How Were Anglo-Saxon Marriage Ceremonies Different From Modern Weddings?

Weddings, for the people of Dark Age Britain, were more business arrangements than declarations of love. There were several formal customs to adhere to, mainly regarding money, before the marriage could be sealed.

Marriage Was Like a Business Transaction

The contract of marriage was settled on between the prospective groom and the father of the bride. Terms would be discussed in the presence of witnesses from both sides before an agreement could be reached, upon which both groom and the bride’s father would shake hands, officially sealing the contract.

The men of both families would meet first to discuss the terms of the marriage contract.

The men of both families would meet first to discuss the terms of the marriage contract.

The three financial parts of the contract were:

Morning Gift

A set amount agreed by the groom and father-in-law that the former must pay to his wife the morning after the wedding. This gift of money was to ensure the financial security of the bride and provide some independence. This sum was the woman’s to keep indefinitely and would help to support her and any children if anything were to happen to her husband.

Handgeld

Another gift of money was given to the family of the bride. This monetary exchange showed that the groom was able to look after his future wife financially and it also acted as an act of compensation for the bride’s family because she was leaving them. Essentially the groom would buy his wife.

The groom had to spend quite a lot just to have the wedding agreed upon, however the bride’s family also had to present some money.

Bride’s Dowry

This was paid by her family to her. It was similar to the Morning Gift in that the money was the bride’s to do with what she would and in theory would support her in the event that anything happened to her husband.

The various financial agreements could be paid in coins, a certain amount of raw precious metal, or even in land and livestock.

The various financial agreements could be paid in coins, a certain amount of raw precious metal, or even in land and livestock.

This businesslike agreement may seem strange, but these were uncertain times. Death could be lurking behind any bush, hill or tree in the shape of a marauding Viking, another Saxon war-band, the Welsh or, even more likely, disease. The above financial agreement would ensure the bride was cared for in the likely event that her husband should die.

A Ceremony of Ritual and Religion

The actual wedding was much less businesslike, though there were many traditions to be adhered to. A wedding was usually the time for a wash; a unique event in these times, most people washing only twice a year at most. Both bride and groom would bathe separately the night before the wedding and would not be allowed to see each other until the day of the ceremony.

On the day, both would be dressed in their best clothes and the groom would be wearing his ancestral sword. The bride would arrive preceded by a member of her family carrying a new sword to be presented to the groom.

A priest or Weofodthegn would officiate the ceremony. A Weofodthegn was a priest of the Old Saxon religion, with gods like Woden and Thunor. The priest would first bless the union, calling on the gods to look favourably upon the couple. Frige, the mother of the gods, would be the deity most called upon, as she was the goddess of love, fertility and marriage.

Next there would be the official exchange of swords. The groom would receive the new blade, provided by the bride’s family, and the bride would receive the groom’s family’s ancestral sword to one day pass on to their eldest son and heir.

Found in Abingdon, Oxfordshire this hilt, and what is left of the blade, is a good exmple of a ninth century Saxon sword, just like those exchanged during the ceremony.

Found in Abingdon, Oxfordshire this hilt, and what is left of the blade, is a good exmple of the Saxon swords exchanged during the ceremony.

Then another exchange would take place, one more familiar to a modern audience — the exchange of rings. The groom would also present the keys to his house to his new wife. This represented him bestowing upon her governance of the household, just as the sword he received earlier represented his protection of that home.

Finally, the Weofodthegn would pronounce them wedded and at last everyone could celebrate.

Eat, Drink and Be Married

When the solum ceremony was over and the marriage contract sealed, the Saxons woud feast and celebrate.

When the solemn ceremony was over and the marriage contract sealed, the Saxons woud feast and celebrate.

A reception would be held after the wedding, similar to a modern one. The couple and their families would eat, drink and make merry, all the while toasting the gods and asking for blessings for the marriage.

For a month after the wedding the couple would drink mead every day. Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from honey, quite popular at the time. This month was called the hunigmonap, or honeymoon, for this reason.

Contributing Author at Made From History. I Graduated from Cardiff University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in History. I love the stories more than the dates, but they're important too.