Bundling Bones and Bidding

By Kathryn Slade Bluestone View From Top of Hill

In the not too distant future, guests at Bluestone will be fascinated to see restoration work being undertaken at the 13th century church which overlooks the village green. There is even a rumour that marriages may once again be celebrated there, something which has not happened for over 170 years. If so, I wonder if the services will include some of the ancient customs that were practised as the bride and groom took their vows - or even before they were engaged!

It wasn’t unknown for a young girl who was eager to find a husband to gather handfuls of red campion, the five-petalled dusky pink flower that still grows abundantly in the hedgerows from March to September. The posy would be secreted somewhere on her person and her intended would be invited to find it. Lots of shrieking and giggling  followed, with a marriage soon afterwards. Legend has it that one bishop of St Davids was so appalled by this wanton behaviour that he ordered that campion should be uprooted in all the lands of the bishopric.

Another courting custom was that of ‘bundling’. In the past, working hours in rural areas were long and arduous, so there was little time for unmarried men and women to socialise. Courting took place at night and often in the bed of the young lady. Some parents winked at this, though others were scandalised. One eager young lad decided to try his luck with his sweetheart, who lived in Gumfreston, near Tenby. He waited until all the lights of the house were extinguished, then let himself in through the kitchen door, which his lady had left unlocked. Unfortunately, he was discovered by the enraged father, who locked him into a cupboard and kept him there until the morning. The banns were called the following Sunday, the marriage took place within weeks and a wedding sermon on morality was preached as part of the service.

If a young lady had no prospective bridegroom in mind, there were ways in which she could discover exactly who she would one day marry. In Tenby, at Halloween, girls would make their way to a cross-roads, where they would carefully rake up a heap of earth. Into this they would scatter some hemp seed and then sing the following verse:

 

Hemp seed I sow

Hemp seed I’ll mow

Who ever my true love is to be

Come rake this hemp seed after me.

 

The apparition of the bridegroom-to-be would then appear and rake the hemp seed. He would be visible only to the girl who had  carried out the ritual, though her companions might be terrified by feeling the rake touch their legs.

 

Another method, which dated back almost the time of the Norman conquest of the area, involved the use of the blade bone of a shoulder of mutton. Nine holes, a magic number, were bored into it and it was placed under the pillow of the hopeful maiden. Before retiring to sleep she placed her shoes at the foot of the bed in the shape of a letter T and recited these words:

 

I put my shoes in the shape of a T,

Hoping my true love for to see,

Not in apparel or array,

But in his clothes he wears every day.

 

Alternatively, the kitchen table could be laid with a meal and a candle left burning on it. An article of clothing belonging to the girl would be soaked in water and was hung over a chair before the fire. The girl would then hide somewhere close by, watching for what might transpire; she hoped to see the form of her husband-to-be turning the clothing to dry it all over. It meant that she would be married within the year. On the other hand, if a coffin appeared, then she was doomed.

A somewhat safer method was to examine carefully your cup of tea.. If a tea leaf floated on the surface it meant you would have a new sweetheart. The length of the leaf denoted the height of the lover, and several floating leaves meant you would have a choice of lovers! To be sure of snaring a husband or wife, the leaf was picked out and placed on the back of the hand. It was then carefully transferred to the other hand. If the transfer was successful the first time, then you only had to wait a week for the beloved to walk through the door, or two weeks if two tries were necessary and so on.

There was yet another way, which involved the use of a turnip. Any anxious young girl was expected to steal a turnip from a neighbour’s field. It was washed in salty water and then peeled in one continuous strip from top to root. This required some skill and patience, for if the strip broke, the charm would not work. The turnip was then hung up behind the kitchen door, whilst the peel was buried in the garden. The first person of the opposite sex who entered the kitchen would have the same name as the future husband.

If any or all of these methods worked, then a marriage would take place. The parents of the engaged couple would call for a Bidding to take place. They began by listing all the weddings to which they had been invited and to which they had brought gifts. It was expected that these gifts would now be repaid in like manner to bride and groom.

Guests invited to the wedding would receive a ‘bidding letter’ or, if preferred, a ‘lavier’ or collector, also known as a bidder (gwahoddwr), would be employed, whose job it was to carry invitations to the guests with details of time and place of the wedding. In the 18th century the bidder at Laugharne was a man called John Williams, who dressed in a traditional white apron. A white ribbon was knotted into the button hole of his coat and he carried a bidder’s staff, with which he knocked on the doors of the houses he visited. Slung on his back was a bag into which he put the bread and cheese he was given at each stop.

It was usual for the bidder to enter each house without greeting anyone. He would strike his staff three times upon the floor, take off his hat and tuck it under his left armpit, cough loudly and begin his speech. Sometimes there was no speech; instead he gave a little song or dance.

The bidder would describe in humorous terms what the wedding feast might include and might give to the guests a printed invitation. This would say something like ‘We are encouraged by our friends to make a Bidding on such and such a date at …..where your company will be most welcome.’ It would go on to ask for donations to be bestowed upon the young couple, such gifts to be repaid as and when a similar occasion took place.

These gifts or donations were expected to be equivalent in value to what had been given to the guests on their marriages. Bread, butter, cheese, kitchen or farm implements, crockery, linen and furniture all made acceptable presents and helped the newly-weds to set up a home of their own. An account book of the gifts was kept, so that the bridal couple could return similar gifts at future weddings.

On the night before the wedding those invited assembled at the house where the marriage was to take place. Cakes and ale were sold and eaten and the profits were given to the couple as a wedding gift.

In many districts of West Wales the wedding procession to the church was preceded by another ritual, known as pwnco. The bridegroom’s friends would arrive early at the bride’s house, though her family might delay the arrival by barricading the road with stones or ropes of straw. One the groomsmen had reached the house, an exchange of rhyming questions and answers was enacted, each side trying to outwit the other.

For example, those inside the house might ask what on business the visitors had come; were they there to collect tithes, had they come in peace, did they mean harm as they looked so gloomy? The groomsmen might answer that they had come at the request of a warm-hearted young man and that they wished to bring the daughter of the house to him to be his loving partner. Ah no, said the bride’s friends, only the young lady could agree to that, as there was often great trouble in having a husband. The banter would go back and forth until at least the groomsmen were permitted to enter the house. By then, the bride had hidden herself away, so there was great jollity in finding where she was.

She was then escorted by the groomsmen to the church, with her friends and family in mock pursuit. In some areas, everyone rode to church on horseback and when the service was complete, the bride and groom rode home as fast as possible, pursued by everyone else. If the bride was caught, everyone was entitled to a kiss from her and the groom could only get her back by paying a ransom of beer.

All good fun no doubt, but there must have been a few sore heads in the morning and a few brides and grooms wondering what they had let themselves in for!

Categories:History

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