18th century marriage customs

When people marry today, they can choose where they marry, be it a religious building, registry office or even by taking their vows whilst sky diving and anywhere in between, as long as an officiating officer is present.

In the Georgian period marriages had to take place in a religious venue, presided over by a religious official, unless you chose to elope over the border to Gretna Green, Scotland.

Gretna Green, or, the red-hot marriage, c.1795. Lewis Walpole Library
Gretna Green, or, the red-hot marriage, c.1795. Lewis Walpole Library

Forthcoming marriages were usually announced by banns read out in church. If the couple wanted more privacy, then they would apply for a Marriage Licence, which, if you could afford it, could be purchased for a whole variety of reasons such as  – they were in a hurry as the bride being pregnant or that the couple were of different social standings, so perhaps a master marrying his servant,  or there was a large age gap. There may have been opposition from the family, or the parties may have been of different religions. It could even have been that they had married overseas and wanted it to be legitimatised by the Church of England. Paying for a licence made it a quicker and easier option.

According to the Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical, marriages could only take places between the hours of 8am and midday. So perhaps with a marriage licence you would opt for the earliest time available, so you could simply ‘tie the knot‘ and slip away without anyone noticing.

Usually there were only one or two marriages per day in London churches, far less in local parish churches, but on extremely rare occasions as many as 8 could take place, but this would have made each one an extremely hurried affair, literally giving the couple enough time to make their vows and leave in order to allow the next wedding to take place. Not ideal nor romantic, in my opinion.

I was recently  reading about the life story of the Scottish poet and ballad writer, David Love, who, although Scottish, spent much of his life in Nottingham, when I came across some details of his first marriage which took place in Scotland and he described how different marriage in Scotland was, compared to England.

Barber, Thomas; David Love (1750-1827), Ballad-Writer; Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

In David’s own words:

Marriages in Scotland are not performed as is done in England, there is no ring put on the bride’s finger, no repeating of words after the minister, no common prayer book to read out of, nor any form of words till the minister bids them join their hands; the minister then says “Are you willing to have this woman to be your wedded wife” he bows as a token of his willingness: then he says to the woman “Are you willing to have this man to be your wedded husband” she makes a courtesy; the minister then says “ the presence of God and these witnesses I pronounce you man and wife, for whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” The minister then begins with an exhortation concerning the marriage-state, how each is to behave, respecting their duty to one another, concluding with prayers suitable to the occasion.

Today, the tradition is to throw the wedding bouquet, David tells us though, that in his time, the tradition was to throw one of  stockings of the bride. Then the process was repeated by the groom. (Hmm, I’m not so sure that throwing a man’s sock today would be seen as lucky though!)

Having read David’s account, I thought I would take a look at some of the other wedding customs of the Georgian period.

I came across this interesting piece in the Carlisle Journal, October 1846 which explains some of the tradition practised in the north of England (a similar article also appeared previously in 1823).

Marriage ceremonies in the north of England – The day of marriage has always been, and it is to be hoped, in spite of disconsolate old maids and love-crossed bachelors, will ever continue to be, a time of festivity.

Among the rustics in Cumberland, the is plentiful music, dancing and revelry. Early in the morning, the bridegroom, attended by his friends on horseback, proceeds in a gallop to the house of the bride’s father. Having alighted, he salutes her, and then the company breakfast together. The repast concluded, the whole nuptial party depart in cavalcade order towards the church, accompanied by a fiddler, who plays a succession of tunes appropriate to the occasion. Immediately after the performance of the ceremony, the company retire to some neighbouring ale house, and many a flowing bumper of home brewed is quaffed to the health of the happy pair. Animate with this earthy nectar, they set off at full speed towards the future residence of the bride, where a handkerchief is presented to the first who arrives.

The Village Wedding; National Trust, Waddesdon Manor

The Ribbon

In some of the country villages in the county of Durham, after the connubial knot is tied, a ribbon is proposed as the subject of contention, either for a foot or a horse race, supposed to be a delicate substitute for the bride’s garter, which used to be taken off while she knelt at the altar; and the practice being anticipated, the garter was generally found to do credit to her taste and skill in needlework.

