Marriage Customs Of England And Wales
( Originally Published 1897 )
WE have reserved our account of the customs of our country to the end, in order that the reader may be in a better position to understand the origin and meaning of those observances which have been handed down from a more or less remote antiquity. There are more survivals in our present marriage customs than one would think, as may be shown by answering a few simple questions. Thus :
Who was the ' best man,' and what did he do ? " To answer this we must go back to the days of marriage by capture," for, as has been shown by writers on the history of marriage, the best man" was the friend or comrade who helped the bridegroom to catch his bride. How few and simple are his duties at the present day, compared with what these once were ! They call for no special exertion, and certainly are unattended with danger—if we except the danger of falling in love with a pretty bridesmaid. But in those early days what might he not have to do, from murder downwards? We may picture him prowling round the hut, spear in hand, eyes and ears alert, to see whether the coast were clear, and then with stone-axe, knife or club helping to keep the family at bay while his friend carried off the damsel in spite of her cries.
Nor is this the only relic of the most ancient of human institutions ; for what was the honeymoon? It was not merely a pleasure trip as now, but a rapid and hurried flight of bride and bridegroom, rendered positively necessary by the anger of an outraged father. And so for at least a month the newly-married couple deemed it advisable to keep out of his way. After that time perhaps his wrath would have partially subsided, and then it might be possible, by making handsome presents, to reconcile him to the situation, and persuade him to accept a fait accompli.'
Presents to the bridesmaids form another interesting link with primeval days. They were originally a form of toll, and we have described above the custom still existing in Central India, where Kurku girls go through the form of preventing the removal of the bride. They pelt the young men—formerly the attacking party—with balls of boiled rice. Then they make a last stand at the door of the house, and, finally, only suffer the bridegroom to enter and take away his bride, after paying toll in the form of presents all round ; in fact they are bribed, and their resistance is more or less assumed for appearance sake. Throwing old shoes after the bride and bridegroom on their going away is possibly anothe relic of the same kind ; but there are two interpretations of this custom. According to one view it may be taken as a symbolic act on the part of the father of the bride who, in throwing a shoe, meant to signify that from henceforth he gave up all authority over the bride. The other explanation refers it to " marriage by capture," when a fight at the bride's house was part of the proceedings, and shoes might be thrown in anger when nothing else came handy.
The ceremony of lifting a bride over the doorstep is of ancient date. The Romans had this custom, and it may still be traced in widely distant lands, among the Red Skins of Canada, the Chinese, the Abyssinians, and also in Europe. Its origin is some-what obscure ; most writers, apparently, consider it as merely a necessary incident in marriage by capture." Another suggestion, already mentioned, is that the bridegroom took up the bride in his arms when they arrived at his house, and lifted her over the doorstep lest she should be so unlucky as to stumble, which would be a bad omen for her future happiness. There is something to be said for this view ; but the writer prefers an explanation mentioned in Brand's " Popular Antiquities of Great Britain " (1849, vol. ii. p. 114), where evidence is adduced to show that in old days a Roman bride was expected to manifest the greatest reluctance to step over the door of her husband's house, because to appear to do so willingly would have shown a want of true maidenly modesty (compare Arabia, Persia). We can well imagine that in some countries it was the custom for brides to stand there a long time, until at last the impatient bridegrooms could wait no longer, and put an end to the delay by lifting up their brides and carrying them over.
The bride-cake, still cut by the bride's own hand, is one of the most interesting relics embedded in the strange mosaic of our present marriage customs. As the reader who has followed our previous accounts will have noticed, the taking of food or drink together by the contracting parties may be said to be the principal, and sometimes the only ceremony among primitive peoples. And still it has not died out with more civilised races. The Jews drink the consecrated wine ; Chinese take tea ; Japanese drink saki ; Malays and others eat betel nut, and so on. The ancient Romans had three forms of marriage, but the strictest was the confarreatio, or eating together. It was jealously restricted to patricians and accompanied with awful religious rites. Hence, in Europe, the bride-cake plays an important part at marriages.
The throwing of rice, wheat, or other seeds was clearly symbolic of fertility, and expressive of the hope that the bride would in time be a happy mother of children. Abundance may be a secondary meaning.
