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Shakespeare/Elizabethan Courtship


QUESTION: I'm in the process of writing a novel set in Elizabethan England.  I have been able to find some general information on the Internet about Elizabethan courtship and marriage; but nothing to indicate a particular step-by-step process for how courtship actually worked among the nobility or what their typical wedding preparations looked like, which is what I'm really needing right now.  How long did each process typically take?  And how long did their wedding celebrations usually last?

On a different note, I also have a couple of other questions.  First, where did the nobility usually bathe?  And second, how would a count be addressed directly, particularly by a servant?  I've been doing research and haven't been able to find any answers.

I hope I haven't overloaded you too much.  I thank you in advance for your time and expertise!

ANSWER: Hello, Amber,

The second paragraph of questions:

The nobility had their own bathtubs, which were usually brass, rather small in comparison to our ideas of bathtubs, and looked a little like a boot-- longer in the place where your legs would be (though not long enough to stretch out the legs), with a vertical wall around your upper-body. Most people (even nobility) didn't bathe very often-- a couple times a year they thought sufficient. They were afraid that when one bathed, the body opened (what we'd now call pores) and took in disease. So, they were very wary of taking baths, and they usually rested for a good while afterwards. You can see in Versailles, France that the bathing chamber has the bathtub with a lounging-couch next to it, so that the King or Queen could go directly to bed afterwards, thus to ward off getting sick.

They might wash the private areas more often (according to the tastes of the individual) with just a cloth and soap/water from a basin, but more likely they washed only the parts that showed (face, hands, etc.) and did what was called a "dry wash" for the private parts, which was a dry scrubbing with a piece of linen. Since linen had recently been invented, it became easier not to bathe often-- the linen undergarments (the shirt for the man, the shift for the woman; nobody wore underpants-- covering for the privates was not invented until the 19th century) could be worn for a few days and then washed as laundry, since the elaborate dresses and doublets were too costly to wash (they were usually "pressed" in a wooden contraption with sweet-smelling herbs to try to freshen them).

Queen Elizabeth was notoriously well-known for taking TOO MANY baths, for she bathed maybe once a month or six weeks.  She took her bathtub with her on progresses, and all of England gossiped about her.  Read Alison Weir's Life of Elizabeth for details about this. She even would sometimes go for a bracing walk outside after a bath. While it seems that she may have inherited the problem of panic attacks from her father, Henry VIII, who had panic attacks so badly that he would often just arrive at some place and have to leave because a panic came upon him, I believe she did not inherit his fear of disease, since she disregarded the strictures against bathing.

As to the second question, I believe that a titled male of any title would be addressed by anyone who does not outrank him as "Your Lordship" and spoken of as "His Lordship."  Similarly, his wife would be directly addressed as "Your Ladyship" and "Her Ladyship" if spoken of in third person.

The courtship and wedding traditions question:  My best advice is not to look on the internet for the content-information you need.  You need to be looking for bona fide scholars, and they write books.  Perhaps you can find the bibliographical info for these books on the internet, but the information you need is in books or scholarly articles and not on the internet.

Weddings among nobility varied according to the individuals’ desires to be public or private. There is the notorious example of Robert Dudley’s (apparent) first marriage to Lady Douglas Sheffield, which was conducted in private with only a few friends attending in a priest’s chambers.  Later, after he left her, Douglas tried to sue for desertion, and Dudley’s astounding answer was that he had never married her.  Sure enough, the attending priest had since passed away of old age, I believe, and there were and are no records extant of any marriage between them, but the fact is that such records-- especially if it were not a huge, church affair as with Prince William and Kate recently-- were sometimes scanty, if taken down at all, as a general custom. Hard for us to believe, but true-- legal proceedings in private, though quite legal, were often not written down. Douglas maintained to her grave that Dudley had married her, and their child tried many times to claim him as his father, but Dudley remained firm, and since no marriage records were ever found, then “officially” he never married her, even though the friends who had attended remembered a ceremony and he had certainly lived with her a number of years afterward.  I give you this example to illustrate how different the times were from today!

Okay, as to resources for you:  First, I can say that any of the Elizabethan-period biographies by Alison Weir are great resources-- she researches everything meticulously and presents her info in easily readable fashion. Her problem is that she does not cite her sources directly, which angers a lot of other scholars, but if it is sheer info you want (and not references to other scholars), then Weir may be quite helpful. (By this I mean that you don’t have to cite your sources beyond perhaps an acknowledgement to Weir, herself, if you use her, so her method of giving long lists of sources instead of individual footnotes isn’t going to bother you, I think).

Courtship is going to depend on the age and rank of the individuals involved. Since I don’t know particulars about your research, I’ll go more broadly in recommendations.

