Whatever you think about getting spliced – and April’s a popular month for it – thank your lucky stars you’re not living in the past with the prospect of a ’bedding-the-bride’ party on the horizon. Originating in the Middle Ages, and providing an opportunity for guests to behave like peeping-Toms, nobody then would have regarded these events as voyeuristic: little was considered private and out of bounds.
Imagine you’re the helpless bride. After the marriage service, the priest leads you and the groom, your families and friends, to the bridal suite. While you get undressed by your female friends and led to the marital bed, your husband’s attendants disrobe him, then take him to join you. A priest stands by, swinging a censor and sprinkling holy water over the bed. While he blesses you both and wishes you many healthy children, the guests look on, impatient to get the party started. Even when the bed curtains are drawn, they’ll carry on drinking and carousing as you and your partner get down to business. They might even play games. So determined are they to get legless, chasing them away is nigh-on impossible.
At these raucous affairs female guests would fuss round the bride, while the husband’s friends prepared him a special drink. This early version of Viagra, which grew out of the practice of moistening pies with sweet egg gravies, was a spiced, sweet, warm confection of ale, cider or wine, thickened with eggs, cream or warmed milk, which curdled as they were poured over the alcohol. The pouring was most effective when done from a great height because it created both a curd and a whippy froth. It must have made a lot of noise too which would have focused people’s attention on what it was for, adding to the fun. The mixture was allowed to rest for a short while in front of the fire, before sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon sticks were added, and the whole concoction was tipped into a cup. Everyone would watch and cheer while the groom sucked up the warm beverage through a spout that came from the base, leaving the custardy curds to be eaten with a spoon.
As time went by, stricter standards of morality replaced the undressing of the bride and the groom with the symbolic untying of ribbons and garters. Often, the bride would fling a stocking in the direction of the guests – symbolising the impending loss of her virginity – and the one who grabbed it would be the next to wed. Samuel Pepys attended a wedding where the best man threw the bride’s stocking over his shoulder for one of the girls to catch, while the chief bridesmaid did the same with the groom’s stocking, this time targeting a young man. In England, the practice has evolved into the bride lobbing her bouquet in the air, though across the pond, many American brides still toss a garter.
Instead of drunkenly festooning the couple’s car as they leave for their honeymoon, consider instead the discarded custom of scattering flowers and coloured ribbons over the bridal bed. The colours had specific meaning: red represented justice; blue constancy; green youth; yellow joy and honour; gold gaiety; straw colour plenty; and flesh colour lust. Or, what about something a little more eccentric? In Scotland a woman with milk in her breasts was sometimes asked to prepare the marital bed in order to encourage procreation, while, in Ireland, a laying hen might be tied to the bed in the hope that some of its fertility would be passed to the couple. Whether the hen was still attached to the bed when the couple climbed in, we have no idea.
In royal circles there were stipulations about who could attend a bedding. When, in November 1677, William, Prince of Orange, married Mary Stuart, the bedchamber was filled to the brim with lords and ladies, ambassadors and many other ‘distinguished personages’. A gruelling experience for the future king and queen of England, when William got into bed wearing unsexy woollen drawers, his uncle-in-law Charles II pointed out how unsuitable they were for a night of unbridled passion (Given the king’s reputation as a serial philanderer, he should know). William retorted that since he and his wife were going to live together for a long time, she had jolly well better get used to his ways. As William downed his aphrodisiac, Princess Mary’s father, the Duke of the York, patted his son-in-law on the back and cried: ‘Now, nephew, to your worke! Hey! St. George for England!’
Once the party had seen the groom and the bride ‘fling the stocking’, they would – to the newly-weds’ relief – adjourn to another part of the house for ‘Music, Feasting, Drinking, Revelling, Dancing and Kissing’, often lasting until dawn. Sometimes, visitors would pay a morning-call on the still-bedded newly-weds to see how they’d got on. Early one day in August 1665, Pepys was amused to find the Earl of Sandwich’s daughter and her new husband, ‘red in the face and well enough pleased this morning with their night’s lodging’.
Bedding-the-Bride parties were naturally too indecorous for the Victorians who swiftly put an end to the time-honoured observance.