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History Of Marriage, And Historic Wedding Venues


The South Porch at Malmesbury Abbey - marriage began at the church door

Marriage is a story of two people. It's also a long story of power politics which begins in the early days of the Roman Empire. In Roman law marriage was a pact. A certain social formality surrounded marriage, marking it off from other relationships. But broadly speaking marriage was easy, as was divorce. The barbarian tribes of Europe had similar traditions (see The Medieval Idea of Marriage by Christopher Brooke). But when the Roman Empire began to collapse in the fifth century things began to get more serious as far as marriage was concerned. In place of an orderly empire, life became chaotic, with power grabbed by any group of people strong enough to take it. And naturally it was usually families who formed the groups who organised themselves to win power. Land, the basic commodity of life, passed through families rather than being bought or sold. The interests of families were, therefore, vital, and this meant that young people couldn't be trusted to go off and marry who they liked. They had to marry someone useful to the family. This is best seen in the marriage arrangements of Europe's royal families. Important members of these families could be married off when they were still babies or young children. It was also vital to arrange for the birth of sons to continue a dynasty, which meant that divorce was readily available to powerful men who wanted to try different wives if the first ones could not provide sons. With society generally following the royal lead, this meant a flexible attitude to marriage, with the parents deciding on partners, and divorce generally easy to obtain.


However, another powerful force in the chaos of post Roman Europe was Christianity. From the fifth and sixth centuries the Church began to take the secular business of marriage for itself, and slowly changed its nature. The progress of this change can be seen in Church architecture. Church wedding ceremonies initially took place only at the church door. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales written around 1400, the Wife of Bath is described as taking five husbands to the church door. Some churches modified their porches to accommodate wedding ceremonies. For example Tewkesbury Abbey has an ornate twelfth century porch, once used for weddings. At Ely Cathedral there is a thirteenth century porch sitting rather incongruously on the west side, which once again was used for weddings. Peterborough Cathedral also has a porch where weddings and other more "secular" activities took place. Malmesbury Abbey used its south porch in the same way.

Some historians suggest the Church's move on marriage was an attempt to check the power of large dynastic families. This was probably not a planned policy, but a slow evolution of factors which were naturally inclined to favour the Church. The first development in this regard involved a steady extension in the prohibition to marrying cousins, with exclusions eventually extending to sixth cousins. This change began very early, during the time of the late Roman Empire. Jack Goody suggests that such prohibitions tended to make inheritance within a powerful family more difficult, and thus damaged the long term influence of a dynasty (see The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe). Family influence could then of course be replaced with Church influence. The Church also had a greater likelihood of winning endowments of land which had traditionally passed down through closely knit families. Clearly powerful families would want to resist this change, and indeed the law on marrying cousins was moderated from the eleventh century. In the British royal family the practice of marrying cousins has continued into modern times. Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip in 1947, and both share the same great great grandmother in Queen Victoria. The fact that it is lawful today for anyone to marry a cousin is due to royal influence - Henry VIII changed the law to allow his marriage to Catherine Parr, his fourth cousin, in 1543.

The second way in which marriage changed involved an end to the long tradition of parents choosing partners for their children. In place of arranged marriage the Church slowly enforced the idea that only the partners' consent mattered. Once again this can easily be seen as a move designed to break up family alliances, and the secular power based on them. In place of parental planning in the family's best interests, the Church preferred choices to be left to young love - and who knows where that would lead. There is actually a play dramatising the moment when this switch was in progress. In the late sixteenth century William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet which told the story of two competing dynasties in Verona. The story engineers a situation in which the old idea of an arranged marriage collides with the new idea of two people marrying for love. Romeo and Juliet are from opposing dynasties, and politically their relationship is a disaster. A simple minded Friar thinks a marriage between the two youngsters will heal division; and the Nurse thinks physical attraction should be allowed to take its course. And of course Romeo and Juliet famously celebrates and idealises the idea of love in a lot of great poetry. At the same time the play also graphically illustrates the disastrous unpredictability that marriage for love might bring. If Juliet had married Count Paris as her father intended then she would probably have been moderately happy, and the Capulets would have continued on into a prosperous and stable future. Instead you could say that Romeo and Juliet follow their foolish young fancies, get a lot of silly ideas into their heads, and end up dead.. The most powerful families certainly continued to value control over the choice of partners, and resisted a religious challenge to their ability to plan marriages in their own interests. Arranged marriages continued in the British royal family up until the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981. The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011 is highly unusual in that arrangement seems not to have been a factor. William and Kate simply seem to have met at university, as many young people do.