It appears that, in the time of Edward VI., marriages were performed in the church porch, and not in the building itself. Selten states that dower could be lawfully assigned only at the door, and another writer says, When he cometh to the church door to be married there, after affiance and troth plighted, he endoweth the woman of his whole land, or of the half, or other lesser part thereof, and there openly doth declare the quantity and the certainty of the land she shall have for her dower." The reader will easily perceive that the object of formally investing a bride with her endowments at the church door was that it might be a public act witnessed by all who chose to assemble there. The custom is older than Edward VI.'s time, for Chaucer, in the time of Edward III., makes the wife of Bath say
"Husbands at churche door have I had five."
As in other countries, so in England, there was much joyous feasting on the occasion of a wedding. This is clearly shown by the very word " Bridal," which is simply another form of Bride-ale" (or Bride-feast), the latter word being commonly applied to a feast. Originally it meant only the carousal, or drinking, in honour of the bride ; and, indeed, " bride-ale " is still, in the Cleveland dialect of Yorkshire, the word applied to the draught presented to the wedding party on its return from church. There were also " Bid-ales," when the guests were bidden," or invited ; and " Church-ales," or Church-feasts, not to mention others.
Publicans used to make a good deal of money by these wedding-feasts. The amount of beer which other people might brew for a wedding was limited by law, so as to protect the publican.
In many countries, as previous pages have shown, the neighbours made presents in kind, as contributions towards the expenses of a marriage. The same custom prevailed in England.
Owen, in his " Welsh Dictionary," says, " The poor people in Wales have a marriage of contribution, to which every guest brings a present of some sort of provision, or money, to enable the new couple to begin the world." According to the same authority, it was customary for poor women newly married to go to farmers' houses to ask for cheese. In the North of England, after a public wedding of the kind here referred to, presents continued to come in for some days. The value of all the various contributions was sometimes as much as L200. A servant girl who had been with the same mistress for seven years, was entitled upon her marriage to a copper kettle holding from four to six gallons. If a young couple were very poor, they sent round a cart (wain) and horse to their friends to beg of them corn or whatever they could give. The corn was often used to sow the first crop. This explains the word " Bride-wain."
About a hundred years ago it was still usual to celebrate a marriage with open house," to which all the inhabitants of the district were bidden. The county of Cumberland was specially famous for these " Bidden Weddings." The invitation took the form of a public announcement. Here is a sample of the year 1789 ---
" Suspend for one day your cares and your labours,-
Notice is hereby given that the marriage of Isaac Pearson with Frances Atkinson will be solemnised in due form in the parish church of Lamplugh, Cumberland, on Tuesday next, the 30th May inst., after which the bride and bridegroom, with their attendants, will proceed to Lonefoot, in the same parish, where the nuptials will be celebrated by a variety of rural entertainments."
Some families, however, were not rich enough to entertain their friends and neighbours in such a liberal manner, and so, in course of time, the cost of the entertainment came to be defrayed by subscription among the guests. Hence the origin of The Penny Wedding," at which each guest contributed a few pence, and whatever was over went towards starting the happy couple in life.
As the Scotch lads used to run fir the Kail," and Welsh ones for a jug of beer, so we find that in parts of England, they used to ride for the bride-cake ; only this took place when the bride was brought to her new home. A pole was erected in front of the house, with the cake stuck on the top of it. The moment that the bride left her old home, a company of young men started off on horseback ; and he who was fortunate enough to reach the pole first, and knock down the cake with his stick, had the honour of receiving it, from the hands of a damsel, on the point of a wooden sword. With this trophy he returned to meet the bride and her attendants, who, on arrival, was presented with a posy of flowers, while others decorated with garlands the horses' heads. Sometimes, instead of racing for the bride-cake, the young men engaged in a trial of strength, and threw heavy bars of iron. This game or contest was known as " throwing the quintal." Yorkshire men used to run a race in front of the house where the feast was held, and the victor claimed a kiss from the bride. In some parts of Essex the bride used to take a seat near a table, her husband standing by her side while the guests came up in turn and gave presents of money, the piper exhorting them to be liberal. Who-ever gave the most received a pair of gloves, with a ribbon attached, and could claim a kiss from the bride.
