THE month of March has traditionally been seen as a most auspicious one for marriage, with its prospect of spring heralding a new start.
In the 1950s there was the additional bonus of a rebate if couples wed before the end of the tax year.
The present day amalgam of formal and jovial ceremonies is in sharp contrast to centuries ago when some marriages among country folk could be simply a contract between the couple with no intervention of church or state.
The ‘wedding’ would often take place at a parents’ home without witnesses and the bride would not wear white but her ‘best dress’.
Weddings were often boisterous occasions, and an onlooker back in 1547 observed: “Suffer not your children to go to weddings or banquets for nowadays one can learn nothing there but ribaldry and foule words”.
However, Welsh weddings were known to be more discreet where the people “drynke mead and under heaven there is no fairer complexion nor cleaner of nature”.
Another reference relates to a friend’s concern over the choice of bride. He says: “I saw Mistress Bryde return from the church. The day before she had been somewhat of the condition of a kitchen wench but now so tricked up with scarves and rings and cross garters that you never saw a Whitsun lady better rigged.
“I would have applauded the Fellow’s fortune if he could have married the clothes but (God be merciful to him) he is chayned to the wench.”
Elopements were not unusual and one such case reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine for March 1767 stated that the ancient custom of seizing girls and carrying them off was still practised in Ireland. In a dramatic incident in County Kilkenny a farmer’s son being refused permission to wed a neighbour’s daughter aged only 12 took the opportunity of running away with her.
The girl’s father chased after the pair, brought her back and promptly ‘married’ her to a lad of 14.
Her former lover determined to win her back organised a party of armed men and besieged the house of his rival. In the contest the father-in-law was shot dead and several others were wounded and the gang was forced to retire without their prize.
It was rare but not uncommon for husbands to sell their wives if the couples became incompatible and in 1808 ‘men of low station’ sold their wives under the impression that they could do so legally if both parties agreed and with complete disregard for the law or morality.
One husband sold his wife for 18 pence and a glass of beer and Thomas Hardy in his classic tale The Mayor of Casterbridge portrays a similar scene when Michael Henchard sells his wife Susan.
At auctions in ancient Babylon women were sold to the highest bidder: wealthy gentlemen were able to pay the highest prices for the best looking brides while the commoners bid for a selection of the uglier ones.
Of all the old customs the wearing of a garter is one that survives today though in byegone days it was considered to be bordering on indecency and one reference says: “It strongly marks the grossness that prevailed among our ancestors”.
No such inhibitions existed in 1348 when Edward III founded the Order of the Garter, the third most senior rank in the honours system.
It all began, according to one version, when the king was dancing and one of his partner’s blue garters fell around her ankle.
Picking it up he placed it on his own leg saying in French: “Honi soit que mal y pense”. Shame on him who thinks evil of it. Thus was inaugurated a traditional order which has survived for more than 650 years the words of which appear on the Royal Coat of Arms and in the law courts.
One of the most contentious laws relating to weddings was the Proclamation by Oliver Cromwell in 1653 which effectively banned church weddings.
The Marriage Act decreed that weddings with a religious ceremony were forbidden and would be replaced with civil ceremonies enacting one of the fundamental elements of a Puritan regime which sought to eliminate elaborate church rituals.
The new marriage ceremony in which there was no need for the intervention of a priest was to be relegated from being a solemn and sacred act to a form which was common to mankind.
“I do not want priests to be entrusted with the solemnization of a legal contract,” declared Cromwell.
Throughout Monmouthshire prospective brides and bridegrooms duly appeared before their local magistrate who questioned them on their eligibility and if they found no cause or just impediment went ahead with the ceremony.
Each partner told the justice: “I promise and covenant”. They were also required to agree to be “loving and faithful to each other”. In additional brides were obliged to declare that they would be obedient. It is not recorded whether the justice said: “You may now kiss the bride”.
The law did not find favour with many and some couples underwent a blessing in church with the approval of the magistrates.
Cromwell’s two daughters did just that and historian Roy Sherwood recorded that “Both weddings were essentially civic affairs in public view conducted by a JP before two witnesses. The justice Mr Henry Scobell tied the knot after a goodly prayer”.
Double standards come to mind after it was claimed that the couples were later married in private by ministers ordained by a bishop. It seems these events were lively affairs and Cromwell, despite his avowed Puritan views, enjoyed a far from dull occasion even throwing wine over the guests.
This “second marriage” was one which Cromwell “pretended to yield to with the importunity and folly of his daughter”.
The ban on church weddings proved to be so unpopular that four years later it was withdrawn.
Today churches compete with country houses as venues but one view from Trevor Kavanagh in a BBC broadcast asserted that marriage was best left to the churches and not the politicians.
Perhaps the last word should come from St Jerome, the Patron Saint of archivists who said: “Marriage is good for those who are afraid to sleep alone.”