When is a clandestine wedding not a secret wedding?


As demonstrated by the life of Joan of Kent, clandestine marriages were not always invalid marriages, nor were they solely the province of the lower classes. Joan had two clandestine marriages: one to Thomas Holland and the other to Edward of Woodstock, the Prince of Wales. Joan’s difficulty with establishing the validity of the first shows in part why the church frowned on them and tried to stamp them out.

The church had been trying for centuries to control marriages, but all that was needed for a valid marriage was for the two people concerned to say to one another that they were married. There were other conditions, of course. They could not be too closely related, as in the case of Joan and the Prince, and they could not already be married to someone else. They did not need to be married inside a church or by a priest, nor did the marriage need to be recorded officially.

Clandestine marriages were not necessarily secret, although that was so in Joan’s case. The marriage vows themselves were often made publicly. Clandestine simply meant that there was no public betrothal and no solemnisation. The public betrothal allowed anyone who had an objection to the marriage to make it before the wedding itself took place. The church wanted couples to be married with a priest in attendance. The idea was not that the priest married them, for the couple did that themselves when they made their vows to one another. They were not even married inside the church. If the couple were having a ‘church wedding’ it took place in the church porch, with the couple only going inside if a nuptial mass was to be celebrated. If they were not getting married in front of a priest, they could be married anywhere they chose.

Clandestine marriages had the disadvantage that, most often, only the couple themselves knew that it had taken place and either of them could say that there had been no marriage (or claim that they were married to someone when they were not). It happened frequently that a woman would have sexual intercourse with a man she believed to be her husband, only to have him repudiate the marriage later, usually if she became pregnant. This was the course that Joan of Kent’s relatives urged her to take when she told them that she was married to Thomas Holland. She had been young, only twelve at the time, and impressed by an older man (he was probably about twenty-four), but Joan insisted that, not only had the marriage taken place, but that it had also been consummated. It was also not unknown for a woman whose marriage prospects were slim to claim that she was married to a man who had made no such promises.

There were many discussions in the medieval church, as well as in legal circles, about what constituted marriage. Was it the promising to one another of the two people concerned? Was it the consummation? Was it the living together after both of these? In the end it came down to the promising to one another of two people able to do so, which was why it was so difficult to eradicate clandestine marriages.







Filed under Fourteenth Century

12 responses to “When is a clandestine wedding not a secret wedding?

  1. Fascinating – I knew about men ‘pretending’ to marry women in order to bed them in Medieval times, but had no idea how it worked. Do you think this is any different to the beach weddings people have when they go abroad nowadays?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Strangely enough, I did think about Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall while I was writing this, but theirs would probably have been considered a valid wedding in the fourteenth century. i only say ‘probably’, because I don’t know what they said to one anther. But, yes, if one of the parties is intending not to be married, it’s pretty much the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Marriage as we know it, with authorised celebrants, is a relatively modern invention – stemming, I think, from an 18th century Marriage Act?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, although most weddings moved into churches long before that. Announcing the banns goes back to the middle Ages, but I haven’t been able to find out yet when that started. It was originally a civil, rather than a religious, ceremony, which didn’t require a celebrant or an official record. It gradually became a religious ceremony, which required both and is now mainly a civil ceremony again, at least in this country.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes – I just did a quick scout on the Internet and found the 1753 Marriage Act, which was intended to put a stop to clandestine marriages. Prior to that a priest (by then Anglican) was supposed to be in attendance, but I’m not sure when priests came to be regarded as necessary.

    People were still marrying in the 16th and 17th centuries by exchanging vows of the ‘I take you as my husband/wife’ kind in places like inns. (A good supply of alcohol handy.) By then there had to be at least one witness present if the marriage were to be recognised as binding, even if not strictly legal.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve only read a couple of books on the subject and they end in the 1400s and they don’t mention it either. Should I ever find out, I’ll put it somewhere. My guess is that priests quickly became necessary for kings and aristocracy, but nobody else was terribly bothered. More reading is, as always, required.


  4. And sometimes the books are contradictory! The establishment of the Church of England and its liturgy probably helped bed-in the importance of the priest. And where a priest was present, the marriage wasn’t open to being challenged. However, priests were also known to have participated in clandestine marriages where, for example, the couple were marrying without parental (or other) consent.

    It’s a fascinating topic, not least because of modern debates about what is, or isn’t, a marriage and who can marry.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Very interesting post and discussion, ladies!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fascinating post! Denise, aka toutparmoi, suggested that I look at your blog since I am also a history buff. And I’m so glad that she gave me the tip! Terrific blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Medieval marriage | A Writer's Perspective

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s