Researching my novel ‘The Black Hours’ was often a very dark and depressing business, focusing as it did on real accounts of persecution, terror, torture and death. When I came to write the prequel ‘Blackwater’, I did find some light relief. There is a wedding in ‘Blackwater’ and so I spent a much more cheerful afternoon reading up on the wedding traditions and customs of the 17th century.
My main source for this research was a lovely booklet by Denise Taylor called ‘17th Century Wedding Customs’. This booklet, though small in size, is packed full of useful information and interesting facts that really helped me to envisage the wedding between Samuel and Elizabeth. And it was refreshing to research using something other than the internet – something that I know I overuse.
As we are now coming into the most popular times for weddings, I thought I would provide a small glimpse into the way weddings, particularly those of the lower classes, were enacted all those years ago, courtesy of Denise Taylor’s helpful booklet.
Before they even got to the wedding, lower class adolescents in the 17th Century had a lot more freedom than you might think. This had a lot to do with young people very often leaving home early to take up jobs in service. This independence at a young age provided plenty of opportunities to spend time alone with members of the opposite sex, often without any chaperone.
These sweethearts would give gifts to show their affection. A silver coin, broken in half with one half kept by each of the couple, was enough to signify an engagement. Oaths and prayers would often be said over these coins, giving them much significance and importance, and making these tokens valued not only as a signifier of love, but also as a talisman against evil spirits.
It was very rare that a new dress was bought specially for a wedding. Most brides would simply wear their best dress, usually the one they wore to church, possibly with some extra adornment. More important than the dress were the bride’s garters! These were generally blue in colour, and were regarded as trophies. For although they were worn by the bride, tied just above the knee, they formed the centre of a rather risqué tradition. Once it was bed time, rather than being left in privacy with her new husband to remove the garters, they were instead removed by the ‘bride-men’ (two bachelors who would have led the bride to church carrying branches of rosemary). The garters would then be fastened to the men’s hats.
Along with garters, gloves were also important. These would be given to the bride either by her groom, or by a failed suitor who would use the opportunity to show her that she had chosen he wrong man, by presenting her with the most extravagant gloves he could afford.
Flowers were as important then as they are now. Most country brides would dress their hair with wildflowers, myrtle or miniature sheaves of wheat. Myrtle would also be used in the bouquet along with orange blossom. When the bride left the church after the ceremony, wheat would be thrown on her head to bring fruitfulness – perhaps a pre-cursor to confetti.
If the bride lived in the north, then she may also have cake broken over her head! This again was a fertility charm. It was also believed that the future could be seen in the broken pieces of bread and that those who gathered the pieces would have good luck.
Eating and drinking was very important. Cakes, meats and treats would all be specially prepared, with the whole community helping to provide a feast for the couple and their guests. The traditional tiered cake of today’s weddings may have featured, but in the earlier part of the century, the wedding ‘cake’ was likely to consist of small buns built into a huge pile and placed before the couple at the table. The couple would try and kiss over this mound of cakes – if they managed to reach each other they were guaranteed prosperity and plenty of children.
Going to bed on the wedding night was not a private, romantic affair. Instead, the couple were escorted to bed by the bridesmaids and groomsmen. Once the garters had been removed and distributed, the bridesmaids would undress the bride, making sure that any dress pins were removed and thrown away, lest they bring misfortune. The bride would then be surrounded by her female relations and friends, waiting in the ribbon be-decked bed for her groom. He would climb in with his bride and then all the guests would come into the bedchamber to wish the couple luck. The company would then return to their celebrations, finally leaving the newly-weds in peace!
Some of the traditions may seem rather odd, but many haven’t really changed that much through the years; the flowers, the friends, the food and the fun remain an integral part of wedding celebrations.
Do you have any unusual wedding traditions in your part of the world or particular to your family? I’d love to hear about them.
17th Century Wedding Customs by Denise Taylor is available on Amazon.co.uk here.
Find out more about ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.
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