Marriage in Virginia was a social condition which everyone was expected to achieve. Bachelors and spinsters were condemned as unnatural and even dangerous to society. When William Byrd II was slow to remarry after the death of his wife, his female relatives urged him forward in no uncertain way. “At night,” he wrote, “the girls put a drawn sword and common prayer book open at the matrimony on my bed.”1
Virginia and New England were alike in their ideas of universal marriage; both rejected the ideal of celibacy which was so strong in Catholic countries. But these two Protestant cultures of British America also differed in many ways as to their ideas of marriage, and their matrimonial institutions. In Massachusetts, as we have seen, marriage was thought to be a covenant which could be terminated when its terms were not fulfilled. In Virginia, matrimony was regarded as an indissoluble union—a sacred knot that could never be untied by mortal hands. Divorce in the modern sense did not exist. Only permanent separation and maintenance could be obtained, and even that release was rarely granted. In 1681 the Virginia lawyer William Fitzhugh wrote that his colony had allowed no divorces and only a single permanent separation during the previous sixty years. The sole exception was a decree given to the wife of Giles Brent after acts of physical cruelty so extreme that her life was thought in danger.2
Social rituals of matrimony reflected these ideas of marriage. Virginians followed the Church of England’s elaborate five-step process of espousal, publication of banns, religious ceremony, marriage feast, and sexual consummation. The clergy of Virginia were forbidden to conduct any marriage without the prior publication of banns. In order to marry, children under age were compelled to obtain the written permission of parents or guardians. Clandestine marriages were punished by imprisonment.3
The favored periods of marriage in Virginia were early November and late December after Christmas. In the Church of England, vows could not be exchanged during Lent (the forty weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter), or Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas), or the three weeks prior to the Feast of St. John. These customs were generally kept in the Chesapeake colonies.
The bride and groom in Virginia were often united in two ceremonies—both of which were condemned in Puritan New England. The first was a Christian ceremony, which was solemnized sometimes in a church or more often in the bride’s home, but always by a minister according to the laws of the Anglican Church and the Book of Common Prayer. The other ceremony was an ancient pagan practice in which the bride and groom were made to jump over a broomstick. This ritual had long been observed throughout Britain and much of western Europe, and especially in the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. The custom of the broomstick marriage came to be widely practiced by white families throughout the southern colonies in addition to the Christian ceremony. For black slaves, it was the only type of marriage ceremony that was permitted, and rapidly acquired a special meaning in Afro-American culture.4
The marriage ceremony was followed by a feast, which among the great planters included a fancy ball and a house party that went on for days. Expensive gifts were given by the groom to his guests. At one marriage in Devon, six dozen guests received watches and silver ribbons as “favors.”5 Families of yeoman farmers celebrated on a smaller scale, but their customs were much the same. They appeared in Virginia during the mid-seventeenth century and persisted to the nineteenth and early twentieth. In the year 1686, the French traveler Durand was invited to a wedding feast in Gloucester County, Virginia:
There were at least a hundred guests, many of social standing & handsome, well-dressed ladies. Although it was November, we ate under the trees. The day was perfect. We were twenty-four at the first table. They served us so copiously with meats of all kinds that I am sure there would have been enough for a regiment of five hundred soldiers, even entirely made up of men from Languedoc. … It is the custom to take only one meal upon such occasions, at two o’clock in the afternoon. … they caroused all night long & when it was day … I did not see one who could stand straight.6
Before the marriage ceremony took place, espousal was also a complex social ritual which involved many people in addition to the intending couple. Amongst landed families, marriage was regarded as a union of properties as well as persons, and the destinies of entire families were at stake. One English gentleman advised another to “marry thy daughters betimes, lest they marry themselves.”7
Love was not thought to be a necessary precondition for these unions. Moralists insisted that love should follow marriage, but they did not believe that it would normally precede it. An English gentlemen recommended that one should “take a wife thou canst love.” He did not think in terms of marrying a woman whom one loved already. Love was not thought to be special or exclusive bond between two unique personalities—a romantic idea that did not develop until a later era. The prevailing male attitude in the seventeenth century was summarized by Sir John Oglander, who believed that “any woman may be won, and almost by any man … importunity and opportunity overcometh all women. Experientia docet [Experience teaches].”8
The parents had an active role in the marriage decision. Many Virginians owned an English marriage manual which commented, “Children are so much the goods, the possessions of their parents, that they cannot without a kind of theft, give away themselves without the allowance of those that have the right in them.” These ideas were carried into practice. Children who defied their parents were denied dowries and inheritance.9
Children were rarely made to marry against their will, but neither were they left to decide the question for themselves. Parents and guardians entered into complex negotiations to settle the size of the marriage portion or “dot” which a couple needed to make its way in the world. Written prenuptial agreements of high complexity were common not only among members of the gentry but also among yeomen and husbandmen.10 Many people were sometimes involved in these agreements. One English marriage agreement in the county of Hampshire (1676) was executed among five sets of parties—the bride, the bride’s relatives, the groom, the groom’s kinfolk, and the tenants of lands that were given to the couple. Agreements in Virginia were similar in every important way.11
In both England and Virginia, many of these unions were cousin-marriages that had been arranged by elders. In England, for example, Francis Carew sent a letter to his kinsman Sir Nicholas Carew:
I have a daughter who for handsomeness, education, and competency of portion, shall be a wife for any Gentleman in England. If you propose to marry a young woman, I shall be willing to treat with you therein & shall wish good success thereto.12
The marriage of first cousins was condemned by New England Puritans as violating the law of consanguinity. But many an Anglican lady “changed her condition but not her name.”13 The same custom was common in Virginia, and fundamentally important to the cohesion of the tidewater elite. The culture of New England created a different set of matrimonial priorities.
One consequence of these customs appeared in the pattern of age at marriage. Male Virginians married at nearly the same age as in New England, twenty-five or twenty-six on the average. But brides in the Chesapeake colonies were much younger than in Puritan Massachusetts. Before 1700, most Virginia girls found a husband by the age of seventeen. Mean age at marriage was a little higher—eighteen to twenty—but below the Massachusetts average.14
Another consequence was a large difference in the ages of husbands and wives. In Virginia’s Middlesex County before 1670, grooms tended to be nearly ten years older than brides: 28.4 against 18.7. That disparity diminished to about five years in the mid-eighteenth century, but it remained much greater than in Massachusetts, where only a year or two separated the average ages of men and women at first marriage.15
Other inequalities appeared in the proportion of Virginians who married at all. Though the ideal was universal marriage, the reality was very different in seventeenth-century Virginia, because so few immigrants were females. Nearly all women were able to marry, but for men the pattern was very different. One study of estate-inventories in southern Maryland from 1658 to 1708 finds that one-quarter of men died without ever marrying. A man’s chances of finding a wife were a function of his social rank. Here was yet another system of inequality in this hierarchical society.16
The Virginia pattern developed within a culture where marriage was regarded as something to be arranged between families, something that did not require love as a precondition, something that could never be dissolved, and something that joined husband and wife in an organic and patriarchal hierarchy. Given such an idea of matrimony, it seemed right and fitting in this culture that a typical Virginia marriage in the seventeenth century should join a man of maturity to a miss in her teens. These Virginia customs were very different from the marriage ways of Massachusetts.