Before the time of Innocent III who was Pope A.D. 1198-1216, marriages were not solemnized at Church but, according to ancient custom in England, the man came to the house where the woman lived, led her home to his own house and she became his wife; there was no other ceremony. In old Church registers the expression "uxorem ducere" i.e., to lead a wife, is sometimes used for marriage and to this day we speak of leading a woman to the altar. Banns were first ordered to be published in the year 1200; it is a Latin word meaning a Proclamation. The Norfolk word for Banns of Marriage is Sybbrit, which is by no means obsolete and was used in a parish of which I was once rector. During the Commonwealth, 1649-1660, marriages were performed justices of the Peace after notice had been given on three successive Sundays at the Parish Church, or if so desired by the parties concerned, at the nearest Market Place on three successive Market Days. , In 1754 the famous Act, known as Hardwicke's Marriage Act, came into force. Before the passing of this Act, a marriage performed by a clergyman of the Church of England without Banns or License, though highly irregular and punishable, was valid and binding even though the ceremony took place in a stable, a tap-room or anywhere, else. Most of us have read tales about the scandalous marriages performed at the Fleet Prison by disreputable and bankrupt clergymen who were confined there. All these abuses were put a stop to by the Marriage Act of 1754. It appears that at one time Marriage by Banns was looked upon as rather undignified, which may account for the large number of Marriages by Licence towards the end of the 18th century. Horace Walpole, in one of his published letters, speaks with contempt of Marriages by Banns. In some parts of England it was the custom for the Clerk, when Banns were published, to say "God speed them well." The words were used also at the Marriage Service after the opening exhortation; it was known as Blessing the Couple; but this good old custom has died out. There are many superstitions connected with Marriage. In parts of Yorkshire it was said that the one who responded the loudest at the Marriage Ceremony would be the first to die. In North-west Norfolk there was a superstition that if either of the parties turned and looked back during the Marriage Service it meant death within twelve months. When rector of Gayton Thorpe, near King's Lynn, the daughter of a neighbouring vicar died shortly after marriage; and an eye-witness told me: "Ah! poor dear, she looked back hen she was married." Entries occasionally are found in Church registers of a bride being married in her smock only, or her shift. There was a belief, which lasted for several centuries, that a man was not liable for his wife's debts previous to marriage, provided that he married her in nothing else but her smock or shift; all the world could then see that she came to him empty-handed. As recently as 1844 a woman was married in a Lincolnshire parish dressed in a sheet only.
There are various folk-rhymes about marriage, one of which says -
To change the name and not the letter,
Is a change for the worse, and not the better.
Another folk-rhyme gives the best day in the week for marriage -
Monday for wealth; Tuesday for health:
Wednesday the best day of all,
Thursday for losses: Friday for crosses;
Saturday no luck at all.
An Almanac for the year 1655 went even so far as to give certain dates on which it was "good to marry or contract a wife;" because "then women will be fond and loving."
The following folk-rhyme contains, and was used as, a marriage wish
A roof to cover you and a bed to lie;
Meat when you're hungry and a drink when you're dry;
And a place in heaven when you come to die.
An old Suffolk man, a widower, was about to be married, when his intended wife died suddenly. After the funeral, when the rector called to condole with him, he said: "Well, I've been spared the marrying expenses and that's summat. And I've been spared the burying expenses and thats summat. The Lord moves in a mysterious way."
Ill fares the hapless family that shows
A Cock thats silent and a Hen that crows.
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