According to the following old rhyme the middle of the week was the best day for getting married ; and the last three days were considered unlucky.
" Monday for wealth,
In some parts of Lancashire a man must never go courting on Friday, and if he is caught with his sweet-heart on that day he is followed home by a noisy band of roughs playing on tin-pots, or anything that comes handy.
An uneven number of wedding guests was a thing to be avoided, or one of them might die before the year was over. In the North, green, the fairies' colour, was not to be worn. The country folk also said that if a grave were open in the churchyard through which the party walked, the wedding would be sure to prove unlucky.
In Eastern countries, as our previous pages have frequently testified, women, as a rule, do not receive the respect and honour naturally due to them ; and a man buys a wife pretty much as he would buy an ox or a horse. But our readers will probably be surprised to learn that, even in England, wives have been purchased even in recent years. The strange belief that such a summary mode of divorce is according to law is not quite extinct. The writer remembers a case recorded in a daily newspaper only about ten years ago. And, if we go back a little further, it will be found that the practice was formerly not very uncommon. An old Devonshire farmer once thus addressed the friends assembled to celebrate an anniversary of his wedding—"I guv three pun' ten for my Missus three and thirty years ago this very day, and I wouldn't take it for her now ! " In the year 1744, the second Duke of Chandos bought his second wife from her husband, an ostler in Newbury, who was offering her for sale as the Duke passed through the town !
The strange custom whereby a condemned criminal could be saved from death by marriage once prevailed in England and France. Early in the seventeenth century, an English ballad celebrated the story of a merchant, born at Chichester, who was saved from hanging by a gallant maiden, who married him at the place of execution. In 1725 a widow petitioned King George I., offering to marry a man under the gallows if a reprieve should be granted to him. In the United States similar cases were not unknown. We have not been able to ascertain the date of the last case of this kind in England.
According to Pinkerton, a certain criminal preferred death to marriage at the foot of the gallows.' The event was thus recorded in rhyme :
" There was a victim in a cart
" `Come, marry a wife, and save your life,'
" ` For here's a crowd of every sort,
In the year 1725 it is recorded that nine young women, dressed in white, each with a white wand in her hand, presented a petition to his Majesty George I. on behalf of a young man condemned at Kingston for burglary, one of whom offered to marry him under the gallows.
One cannot help feeling that there is something to be said for this " ancient and laudable custom," although its revival in the present day would not be desirable. Nevertheless it showed a belief in the redeeming power of a good woman, so well illustrated by the story of Tannhauser.
It is difficult to believe that the disgraceful and often fictitious marriages called " Fleet Weddings " were made less than a hundred and fifty years ago. They take their name from the Fleet Prison, where many of the couples were united, the officiating parsons being disreputable and dissolute men, often prisoners for debt, who were willing, for the sake of a fee, to unite any persons in marriage at a moment's notice. They asked no inconvenient questions, only stipulating for so much payment in money, or a given quantity of liquor wherewith to drink the health of those whom they thus unlawfully joined together. It was by no means a rare thing for the parson, bridegroom, and bride all to be in a state of intoxication while the ceremony took place. These disgraceful members of the sacred calling had their " plyers," who addressed men and women as they passed along the streets, asking them whether they wanted a parson to marry them. One of the most notorious of these scandalous officials was a man of the name of George Keith, a Scotch minister, who set up a marriage office in May Fair, and subsequently in the Fleet. His business in this line became so extensive and scandalous that the Bishop of London found it advisable to excommunicate him. One morning during the Whitsuntide holidays he and his "journeyman " united a greater number of couples than had been married at any ten churches within the bills of mortality. The man was a bare-faced profligate, but lived to the age of eighty-nine years. Many of the early Fleet weddings were really, as a matter of fact, performed at the Chapel of the Fleet Prison. But, as the practice extended, it was found more convenient to have other places " within the rules " ; and thereupon many of the Fleet parsons and tavern-keepers in the neighbour-hood fitted up rooms in their respective lodgings, or houses, as a Chapel. The parsons took the fees, allowing a portion to their plyers " ; and the tavern-keepers, besides sharing in the money paid, derived a profit from the sale of liquors which they supplied at the wedding parties. Some of these innkeepers kept a parson on the establishment at a weekly salary of twenty shillings, who entered the names of the parties married in registers kept at these taverns. Sign-boards were hung out of the windows in order to attract passers-by, with the enticing words, " Weddings performed cheap here ! " One of these men, a Fleet parson of the name of Walter Wyatt, lived to see the gross error of his way, and certain entries made in a pocket-book show how bitterly he repented his misdeeds. " May God forgive me what is past," he says, " and give me grace to forsake such a wicked place, where truth and virtue cannot take place unless you are resolved to starve." His earnings were very considerable.
