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History of White Western Wedding Before 1840

posted Feb 4, 2015, 12:24 AM by Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller   [ updated Feb 25, 2015, 3:06 AM ]

Update: I am going to start re-reading and editing the novel I wrote last year, it's a thriller set in London but with a difficult narrator. Claire is early twenties, from Dublin (Northside, naturally) and stuck unhappily sharing with her big sister in a city of strangers. To let off steam she follows a doctor late one night and stumbles into something that involves drugs, homelessness and science gone wrong, so if any of that floats your boat cross your fingers for me.

This blog is more of a history lesson, in 2011 I finished a Masters in Philosophy, specialising in Gender and Women's Studies, in Trinity College Dublin. Man, I miss it, the excuse to spend hours studying, reading books and articles that would each spark off a thousand more questions! Anyway, I did my final thesis on White Weddings, (Uninvited Guests: An Exploration of the White Wedding in Ireland) and since then I have left all the research and data mouldering on my hard-drive. Until last week, when I presented a small talk on the history of the White Wedding at work, a perk of working for the Southbank Centre is their ethos for sharing knowledge with wonderful and sometimes off beat festivals, and this opportunity came up on a staff day. The staff day itself was a bit like a talent show with free food and sing-a-longs, and for some masochistic I reason volunteered to do a short talk, it was terrifying, public speaking is akin to facing a firing squad but you survive and are judged on how awful your death scene was by the gunmen. But I did it and as I was refreshing my memory cells I realised that I know a shit load about weddings, and perhaps someone out there will be interested in what I have to say.

Disclaimer: Not only is my research Irish focused my area of interest is in the Why? Of weddings, specifically in the women's role as 'bride', the ritual aspect, the

Wedding-Industrial-Complex and the wedding as an expression of conspicuous consumption in a Western context. I don't know if there is an interest in these areas so I'm not sure if I will blog about them yet.

Layout: Post One will be English based, a quick jaunt from the end of the Anglo-Saxon age (approx 1,000 c.e.) to the dawn of the Victorian Age, specifically 1840. Post Two will be an Irish History of wedding rituals. Post Three will be the Victorian Age and the twentieth Century until recent times (but not present times).

Post One: From Trade to Politics, A History of the English Wedding Before 1840

Most of this is stolen from And the Bride Wore (1973) by Ann Monsarrat a wonderful book on the history of the White Wedding with a wealth of information and I recommend it if you want to know more, especially about Royal Weddings, flowers, honeymoons, music and gossip. Page references are for that book.

1- Ceremony.

Although other older civilisations held their weddings in Churches and Temples under the authority of their priesthoods, in England under Anglo-Saxon and Christian rule this was not the case, marriage was seen as a secular, private matter, and marriage is vastly different to what we take for granted today. As the church took an increased role in the wedding the ceremony became more standard and the vows we would be familiar with now were established around the fourteenth century although with the thankfully forgotten, sexist vow by the wife to be “bonlich and buxum in bed and at burde” (To be meek and obedient in bed and at board) .p.29. Royal matches were usually formal occasions and these weddings would be celebrated publicly with much pomp and ceremony, in a church. The wealth of the Royal and aristocratic families would be on display, taxes were raised to pay for the event, and in addition to feasting the bride would wear this wealth, the day being her reward in anticipation of her uncertain happiness in future. White was not necessarily the colour of a bride, it was expensive however, being hard to make and maintain and so it symbolised wealth perfectly, it also indicated youth and innocence. Blue was a popular colour to marry in, as it indicated constancy, silver was a favourite of royalty, or gold, and yellow, pink and lilac were all also used, especially in later centuries. The dress would often be re-worn, and for upper class women they would be re-styled for presentation to court as a married woman. For lower class women, white, or the pale rich fabrics were an aspiration and many women married in their ordinary or nicest clothes.

The Church in earlier times had no real interest in the weddings of ordinary folk, and looked down on the exchange of money that it involved, but as the church became more involved in peoples lives they were asked to bless the union. Many weddings were an exchange of vows on the porch of the Church, followed by a nuptial mass. As time went on however the Church took more of an interest, and more of a cut, and the priest would be paid for his services in performing the wedding. They also took a great deal of interest in controlling who could and could not marry, declaring family three removes (i.e. cousins) out as relations, and included in this was family that had been married into, or God parents and their families, this was confusing for many, especially in small towns where most people would be related, or married into or in some other way considered by the Church to be of the same family. Years after a wedding, marriages could be declared illegal, and the children illegitimate on the final decision of a priest, this is the reasoning behind the part of the ceremony inviting objections, as this was a real moment of anxiety for the couple.

By law weddings were obliged to be before noon, to prevent skulduggery, for many centuries, until special licences could be purchased in the nineteenth century (linked to industrialisation and rail networks allowing couples to leave on honeymoons later).

The laws to announce an upcoming wedding three weeks in advance, each Sunday at a Church or public place, called the reading of the Banns, introduced in the thirteenth century to protect heiresses (and their property) from seduction (or kidnapping which nevertheless happened into the eighteenth century). This public announcement went in and out of fashion over the centuries and when special licences were brought in in the fourteenth century it was an expensive and therefore desirable part of the wedding. In the eighteenth century clandestine weddings were all the rage in high classes, and it became fashionable to have a wedding take place in a quiet back room while a party filled the rest of the house, oblivious to the event.

Over the centuries religious wars led to periods of austere weddings, while certain religious ceremonies were outlawed and moved underground, or in Puritan times when they became purely secular and many of the trimmings, including the wedding ring, were frowned on as “A Relique of Popery and a Diabollicall Circle for the Devil to daunce in” (p.46)

In the seventeenth century defrocked priests and dodgy clergymen gathered around the debtors prison of Fleet Street in London where they offered fast and cheap weddings for sailors, prisoners and the poor, not to mention a few nobles in disguise, but in the eighteenth century the chaos this caused for the propertied classes when their daughters eloped led to it being made illegal. (See image left of "Sailors Fleet Wedding 1747")

2- Who Married.

