Customs of Marriage and Married Life

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 26th February 2007, pp45-47, reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

CUSTOMS OF MARRIAGE AND MARRIED LIFE

Hardly anyone manages to get married without at least a nod in the direction of old customs and superstition, some adapted to changing times but all sharing the same theme of future happiness.

Nowadays wedding plans often follow the giving of engagement rings but the Elizabethan maid commonly gave her suitor a ‘favour’ to wear as a token of their love. This might have been a kerchief to be folded and worn like a cockade in his hat, or one of the items mentioned in this rhyme of 1619:

‘Little pigmus weares his mistris glove,
Her ring and feather (tokens of her love)...
'Tis strange, yet true her glove, ring, scarfe, and fan,
Makes him (unhandsome) a well-favour'd man’.

At one time a young woman was encouraged to collect for her ‘bottom drawer’ even before she was courting, kept under wraps as she waited for romance but sometimes never used at all, representing only the lost hopes of an ‘old maid’, Eighteenth century recollections from Ashford-in-the-Water noted that ‘A marriageable female was expected to possess, if no other portion of this world's riches, an entire stock of linen for clothing and household use of her own spinning, hence the origin of the word spinster’.

Every woman had access to a spinning wheel and the following entry appears in the diary of Leonard Wheatcroft of Ashover, dated 12 May 1733: ‘Hanna came from Unston to spin against she was married, and Monday the 25th of June she was married’.

Marriage trends at Bradwell came to the attention of two 19th-century historians. Glover noted in 1829 that the young people of Bradwell generally wed at the age of eighteen and 1862 William Wood of Eyam wrote: ‘Here to a deplorably excessive degree, intermarriage exists, and has existed for ages’.

In wealthier circles, fathers looked further afield to find eligible husbands for their daughters by offering a generous dowry, and 18th-century newspapers contain numerous announcements along the lines of the following, dated 25 September 1773; ‘Miss Bright of Wirksworth an agreeable young lady with a handsome fortune married Mr Roebuck the Monday previous’. A similar report of 1789 followed the marriage between John Masses [Ed: sic], a saddler, and the daughter of Samuel Biggin of Chesterfield [1] - ‘an agreeable lady with a fortune of £5,000’.

This happy couple ignored the old belief that the month of May was unlucky for weddings, as was the whole of Lent. As for the choice of day, this rhyme advised:

‘Marry on Monday, marry for health,
Marry on Tuesday, marry for wealth,
Marry on Wednesday, best day of all,
Marry on Thursday, marry for losses,
Marry on Friday, marry for crosses,
Marry on Saturday, no luck at all’.

Extra precautions against ill-fortune had to be taken as soon as the big day got under way, for a start the family cat had to be fed or it would make it rain. If the bride-to-be broke anything she would have problems with her in-laws and if she burst a wedding glove or shoe or tore any of her bridal wear, she would be ill-treated by her husband. She must not see herself in the mirror completely dressed in her wedding finery and should not be seen by the groom before she entered the church.

Until the reign of Edward VI, marriages were actually conducted in the church porch and not at the altar. This applied to both rich and poor - Edward I was married at the door of Canterbury Cathedral on 9 September 1299.

GREEN GARTERS

As the bride left the house, it was the custom in parts of Derbyshire and Yorkshire to pour boiling water on the doorstep; if it dried quickly there would soon be another wedding. On the way to church it was lucky to see a lamb or a dove but unlucky to see a pig, while the sightings of a chimney sweep promised particularly good fortune. Sometimes a sooty sweep would be paid to attend a wedding and give the bride a kiss.

No-one had to tread on the bride's shadow on her way to church or she would be dead within the year. When this ill omen befell a Bakewell woman she called off the wedding until the next day. If there were any open graves in the churchyard the bride had to close her eyes as she passed by. It was necessary to enter the church right foot first, possibly wearing an old pair of shoes, widely regarded as conductive to a happy future. The preference for wearing white bridal wear replaced the use of any bright colour - except green, favourite colour of the fairies, who would resent its appearance at a human wedding. At one time all green weddings were taboo, except for the strange tradition whereby any older unmarried sisters of the bride had to dance at the wedding either barefoot or wearing green garters.