Some good books for you:   David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England .  Great book.  Also his Society and Culture in Early Modern England should be of value.  He is a fabulous historian of the Elizabethan period.

A remarkable book by Ilona Bell, who is a wonderful Elizabethan scholar, appeared around the end of the 1990s-- Elizabethan Women and the Poetry of Courtship .  It might be useful in mentioning other things besides what sorts of things suitors said in courting. Same with Catherine Bates’s The Rhetoric of Courtship in Elizabethan Language and Literature , which looks at the wooing at court of the Queen as then applied to the wooing of brides.

If you put in “courtship marriage Early Modern England” into, you’ll get some excellent titles of books.  Into Google, you’ll get a wide array of links to books as well as information, but again I wouldn’t necessarily trust a website unless it is an official website (such as the British government’s history site or a museum’s history archives, etc.).  Individuals often write erroneous material in their websites because they do not fact-check what they have “heard.”  Anybody can put a page on the web.  Books and articles in scholarly journals have to be accepted by a full board of scholars before they can be published, usually.

If you can get into the search engine for JSTOR, which is the internet bibliographic search for scholarly articles on Renaissance history and literature, you might then put in “marriage courtship Early Modern England” and see if good articles turn up.

Feel free to write again if further questions become needful, after you’ve done some searching and reading.  I do hope you are near a good library.

Hope this helps!  Happy hunting!
Dr. T.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hello again, Dr. T,

I've gotten a lot more done since your response.  I found literally nothing in JSTOR; but I did get the David Cressy book you mentioned.  I agree with you wholeheartedly about it being a great book!

There was a lot of great information in the section on marriage; but it still left me with some questions.  At one point in the chapter on nuptial vows, it said that the groom held the bride's right hand with his left, then put the ring on her fourth finger.  But later it also said that it was customary to place the ring on the left hand.  I was very surprised to find the discrepancy.  Can you explain it to me?  Was the groom typically given a ring as well?  What did the nobility typically wear for weddings and what kind of flowers were normally used?

I can tell that applying for a license was very important and significant.  What actually happened during this process?  Was anything specific said?  And do you know what was actually said at the public calling of the banns?  I found it especially fascinating and I'd like to be as historically accurate as possible.

I thank you again for your time and expertise!  You've been an enormous help thus far!


ANSWER: Hello, Amber,

It is great to hear from you!  I tell you, when you publish this book, you must let me know so that I can get myself a copy of it!

I thought of another book that might be useful to you-- it’s Understanding Shakespeare’s England by Jo McMurtry. It’s out of print, I would guess, but it is a basic description of Elizabethan England, divided up by subject like an encyclopedia. Libraries tend to have it, and I noticed that there are several used editions for sale on amazon.  Also there’s a very useful book, Elizabethans at Home by LuEmily Hess Pearson, available now on Google Books, that I recall has info on weddings and such things.

When I was looking online for some Sumptuary Laws-- you can find the actual statutes online, and many other primary documents nowadays!-- I found the following rather large site that you may find useful: .   As you know, I don’t often recommend websites because they are not refereed by bona fide scholars, but I did some basic skipping through this one, and I found it to be generally accurate, so far as my own knowledge goes.  Best of all, the site includes a lot of primary material in the form of statutes and quotations from books and pamphlet publications during Elizabeth’s reign, and  it includes at the end of each subject discussion a list of the books that this author used to write the discussion, so you may find more good books on your needful topics in this way.  There is also a really fine page of links to all sorts of useful things online, and some fine sources of primary materials, at .

To answer your questions here, I’ll tell you what I know.  I can’t give you sources here, because this is just from my lecture notes in my head, gathered over the decades of teaching.

Here are some answers for a few of the direct questions you've mentioned here:

* Regarding the exchange of rings, what you’ve described is not really a discrepancy.  First of all, sometimes the bride was already wearing the ring:  during the betrothal ceremony, sometimes the groom-to-be would give her the ring but place it on the “ring finger” (third finger) of her right hand. I *think* this is the reason that the description provides that all four hands have to be involved during the actual wedding, because if she is already wearing the ring on her right hand, he merely takes it off her right hand and puts it on her left hand’s third finger.  However, I believe that the description you have given here works, whether she is wearing the ring or not. I’ll show you how.

They are basically doing two different things with their hands, at once (since there are four hands involved-- two of his, and two of hers).  You have to envision what they’re doing with their hands.  They are engaging both hands with one another, making a kind of a cross, which this culture loved, any time they could include visual imagery that evoked symbolism.  So, it’s a kind of crossing of the hands in this way--  he holds her right hand with his left hand.  (If she is wearing the ring on her right hand, it’s at this point that he takes her ring off that hand, using his left hand, and then he clasps her right hand with his left hand and takes the ring into his right hand; if she is not wearing the ring, I think they just clasp hands-- his left and her right--on the lower level of the cross, if you will).

