Making Sure

Vows are but breath and breath a vapour is . . .

Love’s Labour’s Lost, 4.3.65


A handfasting

We have come some way from that carton of old papers at the National Archives which began this enquiry. We have learned something of the physical and personal circumstances of Shakespeare on Silver Street - the industrious, quarrelsome, somewhat rackety family of immigrants with whom he lodged; the workshop with its wire-mills and twisting-wheels, and its clientele which included royalty and aristocracy as well as prostitutes and players. We have some new facts about the Mountjoys, and some new speculations about them. But one thing we do know for sure - on his own sworn evidence and that of others - is that some time in 1604 Shakespeare ‘persuaded’ Stephen Belott to marry Mary Mountjoy, and I conclude by returning once more to the micro-story of marital ups and downs narrated in the depositions of the Belott-Mountjoy suit, and to Shakespeare’s involvement in it.

What did Shakespeare do? His own phrasing of the matter - or rather the legal statement which in some part records his phrasing - is as follows:

Mr Mountjoy ‘willingly offered’ his daughter Mary in marriage to Stephen Belott, should he ‘seem to be content and well like thereof’.

Shakespeare was ‘entreated’ by Mrs Mountjoy to ‘move and persuade’ Stephen to ‘effect the said marriage’, and ‘accordingly’ did so.

Mountjoy ‘promised’ to give Stephen ‘a portion in marriage with Mary his daughter’, but what sum it was Shakespeare ‘remembereth not’.

Stephen ‘was dwelling with’ Mountjoy, ‘in his house’, and ‘they had amongst themselves many conferences about their marriage’.

‘Afterwards’ the marriage was ‘consummated and solemnized’

Other deponents in the case echo Shakespeare’s statement pretty closely. Belott’s apprentice William Eaton says Shakespeare was ‘sent’ to ‘move the plaintiff to have a marriage [with] Mary’, and ‘was wished by the defendant to make proffer of a certain sum that the defendant said he would give’. And Noel Mountjoy says ‘Mr Shakespeare was employed by the defendant about that business’, and was asked ‘to make a motion to him [Belott] of a marriage’. But, regrettably, ‘in what manner and to what effect’ Shakespeare did this, Noel ‘knoweth not’.

In all this Shakespeare is given an oddly factorial role - he is ‘sent’ to the former apprentice to ‘move’ him; he is asked to ‘make proffer of’ a sum of money; he is ‘employed about that business’. He has the status of an agent, a go-between, a broker of marriage. We can see how he might be an ideal choice as the persuader of Stephen Belott. He has the required authority: a parent, a gentleman, a servant of His Majesty. There is also a more personal element. He liked Belott - he thought him an ‘honest fellow’ - and we can suppose that Belott liked and respected him. And then, as a kind of added bonus to all this, he is Shakespeare, a man uniquely eloquent in affairs of the heart. All in all, a useful person to have on hand should you wish to ‘persuade’ someone to marry your daughter.

The fullest account of Shakespeare’s actions is that of Daniel Nicholas, the friend of Belott, the son of the charitable mayor Sir Ambrose Nicholas, and the only deponent besides Shakespeare to be described as a ‘gentleman’. In his first deposition of 11 May 1612, Nicholas refers, as the others do, to Shakespeare being sent to Belott on his mission of persuasion. But in his second deposition, of 19 June, he adds a further aspect to Shakespeare’s role, indeed a culmination of it -

In regard Mr Shakespeare had told them that they should have a sum of money for a portion from the father, they were made sure by Mr Shakespeare by giving their consent, and agreed to marry, [giving each other’s hand to the hand deleted], and did marry.

Those words scored through in the original are the particular clue. They were deleted as inadmissible, perhaps because Nicholas was describing something he had not actually witnessed, or perhaps because the circumstances of the marriage itself were not at issue. I reinstate them because this is not a court of law, because Nicholas is a good deal closer to the event than we are, and because the phrasing he uses tells us fairly precisely what it was that Shakespeare did, or ‘moved’ Stephen and Mary to do, on that day in 1604.

