Marriage in Medieval London And Extricating Oneself Only You Couldn’t…


Artist’s impression of a medieval wedding being solemnised. ‘Frieze of a Medieval Wedding’.  Artist Thomas Stothard (1755-1835) Yale Centre for British Art.

I have,  in my most recent meanderings,  meandered quite a bit.  Of late I’ve meandered from the Plague Pits of London 1665 to  Gleaston Castle, rendezvous point for the 1487 Yorkist Rebels,  to Medieval Doggies and from there to Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London (1).  I came across this interesting little book while in  a meandering search looking for another entirely different book and very pleased I am – I have learnt much from it.   The subject of medieval marriages has been covered very well elsewhere but why I found this book a delight was because it details cases that were taken to the 15th century London Church  Courts (2).This was usually  in an attempt to have a marriage validated rather then dissolved – and in doing so opening up a window into the everyday lives of people of lower social levels and enabling their voices to be heard centuries later.  The need for these cases was triggered by the ease in which a marriage could be made but sometimes the difficulty in getting them later legally recognised (should someone try to opt out for example) as well as, should the worse come to the worst,  unmade.  There was no obligation to have  a witness present, leading to some cases where one of the spouses changed their minds at a latter date –  perhaps in the heat of the moment one of the parties had got confused as to what was actually going on – as you do – or had even suffered a convenient bout of amnesia.  The examples given in the book are interesting and in great detail and it’s a great shame that the outcomes, because they were noted elsewhere,  are unknown.

So how did one get hitched in those times.  All it took was for A to say to B ‘I take you B to be my wedded wife ‘and B to say to A ‘I take you A to be my wedded husband’ – known as present consent –  and bingo!   There was also  future consent i.e. ‘I will take you…. ‘ which was immediately validated once consummation had taken place.   In the case of the future consent marriage remaining unconsummated it could it be ended by mutual consent or if one of the partners made a present consent with someone else.   This exchange of consent was known as a ‘contract’  and it was not required to have a priest in attendance although from the Church’s perception it was preferable there was.IMG_9579

I do not know the origin of this illustration but it seems to me to scream a ‘future’ consent thing could be going on here..?

Neither were witnesses obligatory although of course, that too was desirable.   Of course all this only applied to marriages where both parties were willing and not being coerced.  I’ll return to this later.   The next step was to make it generally known to family, friends, employers and neighbours etc.,  with perhaps a wedding feast to celebrate. image

A 13th century wedding party celebration?  13th/14th century manuscript.

Finally, although not in all cases, after the banns were announced the wedding would be solemnised by an official church ceremony which could be performed either at the church door or in the nave of the church.   The Church would take a dim view if this final step was not undertaken and it was considered sinful not to go through this procedure even though the couple would remain married.   That was it basically.


Folk that were slow to solemnise the marriage in a church ceremony would be subtly persuaded by the local clergy…

Despite the almost casual ease of two people being able to enter into marriage by performing the ‘ceremony’ themselves in a domestic setting without the presence of a priest – and assuming there were no impediments –  marriage was nevertheless viewed as one of the sacraments of the Catholic church thus in the event a dispute arising it would come under the jurisdiction of church law which was  known as canon law.   Divorce being rare these disputes were usually about validating the marriage rather than dissolving it.  And this is where the ease of making a marriage and where it was not a necessary requirement to have witnesses could prove to be problematical in the event of one of the spouses later wanting out for whatever reason.  It would then fall to the injured/deserted party  to prove that the marriage had taken place.   The book states  ‘the issue at stake was almost always, whether or not consent had been properly exchanged, and a contract made. In other words, the party bring in the suit, usually wanted the court to validate the marriage, not to dissolve it’.  