Now, they make the upper level of the cross-- she extends her left hand and his right hand’s fingers slip the ring on to her left hand's third finger (what we now call the "ring finger").  No doubt they would pause a bit for this crossing of the hands to look nice.  And probably the priest would wrap his stole around the clasped-crossed-hands to “tie the knot” while he pronounces the prayers.  I have seen this “tying of the knot” still done in American Episcopal weddings, and since Episcopal is the American offshoot of the Church of England, I assume that it came from the Tudor period originally.

If the groom is to receive a ring, then they will reverse it, in order that she would place his ring on his finger, and no doubt the “tying of the knot” would wait until both rings had been placed on their fingers.  Although I don’t know that every married man wore a wedding ring, it had become traditional by this time that men be “bound” by the same circular image that “binds” the woman, and the culture loved the symbolism of a ring indicating a vow. Since a ring has no beginning and no end, and it therefore is just one unending strand of metal, they saw  it as an image of the two people becoming one flesh (the Biblical injunction, “flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone” was taken as a description of a literal transformation that happens when 2 people go through the sacrament of marriage). A ring was also symbolic of God’s cosmos. the great crystalline spheres that they believed encircled the earth-- one encased within another within another and so on-- that make up what we see from here to be the universe.  That circular imagery is a sacred embodiment in the small world, or microcosm, of the great beauty and precision of God’s creation in the vast world, or macrocosm.  A strong marriage-union of the two opposites--male and female-- here below will strengthen and bond together the energies that hold together the whirling planets and stars and elements in the macrocosm, above.  They believed that “As above, so below,” and vice versa.

Rings at this time (16th and 17th centuries) could be any kind of design, not the “wedding band” that we tend to think of today.  Usually, the wedding rings would be family heirlooms, if it’s a noble family.  I believe that wedding rings made with gold-encrusted diamonds were either being invented right around this time, or had just been invented, in the goldsmithing shops in Venice, but I don’t know how long it took for this idea to travel from Italy to England.  I’m not saying the Elizabethan nobles and royals never used diamonds; they just didn’t yet know about the kind of traditional diamond wedding rings that we have today. The wedding rings that I know about, among the royals and nobles of the 16th century in England, were certainly beautiful and precious but not anything like what we think a “wedding ring” looks like-- neither the plain band nor the showy diamond-encrusted band(s).  They loved interlocking bands (fashioned like the Irish Claddagh ring, though they would not have liked the Claddagh ring, itself, since Elizabethans generally feared the Irish as barbarians).

The idea of using the third finger of the left hand for a wedding ring had been customary for quite a while by this time.  It was believed that the left hand’s third finger's blood vessels literally went straight to the heart (the left hand being closest to the heart, since the heart is on the left side of the chest), so that wearing one's wedding ring on that finger meant either that one was literally wearing it closest to one's heart, or that one was symbolically binding (in a sort of link of a chain) one’s deepest self to the beloved’s deepest self (or heart).

*Regarding what kinds of wedding garb the nobility wore and kinds of flowers for weddings:   

Brides didn’t wear white.  White was actually color for mourning in some places (France, I believe; yellow in Spain-- or maybe it was vice versa?) In somewhere in the Far East, either China or Japan, I think, brides had been wearing white for centuries and continued to do so, but in Europe, what we think of as the “traditional” white bridal gown did not become “traditional” until Queen Victoria wore it for her wedding in the mid-1800s.  Then it became connected with purity and virginity and all that.  For the Renaissance or Early Modern period, if there were a color that suggested female purity, it probably would have been blue-- that kind of blue we today call “French blue,” do you know what I mean?-- because that color was associated with the Virgin Mary.  If you look at paintings of the Renaissance, the Virgin Mary is pretty much always wearing a cloak of that color.  White pearls were symbols of virginity, and so was the white ermine fur (which only royalty could wear-- the ermine, that is)-- so white was connected with purity in some ways; it just wasn’t yet demanded to be worn as the wedding dress to prove purity to all onlookers, as it became later.  It was the Victorians who were obsessed with virginity, not the Elizabethans.  In the Renaissance, the only time that it was absolutely necessary to insure that the bride was a virgin was if she was marrying the noble family’s heir, because, yes, they were obsessive about the purity of bloodlines.  But even then, she didn’t have to wear a particular color of dress in her wedding so that everyone could be shown and satisfied that she was a virgin.

