WHAT WAS A BETROTHAL?
A betrothal, also called a 'spousage', 'contracting', 'troth-plighting' or (especially in northern England and Scotland) a 'handfasting', was essentially the confirmation of a promise to marry, made either privately or more often before witnesses as part of a ceremony. But it was not in itself a marriage, and not recognised as such either by the law or by the Church. It was however generally regarded as a legally binding contract to marry in church in future: and certainly a public betrothal ceremony would be regarded by the local community as almost tantamount to an actual church wedding. As a public declaration of commitment made between two people, betrothals in fact long pre-dated church weddings. The church muscled in on them comparatively late: even in Chaucer's time, marriages were still held at the church door, rather than inside the building.
In some more remote areas, the betrothal was still regarded in the 17th century as more binding than a formal marriage, even if no church wedding ever followed. But both the church and the law frowned on this view - and still more on the Scots Border custom of Lammas handfasting, carried out at Lammas (1 August) Fairs, whereby either party could withdraw from the trial marriage if they did so within a year and a day.
THE ESSENTIALS OF THE CEREMONY
Not being official ceremonies, betrothals had no precise set form. The essentials however were that the couple should first confirm that they were neither married nor promised in marriage to anyone else. They would then clasp hands, and both make some declaration of intent to marry. This might take the form of a present promise (all the following are contemporary quotations) in the words of the church service:
“I A. take thee B. to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us depart, according to God's Holy ordinance, and thereto I plight thee my troth
“I B.take thee A. to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forth, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish and to obey, till death us depart, according to God‟s Holy ordinance and thereto I give thee my troth.”
Or less formally;
“I A. take thou B. to my handfast wife, refusing all other women for thy sake, and thereto I plight thee my troth
“I B. do take thee A. to my handfast husband, refusing all other men for thy sake, and thereto I give thee my troth.”
Alternatively the words might be an engagement to marry in future, as
“I A. take thee B. to be my espoused wife, and do faithfully promise to marry thee in times meet and convenient.”
Or might even be conditional, as
“I A. promise to marry thee B….at such time as thy mother will provide us with an house…” or “…when I shall come into mine inheritance”.
Though these last forms were not regarded as respectable.
Rings, gold if affordable or gilt brass if not, were sometimes but not always exchanged: poorer couples might also, or alternatively, cut a silver coin in half, and each keep one half, matching them again into a complete coin when the church marriage took place: until then the half coins might be pierced and hung round the neck. Others wore the betrothal rings in this way until they were formally married, when they would be publicly worn on the finger.
WHO WAS PRESENT AT THE CEREMONY?
Betrothals were regarded as binding if only one witness was present. Indeed, if both partners (when separately questioned) could convince the authorities that a betrothal had really taken place, they might be held binding with no witness at all. (Thus, in the 15th century, Margaret Paston managed to convince the Bishop of Norwich that she was secretly betrothed to her family's steward, and there was nothing her infuriated gentry relations could do about it.) But they were usually regarded both as a very public declaration before as many of the family and community as possible, and an excuse for a party. In fact, they were sometimes far more extravagantly festive than the church marriage itself.
Apart from the couple themselves, parents or the equivalent would of course be present: they would probably take the opportunity to sort out the financial terms of the marriage before the ceremony took place.
Very often the ceremony was presided over by the most senior member of the community - possibly a grandfather or other head of the family, a minister, or a magistrate or other gentleman. If one or other of the couple were in service, the president might be their employer, and the ceremony might take place in his hall. This president often first asked the couple to publicly declare that they were free to marry (e.g not married or betrothed to anyone else, or too closely related by blood): he then joined the couple's hands, and might instruct them what to say: but he did not perform the ceremony, which was carried out by the couple themselves in saying the agreed words.
From contemporary illustrations, it also seems clear that the couple would be supported by large numbers of their male and female contemporaries, though I have found no records of bridesmaids or best men as such. But to emphasise this again, betrothals had no set form - they varied from one community to another, and of course according to the wealth and status of the couple and their families or patrons.
WHAT THEY WORE
White weddings are of course a relatively modern phenomenon: there were no specific betrothal dresses. The couple would wear their best clothes, or sometimes the best clothes they could borrow from friends or relations (or even from masters and mistresses). They would also have regard to practicality, the woman wearing a dress she could afterwards continue to wear for Sunday best.
It also seems likely that, as at weddings, the parents and friends as well as the couple might be given favours, usually bunches of ribbons in white and/or another colour (though yellows and greens were both unlucky colours for weddings).
FOOD AND CELEBRATIONS
Nearly all betrothals seem to have been accompanied by the grandest dinner the couple (or more probably the parents or patron who paid for it) could afford. It is not clear to me whether the special wedding foods were also customary at betrothals, for example the bride cake (a kind of huge flat currant bun, carried before the bride, cut by her and the groom, eaten by them and then distributed): or such alleged aphrodisiacs as candied eryngo root (the sugared root of sea-holly). Sometimes the women ate separately from the men, a custom which they defended - perhaps because they could carry on more raucously without seeming unladylike.
There would also almost certainly be music, at least a pipe and tabor or a bagpiper (English pipes of course), and very probably informal dancing for the younger sort.
Charles Kightly, published in True Relation, 2008
David Cressy: Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford University Press 1997 ( A mine of fascinating and useful information)