Helen Castor’s Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death – Episode 2: A Good Marriage


p01hxq0fThe second episode of Helen Castor’s series “Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death” aired on BBC4 last night and this one focused on marriage. I took notes for those of you who weren’t able to watch it…

At the beginning of the programme, Helen Castor reminded viewers of her research into the Paston family, a family whose 1000+ letters, spanning three generations, can still be read today in the British Library’s archives. This collection of letters is the earliest surviving collection of private correspondence in the English language. Castor introduced us to John Paston, the son and heir of the Paston family, who was meeting his future bride, Margaret Maltby, for the first time in April 1540. At this point, nobody knew if the marriage would actually go ahead. As was tradition, the parents and family friends had arranged the marriage based on the rules of the church and it was hoped that the two young people would like each other and that love would follow. Castor explained that we’d describe the Pastons as “nouveau riche” today. They were a wealthy family with estates across north-east Norfolk and a town house in Norwich, England’s second city, but they were not aristocrats and had risen from peasants to gentry in just one generation. The Pastons needed a bride of good social standing for their son to secure the future of the family. Margaret Maltby was from a family of good standing and she was heiress to her late father’s estates, so she was ideal. Castor pointed out here that families could not force a couple to marry, but thankfully John and Margaret liked each other and their families could push ahead with the match. Within six months, John and Margaret were man and wife.

Castor commented that marriage built families and families were the building blocks of society. She then went on to talk of royal marriages, where there was more at stake than just a family’s security, the future of a whole country rested on the royal match. These marriages were arranged by diplomats and young monarchs and princes/princesses were pawns who could be manipulated at a young age. Castor used Richard II as an example. Richard was only 10 years old when he came to the throne but his councillors quickly began searching for a suitable wife for him. They finally settled on Anne of Bohemia, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, and began negotiations. The marriage was ratified in autumn 1381, Anne arrived in England in December 1381 and the couple were married on 20th January 1382, just two days after Anne arrived in London. They were just 15 years old and did not know each other, but, fortunately, love did follow the wedding. Richard was a devoted husband and was grief-stricken when Anne died at the age of 28. When Richard died, he was laid to rest next to his wife and their effigies showed them holding hands. They were lucky to find love together.

Castor then went on to talk about normal people and their experience of marriage. She talked to Professor Judith Bennett who had researched records in Bridstock, Northamptonshire. Bennett explained that once a marriage was agreed upon, the parents had to agree what contribution each side would make to the marriage. For example, in the case of a Henry Cook marrying a girl called Beatrix, Henry came to the marriage with a tenement and 12-15 acres of land and Beatrix’s father gave a cow, some clothing and also promised to pay for the wedding feast. Bennett also explained how the ritual of marriage could be either formal or informal. In an informal marriage, the couple could marry anywhere – in a pub, in a road, in a forest etc. – just by agreeing to marry, clasping their right hands together and exchanging vows. This would make them married and they didn’t even need witnesses. A marriage was valid wherever it took place, as long as these vows were exchanged.

Castor talked about the Church’s view on sex. Sex was seen as sinful so the Church needed to make rules to control it. However, as Castor pointed out, the Church hadn’t always had that control. She took viewers back to 1066 and the Battle of Hastings, where King Harold was defeated by William the Conqueror. William was actually known as William the Bastard until this point because he was illegitimate. His father, Robert the Magnificent, and his mother, the daughter of a tanner, had never married. But this didn’t matter at the time because his father had recognised him as his son and as heir to the duchy. William’s illegitimacy had not held him back or prevented him from becoming King of England, yet, things had changed when William’s son Henry I died. Henry only had one legitimate child, a daughter called Matilda, and this was a time when women were not seen fit to rule. However, he did had over 20 illegitimate children, but nobody even suggested that one of his illegitimate sons should become King. The Church’s rules regarding marriage and sex now determined who could and couldn’t inherit the throne.

