One of my beta readers asked an interesting question after reading my novella, To Love a Laird. Alec, the hero of the story, was already married once before. Does he need a divorce? How could he marry the heroine without special dispensation? Let’s find out!
If you’re not interested in the nitty gritty history and source material, skip to the fun part!
Here’s the History:
First, and most importantly, there aren’t many contemporary sources on the subject of how marriages worked (or didn’t, in our case). I found a few interesting articles, the best of which was a master’s thesis published on exactly this topic. You can find it here, if you’d like to read it yourself.
It’s important to know that Scotland, Ireland, and Wales all share a large portion of their cultural history, often referred to as “Celtic”. Traditions like handfasting, divorce laws, etc. often overlap. When there isn’t a lot of evidence for one of these regions, we can divine from what we know of the other two to fill in gaps. It would be hypothetical, but sometimes that’s the best we can do.
In Celtic culture, often multiple forms of marriage can be found. In Ireland, for example, men could have multiple wives through different types of marriages. Though divorce wasn’t sanctioned by the Church (except through annulment in rare cases), secular divorces could and did happen. Church and secular traditions functioned alongside each other, but separately. Scotland, from the limited sources we have, appears to have worked in a similar fashion.
Handfasting was intended as a trial marriage, lasting only a year and a day from the exchange of vows. Some sources claim that witnesses weren’t even required – it was made only between the two lovers. There are records of couples being handfasted and also betrothed, meaning they intend to be married within the ceremony of the Church following their successful handfasting.
Lynda Pinney Domino’s thesis (linked above) concludes that “The evidence, when considered as a body, is sufficient to conclude that such a custom [handfasting] did indeed exist in medieval Scotland and elsewhere in Britain.” She believes that it was practiced much the way we understand it today and also in variations regionally across the island.
Here’s the Fun:
Tradition claims that handfasting ceremonies were small, intimate affairs. There is a giant standing stone on the Orkney Islands with a great hole in the center. Legend has it that medieval couples would hold hands through the hole to make their oaths to one another.
Wedding ceremonies in the Middle Ages weren’t exactly the same as what we do now. Flowers were still common decorations. Who doesn’t love a bouquet of fresh flowers? But wearing white wasn’t a trend until the marriage of Queen Victoria in the 19th century.
Rings were typically made of gold, and in the Middle Ages people began inlaying them with gemstones. The exchange of vows hasn’t changed too much over the centuries, and who knows how different the words might have been from town to town!
So, Alec and Gillian were handfasted for a year and a day. She left him once the handfasting was through, thus releasing him from all commitments to her and allowing him to find the true love of his life, Nora. Alec married Nora, forever and always.