A bride named Mary was likely to wear blue, the colour sacred to the Virgin Mary. Many centuries ago some brides got married in their undergarments; this ensured that her husband would never be responsible for her debts as she had taken nothing into the marriage. The law put paid to that particular dodge and it was abandoned.

The wearing of a veil is variously thought to spare the bride's blushes or to protect her from the evil eye. Its use can be traced to Saxon weddings when a cloth canopy was held over both bride and groom during the ceremony. There is still a firm belief that the veil acts as a charm and should be safely treasured for a happy married life.

Most symbolic of all is the wedding ring, placed on the third finger of the left hand because ‘by the received opinions of the learned, in ripping up and anatomising men's bodies, there is a vein of blood called Vena Amoris, which passeth from the finger to the heart’ (Treastise of Spousals, Swinburne). This has long been disproved and an alternative suggestion of 1788 was that the third finger is the safest place because it can not be extended fully without the company of another finger. Women were strongly advised never to lend their wedding ring. Its loss was viewed with deep foreboding and seen as a portent of unhappiness in the marriage, while undue wear on the ring meant similar problems for the relationship. A twice-used ring would attract misfortune.

The use of orange blossom and rice have oriental origins whilst confetti has replaced a variety of missiles. Two favourites at Peakland nuptials, both seen in the past century and intended to bring success with produce of the soil, were horse beans (broad beans) and clods of earth. Blessing the couple with the latter was referred to at Castleton, Stoney Middleton and elsewhere as ‘sod throwing’. The symbolism of nuts is obvious - ‘Plenty of nuts, plenty of cradles’. Also associated with fertility was the throwing of corn and the Tudor custom of providing the bride with a garland made from ears of corn.

Brides have worn fresh flowers since at least Roman times and we still uphold the tradition of throwing the bridal bouquet to unmarried friends and bridesmaids in the belief that whoever catches it will be the next to marry. In earlier times the bride's flowers were shared amongst guests to be worn as ‘favours’ at the wedding feast. In the 17th century, ‘True Lovers Knots’, made of ribbon, were sometimes stitched onto wedding gowns to be snatched off as ‘bride favours’ by young men immediately after the wedding, while the modern man wears a floral buttonhole.

Referring back to Leonard Wheatcroft, his own wedding in 1657[2] was marked by a popular custom in which the young men of the village snatched the bride's garters to wear in their hats for the rest of the day. She was divested of the garters while still in church but in fact it was usual to bedeck the bride with ribbons for the purpose so as to keep her modesty intact.

ROPING OUT

Into quite recent times, the custom of ‘roping out’ was widely observed in the Peak, whereby the path of the newlyweds was barred until a toll was paid by the bridegroom. This was taken to symbolise the passage from one stage of life to another. The tradition came to a sudden end at Ashford when in May 1905 three local men were taken to court after the vicar objected to them barring the footpath with a rope and demanding money from the bridal party. Many villages agreed that the practice had become a nuisance and the three men were each fined a shilling upon giving assurances that they would not do it again.

The custom continued at Hope until at least 1923, with a rope strung across the church door, and for a further thirty years or more at Tideswell, where a rope was held across the road in front of the bridal car. At Youlgrave the rope was taken from the Fountain railings across the road for the Co-op staff to hold. At Bradwell the church or chapel gates were fastened during the ceremony and it is said that the ransom was usually spent at the nearest pub.

A couple married at Rowsley in the 1960s remember being ‘roped out’, while Beeley children still tie up the church gates if they get to hear about one of the few weddings which take place in the village. The new bride and groom are released in return for sweets or a small sum of money. The church gates at Earl Sterndale are still fastened up once in a while but some years ago one new groom leaped over the churchyard wall and lifted his bride over after him, rather than pay out ‘a bob or two’.

