A History of Anglo-Saxon Wedding Customs

by Arden Ranger

Something old,
Something new,
Something borrowed,
something blue
and a sixpence for her shoe.

After several weekends spent shopping for wedding dresses with my best friend’s fiancée, we were both ready to throw in the towel and I was more than ready to help them elope. Sitting over a much-needed margarita, we discovered that we really had no idea where many of our wedding traditions came from. Since my S.O. and I are planning on flouting many of these traditions if we ever decide to get married, I thought it might be nice to know just exactly what the things we were throwing away meant. Thus began an unending journey into our ancient pasts. Between my S.O. and myself, we cover the heritages of Italy, Ireland, Scotland, England and the American Indian. My friend and his fiancée added Germany, France and Denmark into the mix. Since the scope of this is far too broad for a single paper or wedding, I will focus on the customs that have become part of today's traditional weddings.

Stag Parties

The Stag or Bachelor party had its beginnings with the ancient Spartans. Spartan soldiers would hold a great feast for their comrades who were about to be married the night before the wedding. There he would bid goodbye to his bachelorhood and swear unending allegiance to his comrades in arms. Knowing ancient history, I have to believe that these gatherings, like the ones that every modern bride fears, involved more than a little sex. For to the ancient Greeks, only a man could truly enjoy sex. Women were not capable of the higher emotions involved and were only for providing heirs.

Engagements

The modern engagement is rooted in the Medieval customs of publishing the banns and handfasting. The handfasting ceremony usually took place when the couple was very young, often many years before the actual wedding. It was this ceremony, not the wedding, that produced the exchange of vows which are now part of the Anglican wedding ceremony (where the couple vows to marry and be faithful). This was also time for bride price and dowry to be exchanged. The ceremony was sealed with a drink and a kiss. (Wet bargains were considered more binding than dry ones; if the kiss did not take place, and the parties later decided to back out, they both had to return any betrothal gifts. If the kiss did take place the man had to return all but the woman only half). This custom of keeping engagment gifts, specifically the ring, was recently shot down in the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Parrish vs Heiman. The judge declared that an engagement ring was a conditional gift, the condition being the wedding. Therefore, the woman had to return the ring even though it was the man who had broken off the engagement. In the 1300s the Archbishop of Canterbury decreed that all weddings should be preceded by the reading of the banns for three consecutive Lord’s days (holidays). Banns are a public declaration of a couples intent to wed, like today’s engagement announcement that is published in the newspaper.

Weddings

The first marriages were by capture. The groom, with the help of his warrior friends (his best men), would steal into another tribe’s camp and kidnap the woman of his choice. His friends covered his back and fought off any others with an interest in the woman. As the invading party fought off the other men, he would hold her with his left hand because his right hand was his sword hand. This is believed to be the root of the custom of the bride standing on the groom’s left in the wedding ceremony. It was also the duty of his friends to hide the couple so her family couldn’t find her. Because honey and the moon were tied to fertility, the couple drank only honey mead and remained in hiding for one full lunar cycle, (twenty-eight days), a honey-moon. By the time they were found, the bride was already pregnant.

Marriage by purchase became the preferred practice, being less stressful for all involved. The word wedding is from the Anglo-Saxon word "wedd," meaning to wager or gamble. It referred to the vow the man gave to marry another man’s daughter or to the goods or bride price. Women were bought for breeding purposes by the grooms and sold for land, status or political alliances and, occasionally, cash.

Arranged marriages also took place and neither the bride or groom had a say in it. Most of these deals took place at the birth of the girl for the same purposes as marriage by purchase. Some couples never saw each other until the groom lifted the bride’s veil at which point, if either one didn’t like what they saw, it was too late.