In Craven, where this singular sport also prevails, whoever first reaches the bride’s habitation is ushered into the bridal chamber and having performed the ceremony of turning down the bedclothes, returns, carrying in his tankard of warm ale, previously prepared, to meet the bride, to whom he triumphantly offers his humble beverage, and by whom, in return, he is presented with the ribbon, as the honourable reward of his victory.

Lizars, William Home; A Scotch Wedding; National Galleries of Scotland

Riding for the kail

Another ancient marriage ceremony of the same sort, still observed in the remote parts of Northumberland, is that of ‘riding for the kail’, where the party, after kissing the bride, set off at full speed on horseback to the bridegroom’s, the winner of the race receiving the kail(today, written as kale), or dish of spice broth, as the chief prize.

The wedding ring

I have no idea whether there is any truth in this one from the Cheltenham Chronicle October 1815, but I do like it.

This custom was introduced by the ancients, who used to present their mistresses with a ring, meaning thereby to express as a ring has no end, so there shall be no end of that love which is necessary to constitute connubial felicity; and it was put upon the fourth finger of the left hand because anatomists affirm, that there is a vein in it having direct conveyance to the heart, which is the source of love and affection.

The Village Wedding, Thomas Falcon Marshall
The Village Wedding, Thomas Falcon Marshall; Fylde Borough Council

It was also custom to that ring was directed first to be put on the thumb, afterwards the second, then upon the third and lastly on the fourth finger, where it would remain. The Perthshire Courier of September 1824, also stated:

Married women are so rigid, not to say superstitious, in the notion concerning their wedding rings, that neither when they wash their hands, nor at any other time, will they displace it from this finger, extending, it should seem, the expression of ‘till death do us part’ even to this golden circlet, the token and pledge of matrimony.

Bride cake

I have previously written about wedding cakes and you find more about the first tiered wedding cake, by clicking on this link.

The bridal party after leaving the church repair to a neighbouring inn, where a thin currant cake, marked in squares, though not entirely cut through, is ready against the bride’s arrival. Over her head is spread a clean linen napkin; the bridegroom standing behind the bride, breaks the cake over her head, which is thrown over her and scrambled for by the attendants.

This sounds potentially rather messy, I would have thought, so perhaps not one for today’s brides given the cost of today’s wedding dresses.

The Country Wedding by John Lewis Krimmel, 1820

Bridal Pie

The bridal pie was so essential a dish on the dining table after the celebration of the marriage, that there was no prospect of happiness without it. This was always made round, with a very strong crust, ornamented with various devices. In the middle of it was a fat, laying hen, full of eggs, probably intended as an emblem of fertility, which was also garnished with minced and sweet meats. It would have been deemed an act of neglect or rudeness if any of the party omitted to partake of it. And on this occasion, it was the etiquette for the bridegroom always to wait upon the bride, from whence it is supposed the term bridegroom took its origin.

Honeymoon

According to the Morning Post, December 1815:

Honey moon – it was the custom of the higher order of Teutonics, an ancient people who inhabited the northern parts of German, to drink mead, or Metheglin, a beverage made with honey, for thirty days after every wedding. From this custom comes the expression “to spend the Honey Moon”.

Sources:

Constitutional Canons Ecclesiastical

Header Image

The Wedding Breakfast; National Trust, Waddesdon Manor

25 thoughts on “18th century marriage customs

  1. Christopher Normand

    Lovely article, as usual! Early in my own researches I was told that Scottish marriages, in the 18th Century, were performed inthe Church porch or doorway, not in the building, itself. I never found a confirmation of this ! Perhaps you might comment?

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    1. Sarah Murden

      Thanks Christopher. I’m not sure about Scotland, but I have read that the porch was used by the person officiating to double check that everything was ‘above board’ and that the couple was free to marry before entering the house of God i.e. so that no sin was being committed inside. I’m not sure exactly when that changed, but my inclination is to think it would have been post Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act which came into effect 1753. More research needed for proof, I think 🙂

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      1. Having part of the ceremony in the church porch is very ancient, in the Canterbury Tales the much married Wife of Bath says that she was always ‘married at the church door’.

        In the latter part of the nineteenth century, in the village of Ibberton in Dorset, part of the ceremony was carried out in the church porch, for the simple reason that the rest of the church had no roof and was unsafe to enter! Most of the ceremony was held in the village hall, but part had to be carried out in a consecrated building, so everybody climbed the hill to the church and the parson, bride, groom and witnesses squeezed into the porch and everybody else waited outside.

