Come To The Sterkarm Wedding

'...There had been a lot more dancing, and drinking and eating, and the evening light that came through the door... had flickered into dusk before the fiddlers and the pipers began to play, once more, the tune called 'Come to the Wedding.' As they played, they bore down on Per and Joan, and people cheered and clapped and stamped. It was time that the wedded pair were put to bed...

          Mistress Crosar put her mouth so close to Joan’s ear that it tickled, and shouted, “Undo thine garters!”
          Joan froze. They were at the back of the dancing hall, near the benches. People were everywhere. How could she pull up her skirts and undo her garters?..
          "Oh, come here, lass!” her aunt said, and turned her round, tutting at how slow and clumsy Joan was in moving. Other women gathered round her... The women spread their skirts, blocking the view of other people, while her aunt pulled up Joan’s magnificent scarlet dress of Elf-Cloth with a flurrying and rustling, and reached underneath to undo the garter strings. It was necessary to undo them because, very soon, the newly-wed couple would be put to bed and the brides’ men would demand their right to take off her garters. It was better to have the garters already undone, and the strings dangling down where they could be easily reached...


          "She didn't want them undone, that's what it was," said Isobel Sterkarm. "She wanted the men to reach right up her skirt."


In A Sterkarm Kiss, I perpetrated a 16th century wedding
between Per Sterkarm and Joan Grannam. It's anything but a love-match, since the Sterkarms and  Grannams are at blood-feud and have hated each other for generations. The marriage is engineered by the 'Elves': the time-travelling representatives of a 21st Century company. They want to make money from the land that the Sterkarms and Grannams continually fight over, to drill for oil and mine for coal and gold. Blood feuds make that harder and more expensive, so the Elves want peace. They pay the feuding families to stop fighting and as a symbol of that peace, they pay the Grannam laird to marry his daughter, Joan, to the Sterkarm laird's son, Per.

At least, that's the part of their plan that the Elves admit to. There's a bit more that they keep to themselves. (The bit about provoking an outbreak of feud so they can back one side against the other, wipe out the opposition and install a puppet laird.)

While writing A Sterkarm Kiss, it quickly became obvious that I was going to have to describe something of the wedding. What was a 16th-century wedding like?

Initially, I supposed that it would be much the same as a modern wedding, with the bride in white and 'Something old, something new...' I imagined the traditional wedding was traditional because those traditions had been carried on for centuries.




A little reading in social history showed me that, for centuries, people had wandered about in dark confusion, uncertain -- if it concerned them at all -- of whether they were married or not. There was no single agreed form of marriage. It all depended on the customs in the area where you lived, your social class, how religious you were and what form your religion took.

It was in part to clear up this confusion that the 1836 Marriage Act was passed, bringing in licences and registers for all. After that, if you had a licence, you were married; if you didn't, you weren't. But before that, you could consider yourself 'properly married' while your neighbours and in-laws considered you to be sinful fornicators. Or even vice-versa. Imagine the horror of out-and-out bohemians discovering that they were, unsuspectingly, properly and legally married

Go right back to Anglo-Saxon and Viking law, before paperwork existed and communal memory was everything. The 'Things' or meetings held in every district four times a year were a mixture of law-court, fair and market. All that was needed for a legal marriage (or, indeed, divorce) was a declaration before witnesses. Your own household would do, initially. You then repeated your declaration at the next Thing. The fact of your marriage or divorce entered the collective memory of every busy-body and gossip in the area. After that, there was no pretending otherwise.

(It's worth mentioning that under this early law, women were just as free to declare themselves divorced as men. It's been said that women had more rights and freedom under Saxon and Viking law than for a thousand years after the Norman Conquest. But, just  to be clear, I don't hold that against the EU.)


This belief that a declaration before witnesses was all that was needed to make a legal marriage lingered on. If you had property to leave, this could cause problems because common law only recognised marriage as legal if there had been a public ceremony, in church. But as Maureen Waller points out in her '1700, Scenes From London Life,' the vast majority of people didn't have enough property for that to make any difference. The cost of a church wedding did.

This is what made Gretna Green's name. In 1754, the Marriage Act made it illegal in England for those under the age of 21 to marry without parental consent. However, in Scotland it remained legal for people of 16 to marry without that consent. Moreover, marriage by declaration before witnesses was lawful in Scotland, so if you could get yourself across the border before being caught, you only had to rustle up a couple of witnesses to hear your declaration and you were legally married under Scots law, with no doubt about it. And blacksmith's shops had always been places that attracted small crowds of people who had time to kill...



Back in England, another persistent belief was that if a couple exchanged vows and tokens -- rings, or broken coins or any kind of keep-sake -- then they were married, even without witnesses. This led to a great many 'misunderstandings' where the women believed they were married and the men were emphatically certain that they weren't. And, occasionally, where the man believed they were married and the woman (having received a better offer or, at least, thought better of this one) was absolutely sure they were not.

In some parts of the country this exchange of vows and keep-sakes had to be followed by consumation for the marriage to be considered 'made,' hence the witnessing of the couple being put to bed. In other traditions, the mere giving of a 'love-token' such as a pair of gloves or a carved wooden 'love-spoon' by a man to a woman was considered to be a solemn promise of marriage -- which led to a great many 'breach of promise' law-suits.