For Anglo-Saxons 'Bride by Capture', was nice way of saying that if a man fancied a woman he would plan a raid and take her from her home by force, until she submitted to his rule and was married to him. There was no expectation of mercy or joy in marriage and wives were literally the property of their captors/husbands. The more powerful the warrior, his clan and his family the easier it was for him to arrange this, however families, villages and even whole towns could be dragged into battles and trade disputes over these abductions, as the father would be loosing a useful asset. Girls worked hard, milking, herding, spinning and weaving, not to mention keeping the home and raising younger children, and their fathers were roused to anger and the loss of someone he could trade to cement a trade or alliance. Therefore it became custom to barter a price with the kidnapper, hence the dowry system, and so wives became more commonly bought than stolen, however the sentiment remained, as we will see. Laws were written forbidding the practice of selling the same girl multiple times, indicating that it was not uncommon for a man to accept several dowries before the girls came to marriageable age. Over time girls were raised less for use and more for decoration men had to pay to pass them off, and the dowry system shifted to the father paying the potential groom. Laws that governed weddings concerned these trades more than anything else, incidentally the 'wed' or pledge was were we got the name for the ring, often a symbol of this bargain. Betrothal was as important as the wedding and these promises were legally binding, making it impossible to marry another if the promise was in the present tense in front of witnesses, these laws carried on until late in the eighteenth century.

Children would be promised in childhood and the minimum age to marry until the nineteenth century was 12 years old for a girl, and 14 for a boy, although men were usually much older than their brides. Poor people were more practical and marriage was necessary for survival as two could work harder than one, and children provided labour if there was land.


3- Old Traditions

The Bedding was an important part of the day and in the fifteenth century and beyond the newly married couple would be joined in their chamber by the party (including royalty, King Henry VII enjoyed them), and perhaps a priest for a blessing (or bishop if you were rich), and often games and tricks would be played, including sewing the couple in, or tying a bell under the bed. One game involved the couple throwing stockings at their guest, where we get throwing the bouquet from.


Weddings could take place in the brides home and whether at a church or house the tradition was for a procession or journey of the wife to her home and, after breakfast, another journey to her new home. This became an opportunity for games as races would be held for the journey from Church to the brides house for the wedding breakfast (a pot luck supplied by the family and guests), or games and races to be held at a nearby green, perhaps on market day, with prizes for the winners supplied by the bride (or brides, as several weddings may happen in a town in a week, or in a church at one time). These prizes were often coloured ribbons, and over time these were called wedding favours and in later centuries they would be given by the bride to guests to be worn at weddings, turning white over the years. In aristocratic circles these favours could extend to large rosettes worn by men, and could be paired with flowers, in the nineteenth century the old fertility symbol of orange blossom became the flower of choice and at Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840 they were popular with all guests, some mixed with silver lace and white satin, “here and there were seen bouquets of huge dimensions of riband and massive silver bullion having at their centre what might almost be termed a branch of orange blossoms” (Quoted from The Times on p.133).

Games and races associated with weddings lingers on in the country until the early eighteenth century, however the extreme gaiety and carnival atmosphere of early weddings did not last. In earlier times it was common to host a bride-ale where, in the Church after the wedding, a cask (or more) of ale would be passed around and guests would put money in a box for the couple to set up home, this party over time moved from the church to an adjacent hall or tavern, and these drinking sessions could last until late in the night. Games could be quite rough, in some areas there was a tradition to mob the bride directly after the vows, and grab what you could of her finery, ribbons, gloves, decorations, even her garters, these were then worn as a prize for the remainder of the festivities, this trophy hunting could happen before the girl had even left the alter. For the richer classes however these games could take the form of tournaments, lasting days of feasting and revelry. But as with everything else over time and religious influences things became more restrained, especially after the Puritans, and these traditions only lingered in the countryside on in Scotland which had it's own traditions.(See Image to left of "Winchester Wedding 1682-3")

Breaking an oatcake, a bride-cake, over the head of a bride on the wedding day is an old ritual, and these only slowly evolved in Elizabethan times to a softer cake, and with Charles II into French influenced decorated bridal cakes. The breaking an oat cake over the head part still lingered and merged with fertility symbols and paper luck symbols into confetti, while the cake became more and more ornate.

Next Time I'll discuss Weddings After 1840, but I will add this for anyone who still has a rose tinted view of “traditional” white weddings, in the sixteenth century up to 33 per cent of brides in the village of Colyton, for example, were pregnant and even in 1880 poor people did not see the need for a wedding. The following quote is from Richard Meinertzhagen, Test Valley, 1880’s; Diary of a Black Sheep

When we first went to Mottisfort many of the villagers were living together as man and wife without having been through the ceremony of marriage. This practice was deemed perfectly honourable, but it shocked the new rector, Mr. Slocock, who consulted my mother on the subject. My mother was a practical woman, always facing facts and, of course, saw the comic side of it. She rather enjoyed the honest and practical manner in which a village can manage its own affairs without the help of the Church, but Slocock being an orthodox priest was outraged at promiscuous living in sin (hateful expression) in his parish. The people of Mottisfort were not immoral and this marriage without ceremony was partly due to Church neglect and partly due to poverty. It was the fate of old couples who, as young people, had been unable to afford the marriage fee of half a crown. Under Mr. Slocock’s persuasion, my mother offered to pay the fee and many old couples nearing the stage of a golden wedding became respectfully married.” (And the Bride Wore p.120)

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