Elizabethan Practices in Marriage & Courtship

Updated April 17, 2017

During the years 1558 to 1603, "Virgin Queen" Elizabeth I ruled England during what was ultimately one of the most fascinating periods in British history, an era that included colonisation of the New World and the works of William Shakespeare. The Elizabethan era was also when traditional ideas of love and marriage came to include the concept of courtship.


The concept of courtship developed in the Elizabethan era. The term itself derives from the manner in which lords, knights and assorted noblemen would woo the ladies of Queen Elizabeth's royal court with poetry, gifts and other expressions of affection. Before the courtship process could begin, however, the man was expected to request permission from the woman's father, who would grant him the privilege of his daughter's company during visits and social occasions.


Although a woman may have loved the man courting her, love was incidental when it came to marriages during Elizabethan times. In fact, brides had little say when it came to choosing a husband. Marriages were typically arranged by the families of the bride and groom. Among the higher classes, the size of the bride's dowry was an important factor, and could be negotiated by the prospective groom. The dowry was sometimes called the bride's "marriage portion."

Arranged Marriages

Arranged marriages were not uncommon in Elizabethan England. Families would often arrange marriages in exchange for money, property or status. A cash-poor noble, for example, might marry the daughter of a wealthy commoner in a mutually beneficial relationship that would provide him with wealth and her with a title. Marriages could also be arranged to cement political alliances, a typical practice among nobility. Arranged marriages were also common among the lower classes, with parents arranging unions for their children with the offspring of friends and neighbours.


A man would generally not marry until the age of 21, but women could be married far younger. Being married became a matter of increasing urgency as a girl grew older, as unmarried women during that era were often seen as witches. As today, a wedding would be celebrated with an extravagant feast, sometimes including such exotic fare as roast peacock, its brilliant feathers adorning the dish. The tradition of the bride wearing a white wedding dress had not yet come into fashion, so Elizabethan brides would be married in their finest gowns. For nobility, these were made of fabrics such as velvet and satin, while commoners wore gowns of cotton, flax or wool.

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