Marriage is defined in the English dictionary as “the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a legal, consensual, and contractual relationship recognized and sanctioned by and dissolvable only by law. 1″However, this definition had changed over time, and historians have different opinion on whether it has changed or have not.
The dates given to study must have significance, unlike the ritual of marriage in the twenty first century; common marriages in the 1500’s was one without witnesses or a ceremony, and soon after 1750, a new law was passed which stated the only legally valid form of marriage was in conducted in a church. Other changed must have occurred during 1500-1750, and it is this that will be investigated with consideration on the freedom of choice of marriage partner in England between these dates.
A number of factors will be looked at in order to answer the question; was there a significant increase in freedom of choice of marriage partner in England between 1500-1750? These factors are, Marriage before 1500, reforms that were placed during 1500-1750, the result of these reforms, and finally, what changed after 1750. It difficult to point out a certain immediate changes in history and more specifically when looking at change in freedom of marriage, changes can occur over a period of time, so looking at marriage before 1500 can not be specifically pin pointed to one date.
Nevertheless the consensus of the period just before 1500 was that many marriages were arranged and class driven, nevertheless many women had more rights, and in some cases the same choices on par with men, although work opportunities were never as good, they still had a good amount of freedom within English society. Before 1500, a priest was needed to be present in order to get officially married and there were no legal alternatives. And arranged marriages were common among the elite. Many women had a choice whether to marry or not before 1500, as it was not a patriarchal society.
Unfortunately “the women born in early modern England were born into an overly patriarchal society, in its broadest sense patriarchy means the political and social dominance of men over women and children. 2” By the 1500 many reforms came and changed marriage in England, and the freedom of choice in partner. However, when was this turning point? The reforms were one reason for the change in England, and having celebrated campaigners for the reforms on the law governing marriage included Henry VIII and John Milton, both of which, for different reasons wanted to be separated from an un satisfactory partner3.
Henry VIII was granted divorce yet this freedom was not granted to the general public until late into the nineteenth century, therefore this reform was not a huge changing point in freedom of choice of marriage partner between 1500-1750, but in the long term did grant more freedom to couples. “In the late sixteenth century, rural marriages were most common between April and July, but by the late seventeenth century marriages were more evenly distributed between early summer and autumn, this shift occurred because there was a greater disregard for the Church calendar. ” this shows the changing in attitudes towards the Church and a significant change in marriage.
“During the Civil War and Interregnum, reforms were enacted of which the most far-reaching was the 1653 Act which instituted civil weddings performed solely by a clergyman, were prohibited. 5” This huge change in the law was not met very fondly, and was in 1658 denounced. Nonetheless, this change does allow other religious sects to produce a variety of different forms of religious service6. This changed the dynamics of marriage, and allowed people to question the church’s beliefs.
By 1690 a tax on marriage introduced, yet with that created a form of tax envision, “Clandestine marriages increased in number during the later seventeenth century as more people sought cheaper more private ways of getting married. 7” In some sense you could say that the freedom of partner was greater, as secret marriages meant no approval from family or friends were needed. Therefore, this reform brought about a new secret and popular way of marriage, not only were they not paying the new Tax, but they got married without needing consent.
The result in the increase of clandestine marriages may have been the reform introduced in 1753, which stated that “the only legally valid form of marriage was one conducted in church according to the ecclesiastical canons, and recorded in the parish register. Pre-contracts and oral spousals ceased to have any force, and the consent of parents or guardians was required for anyone under twenty-one. 8” Although out of the time frame given, it is an indication as to the control taken within marriage. By 1754 there was no longer choice, or freedom as consent from parents or guardians was needed.
This would have proven difficult for many during the eighteenth century. Consequently, the freedom in marriage partner was very slim, as parents consent was needed, therefore it may not have been the man’s personality but his wealth, and if he would be able to take care of their daughter. As a result of the 1653 act, a number of other religions held their own wedding ceremony, this many historians argue is the turning point in the freedom of choice of marriage partner, “the belief that Protestantism had introduced new and more positive attitudes towards women, ,marriage and sexuality has had a lengthy history.
The medieval Catholic Church’s insistence in clerical chastity meant that anti-female arguments had been widely employed by the pre-reformation clergy to reinforce the merits if celibacy as spiritually superior to marriage. In contrast, the reformed clergy – many of whom, like Luther and Calvin, were married – insisted that they held marriage and wives in greater esteem than did their celibate Catholic opponents9. ” Unfortunately, even though women were started to been seen in a different light by some reformists, they were still dependant on a husband, or father figure.
Not only were unmarried women viewed suspiciously, but those who were not supported by their families faced severely limited opportunities for supporting themselves. Life outside marriage was far more difficult for women, than men, women’ social roles were much more to do with their family responsibilities, and therefore, women who were not married were distrusted because they were not under authority of a male household head10. Ironically, Anthony Fletcher author of Gender, sex and subordination in England 1500-1800 exclaims that “a number of commentators in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries noted the independence of English women.
They have far more liberty than in other lands and know jus how to make good use of it. 11” Although, later into the seventeenth and eighteenth century the economy began to pick up and demand for work increased, many women were confined to their house, while the man worked. Marriage, therefore seemed to be a matter of who would provide better, and keep their family happiest. Nevertheless, if a woman was not married many would look down at her, or accuse her of being a witch.
Therefore being married was highly important, financially and socially, this, in some sense has shown the lack of freedom in marriage partner. However, poor men and women had a free choice, as neither would gain from this marriage, whereas potential influences remain strong in noble marriages because a large amount of property was at stake. For a number of people in between, freedom to choose a marriage partner may have increased. “Paradoxically, single men encountered less prejudice and fewer economic difficulties; there were fewer of them outside marriage.
And such men were able to find willing partners, largely because of their superior wealth and earning power made marriage an attractive prospect for most women12”. England at the time was male driven, so it can be said, that there was a significant increase of choice of marriage partner, however only for the elite men in England, nevertheless, there parents, would still disagree if their son decided to marry someone of lower class. “Women’s opportunities and civil and ecclesiastical law declined some what over the course of the period 1650-1850.
The growing ascendancy of the common court over other jurisdictions was a disadvantage for women, given the common law principles that married women had both the manorial courts and the ecclesiastical courts declined in reputation and in the amount of business conducted. 13” Overall, there are many historical interpretations on the issue of freedom in early modern England, once interpretation was that there was, to an extent an increase in freedom of marriage partner, however, this was only really significant in the later half of the eighteenth century.
Nevertheless, important steps were made during 1500-1750 to gain the freedom sought by reformists. Although, the nobility still had little freedom, the poorer classes did. As Jacqueline Eales writes “the reformation and the English Civil War did have a specific impact on women. The religious dispute generated by the Reformations gave women a legitimate basis from which to oppose the authorities of the Church and state, and even their own husbands if they differed in religious belief. 14”
Needless to say, there was a significant increase in freedom of choice of marriage partner in England between 1500-1750; however, to what extent was this change? the upper classes did not benefit from the reforms that occurred during the period, they still were subjected to marry within their own class, and to someone both families approved of, yet more so for the man, than the women. As men became more powerful as their labour was in higher demand women’s role and responsibilities fell behind, and their role was to marry and breed.
This change in attitude made women less superior, and therefore, a choice in marriage partner was not down to the women, but the earning man. However, later in the period poorer men and women found they gained much freedom in when they got married and who they married, the lack of care for the Church’s calendar allowed people to marry when they wanted, and the new freedom that was encouraged by Protestant teaching made many see they had the choice, and did not have to listen to parents and so forth. Marriages in the late eighteenth century had changed from parent approval to love.