Sex and Marriage in History

Sex and Marriage in History

Read about the author Samantha Evans

The customs and meanings of sex and marriage have changed greatly throughout the ages. Here we explore those changes.

Sex within Marriage

Throughout the Middle Ages, the church presented women with two options to escape the “sin of Eve”: either to become celibate (the preferred choice), or to become mothers. Therefore, women either became nuns or married. As puberty occurs earlier in females, they were considered ready to marry at 12, whereas boys were older, at 14 years.

All sex outside of marriage was considered sinful and, according to most theologians and canonists, sex within marriage was only acceptable for procreation. It was a popular belief that neither pleasure nor desire played a part in sexual relationships between married couples. There were also laws regulating how often couples could have sex as some days were forbidden, such as when a woman was considered unclean (during pregnancy and menstruation, whilst breastfeeding and for forty days after giving birth – this is still recommended now to allow time to heal), feast days and on Sundays. This meant that most married couples could legally have sexual intercourse less than once a week!

Royal Consummation

Physical sexual intercourse was considered validation of a marriage. There are many records referring to royalty consummating their marriage behind the bed curtains, whilst their courtiers were present in the room all night to confirm that the marriage had been consummated. Henry VIII did not consummate his marriage to Anne of Cleves because he didn’t like her, and it was annulled less than 7 months later.

Spousal de Futuro

By the 17th century, more than one girl in three was pregnant when she walked down the aisle. A contract similar to the modern-day engagement existed called the Spousal de Futuro, a marriage contract to be consummated at a later date. If a courting couple jumped the gun and the girl became pregnant, the contract became a full-blown marriage and the couple became husband and wife in their neighbour’s eyes. You joined hands and declared that you took each other to be a lawfully wedded spouse and lived together. This short but sweet ritual became known as “handfasting or spousal”. It was often done by the local blacksmith, the anvil in his smithy becoming a symbol of where long-lasting unions were forged. No priest, minister or magistrate was involved.


Bundling or bed courting was introduced to the American colonies following the influx of Scots, Welsh and other European immigrants. The cold, damp nights of their northern climates probably contributed towards this practice. The idea was that if a couple was seriously courting, they should spend one night together in the girl’s bed to ensure compatibility. There were ground rules: underclothes must be kept on at all times, parents would retire to their own bedroom and there should be no mischief. If there was any evidence of hanky-panky, the bundling board or sack would be used. The bundling board or sack was a large plank placed between the lovers and the sack was similar to a double sleeping bag sewn in the middle. Should the girl fall pregnant, there would be witnesses to hold her suitor to account and make sure the marriage knot was firmly tied.

No Love Lost

Upper-class families, both English and American, liked to keep up appearances. The higher the social ladder of success and status a family was, the greater the pressure for the children to marry well. A possible suitor was one who could bring a promise of money, land and support. Often, a younger sibling could not be betrothed before their elder sibling. Jane Austen wrote about this in her novel, Pride and Prejudice, following the disgrace that the marriage of Lydia Bennett, the youngest Bennett daughter, brings to the family.

The woman’s father had to provide a dowry, and there are records of ruthless fortune hunters looking to trap wealthy heiresses in unhappy marriages. Love played no part in these unions. It was not until the middle of the 18th century, when parental consent began to decline, that love even became considered as a prerequisite for marriage, unlike today. Any couple determined to marry without parental consent and support had to choose between love and money.

Verba de Praesenti

Lower down the social scale, these problems did not occur as many people did not own anything of value, such as property or money, therefore couples who could not secure their families’ blessing could still get married or have a spoken marriage contract (‘verba de praesenti’) either taken alone or before witnesses.

Extramarital Sex

Many men continued to have mistresses whilst married to satisfy their sexual needs if they did not like their wife or their wives were not sexually interested. There have been many famous mistresses throughout history, including Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII), Wallace Simpson (Edward VIII) and Camilla Parker-Bowles (Charles, Prince of Wales).

Runaway Marriages

Securing permission from your parents to get married could be difficult, and it is thought that Gretna Green’s famous runaway marriages began in 1754 when Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act came into force in England.

Under the Act, a marriage could be prevented if the parent of the minor (under 21 years old) objected. The Act was enforced in England and Wales but not in Scotland, where it was possible for boys to get married at 14 years old and girls at 12 years old.

Following the construction of a toll road passing through the obscure village of Graitney, Gretna Green became the first village over the Scottish border that couples could reach. According to folklore, the Old Blacksmith’s Shop built around 1712 and the Gretna Hall Blacksmith’s Shop built in 1710 became the focal point for the tourist marriage trade. This has led to the image of the blacksmith and his anvil becoming lasting symbols of the Gretna Green marriage. Scottish law, at the time, allowed for irregular marriages, which meant that if a declaration was made before two witnesses, almost anyone had the authority to conduct the marriage ceremony.

Anvil Priests

The blacksmiths became known as “anvil priests”, Richard Rennison being the most famous blacksmith who, between 1926 and 1940, performed 5,147 wedding ceremonies. As “anvil priest”, Rennison generally requested a fee of £1, but was known to earn up to £20 for a ceremony (approximately £3,030 in 2012).

Since 1929, couples needed to be at least 16 years old in Scotland but could marry without parental consent. Currently, the age is 16 years old with parental consent and 18 years old without it.

Even today, thousands of couples travel from around the world to be married “over the anvil” in Gretna Green.

There are still restrictions placed on the wedding ceremonies conducted in churches today. Currently, couples can only wed between 8am and 6pm under rules dating back to the Marriage Act 1836, but there are no restrictions in Scotland. A change to Canon Law from the General Synod to allow a relaxing of the timing of church ceremonies in the Church of England is currently being considered, but the Catholic Church says it is against late night ceremonies.

In 2002, rules were relaxed to allow ceremonies to take place at sites other than churches, registry offices or specially licensed venues. Many couples have taken advantage of this ruling to have an unusual wedding, such as swimming with sharks and skydiving.