Bride ale – too many of you are getting this wrong

Just one day into six months or more of continuous “royal” wedding bollocks, and already I’ve made the first sighting of the claim that “the word ‘bridal’ is a corruption of ‘bride-ale’ – a special beer brewed for weddings.” No, it isn’t, all right? I don’t care how many sources you can find that say this – it’s not true.

“Bridal” does come from “bride-ale”, in Anglo-Saxon brýd-ealo, but “ale” was being used here in its secondary sense of “a festival or merry-meeting at which much ale was drunk” (just as “tea” means both the drink and – as in “afternoon tea” or “high tea” – the meal). By the 14th century “bridal” had come to mean the whole proceedings of the wedding or marriage, and it eventually became used, through misanalysis of the “-al” element, as the adjective for things to do with brides, as in “bridal gown”. But until Elizabethan times, or a little later, “ale” still mean “festival” or “celebration” as well as alcoholic drink, and “bride-ale” still meant the whole wedding shebang.

When Queen Elizabeth I visited Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, home of the Earl of Leicester, in July 1575, for example, among the entertainments put on for her, ranging from fireworks to feasting, was a “country bryde ale” that included a bride and bridegroom picked from the local peasants, the traditional wedding sport of “running at the Quinting” or quintain, that is, tilting on horseback with lances at a pole set into the ground, and “Morrice dancing”.

Now, very probably special ales would be brewed for weddings: bride-ales could be expensive, and sometimes the bride or bridegroom brewed a wedding ale to sell. With all the drinking, things could get out of hand, and though one Elizabethan writer noted with satisfaction that there had been an improvement in his time in people’s behaviour and “the heathenish rioting at bride-ales are well diminished,” the authorities sometimes took pre-emptive action.

In 1572 the burgesses of the borough of Halesowen in the West Midlands declared that “A payne ys made that no person or persona that shall brewe any weddyn ale to sell shall not brewe above twelve stryke of mault [enough to make perhaps two barrels, 576 pints, of strong ale] at the most and that the said persons so marryed shall not keep nor have above eyght messe of persons at hys dinner within the burrowe [a “messe” was four people, so that meant no more than 32 diners, giving an allowance of 18 pints a head!] and before hys brydall daye he shall keep no unlawfull games in hys house nor out of hys house on payne of 20s[hillings, or £1].”

More light is shed on the brewing of ale for bride ales or weddings by another ruling from the manorial court of Halesowen eight years later, which declared that no one should hold bride ales unless they had been approved by the high bailiff and five other “most substantial persons”, and afterwards by the lord of the borough; that no one making a wedding ale should brew or sell the ale except on the day of the wedding and one day before and after; and that the ale should only be sold at the price charged by the victuallers of the borough (perhaps the local inn and alehouse owners were complaining about the competition), the fine for each offence being this time 40 shillings.

The man to blame for muddying the glass over the origin of the phrase “bride-ale”, incidentally, is Thomas Dudley Fosbroke, Church of England priest and antiquarian, who claimed in a book called Encyclopædia of antiquities: and elements of archaeology, classical and mediæval, published in 1825, that “It was called Bride ale … from the bride’s selling ale on the wedding day and friends contributing what they liked in payment.” Wrong, Mr Fosbroke. Utterly incorrect.

There are a number of ceremonies and traditions around weddings that involve beer and ale, including one called “running for the bride’s door”. In the Craven district in North Yorkshire, after the wedding ceremony had taken place at the church, according to a 19th century writer, “there took place either a foot or horse race, the first to arrive at the dwelling of the bride, requested to be shown to the chamber of the newly-married pair, then, after he had turned down the bed-clothes, he returned, carrying in his hand a tankard of warm ale, previously prepared, to meet the bride, to whom he triumphantly offers the beverage.” The bride, in return for this, “presented to the ale-bearer a ribbon as his reward.”

This is tame compared to what happened among the Turkic people of Chuvashia, on the banks of the Volga river in European Russia, some 400 miles east of Moscow. With the Chuvash, beer featured both before and after the wedding as a vital part of the ceremonies. Today Chuvashia is Russia’s hop-growing centre, and it also, apparently, has gypsum-bearing strata in its geology, just like the district around Burton upon Trent, Britain’s great brewing town. Unsurprisingly, then, Chuvashia is known in Russia for the quality of its beer. A visitor in the 18th century described how the bride, covered with a veil, hid herself behind a screen; from which after some time she went and walked round the eating room “with a grave and solemn gait”. Some young girls “bring her beer, honey and bread, and when she has gone three times round the room, the bridegroom enters, snatches off her veil, kisses her, and changes rings with her. From this instant she bears the name of schourasnegher, or betrothed girl, in quality of which she distributes bread, honey and beer to the guests, with which they refresh themselves.”

After the bride and bridegroom have retired to bed, the next day the guests come to check for confirmation that the bride was a virgin – “the Mosaical proofs”, as a writer in 1793 said, referring to Deuteronomy chapter 22, verses 15-17. “If it appears that the bride had been deflowered before, a boy presents a mug filled with beer to one of the principal assistants. In the bottom of this mug is a hole, which the lad stops with his finger, but [he] draws it away when the other has the mug at his mouth, by which means the beer runs down his beard and bosom. This excites much laughter from the company and a blush from the bride. But this terrible ceremony is never followed by any more serious consequences.” I can’t see this one happening at Bill and Kat’s wedding – sadly. (The “serious consequences” called for in Deuteronomy if the bride wasn’t a virgin involved her being stoned to death. Happy times.)