It need hardly be pointed out that these matrimonial facilities gave rise to many grave evils, the consequences of which were far-reaching. Parsons were frequently bribed to make false entries in their registers, to ante-date weddings, to give fictitious certificates, and even to marry persons unwilling to declare more than the initial letters of their names ! Widows who were involved in debt could easily cheat their creditors by pretending to have been married before their debts were contracted : it was only necessary for the widow to pay a small extra fee to the parson, who found some man to act as bridegroom for a few shillings. Blank spaces were left in the registers, and so the names could be inserted in such a way as to make it appear that they had been married several years before ! Entries could be obliterated for a fee ! Sham bridegrooms, under different names, were married many times over ; children born out of wedlock could be made apparently legitimate.
All kinds of people flocked to these unholy places—runaway sons and daughters of peers, Irish adventurers and rich but foolish widows, footmen and decayed beauties, soldiers and servant girls, boys in their teens, and young heiresses brought thither by force and compelled, against their wills, to be brides. The parson who solemnised an irregular marriage was liable to a fine, but such a penalty had no terrors for a man who was already in the Fleet Prison. The evil was abolished at last by making these irregular marriages invalid.
Many of the churchwardens and overseers of that day were in the habit of getting up marriages between paupers in order to throw the burden of their relief on other parishes. The Daily Post of July 4, 1741, reported the following case : -- On Saturday last the churchwardens for a certain parish in the city, in order to remove a load from their own shoulders, gave forty shillings, and paid the expense of a Fleet marriage, to a miserable blind youth, who plays on the violin in Moorfields, in order to make a settlement of the wife and future family in Shoreditch parish. To secure their point, they sent a parish officer to see the ceremony performed. One cannot but admire the ungenerous proceeding of this city parish, as well as their unjustifiable abetting and encouraging an irregularity so much and so justly complained of as these Fleet matches. Invited, and uninvited, were a great number of poor wretches, in order to spend the bride's parish fortune."
In the Society of Friends, or Quakers, a wedding is conducted with the greatest simplicity, as will be seen from our reproduction of an excellent picture exhibited in the Royal Academy, 1896, by our friend Mr. Percy Bigland (himself a Quaker), who has kindly allowed us to engrave it. Marriages are only entered into after much careful consideration, and with a due sense of the importance and solemnity of the contract. They mostly marry among themselves, " outside " marriages being discouraged. The Friends' Book of Christian Discipline contains the following injunction :
" Friends are advised against running into excessive, sumptuous, or costly entertainments at marriage dinners ; a great part of the cost of which would be better employed in relieving the necessities of the poor."
Friends intending to marry declare their intention at the monthly meeting of which they are members, the parents or guardians declaring their consent, if present, or, if absent, sending a signed certificate to the effect that their consent has been given. The meeting then appoints two men and two women to inquire if the contracting parties are free from other marriage engagements, &c. If no impediment appear, then a subsequent monthly meeting grants the parties leave to enter the married state. Marriages are solemnized at a usual week-day meeting, and at the meeting-house to which the woman belongs. There is no further ceremony than is here described. " After the meeting has been held a seasonable time, the parties are to stand up, and, taking each other by the hand, to declare in an audible and solemn manner to the following effect ; the man first, viz. ` Friends, I take this my friend D.E. to be my wife, promising through divine assistance, to be unto her a loving and faithful husband, until it shall please the Lord by death to separate us' and then the woman in like manner, ` Friends, I take this my friend A.B. to be my husband, promising through divine assistance, to be unto him a loving and faithful wife, until it shall please the Lord by death to separate us.' "
The parties also sign a certificate, and so do the witnesses. There are certain other rules laid down among Friends with regard to marriage, for example, that engagements may not be broken, as their Book of Christian Discipline says :—" And further, that such friends as have with serious advice, due deliberation, and free and mutual consent, absolutely agreed, espoused, or contracted upon the account of marriage, shall not be allowed, or owned amongst us, in any unfaithfulness or injustice one to another, to break or violate any such contract or engagement : which is to the reproach of truth, or injury one of another. And where any such injury, breach or violation of such solemn contract is known or complained of . . . we advise and counsel that a few faithful friends, both men and women, in their respective meetings to which the parties belong, be appointed to inquire into the cause thereof, and to report to a succeeding monthly meeting the result of their inquiry, that it may use its discretion as to the due exercise of the discipline in the case. And, further, we advise and exhort that no engagements made with-out honest endeavours to obtain, or due regard first had to, the counsel and consent of parents, relations, and friends, be countenanced ; that so all foolish and unbridled affections, and all ensnaring and selfish ends, be not so much found among us on any hand."