Site of the execution of Henry VIII's second wife Anne Boleyn, Tower of London

The third great change in marriage involved the idea of divorce. Divorce had been a feature of marriage in Roman Europe, and continued as a practice supporting dynastic ambitions into the chaotic time that followed the Roman Empire's fall. As far as family dynasties were concerned, inheritance passed through the male line, which made sons politically important. Divorce was potentially a useful tool to make sure a man could find a wife able to provide a son. The Church, always tending to adopt policies which would undermine the secular power of families, set itself against divorce. As the centuries went by divorce increasingly became a battleground over which religious and secular authorities struggled. French kings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, for example, were notorious for their use of divorce. Every French king from Philip I (1060 - 1108) to Philip II (1180 - 1223) had at least one. In following their divorce policy, the French kings were always running into religious opposition. The Roman Catholic Church continued to harden its opposition to divorce, which set the scene for one of the greatest battles between secular and religious authority, the battle between Henry VIII and the Church of Rome. Henry VIII is the most famous serial divorcer in English history. Taking the throne in 1509 Henry wanted to protect his dynasty with a son. When his first wife could not provide him with one Henry was determined to use the old trick of divorce as a remedy. But with the Catholic Church now opposing divorce, this proved very difficult. So Henry eventually decided to embrace the new Protestant movement, free himself from Rome, and from his first wife, and have a son with a new wife. Henry seemed to win this battle, but ironically his dramatic use of divorce actually contributed to its decline in the long run. Following Henry VIII's reign it became clear that women were viable monarchs and heirs, which meant that it was not so vital to use divorce to try and get a son. Henry VIII's frantic marriage history resulted in two powerful women taking the throne, first the unpopular Mary, daughter from his first marriage, and then, crucially, Elizabeth, daughter from his second marriage. Elizabeth went on to a famous reign as one of England's most celebrated and admired monarchs. After Elizabeth's reign it would be difficult to argue that women could not take the throne. And if women were viable heirs why go through all the trouble and misery of divorce if you didn't have to? Royalty and the Church were old enemies, but it also made sense for them to cooperate when they could, since in the right circumstances they could support each other's position. Monarchs were after all supposed to be appointed by God. So on divorce at least royal families could now align themselves with the Church. Divorce fell out of favour, so much so that it came to be considered as scandalous, particularly in royal circles. Edward VIII was forced to abdicate in 1936 when he insisted on marrying a divorcee. Even In the 1990s the divorce of Charles and Diana was one of the biggest news stories of the decade.


Diana Memorial Fountain

And all this brings us round to our modern ideas of marriage in Britain. The Christian sense of marriage which had been honed over centuries of struggle against powerful families peaked in the early nineteenth century. The long policy of assimulation, which actually began with marriages taking place outside a church, then in a special porch, then inside the church itself, had run its course. This was a time when marriage without church sanction was illegal, and divorce unacceptable. But then as the nineteenth century continued, significant social changes began to reverse this situation. Science was making great strides forward, with the result that a religious world view went into retreat. Marriage as a product of Church power went into retreat with it. In 1836 it finally became possible to marry legally outside a church, and from that time non religious weddings became progressively more popular. Since 1992 there have been more civil ceremonies in England and Wales than religious ceremonies. At the same time marriage has slowly become looser. National Office of Statistics figures show that in 1940 91% of all marriages were the first for both partners. By 2008 this had fallen to 68% (see Since the Second World War rates for all kinds of marriage have generally declined. According to the Office of National Statistics the UK now has the lowest marriage rates since they were first calculated in 1862. You might say then that we are returning to the manner of marriage as it was practiced for thousands of years in Roman and pre-Roman Europe. There is, however, one very significant way in which we continue to adhere to the changes brought about by the Church, and that is in our interest in romantic love. Although families from south east Asia settling in Britain have their own traditions, it is generally the case that in Britain the partners' choice in marriage is paramount, with minimal input from their families. And to this aspect of marriage we remain very much attached. Romantic love is the subject of countless films, books, songs, and plays, from Romeo and Juliet onwards. I think it poignant to remember that in 1981 young Diana Spencer was very much taken by romance, loved romantic novels and expected great things from her fairytale marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales. In place of her fairytale Diana got a husband who assumed it was his duty to get married for his family's sake, rather than for his or his wife's sake. In a kind of dark inversion of Romeo and Juliet this collision of a romantic girl with a hard headed arranged marriage led to a famous and turbulent drama. This just goes to show that arranged marriage or marriage for love, there is no definite answer to finding the right person. The doubt as to how to do it explains why the search for love is such an endlessly fruitful topic for writers.

Shakespeare for one knew that no matter what you do, getting the right people together is tricky. Even in A Midsummer Nights Dream where characters have the ability to conjure love by magic, there are problems. But the fact remains that people have continued to get together over the years, finding a way no matter what the fashions of the time may have been. Today, fittingly, there are many ways to get married and for love to be celebrated. If you don't want to get married in a church why not have a look down our list of beautiful historic properties which can all act as wedding venues. And if you do get married in a Church, take a glance at the door as you pass through on your way to the ceremony. In days gone by this unnoticed door would have been where you actually got married!