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        1. Sarah Murden

          Hmm, what a great piece of information, thank you. An unsafe building certainly wouldn’t have made for a good start to married life, so that makes sense 🙂

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  2. Before Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1754 many Londoners, who didn’t want to wait for banns, whose families disapproved or for other dubious reasons, married in clandestine venues around the Fleet prison. My 5xgreat grandparents did it, and the better venues (pubs) kept registers (which have survived – mine is RG264) and supplied the couple with a certificate. I’ve just enjoyed “The Chaplain of the Fleet” by Walter Besant and James Rice (1881 Kindle edition from Project Gutenberg)

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      1. The bride in 1753 (my 5xgreat grandmother) was Huguenot, Judith Esther Louisa Favre. She married aged 22 (as Esther Favre, giving no parish, so presumably her parents disapproved) a Swiss man, Henry Sollicoffer “Dyer, of Spitalfields.” Then she produced two children in the London Lying in Hospital, in 1753 and 1758 sponsored by the Duke and Duchess of Portland. By 1754 her husband had died (or disappeared) when her son was apprenticed to a City Cabinet Maker (Consideration £20!). But the boy didn’t stay (or she couldn’t pay?) and within 6 months he was sailing to America on a free passage as an apprenticed servant. Most of them died, apparently. Later his mother married again and her second husband (once bitten, twice shy?) settled £50 on her before the wedding. So I have a copy of her will. She left a bequest to a famous miniature painter and her trustee was a well-known German bookseller. So tantalising!

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        1. Sarah Murden

          What a fascinating story. She lived to a good age didn’t she? I wonder who the miniature painter was – did she name him/her? Cosway, perhaps? Is there a miniature of Judith Esther?

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          1. The miniature painter was Charles Hayter (1760-1835) of Margaret Street Cavendish Square. She left him 5 guineas for mourning. The German Bookseller was Carl Heydinger (1730-1801) whose wife was Jane Favre (1750-1823?) possibly Judith’s niece. She also left £20 plus interest to her grandson John Robert Overton (1783-1847) my 3xgt grandfather who was a substantial Line Draper in Surrey. The money was probably invested in government stock. Luckily too late for the South Sea Bubble in 1720!

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  3. lydiaschoch

    This was all so interesting. I knew almost nothing about marriage customs in this century. I wonder what they’d think of contemporary marriage ceremonies and receptions?

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    1. Sarah Murden

      Thank you so much Lydia. I think their heads would spin at the type of marriage ceremonies available to us today 🙂

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  4. Spotted a little typo: “the couple we of different social” should be ” the couple were of different social” I assume. Could couples actually marry if they were of different social standings? And were these marriages as valid as others? In Venice for example such marriages weren’t recognised legally, but of course by the church.

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    1. Sarah Murden

      Thank you so much, I do hate gremlins (amended). Yes, absolutely couples of different social classes could marry. Whilst it was often frowned upon by family and friends, it was certainly legal, that’s one of the reasons that couples would have chosen to marry by licence rather than banns. The marriage would still take place in the church and be recorded in the marriage register. It would make it quicker and no-one could object 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A more egalitarian society than in Italy… The information in this article is, as interesting as it is, not about my period, that is 1700 to 1730. Do you have more about this time. If so, I’d love to share it my blog.

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        1. Sarah Murden

          Yes, I would say so. I don’t have anything right now, but I will do some further research and if I find anything really interesting, I’ll write up another article.

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  5. A wonderful post. Thank you! I am currently reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the issue of banns or license arises in the wedding of Tess and Angel Clare. So, apparently in the late 19th century when Tess was written (and the book is set) the same practices were in use. Tess’s friends were surprised when the banns weren’t read at church three weeks before the wedding, but Angel explains to Tess that he has gotten a license to allow them to marry sooner. Having just read this, I found your post really fascinating! Again, thanks.

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    1. Sarah Murden

      Thank you so much, Kathleen, delighted you enjoyed it. The ideal way to marry would have been with the public declaration via banns being read in church, so the licence was, for some, the easier and quicker option and yes, it would have surprised Tess’s friends! 🙂

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