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"In this year terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Year 793)


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors



'Marriage and the Family'
Dr Julie Coleman
University of Leicester
September, 2002

Photograph courtesy of Philip Greenspun

Despite a slight fall in the divorce rate in 2000, it is still commonly believed that ours is an era of marriage breakdown and family instability. In the United Kingdom in the year 2000, 267,961 marriages took place (including my own, incidentally), and 141,135 ended in divorce -- not necessarily the same ones. Thirty per cent of the marriages that ended in divorce were not first marriages [1]. Even those without the bitter experience of divorce behind them, sometimes prepare for the possibility that it may be divorce and not death that parts them:

The greatest problem in most divorces is deciding how to divide your property and money. A few minutes planning upfront could save exhaustive hours, headaches, and tremendous financial hardships, should your marriage end (LegalZoom.Com).

The average age for men at their first marriage was 30.5 years, and for women 28.2. Nine per cent of adults over 16 were cohabiting [2] .

But it's not the average wedding that we hear most about. It's the celebrity weddings and royal weddings that fill the newspapers and gossip magazines. 2000 saw Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt tie the knot, amidst huge expense and security. Madonna and Guy Ritchie took the plunge in Scottish splendour and seclusion. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones had an exclusive deal with OK! magazine for their wedding photos. These are the weddings that create everyone else's aspirations.

In 2000, the average cost of a wedding was £11,500. Fortunately for them, only about half of couples getting married had to pay for their own weddings [3]. We all know what the essential ingredients of a wedding are: the white dress and morning suits, the mother and father of the bride, the bridesmaids and best man, the vicar, hymns, flowers and confetti, the fancy cars and grand hotel, speeches, toasts, and a bit of a bop with music that your most ancient auntie can dance to. And there are plenty of businesses that are only too happy to help with arranging it all.

Unfortunately, a wedding leaves no archaeological remains. We can only look to documentary evidence to find out what Anglo-Saxon weddings and marriage might have been like. This seems to indicate that weddings were purely secular affairs. A priest might attend to bless the union, but they were not required to conduct a ceremony. The church did not involve itself with marriage until the thirteenth century, which is when it first began to be seen as a sacrament. Christine Fell writes:

The real-life dividing-line between the marital and the non-marital union was not always easy to draw in medieval England, where a private troth-plight, even one conducted without witnesses, could be accepted as constituting a valid (though possibly illegal) marriage.
(Christine Fell, Women in Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1984), p. 175.)

We can use the vocabulary of weddings to explore what they may have involved. Gereord means both 'wedding' and 'feast'. Hæman means both 'to get married' and 'to have sexual intercourse' (and etymologically, 'to take home'). Perhaps a feast, followed by consummation, was what constituted a socially-recognised marriage. The very fact that the word bryd (now Modern English bride) could be used with reference both to a bride and to a wife, indicates that the difference between the two was not as important as it seems to us.

Most brides and grooms would have had very little property of their own, and would, therefore, have been entirely free to arrange their own unions. It seems likely that most Anglo-Saxon partnerships were like modern cohabitations: the couple involved decided that they would like to live together, and did so, perhaps with a small party to mark the beginning of their association. When they grew tired of living together, they separated. There was no child-support agency to pursue absent fathers, but children would have started contributing to their own keep considerably earlier than they now do, and in an extended family the departure of one adult is not so severe a burden to those remaining.

On the other hand, where one or other party had property to protect, a document was drawn up not unlike modern prenuptial agreements. The prospective bridegroom and the father or guardian of the bride-to-be would meet in advance to agree terms. This was a chance for a concerned parent or guardian to ensure that his daughter would be provided for in event of separation or widowhood. By stating at the outset what property a woman brought to a marriage, her guardians could ensure that she retained possession of it, as she was entitled to do. Women did have a say in who they married -- legal codes throughout the Anglo-Saxon period forbid marrying a woman off against her will -- but there is no need to forbid what does not occur. There is, of course, a significant difference between arranged and forced marriages, and both still occur in Britain today. A government report estimated that about a thousand British women were forced into marriage in 2000, but this represents only a fraction of the number of arranged marriages. All the evidence suggests that arranged marriages are less likely to end in divorce [4].

The term æ, meaning both 'law' and 'marriage', probably referred specifically to Anglo-Saxon marriages, involving formal agreements and legal documents. In the event of later separation, women would retain whatever property they had before the marriage. Offspring belonged with the father's family, and a wife returning to her own family would only have been able to take away very young children, who would also have to be surrendered at a later date.

Jerry SpringerAs today, it is the celebrity marriages that were most thoroughly documented during the Anglo-Saxon period. Some of the odder marriages of the period wouldn't be out of place on Jerry Springer. For example:

'My wife always ruins family holidays'

Eanfled, a seventh-century queen of Northumbria, followed the teachings of the Roman Church, as preached by the Kentish priest she brought to her new home on marriage. King Oswy followed the practice of the Irish church. No harm in that, you might think, but the two churches calculated Easter differently, so when the king and his courtiers were celebrating Easter, the queen and hers were still piously fasting.

