Saturday, October 22, 2016

Marriage in Tudor England

by Samantha Wilcoxson

King Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn
Deer Hunting in Windsor Forest
20th Century Painting
The idea of courtship during the Tudor dynasty can inspire some widely varying portraits of love and marriage. Maybe you think of a poor young princess bartered off to be the property of an older man, as Mary Tudor was in 1514 when her brother, the man who became the poster boy for Tudor marital scandal, sent her to be the wife of King Louis XII. Her betrothed, the king of France was almost three times her age. On the heels of that image may come the idea of a handsome knight saving his beloved from a loveless marriage. Again, Princess Mary serves as a fine example with the scandalous match that she made with Charles Brandon upon the death of her first husband. However, these visions describe a small minority of Tudor marriages.

To a large extent, what a young person in Tudor England could expect from marriage depended upon their social and economic position. The rules for royalty, nobility, and commoners varied in many ways, though they did share the characteristic of matches often being planned by parents rather than being passionate ‘love matches’ discovered by the young people themselves.

It is difficult to understand from our modern point of view, but these couples did not see this as a detriment or example of parental tyranny. Despite the popular idea of a young woman running away with the man she loves in order to avoid being forced into a horrid marriage, this was not usually the case. In most instances, parents would suggest a match and then give the young couple the opportunity to get to know each other and decide whether or not they liked each other.

The modern need for butterflies, love at first sight, or undeniable passion for each other was not a necessity to the Tudor couple. It was enough that they liked and respected each other. Love was expected to grow as they experienced life together. The economic realities of the day made it necessary for couples to be paired based upon their ability to bring money or the skill to make it to their union. For the couple without that wherewithal, love simply was not enough.

The Moneylender and His Wife
by Kazerouni Guilliame
Musée du Louvre 
Since the ability to support themselves was paramount, couples that were not of noble families with expectations of great inheritance might be matched to take advantage of what assets or aptitudes each had. For example, a man who had lost his wife might marry a woman capable of managing his children and household. A man without a son might betroth his daughter to his apprentice in order to more easily leave the family business to them. These couples did not marry as young as their noble contemporaries because they were expected to support themselves and their household upon their marriage. How the couple would cope with everyday life was a great consideration that we do not typically have to consider nearly as seriously today.

Those of noble birth had the advantage of access to great estates and riches, but that did not leave them free to marry of their own free will. Allegiances, dowries, and estate planning had much to do with these marriages. Few had a greater challenge than those marrying during the reign of Tudor queen Elizabeth I. Refusing to marry and plan for the succession herself, Elizabeth was constantly wary of others who did wed and have sons who could potentially become a threat to her crown. During this difficult time, noble families had to plan for the future, but not so well that it offended their queen.

Still, these couples did not often go into marriage without knowing and having some affection for each other. The period of courtship was intended for the couple to spend chaperoned time together, give each other gifts, and begin to grow a relationship that their marriage could be built upon. Usually, each person had the option of declining the match, though there are examples of those who were compelled against their wishes, typically for the greater good of their family.

Marriage of Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York,
to Lady Anne Mowbray
Painting by James Northcote (19th century)
It is royal matches in which the couples had the least input. For all their riches and privileges, princes and princesses had little say in who they would share their life with. These are the matches that were often arranged at ages that seem shocking to us.

Negotiations for the marriage of the first Tudor prince began when Arthur was a toddler, and the marriage was carried out when he was the ripe old age of fifteen. Most of his siblings received similar treatment, although they did not always end up wed to those intended for them as children. Treaties could be both made and broken, creating the question of whether or not one was pre-contracted before they could be betrothed to another.

The problem of pre-contract had a hand in ending the Plantagenet dynasty and paving the way for the Tudors. With Edward IV’s children declared illegitimate after his untimely death, his son, who should have reigned as Edward V, was replaced by his uncle, Richard III. Amid the unrest caused by Richard’s usurpation, Henry Tudor seized the opportunity to invade. When he was victorious at Bosworth field, he fulfilled his vow, made almost a year earlier, to marry Elizabeth of York, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Edward IV. You can be sure that Henry and Elizabeth had their papal dispensation in hand to ensure that their new dynasty would not be questioned.

Photo Credits

King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Hunting in Windsor Forest: Public Domain
Marriage of Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, to Lady Anne Mowbray: Public Domain
The Moneylender and His Wife: The Louvre

Additional Reading

Birth, Marriage, & Death: Ritual, Religion, & the Life Cycle in Tudor & Stuart England, by David Cressy
Courtship & Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England, by Dana O'Hara


Samantha Wilcoxson is a first generation American with British roots. She is passionate about reading, writing, and history, especially the Plantagenet dynasty. Her novel, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen: The Story of Elizabeth of York has been recognized as a Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice. The Plantagenet Embers series continues with Faithful Traitor: The Story of Margaret Pole and will conclude with Queen of Martyrs: The Story of Mary I in 2017.

Samantha has also published two middle grade novels, No Such Thing as Perfect and Over the Deep: A Titanic Adventure.

When not reading or writing, Samantha enjoys traveling and spending time at the lake with her husband and three children. You can connect with Samantha on her blog, Twitter, Goodreads, Booklikes, and Amazon.


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