Calling the Banns

Banns, public announcements of marriage intention, marked a commitment only slightly less binding than matrimony itself. Those who changed their minds afterwards 'mocked the church' and might be fined. They certainly suffered disapproval in the community. No bride (or in Italy bridegroom) should hear banns called, or her children will be born deaf and dumb. Banns must never be called partly in one year and partly in another: ('straddling the quarters' was almost as ill-advised). Prudent couples still arrange that banns be called at the waxing moon.

The English Marriage Act of 1753 required the public calling of banns unless a special licence were obtained and while this curbed irregularities it roused the obloquy of critics; Horace Walpole wrote to a friend on 22 May:

It is well you are married! How would my lady Ailesbury have liked to be asked in the parish church for three Sundays running! I really believe she would have worn her weeds for ever rather than have passed through so impudent a ceremony!

In New York too, banns were only for the vulgar, special licences genteel, until retrenchments provoked by the Stamp Act forced a change of mind. A newspaper report of 13 December 1765 referred to the aversion thus:

We are creditably informed that there was married last Sunday evening, by the Rev. Mr. Auchmuty, a very respectable couple that had published three different times in Trinity Church. A laudable example and worthy to be followed. If this decent, and for many reasons, proper, method of publication, was once generally to take place, we should have no more of clandestine marriage; and save the expense of licences, no inconsiderable sum these hard and depressing times!


It was widely believed until the last century that a husband could not be held liable for his wife's debts if she were married barefoot and clad only in shift or smock. Since he acquired an absolute interest in his wife's personal estate, said amateur lawyers, if she brought neither clothes nor property with her, creditors were hamstrung. Brides might strip to their shifts within the church door: but the Chester Courant, 24 June 1800, reported a bolder performer who 'went as a bride like Mother Eve to the altar'. This was too much. (And 600 wedding ceremonies I've played at with my string quartet, this has never happened how sad!) The clergyman jibbed and refused to perform the ceremony, although usually parsons, if startled, found nothing in the rubric to forbid such lack of clothing. In pioneer New England a creditor might follow a bride no further if she married 'in her shift on the king's highway'. When a smock wedding was performed in the snow at York, Maine, in February 1774, the minister gallantly threw his coat over the shivering bride; in 1789 at Newfane, Vermont, Widow Hannah Ward stood naked in a closet and through a diamond-shaped hole in the door held out her hand to marry Major Moses Joy, who thoughtfully stowed Mrs Ward's bridal finery  in  the  closet  beforehand,  so  that  she  might  emerge resplendent after the ceremony.

The last recorded smock wedding — showing another twist of the ritual was at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where in 1874 a clergyman called to a house to find the woman in a smock, muffled in a shawl, sitting upon a sofa; she told him 'I am a widow, sir, and wish to be married again, but as my first husband died in debt, I wish to be married in my shift, so as not to be responsible for his debts.'


The Marriage Act of 1753 ended the London scandal of Fleet marriages. Such illicit, speedy ceremonies had apparently originated with the incumbents of Trinity Minories and St James's, Duke's Place, who claimed immunity from the Bishop of London's jurisdiction. In 1616 the practice was adopted by the fraternity of clerical prisoners within the Fleet debtors' prison, who with neither cash, character nor liberty gladly profited by marrying couples without asking awkward questions. Eighty-three Fleet parsons are known by name: one, rotund and cheerful, was called 'The Bishop of Hell'.

The intoxicated, abducted and unwilling were hurried to the Fleet chapels and to their rivals, the Mayfair, Mint and Savoy; fortune hunters, ladies with debts, spinsters pursuing husbands, paupers and peers; notables such as Lord Abergavenny, Viscount Sligo and Henry Fox, Lord Holland. An impatient Duke of Hamilton wedded the youngest of the beautiful Gunning sisters in the Mayfair chapel at half-past midnight, with a ring torn from the bedcurtains. When the navy was in port it was nothing for 300 sailors to seek the parsons' services. 'Walk in and be married,' shouted the touts outside the 'marriage houses' or 'chapels' round the Fleet. When Richard Leaver was tried for bigamy in 1737 he denied all knowledge of the woman claiming to be his wife. After a drunken evening he had awakened to find himself in bed with a stranger; 'Who are you?' demanded Mr Leaver. 'My dear, we were married last night at the Fleet,' was the reply.

All efforts to halt the abuse failed while such marriages remained legal, but Lord Hardwicke's Act made the solemnisation of marriages without banns or licence, church or chapel, a transportable felony. The parsons went down fighting. The Rev Alexander Keith's marriage business flourished until his prosecution and excommunication in 1742; in retaliation he promptly excommunicated the Bishop of London and the judge of the ecclesiastical court. In 1743 he was committed to the Fleet — for, it was said, contempt of the church — and quickly resumed his old trade; as a last fling on the day before the Act came into effect, he married sixty-one couples and, vowing eternal vengeance on bishops, bought several acres of land for burials, threatening to underbury them all.

As Fleet marriages died, those at Gretna Green sprang to life. Thomas Pennant in his Tour in Scotland, 1774—5, suggested:

. . . stop at the little village of Gretna, the resort of all amorous couples whose union  the  prudence  of parents or  guardians prohibits. Here the young pair may be instantly united by a fisherman, a joiner, or a blacksmith, who may marry for a fee from two guineas a job, to a dram of whiskey. . . . the high priest . . . appears in the form of a fisherman, a stout fellow in a blue coat, rolling round his solemn chaps a quid of tobacco of no common size.

