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Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter IX

Ancient Marriage Customs.

Some ancient marriage customs cited,
Some modern customs 'shown,
Some evil customs not yet righted,
Some good ones used and known.

We hope it will be long before any other idea than that a halo of religious sanctity hangs over the marriage ceremony in >Great Britain, will pervade the national mind. That marriage should be looked upon in a sacred light, and not merely as a legal contract, by which one person is bound to another for life, as an apprentice is for seven years, is especially desirable to the unthinking, the volatile, and the rash, to say nothing of the vicious and the wicked. Many a thoughtless person will unreflectingly enter upon a civil contract, however binding, (and peradventure to their sorrow afterwards,) when, on the other hand, had the sanctity of the church hovered like a descending dove over the contract, that same person would have hesitated to proceed thus blindly. And then, from hesitating to go forward with precipitancy, time would be given to reflect, and reflexion might bring reason, and reason might save that person from doing an action which would be the misery of all after years, had it been done. Even the greatest sinners that tread this earth under foot, that desecrate the sabbath, or live a life of blind iniquity, still feel an awe when they enter a church to go through the ceremony of a binding obligation. It is a fact, that many an atheist, who knows not what the words "God," or "religion" mean, or who will never scruple to tell any the most horrible lie to suit his purpose, will, nevertheless, shun repeating the same thing, either before the altar, or with his right hand placed upon the bible ; and yet this atheist openly derides and disbelieves every word that the bible contains, and always says in his heart, "There is no God." Even to such a one as this, there is an indescribable, inscrutable, and mysteriously dreaded something connected with the sound of that word religion, which all his disbelief cannot overcome, and which all his philosophy cannot persuade away. If the idea of a God be not innate, then we will give way to Locke, and concede that we are born without ideas, of a truth: but if the most barbarous, ignorant, neglected, or abandoned that ever stepped on British soil, have not clear notions on this subject, still, there never was a person, however benighted, but owned to a superstitious fear of some undefined power beyond the world superior to himself and his control; and this is the crude commencement of belief.

The love of being united beneath the groined ceiling of Mother Church, is a taste so intimately-belonging to the public mind in this country, that we trust no new law, enacted for the convenience of sectarians, will be able to banish it from the preference of those who, not being sectarians, are not necessitated to relinquish it. To the thoughtless it makes the tie more sacred and more serious, and hence is not so likely to be lightly undertaken; and when undertaken, not so lightly held in estimation.

Previously to the statute 26 George II. c. 33., the simple fact of two persons associating together for a time, constituted a marriage in this country, arid was so recognized by the common law : this statute, however, was enacted to ensure a greater degree of security to the parties contracting than such a negligent practice enforced, to secure their several interests with greater certainty, and to remove the evils arising out of such negligence. This statute, notwithstanding, says Richard Mathews, Esq. of the Middle Temple, barrister at law, and so forth, "committed the palpable error of permitting the solemnization of matrimony only by the clergy of the established Church, in facie ecclesiae ; an error which has been handed down through a series of enactments to the present time, and only now about to be abrogated." That is to say, abrogated by the recent act of 6 & 7 William IV. c. 85.

Albeit this recent law docs not compel persons, as heretofore by the former compelled, to repair to the altar ; still there is something about the ceremony so imposing and so solemn, that it is difficult for the mind to be persuaded to consider it in any other light than in a religious one. "The opinions which have divided the world," says another man of law, "or writers, at least, on this subject, are generally two ;—it is held by some persons that marriage is a contract merely civil; by others that it is a sacred, religious, and spiritual contract, and only so to be considered.1' According to my Lord Stowell, it is neither one nor the other, or both; it is more than either, or peradventure more than both. "According to juster notions of the nature of the marriage contract, it is not merely a civil or religious contract; at the present time it is not to be considered as, originally and simply, one or the other."