A few Peakland villages used to observe the ceremony of ‘showing the married couple’ in which the bridal party rode round the village, paying small tolls to have several ropes removed from their path en route.

A colourful ritual called ‘Winton’ was confined to the Staffordshire border of the Peak and began on the morning of the wedding when a long cane pole topped with briar twigs was carried around the village. The couple's friends gave ribbons to decorate the pole, its bearer and his horse, ready for the duty of escorting the newlyweds back to their home, where a cask of ale was provided by the groom.

PRIMITIVE FEELINGS

A rare reference to another rural custom is dealt with discreetly in Peakland Humours by William Platt (1926). This took place after the homecoming of a bride and groom when ‘The strapping, powerful, hoydenish village lasses assembled outside the house, accompanied by the lads and primitive feelings began to assert themselves in bursts of laughter and elemental jocularity.’

In the 17th and 18th centuries, similar scenes took place around the marriage bed where all the young people gathered to play ‘Flinging the Stocking’. The youths were given the bride's stockings and the girls took the bridegroom's, then each in turn sat at the foot of the bed and tried to throw a stocking over one of the couple. Whoever could drape a stocking over its owner could expect to be married soon.

Thus, following a wedding at Sheldon in January 1753, ‘the newly married couple ... were at length put to bed, to the side of which that well-polished and civilised company were admitted; the stocking was thrown, the posset drank, and the whole concluded with all the decorum, decency, and order imaginable’. It needs to be mentioned that the bride was an 80-year-old widow and the groom was aged only about 14! A postscript to the inexplicable match adds that the bride was dead and buried before the month was out.

Often the whole village joined in an evening of merrymaking after a wedding. In 1772 it got out of hand at Youlgrave when the Roper, Lams, Oldfield and Wragg families began fighting in the street and the parish constable had to send for a magistrate to read the Riot Act. Nothing seems to have marred the weddings celebrations of Mr T Watts of the Leopard Inn, Darley Dale, and Miss Jenny Taylor of Wensley in February 1798[3]. Nearly 400 hundred people were wined, dined and entertained with two bull baitings and a ball.

We have no explanation for the curious wedding which took place at Stoney Middleton on Christmas Day 1853[4] but it many not have been unique. Donkeys were fetched from the mines from miles around and dressed up with straw saddles, mingling with the crowd of onlookers which accompanied the bridal party to the church. After the ceremony the couple were returned to their working quarters.

Stoney Middleton is known to have been one of the villages where clay daubin' took place, when friends of a newly-married couple gathered together to build them a simple home. Maybe with only one room, or possibly two, the cottage was usually completed in just one day and still left time for an evening of merrymaking.

All in all, a Peakland wedding was clearly a day to remember, so for anyone planning a traditional touch for their special day, how about reviving sod throwing, garter snatching, roping or, stocking flinging or perhaps even a donkey wedding?

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 26th February 2007.

Editor's Notes

[1] John MASSEY was married to Hannah BIGGIN at Chesterfield on 19 May 1789 (Source: IGI)
[2] Leonard WHEATCROFT was married to Elizabeth HAWLEY at Ashover on 20 May 1657 (Source: IGI)
[3] Thomas WATTS was married to Jane TAYLOR at Darley Dale, 5 Feb 1798 (Source: IGI)
[4] A beautiful image, of donkeys having their “holy” day too, brought in from the Lead Mines! We can almost visualise the scene, but alas, there were no marriages recorded on Christmas Day in 1853 at Stoney Middleton. The only one in previous years on the day itself was Cordwainer John LEE and Martha SELLERS, 25 Dec 1850, although James MATKIN and Jane BRICE married on 27 Dec 1852, as did John James BOOKER and Lucy HALLAM, and possibly two brothers - William WALL and John WALL married respectively Mary ELLIOTT, and Ann BRAMWELL (of Eyam) on 26 Dec 1859. [Source: PR, by courtesy of GRT]
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