Medieval Betrothals


In this second post relating to the Soldiers of Fortune series of novels I’m looking at betrothals. A betrothal was sometimes a precursor to marriage, but it was not necessary to enable a marriage to take place. What did and did not constitute a marriage in the fourteenth century is a different topic, but they could be secret or public. A betrothal was always a public act.

There were, generally speaking, two ways to marry. One was by present consent and the other by future consent. The latter was a betrothal. The vows made in a betrothal were such that the couple said that they intended to marry and would be married if they consummated that intention physically. When that consummation took place (weeks, months, years later) they were married. Sometimes there was another ceremony after the betrothal and before the consummation, but that was rare.

A betrothal was not a religious ceremony.

Both children and adults could be betrothed. Although it was more usual for a child to be betrothed to another child, a child was sometimes betrothed to an adult.

Children became adults at a much younger age than they do today. We saw last week that men were not considered too young to lead an army at fifteen and sixteen, and boys and girls came of age much younger than they do now.

A marriage was not supposed to be consummated until the woman was capable of bearing a child and the couple might wait for some time after that. Some did not. Joan of Kent maintained that she consummated her clandestine marriage to Thomas Holland at the age of twelve. When she was married to William Montague later that year, the unwilling bride and her new husband lived apart, because she was considered too young to consummate the marriage. It’s believed that Edward II, who married Isabella of France when she was 12, waited two or three years before consummating their marriage.

Fourteen was the acceptable age for cohabitation for a woman.  She was considered to be in her prime child-bearing years in her late teens and early twenties.

Marriages were often used by aristocratic families to cement alliances as parents betrothed their children to one another. Betrothals could be, and were, broken. Loyalties changed and someone who was seen as an ally one day could be an enemy the next.



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, Medieval Marriage

16 responses to “Medieval Betrothals

  1. I didn’t realise that a betrothal automatically became a marriage on consummation..handy!I’ve always thought also the idea of getting child bearing out of the way early (before you have time to think about it!) is a good one…though in those days you couldn’t chose when to stop I suppose.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d always assumed that a betrothal was the same as an engagement but that’s clearly not quite the case.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In some respects it was a bit like an engagement, except that the wedding came at the beginning rather than at the end, sort of. As is the case with many things medieval what was usual and what was not is hard to work out. Most of what’s known about betrothals is from the times when things went wrong and the parties involved ended up in the manorial court.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nowadays many people, in Western societies at least, talk of “marriage” as if there’s only one way to do it. And that the way to do it has been set in stone forever.

    Whereas forming a couple for economic and/or reproductive purposes (or, if you’re important enough, political ones) seems to have been, and still is, a surprisingly flexible arrangement that just keeps on evolving.


    • Yes. A book I’m reading at the moment has spent about 10 pages saying that marriage is not something that can be defined in a single statement that encompasses everything that people meant by marriage in the Middle Ages. It is interesting to read about what theologians thought marriage should be and what manorial courts demonstrated that it wasn’t.

      The reasons why people married (or didn’t) were as varied in the Middle Ages as they are today.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This was quite interesting. Is it safe to assume that most people didn’t choose their own spouses, then?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s hard to tell. I think for the aristocracy that was probably the case, although there are glaring exceptions. At least two of Edward III’s children married people they wanted to marry rather than people he chose for them, including his heir, Edward of Woodstock. Given that you could be married just by saying to your intended spouse and he or she to you that you were married, there was a lot of scope for people to marry who they wanted to marry, rather than who their parents wanted them to marry.


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

  6. Tanya

    Hello April,
    Thank you for this post.
    Do you know where an aristocratic female child would live after she was betrothed at age 5 to another aristocratic male child also aged 5? So, would the child stay with the Mother until they were of age for marriage or did the child go and live with the other family that she was marrying into until she was of age?
    Thanks in advance!
    Kind Regards,


    • Hello Tanya, Either of those things could happen, but, at such a young age, I think she’d be more likely to stay with her own family. A lot could happen before either of them came of age.


Please join the conversation

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

You are commenting using your 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