The London Weekly Journal of Today June 29th 1723 reported: ‘From an inspection into the registers for marriages kept at several alehouses, brandy-shops, &c., [on the periphery] of the Fleet prison, we find no less than thirty-two couples joined together from Monday to Thursday last without licenses, contrary to an express act of Parliament against clandestine marriages’.
Various marriage rituals are recorded back to Saxon times including that of Harold II and his consort, Edith Swannesha (OE), (Swanneschals or Edith the Fair).(2)
Edith was the common law wife according to Danish Law, by a civil ‘Handfast’ for 20 years, but she was not considered his lawful wife by the Church, however there is no evidence that the children were considered illegitimate.
The 4th Lateran Council 1215 forbade clandestine marriage, with a public announcement being required, and the Council of Trent required a priest and two witnesses, as well as a promulgation of the marriage.
Clandestine marriage was certainly frowned upon by Elizabeth I when Sir Walter Raleigh secretly ’seduced’ and married Elizabeth Throckmorton (Bess), who happened to be a Lady of Privy-Chamber and Ward to the Queen, and needed her permission to wed.
Not surprisingly they earned the disfavour of the monarch. Raleigh was summoned from Panama and both unrepentant newly-weds were imprisoned in the Tower in June 1592.
In 18thc England there were many clandestine marriages such as ‘Fleet Marriages’, around the London Fleet Prison, and Scotland witnessed many un-solemnised common law arrangements, but ceased after being no longer recognised by the Kirk, and by the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1939, which abolished ‘Handfasting’, at Gretna Green.
Section 45 of the 1836 Marriage Act made Civil-Marriage possible thus releasing people from the constraints of the church. Nowadays many choose to avoid any ‘tying of a knot’, handfasting included.
(1) Handfasting is mentioned in Walter Scott’s, ‘The Monastery’, and in Shakespeare’s, Cymbeline, (Act I Scene vi).
(2) She is commonly known to history as Swan-neck which comes from an historical misinterpretation that her nickname represented the Old English ‘Swann’, hence (Swan Neck).
The key arrangement in marriage down the centuries was the dowry brought by the female to her spouse, who was expected to have a considerable competency, a constant theme of the books of Jane Austen and others.
Monarchical marriage had always been for dynastic and concerns of the state, none more so than in the age of the Tudors in the late 15thc, when Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV, thus uniting the warring factions of Lancaster and York.
He then arranged for his daughter Margaret to marry James IV of Scotland, to secure a peace between the two nations.
However his son Henry VIII was involved in more complicated marriage arrangements, in his urge to ensure a male heir, when he married Anne Boleyn. However the Pope declared this illegal as Henry was still married to Catherine of Aragon.
Henry declared in turn that his first marriage was invalid, on the ground that a man could not sleep with his brother’s widow, as cited in the Old Testament.(1)
Then Anne disastrously became intimately involved with Sir Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton and others, resulting in their being tried for treason at Westminster Today in 1536. They were executed on the 17th of the month.
Anne’s turn came two day’s later, having been charged with ‘treasonous adultery’. Henry went on to other attachments.
Back in the Middle Ages betrothal and marriage came early, as with Margaret Plantagenet of Scotland, a daughter of Henry III and sister of Edward I, who was only 11 on her marriage in 1251, to the 10 years’ old Alexander III of Scotland.
Another example of complicated, dynastic early betrothal and first marriage, was that of the future King John to Isabella of Gloucester, after his father Henry II had betrothed the 3 year old Isabella to his youngest son, the 10 years old John ‘Lackland’.(2)
However the marriage was prohibited by consanguinity (too close a blood relationship), and Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury declared it null and their lands were put under interdict. This was lifted by Pope Clement III who then gave dispensation for the marriage, as long as it was not consummated. (3)
The marriage was eventually annulled in 1199 on consanguinity and John at 33, then married Isabella of Angouleme who was 26. This however upset King Phillip II of France, who promptly confiscated all their French lands. Not a good move!
In 1396, for his second marriage, Richard II at 29, married Isabella of Valois when she was only seven, as it was thought the betrothal would end the long 100 Years War in France, at a time of truce. She was widowed 3 years later.
Generally, the age of marriage depended on economic forces, but as the Catholic Church became more involved, Canon Law stipulated that marriage for girls could be at 12, and 14 for boys, without parental consent.
Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, in the 1400s, boasted that she had been married five times since she was 12.
Marriage for the masses was a more casual affair before the 18thc, when it became increasingly institutionalized by the Church of England.
(1) Leviticus.20-21. Henry’s dead ,brother Arthur had been married to Catherine.
(2) On 28.9.1176 John and Isabella of Gloucester were betrothed. Her paternal grandfather was Robert 1st Earl of Gloucester, the illegitimate son of Henry I. They married on 29.8.1189.
(3) Ref: Alison Weir,Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life, 1999. p.218.
Ref: wikipedia.org/isabella_countess_of_gloucester/Pic Image.
Ref: Annals of Scotland: from Accession of Malcolm II:V2. Sir David Dalrymple.
Ref: sparknotes.com/Canterbury Tales.
Ref: bbc.co.uk/timeline. How the Tudor Dynasty Shaped the Modern World.