History of marriage in Great Britain and Ireland

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A painting depicting the wedding celebrations of Irish peoples.

Marriages held in Great Britain and Ireland from the 12th century onward have been influenced by religious and traditional practices. These practices included handfasting, engagements, common-law marriage, church weddings, gift exchange and clandestine marriages.

Religious setting[edit]

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) forbade clandestine marriage, and required marriages to be publicly announced in churches by priests. In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent legislated more specific requirements, such as the presence of a priest and two witnesses, as well as promulgation of the marriage announcement thirty days prior to the ceremony. These laws did not extend to the regions affected by the Protestant Reformation. In England, clergy performed many clandestine marriages, such as so-called Fleet Marriage, which were held legally valid;[a] and in Scotland, unsolemnised common-law marriage was still valid.

Marriage in England from the Middle Ages[edit]

From about the 12th to the 17th century, "handfasting" in England was simply a term for "engagement to be married", or a ceremony held on the occasion of such a contract, usually about a month prior to a church wedding, at which the marrying couple formally declared that each accepted the other as spouse. Handfasting was legally binding: as soon as the couple made their vows to each other they were validly married. It was not a temporary arrangement. Just as with church weddings of the period, the union which handfasting created could only be dissolved by death. English legal authorities held that, even if not followed by intercourse, handfasting was as binding as any vow taken in church before a priest.[2]

During handfasting the man and woman in turn would take the other by the right hand and declare aloud that they there and then accepted each other as man and wife. The words might vary but traditionally consisted of a simple formula such as "I (Name) take thee (Name) to my wedded husband/wife, till death us depart, and thereto I plight thee my troth".[2] Because of this, handfasting was also known in England as "troth-plight".[2] Gifts were often exchanged, especially rings:[b][c] a gold coin broken in half between the couple was also common. Other tokens recorded include gloves, a crimson ribbon tied in a knot, and even a silver toothpick.[2] Handfasting might take place anywhere, indoors or out.[2] It was frequently in the home of the bride, but according to records handfastings also took place in taverns, in an orchard and even on horseback. The presence of a credible witness or witnesses was usual.[2]

For much of the relevant period, church courts dealt with marital matters. Ecclesiastical law recognised two forms of handfasting, sponsalia per verba de praesenti and sponsalia per verba de futuro. In sponsalia de praesenti, the most usual form, the couple declared they there and then accepted each other as man and wife. The sponsalia de futuro form was less binding, as the couple took hands only to declare their intention to marry each other at some future date. The latter was closer to a modern engagement and could in theory be ended with the consent of both parties – but only providing intercourse had not occurred. If intercourse did take place, then the sponsalia de futuro "was automatically converted into de iure marriage".[2]

Despite the validity of handfasting, it was expected to be solemnised by a church wedding fairly soon afterwards. Penalties might follow for those who did not comply.[6][page needed] Ideally the couple were also supposed to refrain from intercourse until then.[2] Complaints by preachers suggest that they often did not wait,[2] but at least until the early 1600s the common attitude to this kind of anticipatory behaviour seems to have been lenient.[d]

Handfasting remained an acceptable way of marrying in England throughout the Middle Ages but declined in the early modern period.[7][page needed] In some circumstances handfasting was open to abuse, with persons who had undergone "troth-plight" occasionally refusing to proceed to a church wedding, creating ambiguity about their former betrothed's marital status.[2] After the beginning of the 17th century, gradual changes in English law meant the presence of an officiating priest or magistrate became necessary for a marriage to be legal.[8][page needed] Finally the 1753 Marriage Act, aimed at suppressing clandestine marriages by introducing more stringent conditions for validity, effectively ended the handfasting custom in England.[9][page needed] Shakespeare negotiated and witnessed a handfasting in 1604, and was called as a witness in a suit about the dowry in 1612 and historians speculate that his own marriage to Anne Hathaway was so conducted when he was a young man in 1582, as the practice still had credence in Warwickshire at the time.[2][10]

Probationary or temporary marriage in Scotland[edit]

The Scottish Hebrides, particularly in the Isle of Skye, show some records of a 'Handfast" or "left-handed" marriage taking in the late 1600s, where the Gaelic scholar, Martin Martin, notes "It was an ancient custom in the Isles that a man take a maid as his wife and keep her for the space of a year without marrying her; and if she pleased him all the while, he married her at the end of the year and legitimatised her children; but if he did not love her, he returned her to her parents."[11]

The most disastrous war fought between the MacLeods and MacDonalds of Skye, culminating in the Battle of Coire Na Creiche, "when Donald Gorm Mor who handfasted [for a year and a day] with Margaret MacLeod, a sister of Rory Mor of Dunvegan, expelled his mistress so ignominiously from Duntulm. It is, indeed, not improbable that it was as a result of this war that Lord Ochiltree's Committee [that formed the Statutes of Iona in 1609 and the Regulations for the Chiefs in 1616] was induced to insert a clause in the Statutes of Iona by which 'marriages contracted for several years' were prohibited; and any who might disregard this regulation were to be 'punished as fornicators'".[12][13]

By the 18th century, the Kirk of Scotland no longer recognised marriages formed by mutual consent and subsequent sexual intercourse, even though the Scottish civil authorities did.[14] To minimise any resulting legal actions, the ceremony was to be performed in public.[15] This situation persisted until 1939, when Scottish marriage laws were reformed by the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1939 and handfasting was no longer recognised.[16]

In the 18th century, well after the term handfasting had passed out of usage, there arose a popular myth that it referred to a sort of "trial marriage." A. E. Anton, in Handfasting in Scotland (1958), finds that the first reference to such a "trial marriage" is by Thomas Pennant in his 1790 Tour in Scotland.[17] This report had been taken at face value throughout the 19th century, and was perpetuated in Walter Scott's 1820 novel The Monastery.

