Thursday, June 14, 2007


Late Anglo-Saxon Period:
This custom involved the tying or binding of the (right) hands of the bride and groom with a cord. Usually, this take places only for the duration of the wedding ceremony, however, it may also last until consummation.

Typically, if the left hands were bound together, it usually meant that the woman was the mistress. In this instance, she herself would have no claim to name, property or inheritance - however, her children would be considered as legal heirs, though second to any “legitimate” offspring.

This form of handfasting was prevalent among the Germanic peoples. It was often referred to as concubinage. Today we would consider this as a “de facto” marriage or cohabitation.

It is also referred to as “more danico” or the Danish custom. This form marriage (Danish Custom) was prevalent in northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia, Northern France and England. You could say it was the custom of the Viking peoples.

For instance:
In Normandy, you have the “marriage” of Gunnor de Crepon and Richard I, 3rd Duke of Normandy. Gunnor was Richard’s “handfast” wife although he sought a canonical (church) marriage with Emma, daughter of Hugh Capet, Regent of France, as part of a political alliance. The “church” marriage would produce no heirs - all Richard’s heirs to Normandy would be through Gunnor - including the father of William the Conqueror.

In England and Denmark: here we have Canute and Aelfgifu of Northampton. She is referred as Canute’s “handfast” wife. When seeking to strengthen his position in England, Canute sought a canonical (church) marriage with Emma of Normandy. However, the sons of both Emma and Aelfgifu succeeded in England and Denmark - though there was a fierce rivalry for both thrones.

Harold II, King of England (d.1066) married (1040s) Edith Swan-neck (mother of his children) not in a church but according to the “Danish Custom”. Harold also sought a wife - this marriage would be for politics alone and as such, he married the widowed Ealdgyth of Mercia (c.1064), sister of Edwin and Morcar, two northern (and rebellious) Earls.

Medieval Period:
In Scotland, the custom was referred to as “marriage by habit and repute”. The couple lived together as if married (cohabitation, de facto) and this was how they presented themselves in society. Many times there were no “witnesses” to the exchange of consent, so it became important, especially where heirs were involved, to have this form of marriage recognized by the court system.

As time progressed, so did the development of the marriage custom. “Handfasting” became a form of betrothal whereby before witnesses, consent to a marriage was agreed. It was at this stage that dower gifts and “morning gifts” were agreed upon by both parties.

Now, if a couple were “handfasted” and then consummated their betrothal, they were considered married. Handfasting was an agreement to marry - it was not, at this point in time, considered an actual marriage ceremony - that would occur later. If no consummation took place, then no marriage was considered to have taken place. In this instance, one or both parties could later, in need be, “cancel” the betrothal. And again, once the consent was given in the “handfasting ceremony” and the couple undertook a “church” ceremony, then the marriage was considered legally binding.

From the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, the custom of “handfasting” was on the decline.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting a concise and historical definition of handfasting. Most everything I could find on the internet was new age tripe... I was trying to explain the concept to a friend and ended up sending him your article. :)