The era of coverture in England can be dated from 1188 to 1870; from the Tractatus of Glanvill to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. In 1955 in England and Wales the out-of-wedlock birth ratio was 4.7%. In 2012 the out-of-wedlock birth ratio among women born in the UK in England and Wales was 54.9%. Marriage among women 15 to 44 years old (the reproductive years) peaked in England and Wales in 1972 at 68.5%; by 2012 only 32.6% of women of reproductive age were married.
I wish to take us back in time to London, England 1467 to 1497; the latter part of the 15th Century. London at this time had a population of 40,000 to 60,000 people; smaller than Paris which had about 200,000 people then. The source I am using is “Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London” published by Medieval Institute Publications, 1995.
Quoting from “Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London”:
“Many of London’s inhabitants were young immigrants, who came to the city as adolescents to apprentice to a trade or to enter into domestic service. By the end of their terms as apprentices or servants, which lasted from mid-teens to mid-twenties, young men and women had often found a spouse.”
“Economically, the period before marriage was also a time of transition. Both young men and young women spent this period trying to accumulate goods and skills for their marriage. Many young men were apprentices to a trade through their adolescence, living with a master and learning the secrets of the craft; by their early-to-mid twenties they were qualified and ready to head their own household. Young women only rarely entered apprenticeships by the end of the fifteenth century; most were live-in domestic servants from their mid-teens until their marriage. They, too, prepared for the time they would enter into their husband’s household: a bride was often expected to provide a substantial dowry upon marriage, usually at least partly saved up from her wages while working as a servant, and the skills she had learned during her adolescence would help both to keep her household running and to supplement the household income through part-time work such as spinning and brewing ale.”
“Many people were involved in some way in the making of a marriage. The most important, of course, were the man and woman themselves. The depositions show that in fifteenth-century London, below the highest levels of the merchant elite (where the courtship of children, especially daughters, was very closely supervised), young people routinely chose prospective mates for themselves through the normal course of social interaction. Young men and women, often working as servants and apprentices, met one another in their everyday working world; as they went about their business, they often went in and out of other houses and shops, and along the way they came to know other young people. Deponents frequently mentioned taverns as places where people socialized with their friends and neighbors, courting and having celebratory drinks (see case no. 5). Feast-days, festivals, and market-days were also social events, for which people wore their best clothes and ate special meals. All these provided opportunities for people to find a mate.”
“In the second half of the fifteenth century courtship was not a private affair between two individuals only; it was a matter of much wider concern. It often involved many other parties, playing both informal and formal roles in bringing the courtship to fruition. Families, especially parents if they were still alive, were particularly important in dispensing advice and giving consent. But sons and daughters were not treated in the same way. While young men often acted independently in their marriage choices, young women were more reliant on and subject to parental consent in making this pivotal decision (see case nos. 1, 9, 10). This may be related to the fact that parents often provided some share of the woman’s dowry, thus making daughters more dependent than sons on their parents’ approval. Girls were also socialized to be less independent than boys, prefiguring the relative status of wives and husbands: wives were to obey and rely upon their husbands, who were to become heads of their households and the main decision-makers in the family.”
“If a couple was engaged in a sexual relationship without any moves towards marriage, those around them might bring informal pressure to bear. For instance, a deputation of the senior men of the neighborhood might question a man about the nature of his relationship with a certain woman. If such encounters were unsuccessful in persuading a man or a woman to do the right thing, then more formal means existed. The leaders of the neighborhood community might bring a case of fornication, adultery, or bigamy to the attention of the church courts. The local secular courts of the city (called ward moots) also called fornicators and adulterers before them and coerced them to marry or desist (see case nos. 21 and 23).Such moral issues were of common concern.
The community, in such cases, was governed by older men of respectable position, the patriarchs. Medieval patriarchy (literally “father-rule”) was wider than a father’s governance of his biological offspring. Fathers had special hegemony over their families, recognized in law and theory, but paternal power was echoed and buttressed by the paternalistic authority exercised generally by respectable older men, the fathers of the community. Senior men had the duty and the privilege to govern and to ensure the proper working of social relationships within their sphere of action. The maintenance of the community and the marital bond that, in many ways, was at its heart were their responsibility.