Beer also featured in the marriage ceremony of the Chuvash people’s near-neighbours further to the east, the Udmurts or Votjaks, a Finno-Ugric people who live in Udmurtia, and who are said to be the most red-headed people in the world. An 18th century visitor from England said that a pagan Udmurt wedding began with the bridegroom paying the yerdoun, or bride price, to his wife-to-be’s father. The wedding guests then assembled in the bridegroom’s father’s house. The bride, after having been clothed in the dress of a married woman, was presented to her new father-in-law. After this, while the tor-kart or priest made an offering of a cup of beer to the gods, the bride sat in the doorway upon a piece of cloth: the object of the offering was to ensure bread, riches and children to the newly married couple, who drank the beer blessed by the priest. “This done, one of the bridesmaids presents beer or mead to all the guests and the bride kneels down before every one of them till he has emptied his goblet: then they eat and drink as much as they are able, and dance till the young people are put to bed.”

(You can see a Chuvash wedding ceremony here – it looks tremendous fun.)

Doubtless plenty of brewers will be making their “royal wedding ales”, as almost 150 did for Balding Bill’s doomed parents 29 years ago. One of the first mentions of a special beer made for a royal wedding was in 1761, when Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg married the young George III, Willy’s ancestor, at the Chapel Royal in St James’s Palace, when she was 17 and he 23. The playwright and theatre manager George Colman, writing just before the wedding that September, said that the owner of an alehouse in the next lane from his apartments in London had ” hung out a paper lanthorn to advertise the neighbourhood that he sells the best Mecklenburg purl and Coronation porter” – purl being an early “beer cocktail” made of hot ale, gin, ginger and sugar. Who brewed the Coronation porter is not recorded.

The word “bride” itself, incidentally, probably has beery connections: it comes from a word that originally mean “daughter-in-law” in the ancestor language of English, spoken in Jutland and Southern Sweden nearly 3,000 years ago, which looks to have come itself from a root word meaning “to brew” and “to cook, make broth” – the duties of a daughter-in-law in ancient times.

14 thoughts on “Bride ale – too many of you are getting this wrong

  1. the Udmurts or Votjaks, a Finno-Ugric people who live in Udmurtia, and who are said to be the most red-headed people in the world.

    I love beer blogging!

  2. Blimey Martyn! My misspent youth was spent just drinking the stuff, in yours you fully absorbed it. Nice to know I’ll have some well-researched expert knowledge to fall back on when the subject comes up!

    1. Nope: Middle English “wæs hæil”, meaning “be in good health”. The OED, I see, gives a thorough kicking to the old story about the British king Vortigern being taught to say “wæs hæil” to the lovely Rowena in the 5th century, calling it “an anachronism” – apparently the English picked up the expression from the Danes who had settled in England several centuries later.

  3. You are truly the Mr. Angry of beer studies, Martyn, and I tip my idiotic hat to you, sir. Must there really be six more months of royal wedding fever? Please make it stop… Is William the heir or the spare?

    “Wassail” (= “what ails thee?”) is a medieval precursor of “wassup?”. Actually, no, it’s not. I’ll get me coat.


    1. The idea of Beowulf the bold beer-bibber and his hairy horn-helmeted henchmen sitting around the mead-hall going “Waaaassssaaaailll!” at one another as the rush-lights flicker, and sticking their tongues out at the same time, is strangely appealing.

  4. […] Bridal Rubbish Jump to Comments I always suspected that old canard about “bridal” being a corruption of “bride ale” or “bride’s ale” was a load of rubbish, but couldn’t be bothered to seek the proof in the history books. Fortunately, Martyn Cornell is far more studious than I and so i can leave it to him to prove my suspicions correct: Just one day into six months or more of continuous “royal” wedding bollocks, and already I’ve … […]

    1. That wasn’t meant to be in any way an accurate description, Lesley, merely a (poor) attempt at Old English-style poetic alliteration. Indeed, was there ever evidence of anyone wearing horned helmets for real in battle? But thank you for your dedication to historic accuracy, which is always appreciated around here …

  5. Hi Martyn,
    Hoping that you can confirm if there was ever any historical relationship between mead and the word honeymoon… I’ve been told this numerous times in beer seminars over here in Canada, but found the myth busted on Wikipedia:

    “In many parts of Europe it was traditional to supply a newly married couple with enough mead for a month, ensuring happiness and fertility. From this practice we get honeymoon or, as the French say, lune de miel [lit. “moon of honey”].[9][10] Given that this etymology does not appear in the usual scholarly works on etymology, this claim is usually dismissed as a false etymology.”

    What say you?

    1. No, I’m afraid the origins of “honeymoon” are (a) nothing to do with mead, at all, and (b) rather cynical: to quote one of the early references in the Oxford English Dictionary (from 1656): “Hony-moon, applyed to those marryed persons that love well at first, and decline in affection afterwards; it is hony now, but it will change as the Moon.”

  6. Very helpful. I have been researching Welsh biddings (neithior), a wedding feast for which beer or ale was especially brewed. Bydales or bidales or biddals (an event at which beer or ale was sold for the benefit of someone in need), were banned in Wales under an act of Henry VIII in 1534. (No person, without license of the commissioner, shall, within Wales, levy any cymmorth [community support], bydale, tenant’s ale, or other collection, for marriage, mass, priest, redemption of murder, felony, or the like). However, biddings continued and during the 16th century, several people were fined heavily for doing so, and the custom continued into the late 19th century (when, it is claimed, tea replaced alcohol).
    It is claimed that the beer could be sold at such events for the benefit of a newly-married couple or people in need, without having to have a licence to sell alcohol. Have you come across any evidence that this was so?

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