In Anglo-Saxon times, marriage was sometimes little more than a kidnap, with a man carrying off his chosen bride, whether she was willing or not. In the Middle Ages, girls were seen as their father’s property and prospective husbands had to prove themselves by offering gifts or working for the girl’s hand in marriage. An extreme example of this can be seen in the betrothal of Mary Queen of Scots to Francis the Dauphin of France. Their marriage was agreed by the Scottish Parliament in 1548 on condition that the King of France defend Scotland as if it were his own kingdom while still respecting Scotland’s independence. At the time Mary was six years old and the young Dauphin only four.The tradition of brides standing on the left during the marriage vows also dates from more violent days gone by. This meant the bridegroom could hold his new wife with his left hand, leaving his sword hand free to fight any rivals.


The practice of the bride’s parents paying for the wedding dates from around three centuries ago, when wealthy families would pay an eligible suitor a dowry. This was also seen as an insurance against divorce, as the man could keep the dowry, whether property or money, only if the couple remained married.


Bridal veils may be a throwback to the times when eager grooms would simply fling a blanket over the bride’s head and carry her off. Alternatively, they might date from Roman times, when a veil was worn to guard against evil spirits. Another idea is that during arranged marriages in the past, a bride’s face was covered until after the vows in case the groom did not like what he saw and changed his mind.


The idea of having a best man to attend the groom has a long history. In Saxon times he may have been a partner in crime, aiding and abetting in the kidnapping of the hapless bride. A major part of his job was to protect the groom from bad luck and to ensure that he arrived safely at the church. Nowadays, it is the best man who pays the fee to the church minister, and by paying an odd amount he brings luck to the couple. Traditionally, the role of the bridesmaids was to protect the bride from evil and help her to dress when she was thought to be at her most vulnerable. The fact that bridesmaids’ dresses mirrored the bride’s was a ploy to confuse the evil spirits so they could not be sure which was the real bride.


The true lovers’ knot was a popular motif for wedding dresses and cakes from medieval times. Brightly coloured ribbons knotted together represented the ties of love and marriage. In the seventeenth century brides wore them on their dresses so that male guests could snatch them away as bride favours. The flowers men wear as buttonholes are a modern relic of the knots. The tradition of giving guests something to remember the wedding by dates back hundreds of years. Today, in place of the coloured ribbon knots brides used to wear, guests are more likely to be given five sugared almonds prettily tied in netting or muslin. The sweets each represent health, wealth, fertility, good fortune and long life.Flowers and herbs have been carried since early times as the i r pungent scents were said to drive away evil spirits. Certain flowers are particularly associated with weddings and have special significance when included in the bouquet (Chapter 7 gives more details).

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