Again, in another place, says the same noble and learned lord:—"In the Christian church, marriage was elevated in a later age to the dignity of a sacrament, in consequence of its divine' institution, and of some expressions of high and mysterious import respecting it contained in the sacred writings. The law of the church—the canon law—(a system which, in spite of its absurd pretentions to a higher origin, is, in many of its provisions, deeply enough founded in the wisdom of man), although, in conformity to the prevailing theological opinion, it reverenced marriage as a sacrament, still so far respected its natural and civil origin as to consider, that where the natural and civil contract was formed, it had the full essence of matrimony, without the intervention of a priest; it had even in that state the character of a sacrament: for it is a misapprehension to suppose that this intervention was required as a matter of necessity, even for that- purpose, before the Council of Trent. It appears from the histories of that Council, as well, as from many other authorities,' that this was the state of the earlier law till that council passed its decree for the reformation of marriage : the consent of two parties, expressed in words of present mutual acceptance, constituted - an actual and legal marriage, technically known by the name of sponsalta per verba de presenti—improperly enough, because sponsalia in the original and classical meaning of the words, are preliminary ceremonials of marriage."

Another learned man of law, and one of her maj jesties counsel, in commenting on the above, says : — "It is to be noticed, that these observations, though general in their tenor, were made in a case in which the marriage in issue did not depend upon the rules of English law, but in the case of a marriage contracted in Scotland [of course Gretna Green, for Scotland is not Scotland without Gretna], which was to be decided therefore by the rules of the law prevailing in that country."

We know we have power now to enter into "the holy estate" independently of clerical co-operation and clerical blessing—(but what will now make it "holy" when such adjuncts are wanting we know that there are such personages as superintendent registrars, and such places as superintendent registrars' offices, but so wedded are the English, as a nation, to the love of Mother Church in these matters, that, with few exceptions, and those mostly arising out of necessity, they cannot voluntarily wed under any other roof than a groined one, with a "dim religious light" falling upon them.

Let not the ultra high church in principle rashly declare that the recent statute has been enacted either in defiance of conscience or neglect of all religion; but rather as a measure of charity, and consideration, and Christian tolerance to those who do not (we hope conscientiously) think as we do in the matter of our creed and tenets:—as a measure enacted to meet the scruples of the many different sects of Christians who, in a land of liberty, are entitled to freedom of opinion and exemption from persecution:—as a measure enacted to prevent their being driven to Gretna Green to be married, as they complained the rigidity of the old law com pelled them to do.

Our Anglo-Saxon forefathers considered the intervention of a priest necessary—a presumption that they considered the ceremony in a religious point of view; and, with certain exceptions, superinduced rather from circumstances than choice, so also have the majority of their descendants in this country. Clandestine marriages, however, had become somewhat prevalent with the less scrupulous on the Continent ; and to correct this practice, Pope Innocent III. issued bulls enforcing it under severe denunciations that the contract should be entered upon in the church—in facie ecclesia, so that all men might witness thereto. Indeed, this said innocent Pope is reputed to have been amongst the first who proclaimed the ceremony in a holy light; for before his time it had been looked upon merely as a civil transaction.

During the middle ages in our own country it was not the custom to be wedded before the altar in the church as now, but to stand at the church door during the greater part of the ceremony. The way appears to have been, for the bride and bridegroom to come up to one of the principal entrances of the building, " with their friends and neighbours,1' where they met the priest, and where he asked them certain prescribed questions, and duly commenced the service as the rubric directed. At the proper place also he joined their hands (supposing their hearts to have already been joined before), calling upon them to love, and to cherish, and so forth, as is quaintly described in some ancient missals which refer respectively to the cathedrals of Hereford and Salisbury. The dos ad ostium ecclesiee, there at the porch, was likewise bestowed upon the bride before they quitted their stand; but when the priest came to that part which is now followed by his turning to the altar and repeating the psalm, they all ascended the steps, and walked towards the eastern extremity of the edifice, where his blessing was given to the newly married couple.

