What Were Arranged Marriages in Elizabethan Times?
Queen Elizabeth I was unusual in many regards. For example, she was one of a handful of English monarchs who never married. When pressed on the matter, she would answer that she was wedded to England. Her predicament was understandable. Even as a monarch, she would have been expected to submit to an arranged marriage, a practice that dated back to the Anglo-Saxons. In fact, arranged marriages were routine throughout the Elizabethan era, which ran from 1558 to 1603. Whether royal or commoner, one's parents almost always played a role in selecting one's spouse. This was a firmly entrenched tradition that would last well into the 19th century.
1 Royal Marriages
When Elizabeth assumed the throne in 1558, only two English monarchs had ever chosen their own spouses. One of them was her father, Henry VIII, who endured a succession of failed marriages. The purpose of a royal marriage was not love and affection but the cementing of an alliance with another country. In fact, royal children were commonly betrothed at a very young age. Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth's first cousin, was first betrothed at age 5. For a reigning monarch, the protocol was different. Marriage came about as a result of diplomacy, in which affairs of state were the primary consideration.
2 The Nobility
Nobles were equally cautious in their marital arrangements. For them, the goal of a union was economic. Its purpose was to strengthen a family by preserving its claim to wealth and land. With a well-secured marriage, a family could rise in society, move in court circles and enjoy other privileges. For this reason, noble children were often betrothed at an early age as well. To underscore the economics of marriage, the bride's family provided the groom with a dowry. In turn, his family provided the couple with a jointure, property or money to be used if the husband died.
Commoners also entered into arranged marriages. However, the protocols were often lax, since there was less at stake. In fact, forced marriages were very rare. While it was socially acceptable for parents to take charge of the process, young people had at least some say in whom they married. If parents disapproved of a union, a young couple might simply elope. If so, the marriage was valid. On the other hand, a forced marriage could be could be annulled, provided it was not consummated.
4 The Gradual Decline of Arranged Marriages
The idea of romantic love was by no means foreign to Elizabethans. Yet, it was not always the basis for marriage. Commentators wrote that mutual affections were more important to marriage than shared wealth. However, it was not until the 19th century that romantic love became an acceptable reason to exchange vows. The Victorian era saw a rise in upward mobility and prosperity that fundamentally realigned English society. The idea of entering into a union for monetary reasons became distasteful. Even Queen Victoria was said to be deeply attached to Prince Albert. In this new environment, the practice of arranged marriages gradually faded.