Parents are to discourage the marriage of their children outside the society. Those that are married by a priest, or in any manner " contrary to the established rules of the said society," are to be dealt with " in the spirit of Christian tenderness, agreeably to our known discipline ; all friends are also earnestly be-sought to prevent such marriages, and parents or guardians permitting or encouraging them are to undergo the discipline of the society. Parents, guardians, overseers and elders are likewise exhorted to check among young people all desire to form connexions outside the society, which so often lead to the solemnization of marriage by a priest, which, as being a violation of our testimony against a hireling ministry . . . we, as a people, have always believed it our duty to testify against."
With the Jews there are considerable differences in the ways in which marriages are celebrated in the different countries where they are now to be found, and the following description deals only with Jewish marriages as they are celebrated in London of to-day. It was the author's good fortune to witness recently a marriage in the New West End Synagogue, and his thanks are due, not only to the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Herman Adler, for his courteous invitation, but also to the Rev. J. L. Geffen, of the New West End Synagogue, for his kind help in giving the information necessary for this brief account.
Jewish marriages are solemnized between the hours of 1 and 4 p.m. ; the bride and bridegroom on that day partaking of no food or drink. Until quite recently, the marriage ceremony was preceded by the ordinary daily afternoon service ; but now this is discarded, and the service begins with the chanting by the reader and choir of the following verses from the Psalms.
" How goodly are thy tents, 0 Jacob : Thy dwelling places, 0 Israel." (Numb. xxiv. 5.)
Lord, I love the habitation of Thy house, and the place where Thy glory dwelleth." (Psa. xxvi. 8.)
In front of the reading desk is placed the canopy or chuppah, supported by four slender posts and beautifully decorated with white flowers and green leaves. Here the bridegroom waits while the reader pronounces the three following verses.
"Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord : we bless you out of the house of the Lord." (Psa. cxviii.)
" 0, come let us worship and bow down ; let us kneel before the Lord our maker." (Psa. xcv.)
" Serve the Lord with joy ; come before Him with exulting." (Psa. c. to the end.)
The bride then enters, led by her father, or, in his absence, by her nearest relative, such as a brother. She is followed by the mothers of the bride and bridegroom, the bridesmaids, and page-boy, if there is one, as is generally the case at fashionable weddings. The bride stands on the right hand of the bridegroom, while the two fathers are on his left, and the two mothers on the right of the bride. The reader pronounces the following benediction. He who is mighty, blessed and great above all beings, may he bless the bridegroom and the bride." An extemporaneous address is then delivered by the senior minister, a cup of wine is handed to him, and he pronounces the following grace.
" Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord, our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments, and hast given us command concerning forbidden marriages, who hast disallowed unto us those that are betrothed, but hast sanctified unto us such as are wedded to us by the rite of the canopy, and the sacred covenant of wedlock. Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord, who sanctifiest Thy people Israel by the rite of the canopy and the sacred covenant of wedlock."
