‘till death us do part’. The Afterlife of Early Modern Religious English

John Denton, University of Florence

The title of this article is one of the best known statements from Cranmer’s BCP. One good opportunity for the examination of the stages through which the editions of the BCP passed from 1549 to 1662 is by comparing the wedding vows, since they were in the vernacular, together with other sections, even in the pre-Reformation Latin rites, so that the couple, in this case, could understand what they were swearing to:

Sarum Rite (Brook 1965, 198; Brightman 1921, vol.2 804):

Quod si puella sit, discoopertam habeat manum, si vidua tectam. Vir eam recipiat in Dei fide & sua seruandam, sicut voluit coram Sacerdote, & teneat eam per manum suam dexteram in manu sua dextera, & sic det fidem mulieri per verba de presenti ita dicens, docente Sacerdote. (Renwick 2021, 98)

I N. take the [thee]N. to my wedded wyf to haue and to holde, fro this day forwarde for better: for wors: for richere: for poorer: in sykenesse and in hele: tyl dethe vs departe if holy chyrche it woll [will] ordeyne, and therto I plight the my trouthe.

Manum retrahendo.

Deinde dicat mulier docente Sacerdote.

I N. take the N. to my Wedded housbonder to haue and to holde fro this day for warde for better: for Worse: for richer: for pouere: in sykenesse et in hele: to be bonere and buxum in bedde and at te borde tyll dethe vs departhe if holy chyrche it wol ordeyne and ther to. I plight the my trouthe.

Manum retrahendo.

‘To be bonere and buxum, in bed and at the borde’ meant something like ‘to please her husband in bed at night and be an obedient housewife and cook (‘borde’ referring to the kitchen cup-board) during the day. Clearly Cranmer adapted the above English text to meet his standards of humanist decorum (especially removing any reference to bedtime activities) adding ‘love and cherish’ but also expecting the wife ‘to obey’ her husband and moving the vow for both parties in a more evangelical direction by replacing ‘holy church’ with God. ‘Departhe’, here means ‘separate’ (MacCulloch 2016, 420–421).

BCP 1549:I N. take thee N. to my wedded wife, to haue and to holde from this day forwarde, for better, for wurse, for richer, for poorer, in sickenes, and in health, to loue and to cherishe, til death vs departe: according to Goddes holy ordeinaunce: And therto I plight thee my trouth.

I N. take thee N. to my wedded husbande, to haue and to holde from this day forwarde, for better, for woorse, for richer, for poorer, in sickenes, and in health, to loue and cherishe, and to obey, till death vs departe: according to Goddes holy ordeinaunce: And thereto I geue thee my trouth. (Cummings 2011, 66)

BCP 1662:

I N. take thee N. to my wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to Gods holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.

I N. take thee N. to my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish and obey, till death us do part, according to Gods holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth. (Cummings 2011, 436)

The only difference in this post-Cranmerian version, apart from the updating of the spelling, is the replacement of an obsolete verb (plight), while maintaining the rhythm of the phrase, with a morpho-syntactic lexical shift in the subjunctive mood and a non-emphatic periphrastic ‘do’ (which was already somewhat old-fashioned; Nervalainen 2006, 108; Barber 1997, 263–264). One of the distinguishing features of the C. of E. is its close links with the monarchy, on the basis of the principle ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ (i.e.,‘whose realm, their religion’ — mean-ing that the religion of the ruler is adopted by his/her subjects). This inevitably means that important religious royal (which also means state) ceremonies are held in important C. of E. churches. This, of course, is true of the enormously popular royal weddings. Interestingly the two most recent weddings reflected different attitudes to religious English. William and Kate (Westminster Abbey 29 April 2011) chose traditional language i.e., an adapted version of the 1662 BCP:

I N. take thee, N. to my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy law; and thereto I give thee my troth.

Harry and Meghan (St George’s Chapel Windsor Castle 19 May 2018) chose the version in the latest C.of E. Prayer Book: Common Worship (2000), which replaces all but one obsolete item:

I, N, take you N, to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God’s holy law. In the presence of God I make this vow.

For the replacement of this obsolete, but very familiar item we must turn to the American BCP (1979):

In the Name of God, I, N., take you, N., to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

The former Bishop of London Richard Chartres in a sermon for the 350th anniversary of the 1662 BCP (2012) referred to the lack of comment on the part of regular journalists on the language choice by William and Kate, while, in the weeks after the royal wedding on 20 April 2011, the Church Times published several letters from members of the clergy shocked by the fact that ‘the language of the liturgy remained buried in the past’ and that ‘once again the opportunity to present the church in a more up to date way was missed’ (Chartres 2012). It seems that Harry was showing his unconventional style while his more conservative brother was under the influence of his father. Charles is notorious for his dislike of modernity whether it be in language or architecture. He even asked the Dean of Windsor to compose the following prayer in (semi) pseudo-Tudor English, especially for the service of prayer and dedication in St George’s Chapel after his civil marriage to Camilla:

O God our Father who, for them that love thee, makest all things work together for the good; we thank thee that, of thy faithfulness, thou dost come out to meet us on our pilgrimage of life. Stay with us now and grant that, as we learn to love thee more, we may deepen our dedication to thy service, and find in thee the fullness of eternal life.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.13128/jems-2279-7149-13428

Read Full Text: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/bsfm-jems/article/view/13428

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