Nobility and royals and people of all classes simply wore their finest gowns and doublets/capes, etc. to be married in, though there were laws that governed the colors, fabrics, furs, and jewels that each class was allowed to wear. (More on that below.)

I seem to recall that in the early 16th century King Philip of Spain wore a silver outfit (by this I mean doublet and hose, with full-length cape-- and when I say silver, I mean not silver-colored but real silver thread) when he married Queen Mary Tudor.  I believe this is detailed in Alison Weir’s Children of Henry VIII .  Whenever you see portraits or hear of gold cloth or silver cloth, you must understand that these fabrics were literally made of threads that were wrapped in fine strands of the precious metal.  They didn’t know how to make a “gold-colored” or “silver-colored” cloth, as we do today, with just shiny stuff made to simulate gold or silver.  It was real gold, or in Philip’s case, real silver.  They hand-spun the metal into filigree strands and then wound them tightly around wool threads; then those threads were hand-loomed into a cloth.  It took enormous amounts of gold or silver to make a full cape or dress, as you can imagine.  

(There was a tournament held by Henry VIII in which he hosted a lot of foreign royals, and he put on such a show of his wealth that it was known at the time as the “Tournament of the Field of the Cloth of Gold,” as if he had held a tournament on a huge field covered in a cloth of gold.  There was no such cloth, of course-- it was purely metaphoric, to indicate how much money he had spent on the thing, and to indicate disdain, obviously, since covering a field with cloth of gold would be an insane waste.  It would be ruined under horses’ hooves and people’s boots and the untold filth shed by both.)

And why shouldn’t you wear your wealth? You couldn’t put it in any banks, because the banking system was just barely being thought up at the time.  Whenever royalty and nobility traveled, they had to take all their precious coins, plate, jewels, etc. with them by the wagonloads if there was no trustworthy family at home to leave it all with.  So, it makes sense to me to wear one’s wealth on one’s person.  It solved the problem of what to do with valuable stuff, but it also showed off one’s wealth, which every noble and royal wanted to do.  The ostentatiously beautiful, extravagant elements added to one’s clothing in order to show off one’s wealth and social station was called “peacocking” at the time.

Colors and the types of cloth, types of furs, types of jewels were all assigned by law to be worn according to social class.  These statutes were called Sumptuary Laws.  Do you know about them?  It is essential that you know about them if you’re going to be accurate about clothing throughout your book.

Sumptuary Laws had been in existence throughout Europe and England since the early Middle Ages, and basically each new monarch either threw out the old ones and wrote their own new ones OR kept the old ones and just added their own new touches to them.  The Sumptuary Laws were basically the laws of your time period, whenever you lived, that dictated what you could wear and what you couldn’t wear, based on your social class.

If you don’t know about Sumptuary Laws, look up the phrase online and you’ll find a lot-- too much for me to outline for you here.  But, for your novel,  you’ll want to first find the Sumptuary Laws for the year(s) you’re concerned with -- the website I gave you at the start of this answer has an extensive section on Sumptuary Laws, and they even reprint (with some modernization for your comfort) the actual statutes from Elizabeth’s reign.  You’ll need to find the year(s) that are relevant to you (since Elizabeth did revise them; the fashions kept changing and import/export also made for all sorts of new clothes that had to be regulated) then find within the statutes the rank of nobility that your character(s) are, and make sure that whatever you describe in their clothing and headgear (throughout your novel) conforms to what was allowed them at that rank.  

If, say, an Earl wore a fur trim that was allowed only to a Duke (who outranks an Earl), then he would have been open to the punishments set aside for his rank (usually just a fine at those higher ranks; lower classes might be punished with imprisonment or even death for wearing clothing that was lawfully permitted only to persons above their stations).  I believe it was used as a kind of social class containment, a way to identify every person in a basic sense, so if one wore clothing permitted only above one’s class, then it amounted to being an impostor. Sumptuary Laws, in some form or another, enforced strictly or very little, continued on the books for a long, long time in England. They weren’t finally taken off the books until Victoria’s reign, though they hadn’t been enforced (or likely even spoken of) for a long time.