The cup is then handed to the father of the bride-groom, who gives it to the bridegroom to drink. It is then handed to the mother of the bride, who gives it to the bride to drink. To do this, she lifts up the bride's long white diaphanous veil which covers her head and most of her dress. And now the wedding ring is produced and placed by the bridegroom on the forefinger of the bride's right hand, while he makes the following declaration. " Behold thou art consecrated unto me by this ring, according to the law of Moses and of Israel." Next, the marriage-contract is read out by one of the officiating ministers, first in Hebrew and then in English —it was signed before the service began by both the bridegroom and officiating ministers. A contract of this kind reads as follows :--
" On thiS ___ day of the week, on _____ day of the Hebrew month in the year, ___ the holy covenant of marriage was entered into in London between the bridegroom A. and the bride B. The said bridegroom made the following declaration to his bride. ` Be thou my wife, according to the law of Moses and of Israel. I faithfully promise that I will be a true husband unto thee, I will honour and cherish thee, I will work for thee, I will protect and support thee, I will provide all that is necessary for thy due sustenance, even as it beseemeth a Jewish husband to do. I also take upon myself all such further obligations for thy maintenance, during thy lifetime, as are prescribed by our religious statutes.' And the said bride has plighted her troth unto him in affection and sincerity, and has thus taken upon herself the fulfilment of all the duties incumbent upon a Jewish wife. This covenant of marriage was duly executed and witnessed this day, according to the usage of Israel."
The cup is refilled, and the last seven blessings are read, after which the goblet is again given to the bride and bridegroom, who drink from it as before. The glass having been placed on the ground, the bridegroom shatters it into many pieces by stamping on it with his foot. This breaking of the glass is an important piece of symbolism, for it is meant as a sad reminder to all present of Zion's shattered crown of glory. Mr. Geffen informs the writer that for the same reason decorations in private houses, as well as in the Synagogue, are always left incomplete in some way, signifying that there can be no perfect rejoicing, not even on the happiest occasions in life, so long as Zion is unrestored to Israel. The minister then pronounces the benediction from Numbers vi. 24-26. The service concludes with the singing by the choir of Psalm cl.
In Wales, the ancient festivities connected with marriage were still retained some forty or fifty years ago ; but since the introduction of railways into quiet mountainous districts many changes in manners and customs have taken place. The day having been fixed, bidding papers " were despatched to friends all round the country side. The squire was sure to find one on his table, and usually responded by a liberal subscription. The feast was held at the bride's home, in most cases. When she appeared in bridal costume among the assembled guests, friends proceeded to hide her away, so that the bridegroom might have some difficulty in finding her : this was part of the fun. Then the four or five groomsmen advanced to the house-door, and on be-half of their friend, demanded the bride from her father, and her spokesmen made reply, thus reminding one of the curious little scene that takes place in Brittany. All the stock of wit possessed by either party was exhausted, until, amid much laughter, the claimants were admitted and began their search. Sometimes she was so well hidden that it was nearly noon and yet they had not found her ! This was serious, because it would be too late after twelve o'clock (the law was only altered a few years ago). A friend then came forward to act as a guide, and her discovery was announced with loud acclamations.
In some parts it was the custom to ride full speed to the church. Thus Malkin I says, I11 may it befal the traveller who has the misfortune of meeting a Welsh wedding party on the road. He would be inclined to suppose that he had fallen in with a company of lunatics escaped from their confinement. It is the custom of the whole party who are invited, both men and women, to ride full-speed to the church-porch ; and the person who arrived there first, has some privilege or distinction at the marriage feast. To this important object, all inferior considerations give way, whether the safety of his Majesty's subjects who are not going to be married, or their own, be incessantly endangered by boisterous, unskilful, and contentious jockeyship. The natives, who are acquainted with the custom, and warned against the cavalcade by its vociferous approach, turn aside at respectful distance ; but the stranger will be fortunate if he escapes being overthrown by an onset, the occasion of which puts out of sight that urbanity so generally characteristic of the people."
Meanwhile the bridegroom awaited her at the church; but even then there might be further delay, for there took place a kind of mock ceremony of capture, and the poor girl often came in for some rough handling. It was nearly noon before the marriage-service had been read. No sooner had the clergyman given the blessing, than the men who were on horseback began a furious race to see who could first bring to those waiting at home the intelligence that the service was over. The rider who came first received a pint of ale. In Scotland the prize is a bowl of broth (brose).
The rest of the proceedings consisted of feasting and dancing, very much as in Brittany.