Elizabethan Era Courtship, Marriage & wedding customs


  • Betrothal was the mutual promise or contract for a future marriage (the old form of an engagement).
  • At a betrothal, the two people join hands. The man gives the woman a ring to be worn on the right hand. It changes to the left at the wedding. They seal the contract with a kiss, and signatures on a contract.
  • A marriage contract includes provision both for the bride's dowry and for a settlement, in cash and property by the husband's family, which guarantees her welfare should her husband die first. If he breaks the marriage contract without good cause, he has to give back any tokens or gifts received.
  • Betrothals can be cancelled by mutual consent. In certain circumstances, one can withdraw from the marriage contract. Some possible reasons include religious differences, having multiple marriages, guiltiness of enmity or drunkenness, and long periods of separation.


  • A dowry was an amount of money, goods, and property that the bride would bring to the marriage. It was also referred to as her marriage portion.
  • The dowry was an Elizabethan Wedding custom which benefited the husband.
  • The law gave a husband full rights over his wife. She effectively became his property after marriage.

Wedding Announcement

  • The Elizabethan Wedding custom dictated that the couple's intention to marry had to be announced in the church three times on three consecutive Sundays or Holy days.
  • This allowed time for any objections to be raised or prior contracts to be discovered.
  • Any marriage not published beforehand was considered clandestine and illegal.

Wedding Procession

  • A bridal procession would move from the family's house to the church. This was a particularly festive event and the procession would be accompanied by musicians.
  • Once at the church the ceremony would be a solemn one. In Elizabethan times, everyone would stand as there were no pews in the churches.
  • When the marriage ceremony was over the wedding procession would return to their homes.
  • The families of the couple would sometimes enjoy a wedding feast and were wished a long and happy life.

The Wedding Dress

  • The bride did not wear a white wedding dress, this was a later tradition. Instead she would wear her best gown and kirtle, or even a new gown if the money was available. The gown would cover most of the body and would be full length.
  • A cloak was used as an outer garment. Velvet, satins and corduroy were costly and therefore worn by the nobility. The wedding garments belonging to the majority of brides were generally made from flax, cotton and wool. Colors came in a variety of different shades: red, blue, greens, yellow, white, grey, black, orange and tan. Corsets were occasionally worn but any additional undergarments were rarely heard of.
  • The bride would wear flowers in her hair and they would also adorn her gown. Unmarried girls were allowed to wear their hair loose but once married it had to be hid beneath a bonnet.
  • Wealthy brides had garments which were adorned with jewels and gold and silver thread.
  • It was also traditional to carry a bouquet.
  • A bride would have bridesmaids and these would be similarly attired.

The Wedding Ring

  • A wedding ring stood as a significant symbol for Elizabethans.
  • Girl: It was a symbol for her willingness to get married to her husband.
  • Boy: It was a symbol of the girl’s hand in marriage to him.
  • The ring goes on the third (ring) finger of the left hand just as it does today.
  • The common belief was that women have a vein in that finger that leads directly to the heart. Even people who know that can't be true believe it at weddings.

Other Wedding Customs

  • Large families were common as the mortality rate for children and babies were so high. Many Elizabethan woman made arrangement for the care of their children in case they themselves died during childbirth.
  • With parental permission the legal age for Elizabethan marriages was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. It was not usual or traditional for marriages at such young ages. The actual age of consent was 21. Elizabethan men would generally not marry until this age.
  • Women were subservient to men. They were dependent on their male relatives to support them. Elizabethan women were raised to believe that they were inferior to men and that men knew better than them. Disobedience was seen as a crime against their religion.
  • Marriages were frequently arranged so that both families involved would benefit. Marriages would be arranged to bring prestige or wealth to the family.
  • Many couples would meet for the very first time on their wedding day. This particular Elizabethan custom usually applied to the nobility. But, for women, the married or religious lives were the only options as jobs for them were unheard of.
  • Regardless of social standings, women and men were expected to marry.


  • The structure of marriage from the Elizabethan Era greatly differs from the structure of marriage today. The structure of Elizabethan Era marriage was the driving factor that caused Shakespeare’s plays, namely Romeo and Juliet to play out the way they did. To fully understand his works, one must first fully understand his view on marriage.
  • In Romeo and Juliet, the topic of marriage was the underlying concept of the whole play. For example, Lord Capulet arranged a marriage for Paris and Juliet and if it would have followed, this same procession would likely have taken place. Also, Romeo and Juliet got married at young ages as many did during this era. The play also includes many other times where marriage customs such as these were followed.
  • These customs don’t only relate to Shakespeare, but to modern day as well. Even today, in some cultures and societies, arranged marriages and the customs following it are very common. This goes to show how concepts from Shakespeare’s age are still relevant today in our everyday lives.

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