This particular little aspect of history is the thing that most historical novelists and especially Hollywood film-makers overlook, and for the (admitted) few of us who know about Sumptuary Laws, it can make for some laughter, at least.  Most often, it’s some very small detail--such as a merchant wearing a purple shirt in an episode of Cadfael on PBS, which hardly matters in the overall scheme of the show but which would have gotten the merchant’s head handed to him if he’d actually done it in the time period of the show.  But I do remember a huge gaff in a very dramatic scene in the film Lady Jane (with Helena Bonham Carter-- perhaps you’ve seen it?) in which Jane, who is Queen for about ten minutes, and her young husband get a very anachronistic case of pity for the poor, starving lowest classes and beggars, and in a fit of generosity, Jane orders that her entire wardrobe of beautiful, bejewelled gowns be distributed to them.  This is so laughable, not only because no Queen would have done such a thing at that time, but also because these jewels and rich fabrics and furs would have done absolutely no good for the people receiving them.  They couldn’t have worn them, certainly, and had they tried to sell any of the pieces, they’d simply have been arrested as thieves.  (If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a really pretty film, with wonderful acting, but alas there are so many historical blunders and outright lies in it that you should watch it only as fiction.  Like the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movies-- excellent acting, but very little that isn’t completely twisted and mucked-up historically.)

About flowers:   I recall that bridesmaids would bind up small flowers into poesies that could be tossed out among the wedding guests, and that petals were often strewn before the bride along the walkway or aisle in church.  Beyond that, I don’t know any specifics about using flowers at weddings.  I know that flowers were very traditional at funerals, and that in the Middle Ages brides often carried herbs more than they did flowers (since herbs could be more fragrant and, moreover, more symbolic for fertility-- well, not just symbolic but medicinal, even), and this carrying of herbs continued well into the Renaissance.  In general, I think that for weddings, Elizabethans may not have preferred flowers over ribbons, herbs, or (for the nobles) even more expensive items, such as elaborate mirrors concealed in fans (they loved to be able to look at themselves every few minutes), beautiful glass baubles imported from, say, Venice or some other glass-making place, and so on.

I think that the main thing to learn and keep in mind is that there were specific symbols attached to specific flowers-- and then the person carrying them or decorating with them would choose the flower according to the “statement” s/he wanted to make, symbolically.  For example, pansies were symbolic of one person thinking of another-- sometimes secretly.  This was from the similarity of the word “pansy” to the French word “pensees,” which means “thoughts.”  There are several portraits of Queen Elizabeth holding pansies, and of course there’s much speculation as to who, exactly, the recipient of her thoughts was supposed to be in each one.  (It’s even more complex than you’d think, since a given portrait would not have been Elizabeth’s idea to begin with.  She would typically allow one painter to paint her face and hands and distribute that “lawful likeness,” and then English painters would simply paint whatever they thought would please her, using the face and hands that she had approved.  So, any candidates for her “pensees” in these portraits were likely more the fantasies of the artists than of the Queen.)

No doubt there were some flowers you’d never see at weddings, such as the morning glory, which does symbolize humility but which also was thought to be an aphrodisiac and therefore the English nickname for it was “devil’s garter.”  A bride who carried morning glories?  Scandalous!!!!!

One wedding tradition you may have already read about that, I think, was universally loved was the accessory called the “virgin knot.”  Fastidious people called them “kissing knots” or “love knots.” Ribbons would be tied into small bows and sewed lightly onto the bride’s dress.  After the ceremony, these ribbons would be torn off and tossed out among the young, unmarried men of the gathering; those who caught them would stick them into their hat bands and wear them about with the attitude as if they had “caught” the “virgin knot” of the bride (very naughty) and were ever-so rakish.

*About the Banns and church laws, etc.:

First, I must tell you that there were many church regulations about WHEN a wedding could be held, or more properly, I should say, regulations about when a wedding could NOT be held. It would have been easier if the Church of England had simply said, “Here are the months or weeks in which you may schedule a wedding,” but instead they said when you couldn’t:  any holidays, feast days, fast days, during the whole of Advent (the five weeks before Christmas), during the whole of Lent (the 40 days before Easter) plus three weeks before Lent begins, and the period between Rogation Sunday (usually the Fifth Sunday after Easter ) and Trinity Sunday (the First Sunday after Pentecost, which is usually in early summer). There were various declarations at various times as to whether you could or couldn’t have a wedding at night; most people favored the daytime, anyway, and preferred to have it before noon.

I should think that the main problem with the right reign on proper dates for weddings would be that human biology does not conform to rules and calendars.  There were thus likely many more known pregnancies out of wedlock in the Elizabethan Age than in later times, when weddings could be put together more hurriedly, since reformists in the Church of England eventually did away with most of the calendar restrictions.

