Making Marriages

In the first of a three-part series on ‘Marriage at Court’, researcher Laura Slater explains how aristocratic marriages were brokered, and how love was mostly for the lower orders of society.


painting of a betrothed pair with a crowd and a lion

Henry and Catherine –
Vasari, 1550 fresco in the ‘Sala  di Clemente VII’, Palazzo Vecchio

The medieval court was a great marriage market. Royal and aristocratic marriages were not about love and affection, but politics and power. Noble unions were strategic alliances, carefully calculated to maximise wealth and power, to preserve particular territories or enhance a family’s social and political position. Royal marriages might be intended to make peace between warring nations, bolster the shaky position of a new dynasty on the throne, or renew a longstanding diplomatic alliance.


Dynasties liked to glory in their noble ancestry- many European aristocrats boasted of a descent from Charlemagne, for example. Marriage to a social inferior (known as disparagement) was thought to permanently taint an aristocratic bloodline. When the future Henry II of France married Catherine de Medici in 1533, many sneered at the union of the ancient royal house of Valois with the daughter of an upstart ducal dynasty of rich Florentine merchants and bankers.

An illumination showing the betrothal of a couple by a priest, with joined hands

BL MS Royal 6 E VI, f. 375r.

One of the slogans of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt directly attacked the noble obsession with lineage, pointing out humanity’s common ancestry: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who was then the gentleman?’

The English king held legal rights of marriage over widows and wards (children who inherited their lands when still underage), which he could use, sell or give away as favours as he pleased. A widow who wanted to avoid marrying again would have to buy the right to do so from the king. But if she was a great heiress, and her marriage rights had been granted to a courtly favourite in need of a grand estate, it might be very difficult to avoid marrying him. Similarly, young children whose estates were in the keeping of a guardian might also be obliged to marry their guardian’s son or daughter.


Illumination of men with crowns standing around a young girl. A castle is in the background

Richard II and his young wife Isabella (BL MS Royal 14 D VI, f.268v)

In theory, a medieval marriage wasn’t valid unless both parties had freely consented to it. But in the world of the court, where marriage was a matter of public business rather than private affection, few expected to have a completely free choice over their future spouse. St Augustine defined marriage not by its consummation, but by ‘affections of the mind’. This ‘sacramental’ view of marriage saw mutual love between the couple as both sign and substance of God’s grace. It became increasingly popular in late medieval Europe.

But love was for the little people…at court, marriages could be brokered at such a young age, ideas of mutual support and affection would have seemed extremely remote. Margaret Beaufort, mother of the future Henry VII of England, was betrothed to her first husband when she was between the ages of one and three. In 1397, Isabella of Valois married Richard II and became queen of England at the age of just seven. Richard’s wedding presents to his wife included a set of dolls.


In our next post, find out about the dangerous business of medieval childbirth, and just when you were expected to pay your ‘marital debt’. . .

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