Fiction, Feminism and Marriage

The medieval/early modern woman was defined by her marital status. As an adolescent she was an unmarried virgin until, as an adult, she entered the state of matrimony in which she would either die or survive to widowhood. Common subjects for modern historical fiction are the sex lives of the royal courtiers. Any such look at the sex lives of courtiers will inevitably glance upon their eventual marriage, as few people remained single at this time, those that did usually found their way into the celibacy of religious institutions. Fictional marriages however, are rarely representative of the state of marriage at the time. As a disclaimer this article focuses purely on the marriages of royal courtiers as portrayed in fiction, not marriage as a general state across the social strata of the period, in this case the Tudor years 1485-1603.

A page illustrating the marriage of Mary Tudor and King Louis of France.
A page illustrating the marriage of Mary Tudor and King Louis of France.

A typical fictional Tudor marriage is usually shown to be oppressive and restrictive for the woman and legally we can certainly see how this is the case. Medieval/early modern men had, in theory, complete power over their wives. Upon marriage a woman’s dower lands became the property of her husband for him to administer as he saw fit. If she outlived him she would regain those lands (or the equivalent if her husband had traded, sold or lost them) and hope that he had looked after them in the meantime. She lived where her husband chose for her to live. If her behaviour offended him, a husband could choose to have his wife sent away to one of his lesser used houses or at the extreme, put her in a convent. A wife could own no property in her own right and she would be reliant upon her husband for her income for clothes and general living expenses. He would even pay her household for her. In effect if he did not want her to eat, she wouldn’t. If he refused to pay for clothes she wouldn’t have any and if he stopped paying her staff wages then she would have no attendants. A husband could beat his wife and demand his rights to her bed whenever he chose.

With this rather bleak picture of marriage it is no wonder that the most common image we have of married woman of the time is that one of oppression. It is hardly surprising therefore, that many fictional heroines balk at the idea of marriage and instead try to assert their independence by marrying a man of their choice for love, assumedly because a man who loved her would never subject her to such a restrictive lifestyle.

However to accept this view as fact shows only the bare minimum of research. Yes a husband was entitled to all of the above, however it did not necessarily follow that upon marriage, all men became tyrants who kept their wives in constant penury. In fact, marriage was, as a general rule, an equal partnership with husband and wife working together to advance their standings and that of their family.

Of course as a modern Western audience we instantly sympathise with the about to be married woman, as Tudor marriages were, in the vast majority of cases, arranged. When the fictional heroine expresses displeasure at her impending marriage, she is instantly seen to be forced into a situation she does not want. The situation is not helped by the commonly put forth idea that if a family wanted to marry their young female relative off to an old man then they could.The BBC television adaptation of ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ shows the Boleyn family attempt to marry off the young and attractive Mary Boleyn to an aged and overweight Lord, mostly out of Anne Boleyn’s spite. Again, just because a family could do this it did not follow that they would. The overwhelming majority of families matched a bride and groom of similar ages, or at least with a reasonable age gap. While it was not unheard of for an aged man to take a young bride to be his wife it was certainly not the norm and usually caused some scandal with a great deal of sympathy for the woman. When Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk at age forty nine married the fourteen year old Catherine Willoughby, it was considered so unusual the Spanish ambassador included the news in his dispatches as worth mentioning for ‘the novelty of the case’.

Margaret Tudor
Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland angered nobles and her brother by marrying without permission.

The Tudor court was littered with women who made their own marriages against the plans of their family and the monarch. Princess Margaret, Princess Mary, both of the Boleyn sisters, Mary Queen of Scots, Katherine Grey, Elizabeth Throckmorton, Elizabeth Vernon, Lettice Knollys are just a handful of the women who made their own marriages. Henry VII’s own grandmother Catherine of Valois was one such woman. The fact is they were far more common than fiction would have you believe. While there was obviously a negative fall out when the marriage was discovered, only a very small proportion of these women were convinced to give their husbands up, the majority remaining married.

Kinship was everything to the families of the Tudor court. Marriages were arranged in order to strengthen family ties and give themselves greater connections which would ensure their family’s protection and prosperity. Parents would arrange their children’s marriages in order to ensure their future, I should take this moment to also point out that it was not only daughters who were married off to further their family ambitions, sons had equally no say in their choice of partner. Though husbands at least had the ‘consolation’ that once married they could do what they will with their supposedly, equally reluctant brides.