The so-called “Publishing of the Banns” was a simple announcement of the names of the couple and their intention to marry.  This announcement had to be made to the Sunday congregation of the church for three separate Sundays or Holy Days (they did not have to be in succession, and they did not have to have a week between them; what mattered was that the congregation had to be present). The announcement was a simple attempt to urge the community to come forward with any reasons that this couple should not be married. Granted, the statement is still repeated during the wedding ceremony, itself, but the Publishing of the Banns was intended to prevent making all the preparations and going through the embarrassment of finding out some impediment during the ceremony itself.  I don’t think there was any particular format or specific wording used for this. The reason for it was anattempt at insuring that nobody would unknowingly marry his own sister or some other close relative; it was also used to bring debts to light and force con men to vanish or turn honest and work out a payment plan, so to speak. The passage of time between announcing wedding plans and the actual ceremony also prohibited any so-called clandestine marriages. If the marriage was to be between middle- or lower-class persons, then the community and the parish priest had to be informed and consenting.  If the marriage was in the nobility, then the Queen herself had to give consent, since the linking of any two nobles could produce offspring who could be a threat, genetically, to her hold on the throne. There was a notorious--and, to me, sad--instance of a clandestine marriage between Edward Seymour and Lady Katherine Grey (sister to Lady Jane Grey). She became pregnant and, when Queen Elizabeth found out, she threw them into separate parts of the Tower of England. Their first son was born in the Tower.  Elizabeth vowed she would keep them locked up forever, because Lady Katherine’s lineage was such that, once she proved herself fertile, there could be rebels who would back her as a replacement for Elizabeth.  However, they had a benevolent jailer who allowed them to see each other, and when Katherine became pregnant AGAIN, Elizabeth blew a gasket.  She sent Edward with the elder child to his mother’s estate to spend his life there under, basically, house arrest, and Katherine (with the younger child) was kept under arrest by a succession of noble families.  They wrote letters to the Queen and begged her to change her mind, but they never saw each other again.

Sorry for the digressions.  I just figure you need to know that nobility have to have the Queen’s approval or suffer consequences, if they happen to be important to the bloodline.

If you want to read the actual words that would have been used in the ceremony, the 1559 Book of Common Prayer is online at  -- this is the prayer book used during Elizabeth’s reign, and all Anglican Churches used it for all daily and Sunday services as well as special ceremonies.  If you scroll down to the end of this first page, you will find links to the various sections of the book.  But to make it easier for you, the service for Matrimony is found at .  Much of it may seem familiar to you.  I think that a lot of the “traditional” wording for later church wedding services was taken from this.  I, myself, grew up in the Episcopal Church (the American branch of the Church of England), and until the 1980s, we used the Prayer Book of 1928.  When I was in my doctoral study, I was curious about how much my Prayer Book of 1928 resembled the Prayer Book of 1559, and I did a fairly comprehensive comparison; I found that almost everything in the 1928 Prayer Book was contained in the 1559 version.  The only difference was that the 16th century Prayer Book’s services were about three times longer than our 20th century services!  So, a lot was cut out, but what remained was still pretty much the original wording (except for a couple of places where single words or phrases had been changed for theological reasons).

I think *I’ve* written a book here.  I hope this proves useful.  I think you’ll find the McMurtry book and the Pearson book, in particular, very useful for the detail she gives.

Let me know how it goes!  And don’t hesitate to ask me questions.

Dr. T.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------


Wow, what a lot of great information!  That will definitely prove useful!  Some of it sounds familiar.  The Elizabethan website you mentioned was one of the first places I looked; but I’ll do some more digging.  One of the books I used (I found it completely by accident on Amazon) was Diana O’Hara’s <i>Courtship and Constraint:  Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England<i>.  It had some very useful information about the banns and mentioned that fairs and marketplaces were very common places for social activity; but it didn’t say much about what they were actually like—what they looked like and what happened there beyond economic transactions.  Can you fill in some of the blanks for me?

I appreciate all the information about the weddings and what the nobility wore depending on their ranks.  For your reference, my novel puts a rather wicked spin on Romeo and Juliet; and I don’t know the rankings of the Montagues, Capulets, Paris, the Prince or Mercutio.  I’ve been trying to figure it out and I’m really not sure.  Do you know?  It would really help to make things more historically accurate.

Thank you again for all of your help.  I’ll let you know how it goes.


Dear Amber,

You might want to check the books I mentioned last time for more info on fairs and marketplaces-- see if they turn up any more details than what you have already. If I were to go into long descriptions, I feel as if it would be reinventing the wheel when there are reference books that can help you.

Are you near a university library?  There are interesting and useful reference books (usually these are books you can’t check out; you have to use them in the library, so they’re always available, but that’s good, since if you don’t have a university checkout card, you can still walk in and use the reference books) that are arranged like encyclopedias-- multi-volume sets of books.  

There is a reference set called Encyclopedia of the Renaissance , a 6-volume set, ed. Paul F. Grendler, put out by the Renaissance Society of America.  It has entries on all sorts of useful things.  Likely there’s an entry on fairs and on marketplaces.  I recall there’s an extensive discussion on popular culture.  BTW, I noticed that some book sites have used sets to sell fairly inexpensively.