Marriage was then considered more or less indissoluble and divorce was practically unknown although it could be sought in extreme cases on the grounds of adultery ,heresy, coersion or cruelty.   It should also be remembered that a medieval divorce was nothing like a modern divorce.  The divorce that was known as a mensa et thoro (from table and bed) was more a legal separation which freed the spouses from their obligation to live and sleep together otherwise known as  their conjugal debt.  However the couple still remained married and thus unable to marry anyone else.  Divorce a vincula (from the bond) was more of an annulment where the marriage had been invalid from the very beginning an example being:   ‘The most common basis for a divorce a vincula was a prior contract or bigamy.   X was already married to Y when he made a contract with Z,  and thus X’s marriage to Z never existed as X could not be married to two women at the same time’. 

Then as now marriages failed and extricating oneself could  prove to be a bit of a nightmare if not impossible.  This led to some couples simply self-divorcing i.e. one deserting the other with or without their agreement and blessing.   This may have solved some immediate difficulties but was nonetheless illegal and would have prevented the ex-spouses from making a second marriage unless of course one or both of them upped sticks and moved to a part of the country where they, and their marital history,  were unknown.

medieval couple

NOT BOTHERING TO GET HITCHED?  (Do not even think about it….! )

What about not bothering at all with the shenanigans ?  Well it appears to me only the boldest couples would indulge in a sexual relationship outside of marriage.  The opprobrium of an outraged neighbourhood would have been enough to shrivel the stoutest  hearts.  For example you might find a delegation of elderly,  disapproving, neighbours bearing down the path to your door….Yikes!’

‘Marriage … as the foundation of the social system,  it was considered to be of community concern as well. The wider community had both informal and formal means by which it encouraged or pressured men and women to conform to accepted norms and standards. If a couple were 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 neighbourhood 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 neighbourhood community might bring a case of fornication, adultery, or bigamy to the attention of the church courts. The local secular courts of the city also called fornicators and adulterers before them, and coerced them to marry or desist, such moral issues were of common concern (4).


As mention above as long both parties were willing and neither of them were under duress then all was well.  However if this was not the case then there might be some wriggle room to seek a divorce a vincula.  As mentioned above this was basically an annulment allowed because the marriage had never actually existed.  This type of divorce/annulment was sought by a William Rote on the 10 March 1475.   William declared that the contract/marriage between him and Agnes Wellys was invalid as it had been brought about under duress.  William declared that when he visited the house of John Wellys one afternoon, taking with him a jug of ale to drink with John, the welcome was not as warm as he had expected.  Instead a clearly incensed John raged ‘You have violated Agnes, my daughter and have known her carnally. You will contract marriage with her if I have to force you and you will be sorry’.  William agreed he had known Agnes carnally, but even so, he had no wish to marry her thank you very much.  Things rapidly went downhill after that :   ‘Then John Wellys in the presence of Agnes Wellys and Thomas Barber and his wife took out a dagger as if he meant to stab William.   John appeared to be very angry, and he was lifting his arm to stab this William when Thomas Barber stepped between them and Wellys pulled back. William took the opportunity to flee and run out of the house on to the public street.  Agnes and her mother ran after him shouting ‘holde the thef’.   They caught him and brought him back to the house where John Wellys was waiting.  Still very angry Wellys said that unless William would contract marriage with his daughter, Agnes, he or someone else in his name, would give him a sign that he would take with him to his grave.  Wellys said that he would bring William before the mayor and aldermen where he would be confounded by such embarrassment that the shame would compel him to contract marriage with Agnes, so as much from fear of his body, and from shame at appearing before the mayor and alderman, William contracted marriage there with Agnes(5)’ Afterwards William had summoned enough courage to take the case to court.    Frustratingly we do not know the result of this case but it’s difficult to see how anyone emerged from it undamaged with possibly the reputations of both William and Agnes damaged beyond repair.    


Despite the clear rules on the making of marriage contracts some people still pushed the boundaries and made more than one.  This invariably led to problems further down the line when one of the parties kicked up a fuss and then it would be down to the court to decide which contract had taken place first and was thus the binding one.

