In a letter to the Archbishop of York, Pope Alexander III (pope from 1159-1181), ordered that there should be no espousal or marriage before the age of 7. In a later ruling, he changed it to 12. Of course there were dispensations. Henry II obtained one for his son Henry, and his bride Marguerite, both being under 7 at the time.
The Church said that for a marriage to exist in their eyes, both parties had to consent. 'Marriage is contracted by consent alone.' But this led to a worry that marriages might be conducted in secret and upset the apple cart of wider family plans and compromise safeguards. Responsibilities needed to be recognised before all, so it became common useage for marriages to be made in front of the church in a public ceremony before witnesses with the blessing of a priest.
At the Council of Westminster in 1076, it was ruled that 'No one should give his daughter or other relative to anyone without priestly blessing, otherwise it will be judged not a legitimate marriage but a fornicator's marriage.' This was reiterated at the Council of Westminster in 1200. 'publicly in front of the church and in the presence of a priest.'
It is in 1200 that banns first appear in England. 'No marriage should be contracted without a public announcement in church on three occasions.' Gerald of Wales tells us that these 3 occasions should be the 3 Sundays preceding the wedding. The idea of a formal announcement before the wedding is also found in France at this time and became a universal requirement by 1215.
The wedding service at this time has some similarities with the one in the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer. The priest began by asking if there was any reason why the couple could not be legitimately married. The heart of the ceremony was the priest's questions to the bride and groom.
'Do you take this woman...to keep in sickness and in health? If both couples said 'I do' (Volo) then the priest and the man giving the woman away would hand her to the groom. The latter would put a ring on her hand saying: 'With this ring I honour you...with my body I wed you.'
This had all taken place outside. Now everyone entered the church to hear mass. The husband was expected to give his wife her dower at the church door (a dower being land or cash she could live on should he predecease her). The bride would also bring her part of the bargain to the marriage in the form of a marriage portion - property or cash to increase the size of the husband's estate. He might do this by handing over a symbolic object such as a knife. During the mass, the couple would lie prostrate before the altar and the altar cloth would be held over them. The husband would kiss the bride, but first he had to give the priest the kiss of peace during the communion.
We know the above from lawsuits dating from this period that arose concerning whether marriages had taken place or not.
Following the ceremony, there was usually a celebration - a 'party' in modern terms. A church document warns however that marriages should be celebrated: 'With reverence and honour and not with laughing and joking, in taverns or at public feasts or drinking parties. Nor should anyone put a ring made of rushes or some other material, cheap or precious on some girl's hand in fun, to be able to fornicate with her more freely, for he may find that, although he thinks he is joking, he has in fact bound himself in the obligations of matrimony.'
13th century Bishop's rings from St.David's Abbey Pembrokeshire. The stones are Amethysts.
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