Gretna, in Dumfriesshire, about 9 miles from the border of England and Scotland was first halting-place for runaway couples fleeing from parental wrath and English law with its tiresome requirements of parents' consent to the marriage of minors, of priest and banns. Scottish marriage law required merely a declaration before witnesses: instant marriage. Many cashed in on the business; George Gordon, an old soldier, officiated at weddings in full but ancient military rig; Joseph Paisley, fisherman, smuggler and tobacconist, was also prominent. The Gretna Green Memoirs asserted, creditably or otherwise, that 7,744 persons were married by one 'priest' alone between 1811 and 1839. (When I got married we went on honeymoon to Scotland, and we passed through Gretna Green. I seem to recall that there was a wedding taking place at the time, with a Highland piper in attendance. But in its heyday, with so many weddings going on, it must have been a great place for a string quartet to be located, cash in hand play for the ceremony, another lot in cash in hand on the next ceremony and so on. No advertising, no discussing the music with the bride and groom, just instant bookings.) The postboys were heavily involved and received half the fees of perhaps 100 guineas from wealthy clients. When the Earl of Westmoreland eloped with Miss Child, the bank heiress, the couple were pursued by the bride's enraged father, who almost caught them at the border. But the earl drew his pistol, shot Mr Child's leading horse and the lovers reached Gretna safely.

In the eighteenth century Parson Flagg's home at Chester, Vermont, was called the 'Yankee Gretna Green'. To increase revenues the government issued marriage licences at two guineas each, which easy-going parsons like Flagg kept on hand for immediate use at higher prices. 'Flagg marriages' dispensed with the delay of'publishing'. One girl, about to be married to a man not of her choosing, waited until her party set out to meet the bridegroom, then, with a sympathiser, galloped off pillion to marry her sweetheart Flagg style.

Under pioneer conditions the bridegroom might enjoy unusual experiences. Joseph Hill, justice of the peace for Walworth County, Wisconsin, and Lydia M. Warren of Hubbard, were to be married by Barnabas Snow, on 26 January 1846. But Mr Snow found himself stormbound 13 miles away. A guest pointed out helpfully that, ex officio, the bridegroom could perform the marriage ceremony himself— and he wasted no time in doing so.

On a Louisiana plantation near Natchez in the mid-nineteenth century, bridegroom and best man stood ready in the parlour: the bride entered. But the minister examining the licence exclaimed in horror: 'It is for a wedding in Mississippi and here we are in Louisiana!' Consternation reigned until the plantation owner suggested that the whole bridal party be rowed over to the opposite bank of the river, where the young couple were married on a sandbar. As the minister held up his hand in blessing the plantation bell rang out across the water and a cheer went up from the negroes assembled on the opposite bank. This choice of marriage setting was ordained by fate, but in recent years other couples deliberately seeking the unconventional, have been married in balloons, on water skis, in Forest Lawn cemetery, California. At Corpus Christi, Texas, a 'topless' dancer was married during the floor show, in a white veil and a traditional white wedding gown sans front. The bridesmaid was in topless blue. (I think it was in the 1970s and 1980s that a female cellist became famous by appearing topless in the News of the World, a scandalous paper that was closed down a few years ago amidst allegations of phone hacking. Presumably an all topless string quartet would have gone down well at this Texas wedding ceremony?)

In 1973 a Toronto couple decided to get married on a moving streetcar (which the Toronto Transit Commission renamed 'Devotion' for the occasion) and the bridegroom, minister, bride and sixty guests all boarded at different stops. (Regrettably, no mention of the string quartet getting on-board as well? And why not I ask? I remember playing string quartets on a moving bus, in my schooldays. I was with the county youth orchestra on a tour of Norway. We were travelling from one concert destination to another in Norwegian postal buses. , As although they were I think there must have been 3 or 4 buses to carry the complete youth orchestra, as although they will full size coaches, only half of the interior was seated. The rear half of the coach was for mail bags and parcels. We had our instruments with us and I remember piling up the mail bags and parcels to sit on, and playing music as we travelled. What memories!)

In early eighteenth-century New England 'disorderly marriages' (usually of Quakers) were fined until regularised. One stubborn Quaker in New London, Connecticut, declared his intention of taking a wife minus a ceremony of which he could not approve. The scandal was great. But a pious magistrate, meeting the pair in the street and addressing himself to the problem, stopped to ask the Quaker if he persisted in calling this woman, who was a servant and younger than he, his wife? 'Yes, I do!,' said John Rogers stoutly. 'And do you, Mary, wish such an old man as this to be your husband?' 'Indeed I do'. 'Then,' said the governor, coldly but triumphantly, 'by the laws of God and of tnis commonwealth, I, as magistrate, pronounce you man and wife!' 'Ah, Gurdon, Gurdon', said the bridegroom, with wan admiration, married in spite of himself, 'thee's a cunning fellow'.

Gypsy couples in Europe marry by 'leaping the broomstick' - a branch of green broom, bearing sweet-scented yellow flowers to benefit the couple's fertility. If the woman's skirt touched the branch, it shows that she has lost her virginity or is pregnant on the wedding day; if the man's trousers touch the broom he will prove unfaithful. Both leap high.