Church Weddings

Britain gradually converted to Christianity after Rome pulled out in 410 AD. One of the first things it took on was the wedding. While Roman upper classes had long been married by priests with nuptial sacrifices to the gods, the common people had not. With the involvement of the Church came marriage by purchase. The modern practice of the bride and groom exchanging wedding gifts and whose family pays for what is rooted in the ancient customs of bride price and dowry. After the families were agreed on the price, goods were exchanged at the handfasting, with the local priests among the witnesses. In the beginning, couples only went to the Church to have the union blessed. But they soon took over the whole operation. From witnesses, they moved to the blessing of the ring and the joining of hands, soon they turned a business arrangement into a full religious affair. The Archbishop of Canterbury ordered that all weddings be publicly announced for three Lord’s days, marriages should be celebrated in the church, with reverence, in daylight, in the face of the congregation. Priests were to use the threat of excommunication to prevent secret engagements and weddings. Any priests caught knowingly performing an illegal wedding would be punished. Originally, the ceremony itself was performed on the steps of the church, with everyone moving inside for Mass. Until the reign of Edward the VI, this was how it was done. For everyone. Many reasons have been put forward for this from the indecency of granting permission for a man and woman to sleep together inside the church, to the last minute bargaining that went on just before the ceremony, to the more possible theory that it was a last ditch effort to keep weddings out of the clutches of the clergy. It didn’t work.

Giving the Bride Away

Directly descended from marriage by purchase when the father handed his daughter over to her new master. In the Middle Ages, in the age of courtly love and the romantic ideal, it became "Coemptio", a letting go, a mock purchase. Today it is connected with the love between the father and his daughter. The father hands over the responsibility of caring for his daughter to the man she has chosen to marry.

The Bride wore White. . . .

The white wedding that all mothers dream of from the day their daughters are born did not become popular until the Victorian Era. The brides of the ancient world did not associate white with brides or purity. For centuries after the Romans, there were no "wedding dresses", a wealthy bride wore fancier versions of her everyday clothes, the poor and middle classes wore their best dress, often fancied up with ribbon and garlands.

In Ancient Rome, the dress itself was less important than the accessories. As long as the dress was vertically woven and tied with a woollen girdle (belt), there was no special color was called for.

The first mention of a white wedding dress in history is Anne of Brittany in 1499. There is not another mention of this occurrence until 1530 when the daughter of Henry VII, Margaret Tudor married James IV of Scotland. Both bride and groom wore white damask edged and lined in crimson velvet. In 1558, Mary, Queen of Scots wore white when she married the Dauphin of France. She defied tradition by doing so; white was then the mourning color for French queens. The fact that these were described in such detail makes them remarkable. The practice was to have a few outfits and wear them until their state of wear was beneath your station at which time they were cast-off. It was a mark of wealth and power to have clothing made for specific occasions in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The most popular colors for special occasion dresses, (weddings, coronations, presentation to the Crown, etc....), were purple, crimson and royal blue. These rich jewel tones were difficult dyes to obtain and the colors themselves hard to mix and who could wear them was decreed by the rigid sumptuary laws of the day. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Royal Purple was decreed to be only worn by Her Majesty. It was also during this time that white became a symbol of pure, young, maidenhood and an automatic choice for many brides, although still not thought of as the bridal color. It was the formidable Queen Victoria who started the white wedding dress custom that we know today.

Veils

The veil tradition of today is tied to the arranged marriage practices mentioned above and as a symbol of virginal humility.

Yellow was the color of weddings and the bride wore a yellow veil that covered her from head to toe. It covered her from the time she left her mother’s house until her bridegroom unveiled her on the wedding night.

During the Dark Ages, blue veils became the symbol of purity for brides. The Virgin Mary is always portrayed as wearing blue and that color became the mark of virginity. Some sources state that the belief of blue symbolizing purity originated in biblical times, when both bride and groom wore a band of blue around the hem of their garments. This belief would explain why Mary was always portrayed in that color.

Bridesmaids

The bride’s maid is another tradition we owe to the Anglo-Saxons. Before Christianity, when Druids ruled the Britain, it was believed that evil spirits, jealous of the happiness of the couple, would try to make mischief with them. To confuse the spirits, brides, (the most common target), and their grooms surrounded themselves with close friends. All members of the "wedding party" were dressed identical to the bride and groom to insure that the jealous ones could not pick them out.

With Christianity, the belief in evil spirits faded, but the custom did not. Medieval brides surrounded themselves with unmarried friends, the senior one attending her for several days beforehand to help make the decorations for the wedding feast and the floral garlands with which the bride and groom would be crowned with after the blessing in church.

Flowers

Since ancient times, every flower has had a magical significance and different colors of a flower even more specific message. Carrying, wearing, giving or receiving certain flowers conveyed deep meaning. The modern bridal bouquet has in origins in antiquity. In ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt brides carried sheaths of wheat, a strong fertility symbol. They also wore chaplets of flowers on their heads. Fertility symbols such as nuts and grains as well as whatever local flora would grant them happiness, fidelity and wealth.

With this ring...

In ancient times, a coin was broken by a young man and half given to his intended and half for himself. The broken coin represented his intent to return and "make what is broken whole." In the Middle Ages, coins were replaced with rings which continued to be broken for many years. The woman would wear her broken half on a ribbon around her neck to advertise the fact that she was betrothed. Eventually, the custom became two rings instead of a broken one: One for the engagement and another for the wedding. These rings were usually simple bands with romantic sayings engraved along the outside. A few of these phrases are: Till Death Divide (Nemo nisi Mors), In Good Faith (Tout pour bien Feyre), Love Conquers All (Amot vincit Om), May we Love Forever (Semper Amenus), You Have my Heart (Mon Coeur Avez), Two Bodies One Heart (Deux Corps une Coeur)

Italians were the first to associate the fiery brilliance of a diamond with the fires of love and had given diamonds as betrothal gifts for generations. It was believed for centuries that a diamond in an engagement ring would inevitably bring bad luck to the wearer and her husband because the interruption of the perfect circle destroyed the eternal love that the unbroken circle symbolized. But the diamond engagement ring became fashionable in the 15th Century when Mary of Burgundy received one from her fiancée, Archduke Maximilian of Austria.

The tradition of wearing the wedding ring on the third finger of the left hand, stems from the ancient Greek belief that a nerve ran directly from that finger to the heart, giving the groom the illusion that he had placed a ring around the bride’s heart. Another explanation is that the ring is worn on the left hand to signify the subjugation of the bride to her husband. The right hand signifies power, independence and authority. Another, more practical belief, is that the third finger can’t be straightened unless the other fingers are extended, which makes it safer there. Also, since left-handed people were considered sinister and of the devil, no one used that hand predominantly, so a ring there is safer than a ring on the right hand.

The Cake

There has always been a cake. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians crumbled grain cakes over the head of the bride to symbolize her fertility. In the Middle Ages, it became popular to have the bride and groom try to kiss over a tower of smaller cakes. A success meant prosperity for the couple.

It is believed that a baker, on his way to a large wedding, was the first to frost a wedding cake. After several stops to restack the piles of individual wedding cakes on his carts, the exasperated man mixed a sticky paste from sugar and water which he had his assistants pour between the layers and over the top of the piles. The baker than continued happily on his journey without interruption.

Edible centerpieces known as sublities were popular in the Middle Ages and grew to extravagant heights in the Renaissance. It was during the reign of Charles II of England that the extravaganza we know today as the wedding cake became popular. It became customary at that time to build it as a palace, iced with white sugar, complete with figures of the new "Lord and Lady of the Manor," gardens and horses.

In the 1700's it became the tradition to thread a small piece of the cake through the wedding ring a certain number of times (nine being the most magical number), and sleep with it beneath the pillow. Over time, it became the custom to box up small pieces of this cake for the maids and bachelors to take home. Before going to sleep a "prayer*" was said. Being as the civilized world was Christian, no one openly called it a spell, but it is a commonly held belief that it is just that, it’s origins lost in antiquity. The cake, with the aid of God, the saints, angels or Venus, was said to grant the sleeping person dreams of their future marriage partner.

But madam, as a present take
This little paper of bride-cake;
Fast any Friday in the year,
When Venus mounts the starry sphere,
Thrust this at night in pillowbeer:
In morning slumber you will seem
T’ enjoy your lover in a dream.

(* I defiantly recall hearing the spell, it was recited at a medieval style wedding of a friend several years ago, however, I am unable to find a copy of it now.)

Tossing the Bouquet and Garter
Wedding Favors

Ancient traditions involving wedding "tokens" are many and varied. Anything associated with the bride was considered not only lucky, but magical as well. During the early Middle Ages, rare was the bride that made it to her new home with her garments intact. After the feast, the couple was carried by their friends and family to the nuptial chamber and taken inside by their closest companions. It should be noted that by this time, everyone involved was roaring drunk. While the attendants undressed and prepared the couple, everyone else stood outside the closed door shouting encouragement and singing bawdy songs. When the couple was naked and laid out on their marriage bed, the attendants sat on the edge of the bed with their backs turned to the bride and groom and threw stockings over their shoulders. Whoever threw the stocking that hung on the bride or groom’s nose would be the next to marry.

The wedding garter and the husband’s removal of it represented the bride’s virginity and the symbolic relinquishing of that status. In the 14th century, the bride had gotten tired of drunken male guests growing impatient and trying to remove it themselves. It was a lot less trouble just to throw the bouquet at them. It wasn’t until late in the 19th century that the bouquet and garter toss became segregated affairs and nowhere is the event as rowdy and injury causing as the United States.

During the Renaissance, taking a piece of the bride’s wedding attire was lucky for the guests, disastrous for the bride. It was during this time that Italian brides began tacking flowers or bows to their gowns to give the guests something to take without leaving the bride in rags. This later evolved into the giving of wedding favors. For centuries, the brides of Italy have given little bags of confetti, candy covered almonds to their guests, representing the bitter and the sweet of married life. Known today as Jordan almonds, they still grace many a reception table world-wide. Today’s wedding favors are as diverse as the weddings, running the gambit between personalized chocolates and matchbooks to saplings and wildflower seeds.

Tying Shoes to Car Bumpers

This practice represents the powerful symbolism of shoes in antiquity. This seemingly innocent foot covering was the instrument with which the victor, putting his heel on the neck of a conquered enemy, would demonstrate the subjugation of the fallen foe. When the father of the bride in ancient Egypt gave his daughter to the groom, he also gave him her sandals to show whose property she was.

The Anglo-Saxon groom also received one of the bride’s slippers from her father to show the transfer of authority. He than used the shoe to bop her on the head with to show her who was the master in their relationship. It was then carried into the bridal chamber and placed over the husband’s side of the bed. If the wife was later accused of having a temper, someone would invariably sneak into the room and transfer the shoe to the bride’s side of the bed.

In Germany, the bride throwing her shoe was akin to tossing the bouquet. In time it became the custom in many places to throw shoes at the bridal couple, this continued through Victorian times. With the invention of the automobile, it became more practical for the guests to tie the shoes to the departing vehicle, in this way, the shoes still followed behind the couple.

Flower Girls and Throwing Rice

In ancient Greece, after the wedding feast, everyone walked with the bridal couple to their new home. Their path was littered with flower petals by the singing crowed to release the flower’s magical fragrance into the air. Petals and grains were also thrown over the couple to ensure happiness and fertility.

The flower girl of today is performing a symbolic reflection of that age old custom when she drops her petals down the aisle. Although today it is considered a way to get the younger member of the family involved in the ceremony, as well as a culmination of a lifetime of fairy tale princess walking down flower strewn paths. A purely Victorian addition.

The ancient fertility custom of throwing grain at the departing couple never went away. When rice became cheaper than other grains as well as being white, it became the popular aerial weapon. When environmentalists made us aware of the danger rice posed to birds when they ate it, we moved to birdseed. However, this posed it’s own problems. Birds congregating at the doorway often left an unsightly mess in their wake and bride’s began complaining of the difficulty of getting the seeds out of their hair. Today, the fertility meaning is lost, but the ritual goes on. Helium balloons enjoyed a brief popularity until the dangers to wildlife was pointed out. I attended a wedding several years ago of two magic enthusiasts where white doves were released. I have to say that it was a stunning effect from across the street where the video camera was, but it was a nightmare to be in the middle of it. Now, couples opt for bubbles, confetti and the release of butterflies.