I also found a good all-purpose scholarly site from Gale Publishers at:
At the end of the entire discussion, there’s a list of books they used in creating the entry; perhaps those books may be useful to you.

You mentioned having looked at Diana O’Hara’s book-- did you look at her footnotes and/or bibliography for tips on other books and articles to find?  Often, a book or article may not in itself be useful to me when I’m researching a topic, but it may turn out to be a gold mine for finding the books and articles that WILL yield exactly what I need.  Don’t forget to run down every title that sounds promising that’s been used by an author you’re reading!

As to the rank of the Montagues and Capulets, they are undoubtedly nobles.  The titles that they hold, though, are vague in Shakespeare.  There are some indications of titles in some of the works that precede Shakespeare’s play and that provide some of the historical contexts to the story of the star-crossed lovers.  There was a Viscount Montacute whom the Queen visited at Cordray Park in August of 1591, and some scholars believe that an early draft of R&J may have been written to be given as entertainment during her time there.  The poet George Gascoigne was asked to write a masque (a visual theatrical entertainment with more dance, music, and sumptuous costume than dialogue) for a double wedding between Viscount Montacute’s daughter with the son of Sir William Dormer and the daughter of Dormer and the son of Montacute. Gascoigne was asked specifically to depict the Montacutes of Venice (and thus to make a link between the English Montacutes and the Italians). In the masque, the Venetian traveler makes reference to the fact that the Venetian Montacutes always want to make sure they are not mistaken for the “Capels” because there was an “ancient grudge between the two houses.”

Their children would not have titles or rank, unless they were royals and had had titles bestowed upon them already, OR unless a child’s father had already died and the estate had been disbursed (in which case, the eldest son would receive the father’s title and the entire estate).  But their children would all be nobles.  Hence Mercutio, Tybalt, Romeo, Benvolio-- all appear to be from families from the same rank, unless you want to argue that the Capulets seem arrogant and rather high-and-mighty in regard to the Montagues-- maybe you want to have the Capulets outrank the Montagues.  I don’t know.   It would seem that Tybalt’s aggression toward Romeo when he starts the fight might bear this up, EXCEPT that you have to be sensitive to the language, which is actually what begins the fight.  Romeo has just come from marrying Tybalt’s kinswoman, so Romeo (properly) regards Tybalt as his own kin; he addresses Tybalt with “thee,” which was the 2nd person familiar form reserved only for family, lovers, intimates, OR children and servants who are far below one’s lofty stature.

Whether any of this has anything to do with Shakespeare’s play has been debated.  Whether it will help you or not, I don’t know.  I think you would be safe merely to call them “Lord Montague” and “Lord Capulet,” which would imply that they each have titles but nobody is speaking the titles aloud.  Seldom would anyone use someone’s title in conversation, anyway, I should think, unless it were needed to distinguish “My Lord, the Duke” from his brother, “My Lord, the Earl” OR unless it were to rub in the fact that one person outranks the other.

[oops-- I thought I could attach a file:  turns out I can't; you'll have to download the whole book at the link I give below, then just find the section on R&J within Volume 1 and read it] so, I am NOT attaching here a pdf file of part of Volume 1 of Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare --Bullough’s multi-volume set is a very valuable resource for scholars, because it brings together for you to read in one place all the sources for each of Shakespeare’s acknowledged works. Most helpful is Bullough’s own Introduction for each work’s sources, since he really has done all the work for us in the gathering of the documents and in describing the historical contexts in which they occurred.  Bullough’s insights about the relationships between the sources and Shakespeare’s writing are invaluable, as well.  

All Volumes of Bullough’s seminal works can be downloaded in pdf free of charge at , along with other useful things.  But I’ve excerpted the portion of Volume 1 that you need.  I don’t think that Arthur Brooke’s poem, which was Shakespeare’s direct source for his play, mentions titles for any of the nobles in the play, but you might read it just to see. For certain, you need to read Bullough's introduction to the section on R&J-- there's more info than just what I mentioned above about Viscount Montecute.   Also, you'll find it’s fun to see what inspired Shakespeare, or in this case what nudged him to write a more inspiring work than Brooke’s poem, since Brooke's work is a pretty horrid piece of didacticism. You’ll find that Brooke takes a very negative view of almost all the characters, except the parents.