Alongside this 'folk law' and adding greatly to the general confusion was the common law of the law courts and the church's ecclesiastical law, which often contradicted each other. But since making any sense of that makes my head ache now just as much as it made heads ache then, what about the actual wedding day, the bun-fight, the vows? What was that like in the 16th century?


Well, no diamond rings were in evidence. The idea that 'diamonds are forever' dates only from the 1940s, as a result of one of the most successful ad campaigns ever, by De Beer's diamond company.

Diamonds were considered 'precious stones' in the 16th century but second-rank if not third-rank ones. The Bible says a good woman's worth is 'above rubies' and also talks about pearls being cast before swine. For centuries, rubies, pearls, emeralds and sapphires were considered far more valuable than diamonds -- and, indeed, geologically, they are rarer.

The bride never wore white either. That was a much later tradition, which most historians trace to the nineteenth century. Before then, bright colours were favoured. In A Sterkarm Kiss, Joan Grannam marries in a dress of shining, scarlet, Elvish cloth. Rich women wore rich materials: silk, velvet, lace. They also made sure they had showy garters tied just below their knees.

This was in preparation for the noisy game of putting the bride and groom to bed. (Modern marriages seem to retain the garters but shrink from the full ceremony.)

First, the groom's men crowded round the bride, pulling up her skirts and trying to grab her garters. Modest brides loosened the garters beforehand, so that the strings hung down, well within reach of groping hands. Once they had possession, the men waved the garters in the air and fastened them to their hats (which were worn indoors).

While the men partied on, the bride was escorted to bed by her mother, new mother-in-law and other women friends, who finished undressing her. This was quite a task, since 16th-century clothes weren't so much stitched together as laced and pinned together: sleeves laced or pinned to bodices, bodices laced or pinned closed, skirts laced or pinned bodices. Accessories such as gems and posies were pinned on. This sounds extremely uncomfortable to me. It must have been like wearing hedgehogs -- but my sources assure me it was done.

This meant that scores of pins in the bride's clothing had to be discovered, removed  and placed in a pin-cushion. Pins were in constant use, were probably always being bent out of shape or lost and were quite expensive, hence the expression 'pin-money' for an allowance made to a dependant. Obviously a lot of pins disappeared at weddings, because it was said that to keep a pin removed from a bride's costume brought very bad luck and the pin-nicker would herself not marry for at least another year. (At a time of arranged marriages, this may have inspired many pin-thefts.)

When the bride was in bed, word was sent to the groom's men, who stripped the groom of everything except his shirt and stockings. He was escorted or dragged to the wedding chamber, no doubt with a lot of noise. The groom was put into bed with his bride and then the stocking game was played.

The bride's maids used the groom's stockings and the groom's men used the bride's. Each player sat on the end of the bed, facing away from its occupants, and threw a stocking behind them. If a woman managed to land one of the groom's stockings on his head, it was said she would be married herself within the year -- and if a man landed a stocking on the bride's head, then he too, would soon be married.

This performance had to include as many bawdy jokes as possible from players and on-lookers. No doubt the women tried hard to land a stocking on the right head while the men tried hard to miss and hilarity ensued. It ended when a big cup of posset was brought in, for the bride and groom to share, to 'keep up their strength' for the strenuous night ahead. Having seen them drink it, the crowd finally went away.

The bride and groom probably then played cards or I-Spy, having been quite put off the idea of sex. Unfortunately, the crowd would be back the next morning, demanding up-dates. (Because the word of witnesses was all-important.)

Per Sterkarm and his bride avoid this, though. A traditional part of the wedding ceremony has always been the punch-up between the families. As the Sterkarm-Grannam marriage is between feuding border reivers, the night ends with a traditional armed skirmish and blood-shed.


 It turns out that all our 'age-old wedding traditions' barely date back a hundred years, if that. My parents married in 1950 and -- in a genuinely age-old tradition -- they each wore the best clothes they happened to have. My mother had a 'New-Look' green suit which she wore for years afterwards. My Dad wore his best suit, and ditto.

They didn't go away for a 'honey-moon' but went back to work, as most people did. (The phrase 'honey-moon' is 500 years old but originally meant only the month after the wedding, when everything was sweet, before reality set in. It was only in the 19th century and initially only among the well-off, that it came to mean a holiday taken by the newly-weds.)

Mum and Dad had a wedding feast, in my grandmother's front room. You can see the clock on the mantle and the sumptuous spread seems to include a sauce bottle. This is much more what a 'traditional' wedding has always looked like.

Feel the need to keep up your strength in these post-Brexit days? Here's the recipe for that strengthening posset. (You don't have to get married in order to drink it. Or need it.)




Take a quart (1 litre) of white wine, likewise the same measure of water and boil whole spice in them. Then take twelve eggs and put away half the whites. Beat them very well.

Take the wine from the fire and put to it your eggs, stir them very well, then set it on a slow fire and stir until it be thick. Sweeten it with sugar and strew beaten spice thereon, then serve it forth.

You may put in Ambergreece, if liked.