HE marriage of children forms a curious feature in old English life. In the days of yore, to use the words of a well-informed writer on this theme, “babes were often mated in the cradle, ringed in the nursery, and brought to the church porch with lollipops in their mouths.” Parents and guardians frequently had joined together in matrimony young couples, without any regard for their feelings. Down to the days of James I., the disposal in marriage of young orphan heiresses was in the hands of the reigning monarchs, and they usually arranged to wed them to the sons of their favourites, by whom unions with wealthy girls were welcomed.
Edward I. favoured early marriages, and his ninth daughter, Eleanor, was only four days old, it is stated on good authority, “when her father 204 arranged to espouse her to the son and heir of Otho, late Earl of Burgundy and Artois, a child in custody of his mother, the Duchess of Burgundy.” Before she had reached the age of a year, the little princess was a spouse, but, dying in her sixth year, she did not attain the position of wife planned for her.
Careful consideration is paid to early marriages in an able work by the late Rev. W. Denton, M.A., entitled “England in the Fifteenth Century” (London, 1888). Mr. Denton says that the youthful marriages “probably originated in the desire of anticipating the Crown in its claim to the wardship of minors, and the disposal of them in marriage. As deaths were early in those days, and wardship frequent, a father sought by the early marriage of his son or daughter to dispose of their hands in his lifetime, instead of leaving them to be dealt out to hungry courtiers, who only sought to make a large profit, as they could, from the marriage of wards they had bought for the purpose. Fourteen was a usual period for the marriage of the children of those who would save their lands from the exactions of the Crown.” He adverts to marriages at an earlier age, and even paternity at fourteen.205
In 1583 was published a work entitled “The Anatomie of Abuses,” by Philip Stubbes, and it supplies a curious account of the amusements and other social customs of the day. Marriage comes in for attention, and, after referring to it with words of commendation, he added: “There is permitted one great liberty therein — for little maids in swaddling clothes are often married by their ambitious parents and friends, when they know neither good nor evil, and this is the origin of much wickedness. And, besides this, you shall have a saucy boy often, fourteen, sixteen, or twenty years of age, catch up a woman without any fear of God at all.” The protests of Stubbes and others had little effect, for children continued to be married, if not mated.
The marriage of Robert, Earl of Essex, and Lady Francis Howard, was celebrated in the year 1606. The former was not fourteen, and the latter was thirteen years of age. The union was an unhappy one. The “Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, F.R.S.,” contains references to early marriages. He wrote, under date of August 1, 1672: “I was at the marriage of Lord Arlington’s only daughter (a sweet child if ever there was any) to the Duke of Grafton 206 the king’s natural son by the Duchess of Cleveland; the Archbishop of Canterbury officiating, the king and all the grandees being present.” The little girl at this time was only five years of age. Evelyn concludes his entry by saying, “I had a favour given to me by my lady; but took no great joy at the thing for many reasons.” Seven years later, the children were re-married, and Evelyn, in his “Diary,” on November 6th, 1679, states that he attended the re-marriage of the Duchess Grafton to the Duke, she being now twelve years old. The ceremony was performed by the Bishop of Rochester. The king was at the wedding. “A sudden and unexpected thing,” writes Evelyn, “when everybody believed the first marriage would have come to nothing; but the measure being determined, I was privately invited by my lady, her mother, to be present. I confess I could give her little joy, and so I plainly told her, but she said the king would have it so, and there was no going back.” The diarist speaks warmly of the charms and virtues of the young bride; and he deplored that she was sacrificed to a boy that had been rudely bred.
As might be expected, the facile pen of Samuel 207 Pepys, the most genial of gossipers, furnishes a few facts on this subject. His notes occur in a letter, dated September 20, 1695, addressed to Mrs. Steward. It appears from his epistle that two wealthy citizens had recently died and left their estates, one to a Blue-coat boy and the other to a Blue-coat girl, in Christ’s Hospital. The circumstance led some of the magistrates to bring about a match with the youthful pair. The wedding was a public one, and was quite an event in London life. Pepys says, the boy, “in his habit of blue satin, led by two of the girls, and she in blue, with an apron green, and petticoat yellow, all of sarsnet, led by two of the boys of the house through Cheapside to Guildhall Chapel, where they were married by the Dean of St. Paul’s.” The Lord Mayor gave away the bride.
The marriage of Charles, second Duke of Richmond, and Lady Sarah Cadogan, daughter of the first Earl of Cadogan, forms an extremely romantic story. It is said that it was brought about to cancel a gambling debt between their parents, The youthful bridegroom was a student at college, and the bride a girl of thirteen, still in the nursery. The young Lord of March protested against the match, “saying surely you are 208 not going to marry me to that dowdy.” His protestations were in vain, for the marriage service was gone through, and the twain were made one. They parted after the ceremony, and the young husband spent three years in foreign travel, doubtless thinking little about his wife. At all events on his return he did not go direct to her, but visited the sights in town. On his first attendance at the theatre, a most beautiful lady attracted his attention. He inquired her name, and to his surprise he was told that she was Lady March. The young lord hastened to claim his wife, and they spent together a happy life.
In the reign of William III., George Downing, at the age of fifteen, married a Mary Forester, a girl of thirteen. As soon as the marriage service had been concluded, the pair parted company, the boy going abroad to finish his education, and the girl returning home to resume her studies. After spending some three or four years on the Continent, the husband returned to England, and was entreated to live with his wife. He declined to even see her, having a great aversion to her. The husband’s conduct caused his wife to entertain feelings of hatred of him, and both would have been glad to have been freed from a marriage 209 contracted before either were master of their own actions, but they sued in vain for a divorce.
The editor of the “Annual Register,” under date of June 8th, 1721, chronicles the marriage of Charles Powel, of Carmarthen, aged about eleven years, to a daughter of Sir Thomas Powel, aged about fourteen. Four years later, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in one of her lively letters, refers to the marriage, in 1725, of the Duke of Bedford, at the age of sixteen years.
The General Assembly of Scotland, in 1600, ruled that no minister should unite in matrimony any male under fourteen and any female under twelve years of age. The regulation was not always obeyed. In 1659, for example, Mary, Countess of Buccleuch, in her eleventh year, was married to Walter Scott, of Highchester, and his age was fourteen. As late as the 1st June, 1859, was married, at 15, St. James’ Square, Edinburgh, a girl in her eleventh year. The official inspector, when he saw the return, suspected an error, but, on investigation, found it was correct.
Young men and maidens may congratulate themselves on living in these later times, when they may not be united in wedlock before they are old enough to think and act for themselves.