And this brings me to the two crucial questions that I assume you’ve already answered for yourself:  are you setting the novel in England or in Italy?  (I’m assuming England?)  And, thus, if in England, are they Catholics?  If so, the Friar and everybody concerned with the religious rites of marriage and funerary processes will have to be done in the utmost secrecy.  I am assuming you know this? Such a Friar in England (as opposed to Verona, where Brooke's poem and Shx's play take place) would have had to have lived in complete secrecy, for fear of torture and execution if caught. Families usually were not treated so viciously, but priests who were caught were treated like the criminals they were seen to be: professional seducers to hell, aiding and abetting good English folk away from the true gospel. Noble English Catholic families who practiced in secret did so in their own homes and often had either hidden lodgings in their homes for their priests (and a secret chapel where they could celebrate Mass), or the priest would secretly travel (incognito) and, once he had arrived, they would open the secret chapel for him to provide them with Mass.  In such cases, noble families also had a “priest hole” where the priest could hide if one of the Queen’s “Priest Catchers” made a raid on their house. I’ll stop here, because I suspect you already know this, and if not, you've got some interesting reading ahead of you. There are several GoogleBooks on the subject of "priest catchers."

Of course, one of the points of critical contention in regard to the play is whether Shakespeare intended his audiences to see themselves (and thus forget about the fact that these were Catholics in the story), or whether he intended his audiences to foreground the Catholicism constantly and thus to find that the Friar is the evil antagonist who, through his sexual appetites suppressed to the celibacy of the priesthood, voyeuristically lusted for Romeo to marry and consummate the marriage at his own command.  (Priests of the Protestant Church of England were allowed to marry.)  Of course, the same thing has been said of the Nurse (voyeuristic, lustful but celibate widow who gets her kicks through Juliet’s exploits, which would make of her an antagonist rather than the sympathetic mother-surrogate that Juliet desperately needs).  There are many ways to interpret the characters, situations, locations, and so forth.

In fact, all of Shx’s plays that are set outside England have this same duality and thus the same critical problem.  Critics of a hundred years ago assumed that Shx’s audiences “saw themselves” on the stage, whether the play were set in Italy or France or England or Ancient Rome.  Critics of the past three or so decades have questioned this assumption and have proposed the possibility that Shx and his audiences were more sophisticated than previous critics (and directors) have credited them to be.  Think of how this idea impacts The Merchant of Venice !  The Christian Catholics actually might have been the antagonists for the Protestant, Anglican audiences.

And, then, there’s nowadays one further proposition:  Shakespeare himself had remained Catholic at heart and was “calling out to all Catholics” in his audience, which would effectively make us erase the chalkboard and go back to the propositions that the characters from Catholic states would have been portrayed as heroic or sympathetic.  Personally, I don’t buy this for a number of reasons-- I mean, I don’t buy the notion that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. He may have been ecumenical at heart-- I can see that more readily than I can see that he was Catholic, at least based on the content of his plays and what little we know about his life. But forgive me, again, for straying off into yet another tangent or two.

I just wanted to mention a few complexities, to be certain you’re aware of some of the choices you’ll have to make and why.  You have much reading to do!

Best wishes,
Dr. T.  


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Dr. T.


I can answer questions about Shakespeare's life and times, his plays and poems, the history of criticism and critics' responses to Shakespeare's works, other authors of the time period, the audiences of the time period, Queen Elizabeth I, women of the Renaissance or Early Modern age, history of rhetoric, British drama, etc.


I have taught Shakespeare, Early Modern literature, Early Modern women's literature, the history of rhetoric, Arthurian literature, and related general literary subjects and many others in university classrooms for more than 25 years.

Renaissance Society of America, South-Central Renaissance Society, John Donne Society

3 books with University Presses, 1 book with HarperCollins Press; articles with: Continuum Press, DLB, Gale Research Shakespearean Criticism and Shakespearean Criticism Yearbook, College English journal, Studies in English Literature journal, CEA Critic journal, Renascence journal, Texas Papers on Language and Literature journal, several others.

Ph.D. in British Renaissance Literature and Rhetoric; M.A. in English; B.A. English and Theatre

Awards and Honors
I was editor of a scholarly journal for 10 years; Recipient of my university's Recognition Awards for Research, Teaching, and Service; two Sabbatical awards; graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude

Past/Present Clients
Panelist/Reviewer for National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, DC, 2001, 1997, and 1993; Referee for College Literature, Yale University Press (numerous editions of Shakespeare’s plays), College English, Harper/Collins (1992 to 1995: full-length book manuscripts, including the complete manuscript of The HarperCollins World Reader, Volume I.); Dramaturg for local Little Theatre, 2001–03 (including productions of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Dangerous Liaisons); Dramaturg for various productions in Theatre/Dance Dept at my University (including As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, Measure for Measure, The Tempest)

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