Other scholars of the Hebrides[which?] and inhabitants of the region do not consider this a myth, as there are sufficient records[specify] in both the oral tradition and the written compilation of those records that predate both Pennant and Anton by a century or more that preserve the history of this tradition. Contrary to Anton's assertions, the Pennant claim in 1790 was not the first time this had been discussed or put to print, as the Martin Martin texts predate Pennant by almost 100 years.[11] Additionally, the Statutes of Iona were promulgated in 1609 to force an end to the Clan warfare between the MacLeods of Dunvegan and the MacDonalds of Eigg and Sleat as well as to create a more receptive path for Reformation and Protestantism by forcing the Chiefs of the Clans to encourage its spread and to finance the provisioning of Protestant ministers in their lands.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In 1601 the poet John Donne married clandestinely in a private room where only he, his bride, his friend Christopher Brooke and Brooke's brother Samuel, a clergyman, were present. No banns were called and the bride's parents did not give consent; nevertheless, the bride's father did not later legally dispute the validity of the marriage.[1]
  2. ^ The rings might be plain – one was made on the spot out of a rush lying on the floor – or elaborate. They often had a posy engraved. One surviving example is a "gimmal" ring, a double ring which twists apart to become two rings interlinked. It is in the shape of two clasped hands and has the posy "As handes doe shut/so hart be knit."[3][4]
  3. ^ Some rings incorporated "memento mori" devices, to remind the wearer the marriage was till death.[5]
  4. ^ In Shakespeare's 1604 comedy Measure for Measure a young man sleeps with his betrothed wife before his church wedding. Judged technically guilty of fornication, under puritanical laws he is condemned to die. The plot is driven by the need to rescue him, and audience sympathy is clearly expected to be on his side.


  1. ^ Colclough, David (May 2011). "Donne, John (1572–1631)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 23 April 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Nicholl, Charles (2007). "Chapter 27: A handfasting". The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street. London: Allen Lane. pp. 251–258. ISBN 978-0-713-99890-0.
  3. ^ Richardson, Catherine (2011). Shakespeare and Material Culture. Oxford Shakespeare Topics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-19-956228-2 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Cooper, Tarnya (2006). Searching for Shakespeare. Yale University Press. p. 87. ISBN 978-0-300-11611-3 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ Scarisbrick, Diana (1995). Tudor and Jacobean Jewellery. Tate Publishing. [Thomas Gresham's] wedding-ring has a twin 'gimmal' hoop inscribed in Latin 'Let not man put asunder those whom God has joined together', and beneath the ruby and diamond bezel there are cavities enclosing an infant and a skeleton alluding to the vanity of riches.
  6. ^ Laurence, Anne (1994). Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History. London: Phoenix Press. A public church marriage was necessary to ensure the inheritance of property.
  7. ^ Laurence, Anne (1994). Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History. London: Phoenix Press. Between the mid-sixteenth century and the mid-seventeenth century the number of spousal actions in the church courts declined markedly, partly because of the increasing belief that the only proper form of marriage was one solemnized in church.
  8. ^ Laurence, Anne (1994). Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History. London: Phoenix Press.
  9. ^ Laurence, Anne (1994). Women in England, 1500–1760: A Social History. London: Phoenix Press. From 1754...Pre-contracts (promises to marry someone in the future) and oral spousals ceased to have any force...
  10. ^ Greer, Germaine (2009). Shakespeare's Wife. Harper Perennial. pp. 108–110.[ISBN missing]
  11. ^ a b Martin, Martin (1693). A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1st ed.). London Hamilton, Adams. p. 114. (2nd ed., 1716)
  12. ^ Nicolson, Alexander (1930). History of Skye. 60 Aird Bhearnasdail, by Portree, Isle of Skye: MacLean Press. p. 87.
  13. ^ Gregory, D. (1881). History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland. p. 331. [publisher missing]
  14. ^ Andrews, William (1899). Bygone Church Life in Scotland. Hull Press. pp. 210–212 – via Google Books.
  15. ^ Macfarlane, Leslie J. (1994). "William Elphinstone's Library Revisited". In MacDonald, Alasdair A.; Lynch, Michael (eds.). The Renaissance in Scotland: Studies in Literature, Religion, History, and Culture. Leiden: E.J. Brill. p. 75. ISBN 978-90-04-10097-8 – via Google Books.
  16. ^ Rackwitz, Martin (2007). Travels to Terra Incognita: The Scottish Highlands and Hebrides in Early Modern Travellers' Accounts c. 1600 to 1900. Waxmann Verlag GmbH. p. 497, note 199. ISBN 978-3-8309-1699-4 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ Anton, A.E. (October 1958). "'Handfasting' in Scotland". The Scottish Historical Review. 37 (124): 89–102.
  • Probert, Rebecca (2009). Marriage Law and Practice in the Long Eighteenth Century: A Reassessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.[ISBN missing]
  • Nicolson, Alexander (1930). History of Skye. 60 Aird Bhearnasdail, by Portree, Isle of Skye: MacLean Press. pp. 73, 86, 120.
  • Wilson, Rachel (2015). "Chapter 1". Elite Women in Ascendancy Ireland, 1690-1745: Imitation and Innovation. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer. ISBN 978-1-78327-039-2.

18. Stearns, Peter N. Encyclopedia of European Social History: from 1350 to 2000. Scribner, 2001.

19. Dolan, Frances E. Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 2, 1997, pp. 653–655. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3039244.

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