In the case of Maude Knyff –  who appears to have been a wealthy widow who had two gentlemen desiring to make her their wife –  a witness,  Arnold Snarynge,  came forward who swore that on the afternoon of  Wednesday 4 July 1470 he had been approached by Robert Grene who told him he had contracted a marriage with Maude.  He asked Arnold to come, that afternoon,  to Maud’s house to witness what would be said. This Arnold did and peering through the window he witnessed Robert, who he noted wore a gown of murrey, and Maud, wearing a black kirtle,  standing in the parlour embracing.  Robert, with his left hand, took from Maud’s left hand a gold ring. When that was done, Maud asked Robert to guard that ring well, out of love for her, because she would not want that ring to be lost, out of love for her deceased husband.  She said to Robert, their hands still joined together,  ‘Robert I shall never have husband but you and thereto I  plyght  thee  my trouth a fore god’.   Then Robert said,  their hands still joined,  ‘Gra mercy, maistress Mawlt,  I shall never have other wyf but you and thereto I plyght you my trouth a fore God’.   They then kissed one another.  This Arnold testified that he would swear before the ‘Highest Judge in the day of Judgement’. This seems pretty clear.  However, Maud would deny all.  According to her, fifteen days or more ago, she and Robert Green were sitting together in the shop at her house in the road known as Snowhill in the parish of St Sepulchre without Newgate. They were talking together about certain matters but what they talked about she could not remember.  While they were talking,  Robert took her by the left hand and took a gold ring with a blue coloured stone from one of fingers against her will.

At this point a lady by the name of Joan Bristall enters the story  testifying that a week earlier her husband had  instructed her to go to Maud’s house that afternoon to witness Maud being affianced to a man by the name of Thomas Torbold.  She found Thomas and Maud sitting together in the parlour.  Maud then announced to her ‘Behold here is my husband’.  Thomas then announced that Maud was his wife informing Joan ‘For the greater and more evident notice of this matter know that this Maud is my wife‘.  He took her by the hand and said to her ‘I Thomas take you Maud as my wife as long as we shall live and thereto  I give you my faith.’ Then Maud took him by the hand and said to him, ‘So am I, as longe as my lyf lastyth and the thereto I plgyht you my trough…’ . Thomas then declared ‘Behold Maude  is my wife,’  and she said, ‘And you are my husband’  holding up the gold ring on the index finger of her right hand.

When questioned by the court Joan would give her opinion of Robert Grene.  ‘He is a boy and a knave.  I truste to god he shall have a fall in his matier and he shall be hanged.  Fye on him, fals theff’.  

Clearly someone was telling porkies but whom?  Again, the outcome is unknown to this story.   Did Thomas and Maud live happily together or was the marriage between her and Robert found to be the legal and binding one?


Entwined in a letter ‘S’ for ‘sponsus’ – latin for groom or husband –  a man places a ring on a woman’s index finger. 14th century. British Library Royal MS 6 E VI, fol. 104

There are other numerous examples given in this interesting book covering some of the  pitfalls of medieval marriages.  Of course the majority would prove to be long lasting, loving and a great comfort in times that could sometimes be harsh and difficult.

roman de la rose

Roman de la Rose.  Oxford, Bodleian Library.

  1. Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London.  Editor Shannon McSheffrey.  The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages.
  2. The  Consistory Court of London between 1467 and 1476 and the Commissary Court of London between 1489 and 1497
  3. Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London  p.6.  Editor Shannon McSheffrey.  The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages.
  4. Ibid., p.19
  5. Ibid., p.81.

If you have enjoyed this post you might also like:



Old London Bridge and Its Houses by Dorian Gerhold – a review.


Murder and mayhem in medieval London

2 thoughts on “Marriage in Medieval London And Extricating Oneself Only You Couldn’t…

  1. I came across McSheffrey’s book last year and found it rough going, then again I was looking for specific information, as usual; this was a wonderfully concise, clear, pithy summation, probably what (this) reader wanted in the first place: engaging details coherently presented!

    McSheffrey also has another book on Sanctuary, laws and customs, which I found equally disconnected from – however, in her defense, I have specific questions and she is addressing both a wide expanse of time and locations.

    Liked by 1 person

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