The Time Traveller’s Manual to a Medieval Wedding

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The wedding of Henry V and Catherine of Valois. Note the robes they are wearing were made from real gold woven into silk and lined with ermine.

The government has issued a safety advisory against attending weddings in Westeros. However, you are cordially invited to travel back in time to attend the greatest wedding of the fifteenth century. This event will blow your mind with its conspicuous consumption the likes of which you will probably never hear tell of in the modern world. Do you accept? Great.

Make sure you rest up! This medieval wedding has ten days of partying and festivities – not to mention the travel time.

You will be traveling to Bruges in 1468 to attend the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York, a princess who is the King Edward IV’s younger sister. In the process, you have become the son of an up-and-coming gentry family.1 This is a great opportunity, so your ambitious family warns you not to blow it.

 charles-bold-face edwardiv-face  Margaret_of_York
Charles the Bold Edward IV Margaret of York

Frankly, you didn’t believe this wedding would even happen. In fact, you bet half of a war horse that the wedding pact would fall apart. The king’s cousin and maker, Warwick, is furious over this marriage pact with Burgundy. He had been pushing for a French match, and you thought he would get his way.2 Sadly, you lost. But, happily you were asked to be part of the wedding escort.
Frankly, it’s surprising that Charles consented to marry a York princess at all given his descent from John of Gaunt — and, consequent, blood relation to the now-deposed Lancastrian line. Charles had always shunned such a match and only agreed as a bulwark against his Valois cousin Louis XI.3

 

The Attire

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The Burgundian court. Note again the gold clothing.

Preparing for the wedding, however, hasn’t been easy. This is the “great age of cloth,” which means that this era is all about opulent display on a scale you’ve never experienced before in the modern world. Like all aristocrats, you cannot be seen at court unless you are suitably attired – and this means decked out in rich velvets, lustrous pearls, copper and gold buttons, silks, and glossy dark furs – or the gentry equivalent4 .

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As a result, your family has had to borrow great sums of money –perhaps £200 to 300 — to acquire one suitable set of clothing for the occasion.5 Your dad was lucky. A rich Grocer loaned him the money at the guild rate — only 8.5% — instead of the typical 12%.6 In exchange, you have to take his son on as a squire.

It will take your family six years to repay the cost of this one garment. Still your father notes that, even just twenty years ago, it was next to impossible to borrow money.7 And, your mother is thrilled; her mother’s cousin was sent home from court because he couldn’t afford to dress commensurate with his proximity to the king and her family has never forgotten the shame.

In case you are fooled by all this talk of luxury clothing, you are inhabiting the body of a vicious warrior who has been trained to ride and kill since he was five years old. Despite the velvets and finery, you’re the son of a medieval knight, not a foppish dandy who couldn’t bear to spill a drop of blood.

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Pretty clothes don’t stop people from killing each other. Froissart’s depiction of the Battle of Najera.

This is an age of grandiose potent display. To a certain extent, wealth is worn on your person and people at the top of the pyramid (dukes, kings) embed jewels and gold into their clothing.

In an age before the newspapers and even widespread portraiture, when there is no way to identify people you’ve never met from a distance, the wealthy convey their importance by wearing opulent, some might even say flashy, clothing. Such clothing is an aggressive status symbol that might be the equivalent of a ruthless executive pulling up in a shiny red Lamborghini. Clothing showcases wealth, power, and dominance. And, men, and not women, are the true peacocks of this age. (Men spend more on their clothing than women.)

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Why clothing you ask? This is the great age of cloth – and it fuels the economy of Burgundy and London, who supplies what is known as the best wool in Europe.

Still, you need to be careful when purchasing cloth.  There is fraud in the production of cloth, including deceitful stretching and dying of cloth.8 Your father warns you to stay away from the Italian cloth merchants – they are crooked – but your man servant tells you he’s heard that the Italians have the finest merchandise.9

 

The Voyage Begins: The procession out of London

Finally, your clothing is ready and the day the wedding voyage begins has arrived.

The trip to Bruges (in Burgundy) is across the sea. It will take a couple of weeks of land travel just to get to the port. Of course, you could leave directly from London, but the princess’s procession and magisterial departure is an important for national pride.

The  voyage of the princess – who is known as Lady Margaret — begins on Saturday June 18th, 1468. She rides from the king’s Wardrobe, which by the way is a grand storage facility and residence (and not a closet), to St. Paul’s cathedral in London. Throngs of Londonners deck the streets to send her off, watch her parade, and cheer proudly for her. This is a great day for England.

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This procession is for the coronation of Richard III roughly fifteen years later.

Behind the pomp, is a darker story. You’ve heard that the royal family is ripping apart at the seams over this marriage. Despite his powerful cousin Warwick’s fury, Edward chose to marry his sister to Burgundy instead of France. One of your servants has told you that privately, Warwick, even ranted about war.

Still, at the head of the procession, Warwick rides through the streets of London. Margaret sits behind him on the same horse. She is a tall, strong-willed, grey-eyed brunette. This act lets him put on a good show so the people don’t see the tension.10 But, of course, he’s not the only one who may be acting today.

While today begins Margaret’s greatest ambition – to become the wife of a ruler, a near queen, she must feel some apprehension. Margaret will have to live the rest of her life in a foreign country and will likely only see her family one or two times before she dies – if she is lucky. She likely knows her husband-to-be is a short violent man with a quick temper. He’s loves war – and not women.

