Marriage Seasonality

Using data compiled from parish registers, several researchers have applied statistical analyses to show that vital events, especially marriages, demonstrate distinctive patterns of seasonality. This study is an attempt to emulate some of these analyses and in doing so, to find out more about the communities of Hertfordshire. Were there particular causes and events or local peculiarities that determined when couples would name the day and have the patterns changed over the centuries? How does Hertfordshire compare with other areas of the country?

With the help of local historians in the 1960s, the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure (CAMPOP) provided a demographic series of data from 404 parish registers across England that has since been the basis of numerous studies (R. Schofield, Parish Register Aggregate Analyses, 1998). Whilst the work of the Cambridge Group has pointed to national population trends and links with economic conditions, Roger Schofield admitted that there were local variations that needed to be explained; indeed the Group looked at 26 individual parishes to derive more detailed demographic analyses via techniques such as back projection and family reconstitution.

Herts marriages seasonality

Marriage seasonality for three parishes in Hertfordshire with approximate indication of annual ecclesiastical events
(Source for data: Parish Register Aggregate Analyses, Cambridge Group).

By 1811, the populations in Watford, Hemel and the combined parishes of Berkhamsted (St Peter and St Mary Northchurch, about a mile apart) were 3,976, 3,240 and 2,827 respectively. The three parishes averaged over 100 vital events per year, which fulfils the statistical requirement to ensure a realistic demographic figure. The chart includes marriages registered between 1558 and 1837.

The first attribute of seasonality results from wedding bells being actively discouraged at times dictated by the Ecclesiastical calendar. The old English proverb ‘Marry in Lent and you’ll live to repent’ seems to have been taken seriously in Hertfordshire, as there was a marked dip in March marriages. A special licence will have been purchased by those couples who had no choice but to marry at that time. An insert in a register in Everton Nottinghamshire provides a succinct mnemonic in verse for the annual religious observances: “Advent marriage doth deny, But Hilary gives thee liberty. Septuagesima says thee nay, Eight days from Easter says you may. Rogation bids thee to contain, But Trinity sets thee free again.”

There was not an appreciable fall in numbers of marriages at Rogationtide in May, though it was a short period compared to Lent and Advent. There is evidence that this was a time for celebration, marked by beating of the parish bounds. For example, the large parish of St Mary Hemel Hempstead covered 12,440 acres and the walk took two days, with stops for refreshment as shown in the accounts of 1771: “Paid for liquor at Flaunden £1. 17s. 6d.; Paid for veal 8s. 0d.; Paid for cheese 16s. 4d.; Paid for the ringers 5s. 6d.; Paid for beer at home 14s. 0d.” (G. Robinson, The Book of Hemel Hempstead and Berkhamsted, 1975, p.123).

The ‘closed season’ of Advent does not appear to have been observed. However, if marriages for these parishes are investigated at 50-year intervals, there is a noticeable December dip, particularly in the 1600s. The figure rose again in the 1650s both at Lent and Advent, perhaps as a result of the Reformation and the backlash against Catholicism.

Michaelmas, the feast of the Archangel Michael, is celebrated on 29-Sep and is associated with shortening days and the beginning of Autumn. According to Alan Hunter in his Marriage Horizons and Seasonality: a comparison (1985, p.41), before the calendar reform of 1752, couples preferred to solemnise their marriage between 29-Sep and 1 Oct whereas Old Michaelmas Day (10-Oct) to 13-Oct was chosen after 1752. Might this account for the drop in the number of September weddings in 1750s Hertfordshire, or was this part of the general trend away from religious observance, doubtless helped by non-conformism in the area?

Agrarian Year

The agrarian year exerted a significant influence and Hertfordshire followed the trend of other arable regions with an October peak of marriages following the harvest, as opposed to an early summer peak in pastoral areas.

Marriage Seasonality

Marriage Seasonality compared in different farming regions
(Source: includes data from Shropshire Parishes, W J Edwards)

There were 3,355 marriages recorded in W.J. Edwards’ study Marriage Seasonality 1761-1810: An Assessment of Patterns in Seventeen Shropshire Parishes (1977, p.25), reproduced in this chart. Though the observance of Lent was as strong as in Hertfordshire (measured over the same period) there was an early summer peak of marriages in Shropshire, showing a more marked lack of observance of Rogationtide. This can be accounted for by the different farming pattern in predominantly pastoral Shropshire; the rearing and fattening of cattle. The May fairs may also have contributed to the popularity of May as a month to marry and refuted the notion that this was an unlucky month.

Once the hard work of the harvest was over, wages would be paid and people were at leisure to enjoy the Harvest Homes provided by the farmers and master workmen and to solemnise their marriages in church. A feast would normally be provided by newly-weds to celebrate the beginning of their economic and residential independence. This was also the time for hiring fairs; the September fair was held in Hemel, a statute fair in Watford and the Michaelmas fair in Berkhamsted. Men and women would seek employment wearing their smocks and carrying the emblems of their trades. The wedding ceremony would not necessarily signify the beginning of a sexual relationship, but Almanac writers remarked that the winter months were the season of short days and long nights, to be spent in the pleasure of meat, drink, warm fires and close company: “Now is the properest Time for the tearing of sheets, and begetting Bantlings” (D. Cressy, The seasonality of marriage in Old and New England, 1985, p.20). However, Hertfordshire baptismal seasonality, and working back to approximate date of conception, showed a variation of only 11-12 per cent across the year and there is no obvious sign that people used this method to keep warm over winter.

Economic Factors

Some economic factors peculiar to Hertfordshire, such as straw plaiting, may have exerted an influence on how soon a couple could marry. 

To a limited extent, it is possible to comment on marriage seasonality in connection with employment using the parish characteristics provided by the Cambridge Group along with the population databases. The occupational distribution in 1831 showed that agriculture was still the most significant means of employment for men, with the market towns providing the retail outlet for the goods produced in the area.

Unrecorded in these figures is the fact that women (and their children) were by no means unoccupied in these towns and in some cases, they were able to earn more money than men by lace-making and straw-plaiting. The latter was a by-product of the wheat harvest and was seasonal in nature, a springtime occupation, as indicated by an autobiography entry of a Hertfordshire plait worker, Lucy Luck: “The straw work is very bad, as a rule, from July up to about Christmas.” (J. Burnett,Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People, 1994, p.63).

Evershed noted that straw plaiting tended to keep the women at home and that “it indisposes and unfits them for domestic service.” Indeed, women in service accounted for less than ten per cent of the working population in Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead in 1831. It has been well recorded that people were unable to marry while in service and this may have contributed to the higher average age at marriage in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Further investigation may prove that marriage age was lower than normal in this area of Hertfordshire due to the extra income from lace work and plaiting, especially as: “There is a hint that the fall [in marriage age] was greater in parishes with a growing rural handicraft industry than elsewhere” (E.A. Wrigley et al, English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580–1837 1997, p.196).

From Advanced Diploma essay Wedding bells in the vales of Hertfordshire