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Berkshire Family Historian
September 1999

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Q & A WITH JEAN - When did the custom of marriage in the bride's parish start?

Hugh Berry of Newbury, Berkshire

When did the custom of marriage in the bride's parish start?

Although this is a frequently asked question I was not sure of the answer and turned to my bookshelf for Colin Chapman's "Marriage Laws, Rites, Records and Customs". It says that "In many parts of the country it was the custom for the marriage rite to be celebrated in the bride's home parish. In some large parishes there could be several chapelries a few miles apart to choose from; it was not uncommon for the one furthest from the bride's house to be chosen so giving the family an opportunity for a 'day out'."

As I read this paragraph my eye strayed over the rest of the chapter about the various customs, most of which arose from pagan fertility rites and were intended to bring happiness and prosperity to the couple and the community by confusing or appeasing witches and evil spirits. And, often without knowing why, most modern couples still try to incorporate at least some of these traditions - just in case.

Hence for good luck Cupid, son of Venus and god of love, is depicted on wedding invitations and cards. A horseshoe is shaped like a cow's horns through which the moon's orb can be seen and symbolises Isis, the Egyptian goddess of procreation and Universal Mother. To bring good luck it is often carried by the bride or attached to the back of the car. Hung over a door it is also thought to protect the house from plague and witches.

The bride's "bottom drawer" re-enacts the dowry or bride price given by her father to the groom as part of marriage-by-purchase arrangements and her trousseau - little bundle - also originates in the dowry. To confuse the spirits, the bridesmaids dress like the bride and the best man, with his supporters or ushers, like the groom. A canopy held over the couple shielded them from danger from above and is still used in Jewish weddings. The old adage, "Something old, something new; something borrowed, something blue" signifies the bride's past life and her future as a married woman; 'borrowed' is for friends' future help and support and blue is for loyalty. Noise disturbs evil spirits so church bells were rung, gongs banged and trumpets blown. Candles represent fire that eradicates evil and keeps out witches: the bride's veil was therefore yellow like a flame but today it is white for purity. Also, the veil is apparently a symbol of her submission and obedience to her husband - not a lot of people know that...

The best man and his ushers represent the bands of young men who participated in rape-marriage or marriage by capture. The bride's father now gives her away instead of selling or exchanging her for the bride price.

The reception at a separate location is the result of the seventeenth century Puritan attempt to suppress the 'popish and heathen' behaviour of the wedding party at the post-nuptial festivities in the church itself. As this consisted mainly of copious quantities of bride-ale or hot pots of brandy, ales, sugar, eggs and spices there was a great deal of drunkenness and ribaldry. This survives as the toasts drunk to the bride and groom. Bridal-cakes of flour, salt and water were distributed to the contracting parties in Roman times. Later, small cakes with honey and spices added were given to all the guests. Today's cake is thought to be the invention of a French chef to incorporate several small cakes under a coating of marzipan and icing.


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updated 10th June 2001