Age of Consent
Children aged seven and over were considered capable of understanding what marriage entailed and could be betrothed. A marriage at this age, however, could not be consummated and was considered ‘provisional’. The age for full consent was set around the onset of puberty. This meant that girls could be wed at twelve years old and boys at fourteen.
That said, the average age for commoners to marry was considerably later—usually in their early twenties. (By the 16th Century, statistics from England indicate the mean age was 29 for men and 26 for women.)
Teenage marriages were more common for landed gentry and the aristocracy.
Medieval marriages did not need to take place in a church. Prior to 1215, marriage was not a sacrament and did not require a priest to witness the wedding to be official.
Many people, especially the aristocracy, however, did marry in a church. Or, rather, outside the church. Specifically, in the doorway where they were in sight of ‘God, the priest, and the people.’
Only once they had made their vows did they enter inside for a wedding mass. Kissing the bride did not form part of the vows. After mass, the priest gave the ‘pax’ (peace) to the groom then bade him give it to his new wife before kissing her on the mouth.
What makes a couple legally wed? In the 12th Century mutual consent was all that was needed. A couple need only state to one another, with or without witnesses, words along the lines of: “To you, I am wed” or “I take you as my husband/wife.”
(The present tense was important. A vow by both that “I will marry you” counted as a betrothal, not a marriage.)
This greatly aided clandestine weddings without parental involvement. It also made proving the other person had agreed to marriage challenging. Without consummation, a marriage could be more easily contested—or annulled.
In 1076, the Council of Winchester in England decreed such vows illegitimate without the blessing of a priest—to little avail. In 1200, the Council required banns to be read. Initially, no time limit or number was required. Over time, the tradition became three readings.
Beyond England, marriage did not become a sacrament (a Christian religious ritual) until 1215. In that year, the Fourth Council of the Lateran proclaimed numerous church policies regarding marriage.
The exchange of golden rings during the ceremony was not required in earlier medieval times. A ring made of rushes was an English folk custom through to the fourteenth century as this rhyme attests:
O Robin, I will marry you
Underneath a woodland bough
With a ring made of rush
Because that will be good enough.
A wed (the noun from which we derive the term ‘wedding’) could be any valuable gift, usually from groom to bride. Books, jewellery or coins would do. These symbolised that the groom could financially support his wife.
A couple would wear their best clothes for this important occasion, especially as it signified becoming adults in the eyes of their community.
White might have been worn but was an unlikely choice of colour for a bride. (It did not become the fashion for western weddings until the reign of Queen Victoria.) A woman who wished to show purity might wear blue since this was the favoured colour of the Virgin Mary.
Evidence for the use of veils is scant until the later thirteenth century. Though it should be noted that married women covered their hair in public.
Marriage by Proxy
A proxy wedding is when one of the partners is absent at the ceremony. This most often happened for royalty or between noble couples to ensure a legal arrangement was in place prior to relocating.
Exactly how it worked in practice is unclear, but the process of banns gives us a sense of how it operated.
Banns are simply proclamations of intent. Before these could be posted or read, the absent party provided a letter from a bishop to state their legitimacy for marriage. With this as proof of intent, each party then stated they were wed to the other in the presence of witnesses.
Such a marriage would be contractually binding but also provisional until consummated. If contested (e.g. for refusal or inability to consummate), then the injured party could expect compensation and might take legal action through either church or crown courts to achieve this.