The first meeting of the New Year saw the welcome return of Anne Barnes as our speaker. Anne’s talk covered marriage from the earliest times to the present day with anecdotes and information about the legal and religious requirements of marriage as well as differing customs and practices that accompany the ceremony.
The talk began with a necessarily brief survey of marriage practices in Greek, Roman and Anglo Saxon times and the changes to marriage customs that came about once Christianity became widespread in this country and the church took control. In the middle ages a marriage would be considered valid if the couple exchanged vows in the church porch and then entered the church afterwards for prayers (although the prayers were not compulsory); marriages in wealthier families would, of course, be more elaborate and often followed from a binding betrothal that could not take place before a child was aged 7. Marriage at some levels of society was always a business or political act. It was apparently customary for a feast to be laid on after the ceremony (there are court records that show that someone was fined for not providing a meal after a wedding in Huntingdon).
The church was also concerned about the marriage of close relatives and there were strict rules about this. The Constable of Wisbech Castle (c 1400) Sir Thomas Colville had to get a Papal Dispensation in order to marry a cousin. Henry VIII married his dead brother’s widow and this was the basis of his argument for an annulment of his first marriage. In fact it did not become legal for a widower to marry his dead wife’s sister until 1907 and not until 1921 could a widow marry her dead husband’s brother. People did get round this by marrying in a parish a distance from home; apparently bigamy was also possible if the marriage took place where the person was unknown; in 1604 bigamy became a felony and was supposed to warrant the death penalty although this has never taken place.
Parish records were supposed to be kept from the 1530’s onwards but this was not always the case and during the Commonwealth the church’s role was taken by magistrates who conducted weddings after banns had been published in the local market place.
The Marriage Act of 1753 was an attempt by Parliament to regularise the whole system and marriage was only valid if it had been conducted by a Church of England clergyman following the publication of banns (which took a minimum of three weeks); the Act was not part of Scottish law so elopement to Scotland became popular for some people; initially Edinburgh was the favoured spot but it was gradually superseded by Gretna Green presumably because it was so close to the border.
Anne also told us about the ways people got round the fact that divorce was virtually impossible except for the extremely wealthy: annulment on the grounds of close relationship, a previous contract (betrothal) or impotence (which had to be proved by observation!); no remarriage was permitted. There are recorded cases of wives being sold (as in the Mayor of Casterbridge) and there were 16 cases before magistrates in 1760. a wife was sold by auction in Swaffham Bulbeck for 2s 6d.
Anne concluded her talk with a few references to customs and superstitions. Queen Victoria was the first royal bride to wear white and this set a trend for wealthy brides; poorer brides would wear best clothes. In the seventeenth century it was usual to throw grain at the couple – for good luck and for a family and this has become the confetti we now use. A cake or small cakes with marzipan were a usual part of the feast. Local (Cambridgeshire) superstitions were that it was bad luck to marry in May; it was considered good luck to hear a wren singing; thunder during the ceremony meant no children; seeing a raven meant lots of children and no money; seeing a sparrow bathing in water would mean that the husband would be drinker and if the sparrow was dust bathing the husband wouldn’t mind the house being dusty!
Anne gave us a comprehensive and enjoyable talk with lots of useful information.
[Margaret Lake ]
Hello everyone, our AGM is due to take place at our usual venue of Wisbech Library NOTICE OF ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING of The Fenland Family