We are told by Warton, that on the southern facade of Norwich Cathedral there is a sculpture in stone setting forth the espousals or sacrament of marriage according to this old English custom, but we have not had an opportunity of seeing it ourselves. If, also, we may believe the representation of a rare engraving by Mr. Walpole, we may conclude that this mode of procedure was not confined to the humble, the poor, or the inferior in degree, but that the noble, and even the royal submitted to it. This engraving shows us King Henry VII. together with his queen and a group of courtiers, standing together at the western portico of a Gothic cathedral, where the shaven and stoled ecclesiastics are about to celebrate the union of these two Roses of York and Lancaster.

Geoffroi Chaucer alludes to this same usage in speaking of the "Wife of Bath." He says,—

"She was a worthy woman all her live, Husbands at the church door she had had five."

Sir William Blackstone tells us, in speaking of " Dower ad ostium ecclesia," when a man endowed his wife with his worldly goods, even there at the church door, that the custom was to ascertain and specify minutely, with a clear voice, the amount of his lauds about to be conferred upon her: and in discoursing of certain other species of dower, he sets forth how it was enforced, that they be thus publicly bestowed to prevent fraud—in fine, that they be made in facie ecclesia et ad ostium ecclesiee: non enim valent facta in lecto mortali, nec in camera aut alibi ubi clandest in a fuer e conjugia.

In the middle ages, at such times when the feudal system of tenures of frank-tenement and knight service were at their most universal pitch of prevalence, the husband was not permitted to endow his wife ad ostium ecclesia, with more than one-third part of the lands whereof he was at that time seized, albeit, he might endow her with as much- less as he pleased : and the reason of such a law was, that if more liberal endowments had been allowed, the generous husband might injure his superior baron, of whom he held, his fee or territory.

'By this it is plain to see, that, husbands (always tender) are more especially so at such moments than at any other .moments of their lives,—so very tender, and so very, genferous to-their sweet wives, that their , generosity was obliged to be restricted by law, lest they should ruin themselves by giving away the uttermost of their possessions.

The priest inquired of him what he gave his bride? and if it were lands, an appropriate part of the service was repeated—"sacerdos interroget dotem mulieris et si terra ei in dotem detur tunc dicatur psalmus iste," &c. He described the nature of the gift,—"quod dotat earn de tali manerio cum pertinentiis,"—and when he did so—"ubi quis uxorem suam dotaverit in generali, de omnibus terris et tenementis," he repeated the words, "with all my lands and tenements I thee endow." When, however, he endowed her with personalty only, he said, " with all my worldly goods, (or, as the Salisbury ritual has it, with all my worldly chatel) I thee endow; which entitled her to her thirds, or 'pars rationalibis of his personal estate, as is provided for in Magna Charta.

According to Tacitus, who wrote about the practices of the Germans many and many centuries ago, the ancient ladies of that nation—or rather the ladies of that ancient nation—enjoyed great privileges in the matter of marriage settlements, entered upon and stipulated, not at the church door forsooth, when the execution was half over, but at their own homes before they had 9 much as commenced any part of the business. Caius Julius Caesar also sets forth how shrewdly the Gauls drew out cunning documents betwixt each other in'- negotiations of -a like sort : wherefore, good reader, it is rational to. suppose that they had no Gretna Green- to go to,* since at Gretna these things are, for the most part, done with expedition, and often without the tedious process of achieving unpoetic parchments. No one does a thing tardily at Gretna, no one moves slowly, no one stops to question, no one stays to reflect, it is all expedition there, all lightning, all wildfire: and thus it is, that as they mostly so well manage to "marry in haste," they sometimes also now and then manage to "repent at leisure afterwards, when they have time to look round them and cool."

