Love and Marriage in the 17th Century

We had a fascinating and informative talk at the Mothers’ Union meeting in February, when Anne Blackett spoke on “Love and marriage in the 17th Century. Anne and a colleague decided to mount an exhibition on 17th Century marriage, at Woolsthorpe Manor.

The historical records dealt with the yeomanry and the gentry, i.e. money and class. Usually a young man’s father would write to the girl’s father, making introductions. The young man would then visit the girl three times, giving her a piece of money on the third occasion. After approximately a further six months, the couple would visit the young man’s family, and wedding plans were made, for a short time hence.

Unmarried women had little social position in 17th century. Marriage was considered much more preferable. It was expected that a couple be of similar age, and social class. There was to be no wife beating unless absolutely necessary, and if so, a stick no thicker than a finger, was to be used.

In 1662, three things were considered to be essential for marriage – a mutual liking, a contract (allocating land and goods), and a betrothal. The latter often took place at the church door. It was noted that “Courting and wooing leads to dallying and doing”.

Wedding banns were read three times, sometimes in the market place, as well as in church. Marriages did not take place in Advent, Lent, or Rogationtide. There were no wedding dresses per se, but the bride might well have a new jacket and shoes. There were silver buttons, trinkets, and red stockings. Lots of ribbons were worn. These were called “Flying Colours”. The husband would give his wife a pair of gloves, gloves being worn only by married women and widows.

The wedding procession assembled at the bride’s home, each young man pairing up with a maiden behind the bride, and so, they walked to the church, often led by a piper. The dowry was handed over before the ceremony, at which the Book of Common Prayer was used. The ring was put over the bride’s thumb, then over her first and second fingers, before being placed on her third finger. Thus the lad became Master, and the maid became Dame or Mistress.

After the wedding feast the bridesmaids would throw items of the bride’s apparel backwards, over their heads, as a bride’s bouquet is thrown, in modem times. The bride was to become a godly matron, devoted to promoting domestic piety. She was expected to teach the children to read from the bible, and to keep the feasts as appropriate. She was supported by her gossips. The old English meaning of gossip was a friend or supporter, like a Godparent. The gossips helped to look after newly born children. The groom was acknowledged as Head of the household.

The 17th Century emphasis on pairing couples of similar ages, backgrounds, and mutual interests, would suggest a belief that a good match could lead to a good marriage.

The next meeting of the Mothers’ Union is on Thursday 9th March, at 2.15pm in church. Wim Zwalf will preside at Holy Communion, and then give a talk about his family.

Helen Bush