Something Borrowed: British Wedding Traditions

I have reached that time in my life where a large percentage of my friends and acquaintances are tying the knot. Mates that I have not seen since they were in stained band shirts with long greasy hair are now uploading photos of themselves neatly tucked into a tux at the altar. I am frantically buying smart dancing shoes for the half dozen receptions I need to attend and wondering if I should be expecting a ring anytime soon.

Wedding traditions are a curious thing. The obvious financial trauma aside, the lengths that people go to in order to adhere to wedding etiquette is so ingrained in us that it is difficult to pinpoint how it began.

On the one hand, creating ritual and tradition keeps us connected with our ancestors and gives us a sense of cultural self. Yet when someone starts doing something because they should, without knowing where the tradition began, it loses a lot of meaning.

Take not seeing the bride before the wedding for example. Considered bad luck by almost everyone, few people seem to wonder why. This tradition actually dates back to arranged marriages. The betrothed couple were prohibited seeing each other in case one of them ran away in horror when they saw the person they were about to be hitched to for life.

So not particularly romantic then.

Some of our recognisable traditions come from the Victorians (who we can blame for most things), such as the white wedding dress, but most of our British Wedding Folklore dates a lot further back. Many of our traditions come from the Middle Ages, where marriage could be a contract that had little to do with love.


(Marriage of Philip II, Duke of Burgundy, and Margaret III of Flanders. (British Library, Royal 20 C VII f. 182) 14th Century)

Some of the traditions really do not need to follow us into the 21st Century.

Nowaday, no one should wear a dress that outshines the bride at her wedding but in the Middle Ages, bridesmaids used to wear similar outfits to the bride. This was a clever ploy to confuse any evil spirits who would want to harm the bride on her big day. Evil spirits were also why the groom was supposed to carry the bride over the threshold of their home. Even the wedding bouquet, originally made of herbs not flowers, was to scare away harmful spirits (and perhaps bad smells).

Some of the myths are a bit contradictory. Dropping the ring is said to be a good thing ring during the ceremony as it shakes out the evil spirits but whoever drops the ring is said to be the first to die.

Even if you had done all this to keep the spirits at bay, many grooms were apparently still worried about keeping their brides. The tradition of having the bride stand on the left was so the groom had his right hand free to grab his sword if a little bit of a fight was needed.

You don’t have to look very far to find that our beloved marriage traditions aren’t routed in love and equality but in ownership and sexism.

bride couple

(A Bridal Couple, Southern Germany, 15th century, oil on panel)

Even so, I would never look down on anyone engaging in these wedding customs. Tradition should not just be followed because it is tradition, but these strange rituals can have meaning to individuals that transcend their questionable inception.

Just make sure to check the possibly quirky past of our quaint customs.


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