Often when we think about weddings — or write them into our books — we imagine the full works with floaty white dress, olde worlde church bedecked with flowers, rosy-cheeked clergyman, uplifting organ music, smiling friends and family.
But it wasn’t always so.
Weddings: not IN church, but AT the church door
Strange though it seems, in medieval times, weddings didn’t take place inside a church. In fact, many weddings didn’t involve a priest at all. Even if a priest was there, his job was only to bless the couple. In 1215, the Church decreed that a contract of marriage was to be “in the approved manner at the church door“. The priest was to be at the church door too, but in order to oversee the wedding, not to do the marrying — that was done by the consent of the couple themselves.
The Catholic Church decreed in 1563 that marriage required mutual consent plus joining by a priest. Since the Reformation was in progress, however, that didn’t apply everywhere.
In Scotland, even into the 20th century, a couple could marry by simply exchanging consent in front of witnesses. Think of all those romantic Gretna Green weddings. The runaway couple might have assumed that the strange Scotsman in the Marriage House was doing the marrying, but in fact they were doing it themselves, by declaration before witnesses.
(If you want to know more, there’s a Gretna wedding in haste — and bedding in haste, too — in Joanna’s Bride of the Solway, one of the prizes in our competition.)
Marriage at the church door continued for centuries. The move inside seems to have begun in England. An early Tudor book of etiquette says that higher-status couples could be married inside the church — if your father was an earl, you could be married inside, by the choir door; if you were a knight you could be married “within the church door”; but if you were a lesser mortal, it still had to be “without the church door”. Rank Hath Its Privileges, as they say. 
The Hanoverians – Very Odd Weddings Indeed
George IV, when he was Prince of Wales, married Mrs Maria Fitzherbert. There was definitely no church door involved. The wedding wasn’t at a church at all.
They were married, on 15th December 1785, in the early evening, in Mrs Fitzherbert’s house in Park Street. It was clandestine in all sorts of ways — wrong time, wrong place, and definitely the wrong bride (according to the law, King George III and public opinion).
Under the Royal Marriages Act, the wedding was not valid, but it was valid under canonical law which seems to have been enough for Mrs Fitzherbert. The clergyman was the Rev John Burt who had been freed from the Fleet debtors’ prison to perform the ceremony, since no one more reputable could be found to do it. Burt was promised £500, an appointment as a chaplain to the Prince, and a bishopric once the Prince became King!
The only other witnesses in the locked drawing room were Mrs Fitzherbert’s uncle and younger brother. But, in spite of these security measures, the news leaked out and the marriage quickly became fodder for the scandal sheets and prints, like the Gilray one, below.
And the Rev Burt? He did become a chaplain to the Prince but he died “of a putrid fever” in 1791, aged just 30 — how convenient! — so he never got his bishopric after all.
What if George IV’s daughter had lived?
In the alternative history in Sophie’s book To Marry A Prince (also part of our competition prize), the British royal family are the direct descendants of George IV’s daughter Charlotte and her husband Leopold. (The real Charlotte died in childbirth, of course.) But, at the time Charlotte was conceived, within 24 hours of George’s marriage to Caroline of Brunswick, Mrs Fitzherbert was still alive. So was George IV a bigamist? Was Princess Charlotte illegitimate? If she had lived, would her right to the throne have been challenged? As a history nut, I love to speculate but what do you think?
Next week, Sophie will be blogging more about the Hanoverians and especially poor Princess Charlotte. There will also be a surprise for our blog visitors which we hope you will enjoy.
In the meantime, please do enter our competition if you haven’t already done so. The competition was at the end of last week’s blog (below this one). The competition closes at midnight (UK time) on Sunday 5th June 2016. Who knows? You may be our lucky winner.
 I am indebted to Kirsti S Thomas’s article Medieval and Renaissance Marriage: Theory and Customs for some of the information in this section.