In theory while a wife did become the ‘property’ of their husbands in practice the marriage resulted in a very equal partnership. Historian Jasper Ridley points out, ‘Women were clearly regarded by everyone as being subordinate to men; but they were accorded a place of some importance and honour in society. Their husbands were expected to treat them kindly and with respect. Once married, although a woman’s lands became her husband’s it would often fall to the women to administer them as she did the household. Indeed as children, young girls were sent to neighbouring households to learn such skills. One needs only to take a brief glance at the Lisle letters or an even briefer glance at the Paston letters to see examples of women running lands and households with little intervention from their husbands. In the case of the Paston letters, Margaret Paston writes frequently telling her husband what she has done and keeping him abreast of local politics, rarely does she ask him for any input, nor does he see fit to admonish her for acting independently of him.

Married woman also took charge of the nursery, deciding where, when and how their children were educated. Later, we see that it is largely the mothers who decided their children’s future partners. In these matters and those of household administrators the men are seen to take a passive, legal role needed only to sign the necessary papers (assuming he hadn’t already granted that right to his wife anyway). For the women who lived and worked at court they became partners in their husband’s intrigues passing on the gossip that inevitably found its way to the queens chambers. It was in fact, beneficial for a courtier to have his wife serve the queen, as it saved him the expense of bribing a lady in waiting for the same information. Ladies would also receive free bed and board, a wage, meals, servants (according to their status), gowns and jewels which were her own to deal with.

This is not to say, of course, that every marriage was a success or a happy one. However even for those who suffered an unhappy marriage, women were perfectly able to take their husbands to court for abuse or neglect and in a worst case scenario could even sue for divorce. Mary Talbot, the unfortunate wife of Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland demonstrates how a woman at the mercy of her husband was far from powerless. The couple were hastily married around 1525/26 with neither of them inclined towards the match. By 1528 the marriage had completely broken down. Mary’s father feared that she was being abused by her husband and Northumberland reacted by locking his wife away in one of his many houses, forbidding her communication with her family. Mary responded by returning to her family home and refusing to see her husband. She sued for a divorce and had her request not involved a pre contract with Anne Boleyn, who happened to be Queen at the time she would have succeeded. While Mary did not get her divorce (though Northumberland died soon after anyway) the fact remains that women could and did divorce their husbands for cruelty.

Anne Stanhope of 'The Tudors' engages in a number of adulterous affairs during the show's run.
Anne Stanhope of ‘The Tudors’ engages in a number of adulterous affairs during the show’s run.

Much of historical fiction based around Catherine of Aragon, especially, shows marriage to be unbalanced in that husbands were free to take lovers while their wives had to ‘shut their eyes and endure’. While women (especially Queens) were supposed to be virtuous the truth was that women of the court did take lovers. Naturally, it was easier if the woman was unmarried, but if she were not providing her husband did not mind or if she were discreet her affair could continue in relative comfort, which happened more often than you might think. Anne Stafford, for example, lived in open adultery with William Compton for many years until his death. While men were free to take lovers if their wives did not approve they could certainly make their displeasure heard and felt, in which case it was not worth their husband’s time or effort to pursue a mistress. For all it’s innacuracies the recent television series The Tudors shows how many women at court enjoyed relationships with men who were not their husbands.

All in all marriage was not the oppressive yoke some fiction would have us believe. While in theory men had complete control over their wives, in practice their wife was a partner to assist in the advancement of his ambitions and manage his domestic concerns. This is not to say of course that every wife enjoyed domestic bliss, but when fiction gives us a heroine flying in the face of her family to pave her own way with the man she loves, the alternative of an arranged marriage was not as abhorrent or restrictive as we may initially think.

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3 thoughts on “Fiction, Feminism and Marriage

  1. I think also that a lot of women would have taken a very pragmatic, career oriented view of marriage as a job, and would have seen the advantages of a good match, esp with the oft voiced view that it was easier for a widow to find a husband than it was for a young virgin, since the widow had a bigger dowry

    1. Absolutely! I think one of the things that is rarely communicated well in fiction is that marriage was a political arrangement on both sides. Love didn’t come into it and sex only did out of necessity. A good marriage was everything to a woman, it was of course the only way she could advance her family, I agree that the whole affair would have been treated with such pragmatism, probably on both sides. Margaret Beaufort’s marriage negotiations in Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Red Queen’ springs to mind.

  2. Entirely agree with the above. Would like to add that it was often advantageous to be married young to an old man, since that would increase the likelihood of becoming a young widow. Diane de Poitiers is of course the supreme example here. Don’t forget Ruth Kelso’s wonderful book ‘Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance’, still relevant despite being published over 50 years ago (1956).
    There are numerous examples in courtly love literature, and of course Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’ (and the French spinoff ‘Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles) paints a very vivid picture of life for women in the medieval period. It wasn’t necessarily doom and gloom. And then there’s Christine de Pisan with her magnificent ‘City of Ladies’ – oh, the list goes on and on!

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