Still, Margaret is managing to hold her head high, despite the cruel rumors spread by the vindictive French king she was a loose woman who had already given birth to son.

To be continued…

  1. You’re not John Paston, but perhaps a very close twin of his. For illustration purposes, this trip takes a few liberties in blending details from other weddings (annotated). The points are factual but the combination and context are not necessarily. []
  2. John Paston II made this bet – and lost – in 1468. However, he did as Helen Castor put it, “win a place” in the wedding entourage —  a huge coup. See Castor’s Blood and Roses p. 242. []
  3. J. Calmette The Golden Age of Burgundy p. 176 []
  4. There is no information that the Paston-esque time traveler borrowed sums for his wedding attire, but it wouldn’t be unheard of. []
  5. This estimate is based on reducing amounts spent by nobles like Richard of York, who spent over £1200 on one garment to go to court. See Duke Richard of York 1411-1460 by P. A. Johnson. []
  6. For the rate, see The Yorkist Age p. 286 []
  7. Between 1453-1470 money was “surprisingly easy” for nobles to borrow if they had decent security, a tricky concept in the late Middle Ages. For the difficulties in borrowing money in an underdeveloped money market, see M. Hicks Richard III and His Rivals “Counting the Cost of War” p. 202. []
  8. P. Kendall The Yorkist Age p. 310 []
  9. See P. Kendall for a discussion of the legislation enacted against Italian merchants who were suspected of fraud. It’s unclear to me at least, if this is factual or the age of fear of immigrants and competition. In The Yorkist Age p. 310 []
  10. Mary Clive p. 128 []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

5 Comments

  • […] of Thrones continues to promote an interest in medieval history and culture, and “The Time Traveller’s Manual to a Medieval Wedding” over at History Behind Game of Thrones uses the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of […]

  • Reply April 16, 2014

    Grant

    On the Italian merchants, it could very well be both truth and xenophobia mixed with dislike of competition. Anyway, I find the mentions of money to actually tell more about the times then the torrents of books talking about a major battle.

    • Reply April 16, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Grant, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I completely agree.

      I was amazed when I learned how much money drove the Hundred Years War and, later, even some aspects of the Wars of the Roses. It wasn’t until I read an essay in Michael Hick’s strangely named book “Richard III and His Rivals” (which isn’t about Richard III) that a light bulb went off. The essay is called something like “Counting the Cost of War” and, if memory serves, it’s an analysis of how much money people made on the Hundred Years War. Kind of a net/loss assessment.

      Lots of English soldiers got rich from the Hundred Years’ War and it fueled a huge wave of conspicuous consumption amongst the English aristocracy. (For all I know, French knights and mercenaries may have gotten rich from the war as well, but I haven’t read as much about that yet.) The English soldiers made money from booty (riches stolen from the towns they sieged) and, surprisingly, ransom. The whole thing with Brienne of Tarth being held by Locke for payment from her father was a **very** common scenario and some soldiers made a mint this way. [I’ve drafted an article about this, but I haven’t published it yet.]

      Many soldiers wanted to stay at war and stay in the war – and the war was extremely profitable for various kings. But, too often, the French peasants paid the price because (often) the Hundred Years War didn’t have that many battles – it was all attacks on soft targets. The primary war tactic was the peasant raids (the chevauchees).

      I’m simultaneously fascinated and disgusted by the cloth-of-gold thing. The cloth-of-gold clothing was obscenely expensive. What’s disgusting about it is the nobility got the extra money they needed to acquire it through war proceeds. Previous generations hadn’t been nearly that rich. Wore it to compete with each other, and to set themselves apart as important. And — MOST disgusting of ALL — wore it while peasants were starving.

      I think we lose sight of just how great a difference there was between the nobility and the peasants. I saw a chart once that showed the cost of food every decade in various king’s reigns. By the start of Henry VII’s reign food cost nearly 90% of a laborer’s wages. Most peasants were subsisting – some were starving. In one English village, an archeologist studied the remains in a graveyard and not only were the children significantly smaller than today’s children, 50% of them died (largely due to weakness from malnutrition).

      While some nobles gave to churches and gave alms to the poor, all too often the nobility was an oppressing class whose extreme conspicuous consumption was funded by oppressing and brutalizing peasants.

      But, lol, I should get off my soapbox!

      Also, maybe this is a harsh assessment, but it’s food for thought – whether or not people agree. 🙂 It seems like lots of history books overlook the big picture and discuss political events primarily from the perspective of the nobility.

  • Reply July 22, 2014

    Starfall Fan

    I absolutely love this time traveler’s guide to a Medieval wedding. Will Part 2 be coming up anytime soon? I’m looking forward to the voyage across the Channel’s narrow sea and the trip to the Burgundian court, and the contrasts between the Medieval English and Burgundian/French cultures. You have emphasized how rich and luxurious Burgundy was in other articles and an eyewitness’ account (as it were) of that would do very well in showing that.

    • Reply July 24, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Hi,
      First of all, thanks for saying such nice things about that article; I loved writing it. It was a lot of fun. Also, my apologies for not finishing the series yet. I got distracted with everything else going on in the season. I have rough drafts of the next parts – I think this will be a three-part series. I got a bit bogged down trying to find info on tournaments. But i now have a few good books. At any rate, I will try to get something out soon. Thanks for asking! I’m looking forward to writing it.

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