The ceremony itself was not so different from today, except that the bride promised to obey* her husband, and did not usually wear white. The bride was sometimes decked with ears of wheat to symbolize Ceres, goddess of fertility.
At the end of the wedding there was a toast in sweet wine--or ale for the less wealthy.
How else could the family of the husband be sure that the blood line was being continued?
In Meg’s book, MAID OF SECRETS, Meg is absolutely determined not to marry.
This is a rare attitude for young Elizabethan girls, but she has led a life of relative freedom and personal accountability, and she finds the prospect of being “owned” by a man somewhat less than desirable.
A betrothal was binding but, unlike a wedding, it could be broken without terrible fuss for one of several reasons–including disfigurement of either party, infidelity of either party, or either the man or woman committing treason or heresy.
Of course, if it was discovered that either party was already married, that also would be cause for calling off the new wedding.
The reason for late marriage among labourers and the middle class was simple enough: it took a long time for a couple to acquire enough belongings to set up housekeeping, even in a room of their parents' home.
Young love, however romantic, had to be kept in check if the two lovers were to survive in a world where subsistence earnings would not purchase a roof over their heads and put food on the table.
Girl meets boy, couple falls in love, marriage and babies follow. While it was legal for boys to marry at age 14 and girls to marry at age 12, Elizabethans “reached the age of consent” at age 21, and many did in fact wait until then to marry.
Only among the nobility would you typically find marriages between much younger parties.
In the Friar/Duke justifies Mariana's sleeping with Angelo because she was formally betrothed to him beforehand; on the other hand, Prospero is adamant that Miranda and Ferdinand remain chaste before marriage: If thou [Ferdinand] dost break her virgin-knot before All sanctimonious ceremonies may With full and holy rite be minist'red, No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall To make this contract grow; but barren hate, Sour-eyed disdain, and discord shall bestrew The union of your bed with weeds so loathly That you shall hate it both.
( Nonetheless, "handfast" marriages* were common, and the ecclesiastical courts were often busy with cases involving premarital sex and adultery.
Particularly amongthe nobility, but even down through the middle and lower classes, marriages were arranged between families for mutual enrichment, to stabilize a family line, or by common acceptance that “of course these two families’ children will marry.” It was a situation that proved particularly challenging for women, as women were considered just slightly more important than cattle during this era (a mild exaggeration, but still).