Dr. Granville tells us that it is the custom in Saint Petersburgh for the young candidates to assemble at the church door, much after the manner of our great-grandsires in Britain, it should appear ; and here they were met by a priest vestured in rich habiliments, attended by a deacon. The former then placed a lighted taper in the hands of each, made the sign of the cross three several times on their foreheads, and conducted them through the church direct to the altar. As they proceeded, the priest, assisted by the choristers, recited a litany, whilst other holy functionaries smoked them pretty dry with the fumes of incense. Arrived at the eastern extremity of the building, two rings were produced, which were laid upon a table; the priest turned to the altar, recited a prayer or invocation, and then, veering round again to the young tremblers, blessed the rings, and delivered them to those whom it might concern. Whilst they held them, he cried with a loud voice, "Now and for ever, even unto ages of ages." This declaration he repeated three times, the bride and bridegroom exchanging rings at each repetition. This was not all: the rings were once more delivered to the cure, who now having crossed the foreheads of the future wearers, himself placed them on the right-hand fore-finger of each. He then turned to the altar to read the remainder of the service, during which allusion was made to the several passages in the Bible wherein the ring is mentioned as the symbol of union, honour, and power.

The most critical, interesting, but nervous part of the whole affair next followed. The priest took both parties by the hand, and led them to a silken carpet that was spread for the purpose, and it is the steadfast belief, that whichever shall first step thereon, will enjoy the mastery over the other throughout life ; and in this instance the lady was fully alive to the securing of her own interests, for Dr. Granville adds, "the bride secured possession of this prospective advantage with modest forwardness."

A more ancient way of securing the same great good, is mentioned by Anthony Jenkinson, who was in Russia about the middle of the sixteenth century. He is describing what happens in the church after they have been actually united.

"They begin to drinke; and fyrst the woman drinketh to the man, and when he hath drunke, he letteth the cupp fall to the ground, hasting im-mediatelie to tread vppon yt: and soe doth she, and whether of them tread fyrst vppon yt must have the victorie, and bee master at alle tymes after, whiche commonlie happeneth to the man, for he is readiest to set his foot vppon yt, because he letteth yt falle."

The lady has gained by the change of times; for her chances of securing a place on the rug are as good as his.

Surely the fairer moiety of creation must be possessed of a most ambitious temperament—surely this moiety must be innately indued with the qualities that cause personages of great genius, like balloons, to be ever striving towards ascent—surely these gentle creatures in England have universally adopted, or are ready born with that article of dress about them, which, setting aside all the nonsense of stepping upon rugs, of stamping upon drinking cups, will secure to a wife the supremacy; for albeit nothing be visible to the impertinent eye but a nice neat little white lacc frill round the ankle, yet that little harmless looking frill is enough to warn the reflecting and the considerate of how great an engine of power is really attached to it, although in inscrutable concealment.

Matrimonial dominion is not to be attained through the previous act of a feat of agility or of legerdemain, but by a course of subsequent forbearance mutually urged. and reciprocated the one towards the other; and this forbearance more especially enforced during the first year ; for after that time, the forbearance, at first a duty, will have become a habit, natural and easy to follow.

"Man and wife are equally concerned to avoid all offences of each other in the beginning of their conversation says the worthy Jeremy Taylor:" every little thing can blast an infant blossom, and the breath of the south can shake the little rings of the vine, when first they begin to curl like the locks of a new-weaned boy: but when, by age and consolidation, they stiffen into the hardness of a stem, and have, by the warm embraces of the sun and the kisses of heaven, brought forth their clusters, they can endure the storms of the north, and the loud noises of a tempest, and yet never be broken. So arc the early unions of an unfixed marriage; watchful and observant, jealous and busy, inquisitive and careful, and apt to take alarm at every unkind word ; for infirmities do not manifest themselves in the first scenes, but in the succession of long society; and it is not chance or weakness when it appears at first, but it is want of love or prudence, or it will be so expounded ; and that which appears ill at first, usually affrights the inexperienced man or woman, who makes unequal conjectures, and fancies mighty sorrows by the new and early unkindness."

These are excellent words, and deserving of a second reading: happy those who will store them up and abide by them. If we can only get over the first year in peace, the way is smooth afterwards.

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