ribbons and pins from the brides gown.(19) Those who could afford more elaborate gifts might give knives or spoons, laces and points, or gloves. By the 17th century gloves had come to be an expected gift at weddings with, often, the groom giving gloves to the male guests and the bride to the female. The groom bore the cost of these tokens(20); however, most of the costs of a wedding were borne by the bride’s family.
The day ended with the bridal couple, in their nightgowns, put to bed by their friends. The bed was strewn with petals and ritual games played such as the throwing of the bride’s stocking. There are differing descriptions of this, some having the stocking thrown out to the guests, with others both of the bride’s stockings were removed by the groom’s men and the groom’s stockings by the bride’s maids who then turned and tossed the stockings over their heads. A posset was also prepared for the couple to drink made of milk, wine, sugar, egg, cinnamon and nutmeg. It was intended to ‘relax the woman and embolden the man’. For the godlier sort, the minister would say final prayers asking for a blessing on the marriage, the greatest blessing being children. The guests would then kiss the bride before leaving the chamber. All the while musicians might be playing in the room as well. They could continue playing outside the door to the bridal chamber and return the following morning to serenade the couple.(21)
The bedding rituals were important because consummation sealed the marriage; its lack was grounds enough to have a marriage set aside. It was not usual in England for the consummation to be witnessed in the 16th century. If it had been, Henry VIII’s convenient squeamishness at the earlier marriage of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, to his brother, Prince Arthur, would have been easily resolved. There were incidences, though, in the 17th century. When Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France finally came together after a proxy marriage earlier in 1625, Charles pushed the attendants from the bedchamber and barred the door. Following the marriage of Charles II’s niece Mary to William, Prince of Orange in 1677, Charles is reported not only to have been a witness, but to have shouted encouragement and advice to William – surely enough to give anyone stage fright.
Fortunately, for most, the door was firmly closed and the guests went away to get on with further carousing or to retire to their own beds.
(1) Norton, Elizabeth The Hidden Lives if Tudor Women Pegasus Books, 2017 p.88
(2) Cook, Ann Jennalie ‘Secret promises and elopements, broken contracts and divorces’ chapter 8 in Making a Match : Courtship in Shakespeare and his Society. Princeton University Press, 1991.
(3) Cressy, David Birth, Marriage, and Death : Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England OUP, 1999. p.279
(4) Cook, Ann Jennalie p.158
(5) Cook, Ann Jennalie p.158
(6) Shakespeare Marriage Bond
(7) Cook, Ann Jennalie pp.158-9
(8) O’Hara Diana Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England Manchester University Press, 2003. p.161
(9) Cressy, John p.256. The marriage is described in The Pleasant Historie of John Winchcombe, in his younger years called Jack of Newbury… by Thomas Deloney (c. 1543-1600), writer of ballads and novels. While his work on Winchcombe has been described as more fiction than history, here he was describing the usual rituals of his time.
(10) At this time wedding rings were usually only worn by women although the bride would provide a gift for the groom. The prayer book only mentions a single ring.
(11) Cressy, John p.343
(12) From this it sounds as if the wedding ring was worn on the right hand.
(13) Cressy, John p.338
(14) Cook, Ann Jennalie p.163
(15) Houlbrooke, Ralph (ed.) English Family Life, 1576–1716: An Anthology from Diaries. Basil Blackwell. 198) p.34
(16) Houlbrooke, Ralph (ed.) English Family Life, 1576–1716: An Anthology from Diaries. Basil Blackwell. 1988 p.38
(17) Meads, D M ‘Introduction’ to The Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby 1599-1605. G. Routledge & Sons, 1930 as quoted in The Broadview Anthology of Sixteenth-century Poetry and Prose. Broadview Press, 2011. p. 938
(18) Doran, Susan ‘Juno versus Diana: the treatment of Elizabeth I’s marriage in plays and entertainments, 1561-1581’ The Historical Journal, 38, 2 (1995) pp.264-5
(19) Cook, Ann Jennalie p.163
(20) Cressy, John p.362
(21) Cressy, John p.375
Detail from Married Couple Anthony van Dyck / Public domain
Image of church by jLasWilson from Pixabay
A Marriage Feast at Bermondsey attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder / Public domain