Castor explained how there was a powerful movement of reform in the Church in the 12th century. It was believed that the behaviour of people in this life would be judged in the next, so it was essential for the Church to define marriage and control sex. Marriage came to be regarded as one of the seven sacraments and because it symbolised the union of Christ and the Church it was considered to be unbreakable. The trouble was that only free consent and the exchanging of vows was needed for a marriage to be valid, and this was hard to prove and police. The situation had spiralled out of control and a person could leave their spouse, remarry and then be taken to court over whether their first marriage had been valid. This situation resulted in statutes being issued from Salisbury in the 13th century to try and correct the ways that vows were being taken and consent given. Although the Church could not change the theological principle that consent made a marriage, it could create rituals and encourage couples to have their marriage solemnised by a priest in public. Missals were, therefore, copied and distributed to priests so that they could learn the liturgy. Castor looked at a 14th century book which contained instructions for worship for a priest and had a two page section on marriage, with music that the priest should sing etc. Following an actual marriage service left nobody in any doubt that the couple were married and that their life together belonged to God.

Castor then spoke to John Hooper, a specialist in Medieval liturgy, who explained that due to holy days and the Church calendar there was only 1/3 of the year when marriages could be performed. The marriage ritual included banns being called on at least three holy days with one week in between, so usually on three successive Sundays. The reading of the banns prevented secret marriages because everyone in that locality would know that the marriage was taking place. On the actual wedding day, the priest would ask the couple and the congregation if there were any impediments to the marriage and then he would ask the couple, who stood in the church porch, if they took each as husband and wife. The husband would then put gold, silver and the wedding ring on the priest’s book and the ring would be blessed, The man would then move the ring from finger to finger on his wife’s right hand as he said “in the name of the father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” He would end with placing the ring on her ring finger on her RIGHT hand, not left as is usual in the UK today. The couple were now husband and wife. The priest blessed them and then took them into the church where a psalm was said. The couple would then go to the altar step for prayers and then to the altar, the Holy of Holies, where they would kneel or prostrate themselves and be hidden by a veil. When they arose, the Lord’s Prayer and the Peace would be said and the Priest would kiss the man, who then kissed his bride. It was then time to party. The priest’s job was finished, though. He joined the couple later in the bedroom to bless their bed and to bless the couple in bed for the consummation of their marriage. The Church managed to be there (well, not present for the whole thing!) for this most private part of the marriage and this was seen as necessary because of the way that sex was seen as tainted by the sin of lust. It was believed that lust could be constrained by a Godly marriage and that sex in marriage was good and, in fact, compulsory. A man and wife were now one flesh and owed each other the marriage debt. To refuse sex within marriage was wrong because the person was not honouring this debt.

Only a consummated marriage reflected Christ’s union with the Church, so a marriage was only valid if it had been consummated. Castor then told the story of Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII. They had got married at a lavish ceremony at St Paul’s in 1501 and were then put to bed by their lords, ladies and clerics. The priest blessed the bed and the couple and then they were left alone to have sex. Of course, what happened next caused a huge dispute between Catherine and her second husband, Henry VIII, which led to the Break with Rome. Arthur was said to have exclaimed the next morning how thirsty he was because “I have been this night in the midst of Spain”, so the witness to these words could testify that Arthur had consummated his marriage.

Castor then changed the subject to sex outside marriage and how 13th century statutes stated that sex outside of marriage was a mortal sin. Fornicators were tried and punished publicly. Roger Le Gardiner was whipped for fornicating for the seventh time and another couple were excommunicated and whipped for committing adultery. The whipping would take place in the town marketplace for everyone to see the punishment of this sin. However, as Castor pointed out, the Church’s rules could not contain the messy reality of love and lust. The Paston Letters tell the story of a brave couple who actually used the Church’s teachings on marriage to defy family pressure. Margery Paston, the eldest daughter of John and Margaret Paston, was a strong-willed girl of around twenty who had fallen in love with Richard Calle, a bailiff in his 30s who was part of the Paston household. The couple managed to keep their romance secret for nearly two years but then Margaret Paston discovered it in 1469. She was horrified because Richard, being the son of a shopkeeper, was unacceptable. Richard was banished to London, but what the family did not know was that the couple had already exchanged vows and in a letter to Margery Richard described her as his true wife “before God”. Castor commented on how Richard was a man of integrity who was in a difficult situation because he was faced with the ruin of his career and was separated from the woman he loved. Margaret Paston turned to the Church to context the marriage and Margery was dragged in front of the Bishop of Norwich to explain the vows she and Richard had made. Margery did not falter, she defended her marriage and the vows that had been exchanged. By the Church’s own law, consent made a marriage and if a couple insisted that vows had been made then there was nothing that could be done by the family or the Church. Margaret never forgave her daughter, but Margery could be with Richard.

But what if a couple changed their mind later?

