Essay on Marriage in Seventeenth-Century England: the Woman’s Story

2323 Words Sep 20th, 2012 10 Pages
Marriage in Seventeenth-Century England:
The Woman’s Story
Alice Brabcová
University of West Bohemia, Plzeň

The seventeenth century represents a fascinating period of English history, drawing the attention of whole generations of historians. This turbulent age saw three major events that had a deep impact on England’ s political as well as social life—the English Revolution, the
Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 and the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Amidst the turmoil of the events, people’s everyday lives unfolded. While it was men’s preoccupation to keep the country’s political and economic affairs going, women had an indispensable, though far less public, part to play. This paper aims at providing an outline of the
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Theoretically, it was possible for two people to marry very young. The minimum legal age was 12 years for women and 14 years for men. In addition, it was possible for the couple to get engaged at the age of 7, with the right to break off the engagement on reaching the minimum age of consent (Stone 1965: 652). However, early marriages were rather rare—the average age of the newlyweds was about 25 years.
Interestingly, the basic requirement for a legally valid marriage was not a formal consecration in a church, but the completion of a marriage contract, commonly called
‘spousals’. Spousals were an act in which the bride and groom said their vows in the present tense—‘per verba de prasenti’ (Ingram 1987: 126). In a majority of cases, this procedure was accompanied by a church ceremony (banns). Yet if the marriage was concluded without witnesses and not consecrated in a church, it had the same legal validity. This practice had existed in England since the twelfth century and lasted till 1753. Not having to go through a church ceremony made it possible for lovers to marry secretly, without the knowledge of their parents. In this way, they could escape the dynastic scheming of their families.

Alice Brabcová

Given its social significance, marriage was considered a matter of a larger community, not only the couple themselves. Although the number of purely arranged marriages was decreasing as opposed to the previous centuries,

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