What Nicholas is describing is what the Elizabethans and Jacobeans called a ‘troth-plight’ or a ‘handfasting’, and what was legally called sponsalia per verba, or ‘betrothal by words’. When Nicholas says the couple was ‘made sure’ by Shakespeare he is using a specific term associated with betrothals - ‘In matrimonie there is a contract or makyng sure, there is a coupling or handfasting of eyther partie, and finally marriage.’1 The Mountjoys themselves might have used the word accorder - Cotgrave’s French dictionary gives ‘Accorder une fille - to handfast, affiance, betroath himself unto a maiden’.

These betrothals were taken seriously, indeed were considered a binding contract. There were two kinds of contract, de praesenti and de futuro. The de praesenti was an agreement to become man and wife as of the present time. According to Pollock and Maitland’s History of English Law, it ‘established a bond which could not be dissolved except under exceptional circumstances, and not at all if copula carnalis had taken place’. The de futuro contract was a promise to wed in the future - roughly the equivalent of a modern engagement. It could be broken off by either party, ‘unless copula carnalis had occurred, in which case the betrothal was automatically converted into de iure marriage’.2

Nicholas’s phrasing tends to suggest the full de praesenti troth-plight: Stephen and Mary ‘agreed to marry, giving each other’s hand to the hand, and did marry’. The last clause may refer to their subsequent wedding in church, or it may mean they were married there and then, by the contractual force of their ‘consent’. That the handfasting in itself constituted a marriage is made clear by the Elizabethan expert on the subject, Henry Swinburne, whose Treatise of Spousals, written in about 1600, was the fruit of his long years as a judge at the Prerogative Court in York. Those who ‘have contracted spousals de praesenti’, he writes, ‘are reputed man and wife . . . For spousals de praesenti, though not consummate, be in truth and substance very matrimony.’3 The same idea is expressed more poetically in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (c. 1612) -

I have heard lawyers say a contract in a chamber 

Per verba presenti is absolute marriage. 

Bless, heaven, this sacred gordian which let violence 

Never untwine! . . . 

How can the church build faster? 

We are now man and wife, and ’tis the church 

That must but echo this. (1.2.18-35)

It would perhaps have been one of Shakespeare’s tasks to remind the couple of the binding nature of the betrothal, as did a certain William Addison in a similar situation, as recorded in a case before the London Consistory Court in c. 1610.4 He warned Joan Waters to ‘take heed what she did . . . for it was a contract which was not for a day or a month but for term of life’, and Joan ‘answered she knew what she did’.

Cases of disputed marriage at the Consistory Court, also known more sinisterly as ‘matrimonial enforcement suits’, have been meticulously studied by Loreen Giese and others.5 They contain many accounts of troth-plightings, and these give us some broad contexts for the one at Silver Street. Most of the contracts take place in a room (sometimes specified - hall, kitchen, chamber, etc) in a house connected with one of the spouses, though taverns and ‘victualling houses’ were also a popular venue (see Plate 32), and sometimes, weather permitting, they were performed al fresco, in a garden or orchard, or even ‘on horseback’. One young woman named Susan Fidgett went to ‘the ffeildes to dry clothes’ and came back betrothed.6 But these were exceptions, and it is likely the handfasting of Stephen and Mary took place at the house on Silver Street.

There was no rigid verbal formula, but we hear set phrases familiar to us from the wedding-service in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, such as ‘With this ring I thee wed’ and ‘Till death us do part’ (or more commonly ‘depart’). In a case of 1598 John Griffin explained the correct wording to an intending husband: ‘I John take thee Jane to my wedded wife, till death us depart, and thereto I plight thee my troth; and then the woman to say the like words again.’ These words, he assured him, ‘do make folks sure together’. Here are some other variations.

[Thomas] holding her by the right hand said: I Thomas take thee Grace to my wife, and I will have thee to my wife and no other woman, and thereto I plight thee my troth. And then they loosing hands, Grace took Thomas by the right hand, saying: I Grace take thee Thomas to my husband [etc] . . .