The most public and official aspects of the regulation of marriage and related issues—such as considering cases of fornicators before a local tribunal, or presiding over a domestic wedding as a master of ceremonies—were reserved for men. But women, too, played important roles in some cases, especially in informal ways, such as the conveying of gifts. Formal roles were less often their purview, although in the absence of men they could be called upon. When fathers were dead, mothers had a great deal of authority over children, especially daughters, and their consent was as eagerly sought as that of fathers (see case no. 10). Similarly, the mistresses of female servants were asked for their approval of a marriage choice. But women’s influence was often more informal and secondary than men’s: if there was a man in the picture, a father or male employer, his advice or consent was much more likely to be sought than a woman’s.”
So, London in the later part of the 15th century had many young adolescent immigrants coming in from the countryside. The men before getting married would apprentice to a trade, the women would work as domestic servants saving money for their dowry that would help them to get married. Wives were to rely upon and obey their husbands after marriage. Men were more independent in their marriage choices; women would more often rely upon the advice and consent of their father or a male employer.
Elder men not only had authority in their families, they had authority in the community at large. Sex outside of marriage was not just a “private matter between two consenting adults;” such illicit liaisons were likely to gather the attention of the senior men of the community who would first pressure the man to “do the right thing” and either desist in the sexual relationship or get married and then if that didn’t work a case of fornication, adultery, or bigamy might be brought to the church (ecclesiastical) courts.
In order for a man and a woman to enter into a legally binding marriage the only thing that was needed was mutual consent (unless a union was barred by consanguinity or affinity, there being too close of a relationship by blood or marriage in the family tree of the two parties). Advice and consent from other parties might be sought or respected by the two principles in the marriage but legally speaking only the mutual consent of the two parties mattered. Also there was no requirement that the marriage be performed at a church or have a priest present. All that was necessary was an exchange of “words of marriage.”
Marriage might be entered into based on an exchange of present consent (where the words exchanged are in the present tense such as “I take you to be my wife.”) or marriage might be entered into based on an exchange of future consent (“I will take you to be my wife.”) then followed by consummation (sexual intercourse). If consummation does not take place first the potential marriage can be broken up by mutual consent or by either party offering a present tense offer of marriage to somebody else. Sexual intercourse by itself does not make a marriage; only sexual intercourse after an exchange of future consent makes a marriage. An exchange of present consent creates an enforceable legally binding marriage immediately.
Technically speaking the only requirement for a valid marriage was mutual consent. In practice however multiple witnesses to the exchange of “words of marriage” was desirable so that later it could be proven that an exchange of consent to marry actually took place. Older men were particularly valued as witnesses to the exchange of marriage vows due to older men’s high prestige in the community.
Here are two examples of exchanges of marriage vows as recorded in court testimony:
September 23, 1472 – William Forster v. Ellen Gray. “This deponent” refers to Robert Johnson, 24 years old, brother of Ellen Gray.
“William Forster and Ellen Grey were sitting on the bench [in the tavern] discussing contracting marriage between them, in the presence of this deponent, William Glenton now dead, Richard Barbour, a man named Abbot, and a man named Baron. During this conversation, this deponent said the following words to William Forster: “A little while ago I heard that you contracted marriage with Ellen Grey, my sister; tell me if this is true.” William Forster affirmed that this was so. This deponent then said to William Forster, “So that this matter of which we speak be made more sure, say your vows again in my presence and in the presence of the others here, so that I and the other men here present can testify to the completeness of the marriage between you.” After these words, William Forster took Ellen by her right hand and said to her, “I, William, take you, Ellen, as my wife, and thereto I give you my faith,” and they unclasped their hands. Immediately Ellen took William by the hand and said to him, “And I, Ellen, take you, William, as my husband, and thereto I give you my faith.” Then both the contracting parties and the other men named drank red and white wine.”
October 23, 1473 – Edmund Breme v. Petronilla Kember. “This deponent” refers to Nicholas Maryot, cook, 40 year old man.
