T was not an uncommon circumstance in the last, and even in the early years of the present century, for marriages to be performed en chemise, or in a white sheet. It was an old belief, that a man marrying a woman in debt, if he received her at the hands of the minister clothed only in her shift, was not liable to pay the accounts she had contracted before their union. We think it will not be without interest to give a few authenticated instances of this class of marriages.
The earliest example we have found, is recorded in the parish register of Chiltern, All Saints’, Wilts. It is stated: “John Bridmore and Anne Selwood were married October 17th, 1714. The aforesaid Anne Selwood was married in her smock, without any clothes or headgier on.”187
On June 25th, 1738, George Walker, a linen weaver, and Mary Gee, of the “George and Dragon,” Gorton Green, were made man and wife, at the ancient chapel close by. The bride was only attired in her shift.
Particulars of another local case are given in the columns of Harrop’s Manchester Mercury, for March 12th, 1771, as follows: “On Thursday last, was married, at Ashton-under-Lyne, Nathaniel Eller to the widow Hibbert, both upwards of fifty years of age; the widow had only her shift on, with her hair tied behind with horse hair, as a means to free them both from any obligation of paying her former husband’s debts.”
We have heard of a case where the vicar declined to marry a couple on account of the woman presenting herself in her under garment. Another clergyman, after carefully reading the rubric, and not finding anything about the bride’s dress, married a pair, although the woman wore only her chemise.
The following is taken from Aris’s Birmingham Gazette for 1797:
“There is an opinion generally prevalent in Staffordshire that if a woman should marry a man in distressed circumstances, none of his 188 creditors can touch her property if she should be in puris naturalibus while the ceremony is performed. In consequence of this prejudice, a woman of some property lately came with her intended husband into the vestry of the great church of Birmingham, and the moment she understood the priest was ready at the altar, she threw off a large cloak, and in the exact state of Eve in Paradise, walked deliberately to the spot, and remained in that state till the ceremony was ended. This circumstance has naturally excited much noise in the neighbourhood, and various opinions prevail respecting the conduct of the clergyman. Some vehemently condemn him as having given sanction to an act of indecency; and others think, as nothing is said relative to dress in the nuptial ceremony, that he had no power to refuse the rite. Our readers may be assured of this extraordinary event, however improbable it may appear in these times of virtue and decorum.”
We gather from a periodical called The Athenian, that this custom was practised in Yorkshire at the beginning of this century: “May, 1808. At Otley, in Yorkshire, Mr. George Rastrick, of Hawkesworth, aged 73, to 189 Mrs. Nulton, of Burley Woodhead, aged 60. In compliance with the vulgar notion that a wife being married in a state of nudity exonerated her husband from legal obligations to discharge any demands on her purse, the bride disrobed herself at the altar, and stood shivering in her chemise while the marriage ceremony was performed.”
In Lincolnshire, at so late a period as between 1838 and 1844, a woman was wed enveloped in a sheet.
A slightly different method of marriage is mentioned in Malcolm’s “Anecdotes of London.” It is stated that “a brewer’s servant, in February, 1723, to prevent his liability to the payment of the debts of a Mrs. Brittain, whom he intended to marry, the lady made her appearance at the door of St. Clement Danes habited in her shift: hence her inamorato conveyed the modest fair to a neighbouring apothecary’s, where she was completely equipped with clothing purchased by him; and in these, Mrs. Brittain changed her name in church.”
In the foregoing, it will have been observed that the marriages have been conducted en chemise for the protection of the pocket of the bridegroom. “The Annual Register,” of 1766, 190 contains an account of a wedding of this class, for the protection of the woman. We read: “A few days ago, a handsome, well-dressed young woman came to a church in Whitehaven, to be married to a man, who was attending there with the clergyman. When she had advanced a little into the church, a nymph, her bridesmaid, began to undress her, and, by degrees, stript her to her shift; thus she was led blooming and unadorned, to the altar, where the marriage ceremony was performed. It seems this droll wedding was occasioned by an embarrassment in the affairs of the intended husband, upon which account the girl was advised to do this, that he might be entitled to no other marriage portion than her smock.”