[Elizabeth took Martin] by the hand and said unto him these very words and none other: Here is my hand, in faith forever, whether my mother will or no. And then the said Martin answered: There is my hand and my faith forever, and I will never forsake thee . . .7

Gifts would often be exchanged in token of the betrothal - typically, as today, rings. In one case, the man having brought no ring, a witness ‘stooped down and made a ring of a rush, and would have given it them’. Sometimes the ring is specified - ‘a seal ring of gold with the picture of a white dog upon it, with the ears tipped with silver’. Hoop rings are also mentioned, like the one Marie lost out of her purse, and the double-hooped ‘gimmel’ ring, symbolic of clasped hands, was popular. On a gold gimmel ring of c. 1600, now in the Museum of London, is engraved a handfasting motto:

As handes doe shut 

So hart be knit

Almost as popular as rings was the spouses’ exchange of a piece or coin of gold, broken in half between them. Many other betrothal gifts are itemized - a pair of gloves ‘worth 2s 6d’, a petticoat, a ‘peece of crimson rybbyn knitt in a square knott wch she called a treww lovers knott’, a ‘jewell called an aggat’, a prayer book, ‘a French crowne and a tothepiker [toothpick] of silver’, and so on.8

These reports of handfastings in Elizabethan and Jacobean London help us to gauge something of the scene at Silver Street. It is a brief, well-worn ceremony, balanced between a certain ad hoc casualness and a touching formality. This is a folk-rooted society, at ease with ritual. Shakespeare is not exactly officiating - the ceremony is precisely private rather than official: a ‘contract in a chamber’. Legally speaking, he is no more than a witness of an oral contract. But often in these accounts there is someone obviously in charge, a master (or occasionally mistress) of ceremonies, and the phrasing of Daniel Nicholas’s statement - ‘they were made sure by Mr Shakespeare’ - clearly suggests this. His role might indeed be summed up as ‘directorial’. It is a scene to be acted out. There are lines to be spoken, and gestures to be got right, and props to be handled. It is not necessary that anyone else was present - a single witness was sufficient - but doubtless Mary’s parents were there, and perhaps others such as the maid Joan Langford, and Stephen’s mother and stepfather, the Fludds (but not, it seems, Mary’s uncle Noel, who said he did not know the ‘manner’ or ‘effect’ of Shakespeare’s involvement). And so for a few moments the Mountjoys’ shadowy parlour becomes a little theatre, and a hush falls as Stephen and Mary take hands and speak their vows.

When was Shakespeare knitting the young couple’s hearts in this way? The actual wedding took place at St Olave’s on 19 November 1604 (see Plate 33). The troth-plighting would probably have been a few weeks before this. Church regulations required the calling of the banns on three successive Sundays before the marriage could be ‘solemnized’ in church. The 19th fell on a Monday, so if the banns were observed - and there is no reason to think they were not - the latest date for the betrothal of Stephen and Mary would be Saturday 3 November, or at a pinch early on Sunday the 4th.

It does not need to be quite so hurried, of course, but it is unlikely there was a very long gap. In her study of courtship in Shakespearean England, Anne Jennalie Cook finds that ‘betrothals usually lasted a month or so’. The official Church view was that the wedding should follow fairly quickly after the betrothal, to avoid the temptations of premarital sex. Thus Heinrich Bullinger, the great Calvinist preacher whose sermons were very popular in England: ‘After the handfasting & making of the contract, the churchgoing & wedding should not be deferred too long, lest the wicked sew his ungracious seed in the mean season.’9

There is also the question of Shakespeare’s presence. He was probably out of London during the summer - the ‘tedious dead vacation’ when the law-courts closed, and the royal entourage decamped, and the play-companies went on tour (or, in the case of Shakespeare, went back to his family and his garden at New Place in Stratford). The end of the long summer break was signalled by the feast of Michaelmas (29 September), and the city got back to business in early October: the new law-term, the new theatrical season.

It was perhaps around then, back in London in the dying fall of the summer, that Shakespeare was asked by Marie Mountjoy to have a quiet word with the reluctant or hesitant suitor Stephen Belott. He did what she asked, and won Belott’s consent, and afterwards presided over the betrothal. In his original bill of complaint Belott says that on the basis of Mountjoy’s ‘offers’ and ‘persuasions’ he ‘did shortly after entermarry with the said Mary’. This is vague, and it is not quite clear if ‘entermarry’ refers to the betrothal or the wedding, but again it suggests things moved quite quickly.

None of this is infallible - one of the Consistory Court cases refers to a wedding performed two years after the contract - but these are the conventions, and the vestigial narrative recoverable from the lawsuit seems to fit with them well enough. The probable date of the Silver Street betrothal was October 1604.

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