“[T]his deponent was present at Petronilla Kember’s house in Kensington, together with Margaret Maryot his wife. Around five o’clock in the afternoon, Edmund Breme and Petronilla Kember, sitting at the table in the parlor, discussed contracting marriage between them. At length Edmund called this deponent and Margaret his wife, who were at that time in the hall of the house, and asked them to bear witness about what would be said and done between him and Petronilla. At his request, this deponent, with his wife, entered into the parlor. After they had entered and talked about the idea of contracting marriage between them, Edmund took Petronilla by her right hand and said to her, “I take you, Petronilla, as my wife, and thereto I give you my faith.” Immediately Petronilla said to him, “And I take you, Edmund, as my husband, and thereto I give you my faith,” and they kissed one another. After these words had been spoken, on the same day between seven and eight o’clock, this deponent saw Edmund Breme and Petronilla lying in a bed in a certain upper chamber of this house, both of them nude. This deponent happened to see this because his wife made certain preparations in the said chamber before they went to bed, and this deponent’s wife was present at the time that they went to bed and called this deponent to the chamber, where he saw, Edmund and Petronilla lying thus in the bed. They said to him, “Good night to you,” and then this deponent left the room with his wife.”
There were three ways a marriage could legally end. The most common was through the death of ones spouse. Widows were free to marry again. There was also divorce a mensa et thoro (from table and bed) which equates to a legally recognized separation meaning the parties were no longer required to live together and that they no longer owed each other the “conjugal debt” or “marital debt.” Ordinarily a married couple, both the husband and the wife, could not refuse to have sexual intercourse when asked by the other spouse according to medieval canon law and theology. A divorce a mensa et thoro could be sought on grounds of cruelty or adultery; remarriage was not allowed after divorce a mensa et thoro as the couple was still considered married, only separated.
The third form of legal marital dissolution was divorce a vinculo (from the bond) which corresponds to an annulment where the martial bond was never legitimate in the first place; as if the marriage never took place at all. The most common basis of divorce a vinculo was bigamy; an already existing valid marriage was present before a second marriage was entered into meaning the first marriage was valid while the second marriage was never legitimate from the beginning. Also divorce a vinculo was sought on the basis of a party claiming they were coerced into the marriage so that they never truly consented to the marriage in the first place making the marriage invalid from the beginning. Remarriage was allowed after a divorce a vinculo.
Lastly I’ll leave you with a little taste of how Londoners in the latter part of the 15th Century dealt with fornicators:
June 14, 1473 – Joan Chylde v. Thomas Rote. “This deponent” refers to William White, founder, 36 year old man.
“[T]his deponent came, together with eleven other men from the neighborhood, just outside the west door of the church of the Austin friars of the city of London, to have a meeting of the Twelve, vulgarly called the inquest of the ward moot. In the presence of the ward moot, Thomas Rote personally appeared, having been previously detected to the Twelve concerning fornication committed by him and Joan Chylde. One of the Twelve, whose name he cannot recall at this moment, asked Thomas why he kept company in this way with Joan Chylde, and Thomas, in front of the Twelve and of Joan Chylde who was also there similarly detected to the Twelve, answered that he kept company with Joan in this way because he intended to make her a good woman, as he said. He said moreover that he wished to have her as his wife. Joan Chylde, in the presence of this deponent and the other men, responded right away that she also wished to have Thomas as her husband. Thomas said first to the Twelve and to Joan, “I will have Joan as my wife”; Joan then said to the Twelve and to Thomas, “And I will have Thomas as my husband.” Before this deponent and the Twelve, they both kissed one another, which this deponent testifies from his own sight and hearing. Otherwise he has nothing else to depose concerning these parts [of the statement], except that Joan and Thomas were dismissed from the ward moot because of the words they had spoken before the Twelve, and they were not presented to the Alderman of the Ward, as he says. . . .”
Notice that Thomas Rote and Joan Chylde exchanged words of marriage in the future tense. This means they did not marry in front of the 12 members of the ward moot; they simply committed themselves to marriage if they consummated their future tense marriage vows by having sex again.
My primary source is:
“Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London”
General Editor: Joel Rosenthal, State University of New York at Stony Brook
Selected, Translated, and Introduced by: Shannon McSheffery
Published for TEAMS (The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages)
Published by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan – 1995
Source for recent statistical information on England and Wales:
Office for National Statistics – Births and Fertility