The Atheldreda Banner'My wife won't make love to me'

Queen Ætheldreda, another seventh-century queen of the Northumbrians, managed to preserve her virginity through two marriages, despite her second husband's attempts to persuade her with gifts of land and money.

'My wife married the man who got me sacked'

Emma and Canute Emma of Normandy married Æthelred (now commonly known as 'the Unready'), Emma and Cnut in 1002. Æthelred and his family fled to Normandy in 1013 when he was overthrown by the Vikings. When Svein Forkbeard died in 1014, Æthelred reigned again briefly, and was succeeded by his son, Edmund Ironside, in 1016, who soon made a treaty with Svein's son, Canute, by which England was divided. When Edmund died, later that same year, Canute became king of all England. Now this is where it gets complicated. In 1017, Emma married Canute. This was probably to protect the lives of her children by Æthelred. From his point of view, it was a useful way to gain access to the royal treasury.

'My half-brothers want my job'

Emma and Canute had a further three children, and the oldest, Hardicanute, was the rightful heir to the throne. On Canute's death, Harold Harefoot, Canute's son by his mistress became regent and later king of England. Hardicanute succeeded after Harold's death in 1035. When Hardicanute died, it was Emma's son by Æthelred who succeeded: Edward the Confessor.

'My husband locked me up because he hates my father'

But that's not the end of the story. Edward didn't actually want the throne at all, as far as we can tell. He petitioned one of the most powerful men in Britain, Earl Godwin, probably his brother's murderer, for aid in escaping to Normandy. It seems that Godwin couldn't pass up on the opportunity of having such a weak king, so he talked Edward into claiming the throne, and promised to support him. There was only one tiny little condition: Godwin wanted to be family, and his lovely daughter Edith the Fair would be the perfect queen. Edward later banished Godwin and his sons (it's a long story), and Edith was stripped of her jewels and confined to a monastery.

But these are dynastic marriages, contracted with little reference to the wishes of those involved. What place did love play in normal Anglo-Saxon marriages?

According to the myth, there came a moment somewhere in the eleventh or possibly the twelfth century after Christ when, quite suddenly, romantic love was invented.
(Ferdinand Mount, The Subversive Family. An Alternative History of Love and Marriage (London, 1982), p. 98.)

If we look at terms for spouses, it becomes clear that the marital relationship was one of warm interdependence. Words like (ge)fera and (ge)maca mean both 'spouse' and 'companion'. Geoc, meaning both 'spouse' and 'yoke', is perhaps a little less comfortable. The existence of terms like brydlufu 'love for a wife' and freondræden, freondscipe (both meaning 'friendship'), and mæglufu ('kin-love'), all used to refer to marital love, demonstrates that this was not merely a matter of property and convenience.

The modern ideal is that we should arrange our own marriages. However, the classified ads in any local or national paper will include numerous dating services. Most aim to match like with like, but others specialize in arranging marriages between those who have little in common. An internet search for marriage agencies turns up numerous organizations in the former Soviet Union seeking western husbands who can overlook financial inequality in the search for true love. On their web-sites [5]:

you will find over 2,000 of the world's most beautiful women, each of whom is looking for a loving and sincere man that will offer them a committed relationship and secure home.

Even where the financial motivations of a match are obvious, the partners are still looking for love. Conversely, despite the modern ideal, that marriage should be based upon mutual love, individuals generally marry partners of similar social status and wealth. Whether our marriage choices are conscious or not, we, like the Anglo-Saxons, are still influenced by practical as well as emotional considerations.

The hardships of everyday life would inevitably have had their impact on the Anglo-Saxon family. For example, almost a fifth of children died in infancy, and about a third of the population did not reach adulthood. Fifty would have been a ripe old age [6]. Women died earlier than men, largely because of the perils of childbirth [7]. In 2000, the average age at divorce was 41.3 years for men, and 38.8 for women [8]. Perhaps divorce now fulfils the role that death used to play in separating spouses who have been together for too long.

In summary, although the trappings and procedures of weddings are more extensive and more formalized for us, and the complications of divorce more drawn-out and painful, the end result was probably very similar in the Anglo-Saxon period. Marriages were short-lived then because of death and separation. They are short-lived now because we marry later and divorce more. We find new partners after divorce; they found new partners after bereavement. The emphasis now is on love, but practical issues still play a part; then the emphasis was on the practical, but the marriage without love was incomplete. The obvious exception to this was dynastic marriages, which provide many examples of the bizarre and sad ways in which spouses made each other's lives miserable. Disfunctional marriages aren't a modern novelty, and neither are loving happy ones.

(If you've been affected by the issues discussed in this paper, please contact Relate.)

Julie Coleman


1. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/div0801.pdf
2. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/lib/Section86.html
3. http://www.clericalmedical.co.uk/products/big_day.asp
4. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,412672,00.html
5. http://www.getmarriednow.com/index_eng.shtml
6. http://viking.no/e/england/york/life_expectancy_in_jorvik.html
7. http://historymedren.miningco.com/library/weekly/aa101900b.htm#note
8. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/mda0702.pdf


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors