A History Of English Marriage

The wedding suit cartoonThe white dress, the reception, the invitations… the way we get married feels very traditional, as if it’s been done that way forever. Trouble is, our idea of marriage has only been around since Victorian times.


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The Times has a fantastic article about the history of marriage in England and how its changed over the centuries.

It is surprising perhaps that the white wedding is still in vogue. There is nothing truly traditional about it. It was invented by the Victorians to show that the lady was rich enough to have a dress that was used only once. Victorian fathers “gave” their daughters away wearing virginal white and a veil as a substitute for her long hair worn use, originally the symbol of virginity.

Given the choice, those unencumbered by property preferred to avoid the expense and rigmarole of an official church wedding and spend their money on drinking to celebrate the new partnership. Dodging the newly imposed tax and resentment at the state’s interference in their private business provided further incentives to live in “common law unions” that had no basis in law and did not carry property rights. As long as a couple considered themselves “married in the sight of God” and was “reputed lawful man and wife amongst their neighbours” the forms of ceremony mattered little to them.

Clandestine marriage led to all sorts of abuses, from the kidnapping, drugging, forced marriage and rape of heiresses by fortune hunters to under-age, same-sex, incestuous or bigamous unions. Bigamy was common in a society where divorce was denied. Given the dubious nature of the paperwork and lack of witnesses, it was all too easy to walk away from a clandestine marriage and marry again.

I think all those who feel that gay marriage somehow undermines society should read this and consider what a shaky base our modern concept of marriage is built upon.