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Warble Investigates: The History of English Weddings

HIstory of English Weddings

Everyone loves a good wedding – whether old fashioned or new-fangled but have you ever wondered where the tradition came from? Or did you think it was something to do with jumping over a broom? We decided to delve into our old history books and find out just why we love watching two gorgeous people say ‘I do’ and celebrating with a spectacular party afterwards.

While common law weddings occurred for centuries it was only during the Middle Ages a law was introduced (in 1076) stating that marriage must be blessed by a priest. Later on in the 16th century it was declared that marriage must be performed by a priest with witnesses present. This is when documents such as contracts started to be drawn up (a little like the documents we have today – including prenuptial agreements and licenses, they would also state dowry, property and rights).

The wedding license dates back to 1521 (before that you didn’t need a license to get married) but actually only the nobility had “legal” weddings until 1753 when The Marriage Act was passed in parliament. Before that, the commoners had common-law ceremonies often led by phony priests. From 1690 a marriage tax was introduced which managed to disclose many illegal marriages (those not carried out in a church) this resulted in heavy penalties particularly for the clergy as it was their responsibility to ensure that all marriages took place in church. This did not deter the commoners from getting married – many made private vows to each other and lived in common law unions. Some even got married on the church porch or at the door of the church (therefore avoiding marriage tax) but showing the public that they were married in the sight of God.

Well into the 18th Century many couples were unsure whether or not they were legally married, it never became an issue unless property and inheritance were involved. Bigamy was common too, especially as divorce was unknown at the time.

Brides of the Middle Ages would use cosmetics to brighten lips and cheeks, pluck the hairline (high foreheads were fashionable) and dye hair using the sun and lemons to lighten it. Hair was worn loose or with garlands of flowers and brides carried a sachet of herbs (not a bouquet at this stage). Preparing for your wedding would mean taking a nice, hot bath if you were rich and if poor you would just douse yourself in perfume. If men were wealthy they would wear their finest clothing and jewellery – even fur. Dresses were blue rather than white (blue was a symbol of innocence and purity) or if a bride did not own a blue dress (they didn’t have a dress made or bought for the occasion) she would wear something blue – hence the saying today. The garter became popular at this time too as after the wedding, it was traditional for guests to put the bride and groom to bed! Guests would then try and take something from the bride for “good luck” and it was often the garter, which is why it is still a tradition today.

During the Middle Ages, if you were of noble birth, your wedding breakfast would take place in a country estate or manor where you would enjoy a great feast or banquet (not dissimilar today). The entertainment would be in the form of jesters, court fools and medieval music. Medieval banquets are still popular today and our very own court jesters, magicians, circus performers and jugglers are requested time and again by brides and grooms to be.

Take heart for the noble marriages, as while they were grand they were mostly arranged and loveless. However, peasant marriages were different in that many were a race up the aisle after an unplanned pregnancy! On the subject of fertility, the tradition of throwing confetti came from peasant marriages when seeds of grain were used to wish them a fertile marriage.

Your wedding cake, which today may well be a choice of buttercream with soft sponge or rich chocolate perhaps even fruit cake – was nothing like the cakes served in the Middle Ages. In fact wedding cakes were made of meat or mince and the history of tiering came from guests bringing little cakes to stack on top of each other. The bride and groom would then try and kiss over the top of the cakes without knocking them over.

When thinking about your bouquet and who is going to catch it on your big day, bear in mind that this is a relatively new tradition and actually, the superstition of who will wed next was very different. In the 18th century a glass ring was hidden inside the wedding cake and the person who found it (and hopefully didn’t swallow it) was destined for marriage next (or so the tradition said). While on the subject of rings, engagement rings became popular in the late 19th century after an advertising campaign by diamond experts DeBeers (yes, they even had advertising and marketing then!) Thank you DeBeers! Wedding rings have been exchanged since the Middle Ages. If you were wealthy in that time you would give each other a ring but grooms who were poor used to break a coin in half and keep one side giving the other to the bride.

During Elizabethan times, Crying the Banns appeared. This was announcing the intention to marry and still happens today but at the town hall where we post our banns. The announcement would be made in church three weeks in a row on a Sunday and anyone marrying without doing this would be declared an illegal marriage. Weddings were held in the morning before lunchtime – hence the feast afterwards being called the Wedding Breakfast.

In these times, bouquets became popular and bridesmaids would be in charge of making them – the popular flowers at the time were rosemary and roses and the bride would carry the garland until after the ceremony when it was then placed on her head. It was up to the father to foot the bill of the wedding but in poor circles, guests would lend a hand bringing dishes to the feast. There was another tradition too… the bride ale! A bride would sell ale to people in her courtyard to raise funds for her wedding. This tradition didn’t hold though – luckily! There were no invitations as yet, if in court you may be slipped a note but invitations were word of mouth generally.

Wedding tradition changed during the Regency period becoming more private affairs. White weddings became popular as white was fashionable to wear then. Reading of the Banns still occurred but you could also now obtain a common license from a bishop or archbishop. Marriages could take place in a church or chapel where either bride or groom would have to have lived for at least a month. You could also get a special license issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Doctors Commons in London which allowed a couple to marry anywhere and at any time.

Queen Victoria put the seal on the white wedding dress by wearing it to her own wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. A white wedding dress in those times was seen as a symbol of wealth as it was a dress to be worn only once and bought by the bride’s father. Flowers were also used to decorate the church and reception. Men started to put flowers into their lapels which became the traditional buttonhole and morning coats became popular at weddings. In the countryside, a bride would walk to the chapel on a carpet of flower petals. Church bells would ring to let people know that a wedding was taking place.

Weddings often included harpists, pianists, violinists and church choirs much like today. We are always asked about our wedding ceremony musicians and it is popular to have string quartets and full choirs if the space is there much like our Victorian ancestors.

Today – anything goes! From small, intimate affairs to full-blown big, fat weddings, beach and Boho styles as well as more traditional celebrations. Entertainment can be a nod to the Middle Ages with medieval jesters, jugglers, magicians and circus performers to jazz and blues bands, a funky disco or a fabulous modern band playing favourites from all the ages.

For more information on wedding entertainment from any age contact Warble on 0845 643 9384 or visit the website at

Published by Warble Entertainment

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