Something Old . . . .

The well known rhyme that opens this paper is often described as ancient, but various older texts from the 16th century on do not bear this out. It appears to be yet another Victorian invention. While the superstitions themselves have their roots in antiquity, the rhyme is not. ‘Something old’ refers to the belief in sympathetic magic-wearing great- grandmother’s locket bestows your ancestor’s blessings on your union. ‘Something new’ calls up many things. It is bad luck to set up a new household with an old broom, wearing someone else’s dress could give you their troubles and the ring itself should be new to represent your new love. Something borrowed is based on the belief that to borrow something from a happily married woman will ensure your happiness. ‘Something blue’ goes back to the ancient custom of wearing blue to symbolize the brides purity, the purity of the Virgin Mary. The ‘silver sixpence for her shoe’ is thought to come from the ancient Greek custom of the bride carrying three silver coins on her wedding day; one for her mother in law, one for the first person met on the road after the wedding and one to carry to her new home to ensure prosperity.


Today’s wedding heritage is rich and diverse, but many modern brides are turning their backs on many long-held traditions. Today’s couple doesn’t necessarily opt for the formal white church wedding. Many ceremonies are held in parks, gardens, hot-air balloons, skating rinks, shopping malls, stadiums, on motorcycles, in caverns, Las Vegas one-hour wedding chapels complete with Elvis, and, in a little town in Tennessee, the feed store. Where once the theme was solemn, today’s wedding themes include Western, Mardi Gras, Winter Wonderlands, Medieval, Italian Renaissance, Carnival, Holidays, Gothic Vampires and even Circuses. In an age of easy divorce, second and third weddings are common. Returning brides wear white, feeling every woman deserves to get married in white, ivory or pastels, if they're feeling traditional or whatever suits their fancy. Fairy tale dresses or thigh-high cocktail dresses, suits and tuxedos, there are no rigid rules for the brides of today.

My friend and his fiancée had a traditional wedding, "for the parents." However, their shared interest in vampires was reflected in the black invitations with embossed red rose buds and silver ankh seals, the ankh-shaped tuxedo button covers and cake decorations, gothic organ music, the starkness of the all black and white wedding, and the formal pictures of the wedding party in custom-made fangs. The groom was Catholic, the bride divorced; by Church law, he is excommunicated, so there was no priest. Befitting the joining of two vampiric ones.

Richard and I, if we do finally get married, know that our wedding will be a lot like our friends'. Maybe not the theme, although we do have that in common, but in the less than traditional aspect. There will be no bridesmaids - my best friends are all men - so they’ll be my honor attendants, which seems only right since they are the ones who have defended my honor for the past few years. Richard’s attendants will include his ex-wife (it’s a long story), my daughter, and his token male friend who just happens to be gay. A practicing pagan will be singing "The Lord’s Prayer" and my son will escort me down the isle. For any number of reasons, not the least of which is that I look horrible in it, I will not be wearing white. We are planning on marrying at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, (I’m almost 40 years old and I still make concessions for Daddy, "If it doesn’t happen in a church, it isn’t a wedding."), but Mother Mary, not Father Bob, will conduct the ceremony. Not just any ceremony, the original ceremony from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. We too, like many of our contemporaries are defining ourselves and creating our own traditions.


Bibliography

Books

Monsarrat, Ann, And the Bride wore...: The Story of the White Wedding, Dodd, Mead and Co., New York, 1974

Leviton, Richard, Weddings by Design: A Guide to Non-Traditional Cermonies, Harper, San Francisco, 1993

Lys, How the World Weds, Barnes and Noble, New York, 1941

Stoner, Carroll, Weddings for Grownups: Everything You Need to Know to Plan Your Wedding Your Way, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1997

Various, Marriage: A Treasury of Words to Live By, compiled by Luce, Robert B., C. R. Gibson Co., Norwalk, CT, 1982