Chapter 6 : Sex within Marriage

The minimum age for marriage was twelve for girls and fourteen for boys. Among the lower classes, marriage usually took place in the late twenties, when sufficient money had been saved to set up a home. Higher up the social scale, marriage usually occurred much younger:  mid-to-late teens for girls and a few years older for boys. The participants also had much less choice, with marriages being arranged in the cradle by parents for reasons almost entirely related to family advancement, or for royalty, for foreign alliances.

Concerns had been raised about the appropriate age for girls to begin on their childbearing years. By the sixteenth century, twelve was considered rather too young, sixteen was generally accepted, and fourteen not uncommon amongst the upper strata of society.  Consummation in the mid-teens was sometimes encouraged by the parents and sometimes not, presumably depending on the health and overall level of development of the young people.

When Katharine of Aragon’s older brother, Juan, was married at 15 to Marguerite of Austria discussion was had as to whether it was appropriate for the marriage to be consummated.  In the end, Ferdinand and Isabel decided to permit the young couple to live together as they “appeared very much in love”. An alternative reading might be that Ferdinand and Isabel were very much in love with the alliance with the Empire that Marguerite represented! Non-consummation would have given the ever-slippery Emperor Maximilian a way out of the match had he so desired. Juan’s death within a year was blamed on “over-much exertion in the marital bed.” Apparently, the two could not keep their hands off each other.

When Katharine was married to Arthur, it was mooted that they should be prevented from consummating the marriage on account of their youth, but, in the event they remained living together – whether they actually consummated the marriage, is of course, one of the great questions of history. 

Henry’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, married at 15 to Mary Howard, was not permitted to live with her as his wife.

Doctors considered abstinence bad for the health of both men and women, and young women going through what we would now perceive as the usual hormonal upheavals of adolescence were advised to marry. Against this view of sex as good for married people, the Church attempted to regulate marital relations.

Hard line theologians considered excessive sexual activity within marriage to be somewhat sinful, and meant that the husband was treating his wife as a prostitute. The clerical mind, fixated on sex, blamed the woman for tempting a man. Women, as inferior beings, were considered to be far more driven by base physical desires than men, and much mediaeval humour is about unsatisfied wives running after younger men – as evidenced in a number of Chaucer’s tales.

It was also suggested that spouses should not have sex on feast days, fast days, Saint’s days, Sundays, during any period when a woman was “unclean” i.e. menstruating, pregnant, breast feeding or within 40 days of giving birth. If all of this were taken into account, a frequency of about one permissible day per week would seem to emerge. However, there is no evidence that most people (other than the exceptionally religious, or those who wished to avoid an unattractive spouse) paid attention to this, other than abstention after childbirth until the woman’s “churching”. This was a ceremony carried out some forty days after childbirth to show she had recovered from childbed and could be readmitted to daily life.

The romantic tales of courtly love, where a young man, usually of inferior rank, fell in love with a married lady, were meant to be just that, tales to while away an evening. A married woman who betrayed her husband was potentially subject to the severest penalties by both Church and state. Adultery might even be punished with the death penalty as treason i.e. the rebellion of a subject (the wife) against her master (the husband).

Fortunately, this was rarely carried out. Men were treated with rather more leniency and physical adultery seldom raised the wife’s eyebrow, probably because, if the marriage had been arranged, sexual jealousy was not felt to any great extent.