Subjects: Child marriage

The formation of a marriage at this time could be legally complex.

It was possible for children over the age of seven to contact a lawful future marriage per verba de futuro (by words of future intent). This was conditional upon consummation once the couple reached puberty, deemed to be fourteen for boys and twelve for girls. Much younger children were also promised in marriage, sometimes before they could talk.

However, if either party did not later wish to continue with the marriage it could be annulled before consummation. Annulment could be arranged informally before witnesses, but formal confirmation by the court precluded any uncertainty. Non-consummation might have to be proved through physical examination by sworn witnesses.

As proof of age might be difficult to obtain, it was often additionally claimed that one party had been compelled to the marriage by parents or friends, so that it was invalid through ‘force or fear’.

At this time, the church courts had sole legal authority in matrimonial matters.


R. H. Helmholz, Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (London, 1974).

R. B. Outhwaite, Clandestine Marriage in England 1500-1850 (London, 1995).

Dissolution of marriage of minors

A marriage of minors could be dissolved if either party did not later wish to continue with the marriage once they reached the age of discretion and the marriage had not been consummated.

EDC 5/1/1 – Ellen Knottisford contra Ralph Bury
EDC 5/1580/4 – Elizabeth Meycock contra Thomas Davie

Invalidity of marriage of minors

A purported marriage where at least one of the parties was under the age of seven was found to be invalid.

EDC 5/1/4 – Joan Dutton alias Sompnor contra Richard Sompnor