Castor explained that marriage had to be regarded as everlasting because it symbolised Christ and the Church. The Church, therefore, made it impossible for people to get out of marriage, it really was “til death do us part”. This meant that people became trapped in marriages and their only option to try and get out of one was to contest if they had actually married in the first place. It was the Church Courts who dealt with marriage disputes and the records in the York Church Court Archives show that a third of all cases brought to the court involved marriage litigation. One way of a woman getting out of a marriage was to claim that her husband was impotent, and therefore could not consummate the marriage. Records from the 14th and 15th century York archives show that prostitutes were called in by the court to examine the man and to physically test him. The prostitutes would then report back to the court. There are rather graphic testimonies in the records.

The expert on the York records commented that 6 or 7 out of 10 marriage litigation cases were to do with whether the marriage was actually valid in the first place. One cases that that had pages and pages of records was that of Agnes Huntingdon in the 14th century. Agnes had fallen in love with John de Bristol, the son of a neighbour of her family, and by 1339 they were having a romance. The family did not approve and called in the Church authorities to investigate what the couple had been up to. Agnes and John wanted to be together and knew that they had to exchange vows quickly to cement their relationship. They therefore tricked a servant into being at the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e. being a witness to them exchanging vows. However, Margaret, the servant, was an unwilling witness and did not want to hear the vows. Evidence from the records suggests that she only hear Agnes’s side of the vows, not John’s. Agnes’s mother went so far as to threaten a clerk of the court, who had apparently found evidence in support of the couple, that she would have his legs broken and in the end Agnes was forced to back down. She went on to marry another neighbour, Simon de Monkton, and they had a child together. In 1344/5, Simon began to behave violently towards Agnes and also tried to get her to sell her family’s lands. When Agnes refused, he beat her. Agnes sought the court’s help to end her marriage and even witnesses in support of Simon admitted that he had beaten Agnes badly, although they tried to justify it. Agnes claimed that her husband was violent and that their marriage was not valid because she was already married to John de Bristol. Unfortunately, we have no record of the sentence so we do not know what happened.

Under Church law, a couple could only get out of their marriage by disproving its validity. If a marriage was proved invalid then it was annulled; divorce did not exist. The grounds for annulment were extremely limited, you had to prove one of the following:

  • That you were already married when the marriage took place
  • That you had been forced into the marriage
  • That you were insane at the time of the marriage
  • That you were too closely related to your spouse
  • That consummation had not taken place

Castor commented that people did their best to escape unhappy marriages and gave the example of Alice Hobbs who appealed to the Church court at Old St Paul’s in 1476 to be released from her marriage to her philandering husband, William Hobbs, principal surgeon to King Edward IV. The couple had been married for twenty years and had five children, but Alice’s neighbour had told her that William was a regular customer of the stews (brothels) in Stew Lane, Southwark. The court sided with Alice and Castor said that the Church did recognise that some couples just could not carry on living together. Alice did not get an annulment or divorce, but she was allowed to legally separate from William, although she could not marry again.

The most famous case for annulment, of course, is that of Henry VIII. This was such a complex case that it changed the Church and State forever. Anne Boleyn, the woman Henry was smitten with, had refused to be the King’s mistress so Henry wanted to make her his queen. Back in 1509, the Pope had bent the rules and allowed Henry to marry his brother’s widow, even though the couple were too closely related, and Henry became convinced that their lack of a son pointed to God’s condemnation of the marriage. He argued for an annulment and believed that the Church was wrong for standing in his way. Catherine, however, would not go quietly and insisted that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. In 1529, she gave an impassioned defence of her marriage to Henry at the Legatine Court, arguing that she had been “a true maid” when she married Henry. Pope Clement VII was under pressure from Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Catherine’s nephew, so was unwilling to annul the marriage. Henry VIII decided that the only solution was to get rid of the Pope’s authority. In 1533, he married Anne Boleyn and in 1534 an act of Parliament made Henry the head of the Church in England. This was the only way that Henry could see to get around the Church’s rules; to reject its authority altogether. This move on Henry’s part changed the religion of his people forever. However, it was centuries before divorce was possible for normal people.

Helen Castor finished the programme by talking about how the Reformation changed England forever and it unlocked the door, it also changed people’s views on death and the afterlife. She will be discussing how death shaped life for the people of the Middle Ages in next week’s episode.

You can view “A Good Marriage” at YouTube – see http://youtu.be/HwJaQb3M4-8

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