Weddings: flowers & heavenly music? Not always

weddings: bride in white dress with long blue bouquet


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

St Eval church, Cornwall. Wedding venue?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.

Queen's Head Pub, Springfield, a Scottish wedding venue

Closest marriage house to the border. Yes, it’s a pub! In Springfield near Gretna

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.)

At the hurch door, Vezelay, France. For weddings?

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. [1]

The Hanoverians – Very Odd Weddings Indeed

Secret wedding. Mrs Fitzherbert by Joshua Reynolds

Maria Fitzherbert by Reynolds c.1788

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.

Gilray: The Morning after Marriage

Gilray: The Morning after Marriage © Trustees of the British Museum

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?

Princess Charlotte1806

Princess Charlotte in 1806, by Marie Anne Bourlier, after Lawrence

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.


[1] I am indebted to Kirsti S Thomas’s article Medieval and Renaissance Marriage: Theory and Customs for some of the information in this section.

10 thoughts on “Weddings: flowers & heavenly music? Not always

  1. Louise Allen (@LouiseRegency)

    Great post – but of course Gretna was only the closest place for an eloping couple if they were on that side of the country. Much faster for many to go straight up the Great North Road and marry just the other side of Berwick on Tweed, like Lord Chancellor Lord Eldon did when he was an impoverished law student! Apparently the toll house on the Border at Berwick advertised “Ginger beer for sale. Weddings solemnised” well into the 19th century.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Sorry for late response. I have been away at — would you believe? — a wedding!

      Not surprising really that Lord Eldon chose the East side since he was from Newcastle. But he didn’t have an irregular wedding of the sort we normally associate with a flight to Scotland. He was married to his Bessy by an Episcopelian clergyman!

      And if anyone is interested in how couples could escape up the Great North Road, do look at Louise’s terrific book on it

  2. rosgemmell

    Fascinating piece, thank you – although I know all about Gretna, I didn’t know that about the church door, nor about Louise’s info!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Ros. It’s one of the fun things about sites like this, isn’t it, that lots of people drop in with snippets of knowledge that we didn’t know before. I find it endlessly fascinating. And, of course, my visiting historical-author colleagues have heaps of knowledge to share so they are doubly welcome.

  3. Gail Mallin

    Very interesting post, great Gilray cartoon! I knew about outside the church door weddings after 1215, but would love to know when this tradition started. Anyone know if it was a Saxon custom or did it come in after the Norman Conquest?

  4. Joanna Post author

    Thanks, Gail! I agree it’s a terrific cartoon. Couldn’t resist including it once I found it.

    There is quite a lot of info about pre-Conquest weddings in the article by Kirsti S Thomas referenced at the end of my blog though I don’t think she covers the origins of the church door.

    I rather wondered if it was a matter of convenience more than anything. In many communities, the church would have been the most prominent building and so a good place to congregate for a public ceremony like a wedding. Over the years, the wedding processions to the church door apparently got noisier and more ribald, to the extent that the procession was almost more important than the wedding ceremony. Sounds a bit like a modern Stag do in motion, to me. No doubt, some priests did not approve and tried (in vain) to tone it down.

    In the post-Conquest period, the Church clearly decided to muscle in on weddings and, over the centuries from 1215, it pretty well succeeded, in England and some other countries, though not in Scotland. However, Gretna-type weddings were very much frowned on by upright Scots who were expected to marry in the Kirk. Gretna-type weddings were for incomers and runaways — just the kind of couples we put into our books. 🙂

  5. Gail Mallin

    Just had a look at the Kirsti Thomas article. Does seem as if they were making up as they went along after the Conquest, but having the wedding in public remained important. That makes sense and from a writer’s point of view it’s handy too – just think of the fun you could have twisting the idea round and creating a secret marriage plot!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I can see that lots of ideas have started up in writerly brains! Wonderful. Come back and tell us if you decide to write it, please, Gail.

  6. Elizabeth Bailey

    I hadn’t known about church door weddings before. Fascinating. Ideas pottering about now with a wedding being declared illegal because it wasn’t inside the church and the couple claiming it was historically fine. Like it. Nice post.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Now that’s a very interesting slant on the idea, Liz. Great stuff. Hope you write it! And glad you enjoyed the post. Hope you’ve signed up for our newsletter too. Someone has to win that lovely Penhaligon stuff.

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