Marriage Customs And Superstitions – Part Two

In searching for marriage customs and folklore I found that there was certainly no shortage, so much so that I was not really sure where to start. So I thought next I would start at the beginning, with the determining of a future husband.

Oddly (perhaps not?), in all of the accounts of this practice, I failed to find anything regarding a male seeking knowledge of his future wife, although perhaps I have simply yet to come across it.

Immediately below I’ve quoted a large chunk from William Tegg’s The Knot Tied. Marriage Customs of All Nations, which is follow by material gathered from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic and Folklore. The complete text of The Knot Tied is available on Google Books here, and there is more material on this particular subject.


In the following notes will be found a few particulars of Marriage Superstitions and Customs, chiefly relating to the North of England, a part of the country where ancient rites and old superstitions still linger, but ere long will, doubtless, disappear. It will not be without interest to give an account of Divination, as the matter is so closely connected with matrimony. First, then, let us submit a notice of -


The eve of St. Agnes is a noted time for the fair sex to work spells, with the object of peeping into the future. The girl who would invoke St. Agnes prepares by a fast, which must begin at midnight, on the 20th of January, and continue till the same hour on the 21st. During this time she must take nothing but pure spring water. At midnight, on the 21st, she must go to bed and sleep by herself, neither speaking nor looking to the right or left, nor behind her. She must lie on her left side, and repeat three times this triplet :

“Saint Agnes be a friend to me,
In the gift I ask of thee,
Let me in this night my husband see.”

The foregoing we noted in Derbyshire. We find in Chambers’s “Book of Days ” a notice, as follows : ” If a maiden was wishful to obtain a knowledge of her future husband, she would take a row of pins, and, plucking them out one after another, stick them in her sleeve, singing a whilst a paternoster, and thus insure that her dreams that night would present the person in question. On passing into a different house from her ordinary residence, and taking her right leg stocking, she might knit the left garter round it, repeating-

‘I knit this, this knot I knit,
To know the thing I know not yet,
That I may see
The man that shall my husband be.
Not in his best or worst array,
But what he weareth every day;
That I to-morrow may him ken
From amongst all other men.’

Lying down on her back that night, with her hands under her head, the anxious maiden was led to expect her future spouse would appear in a dream, and salute her with a kiss.”

Mr. William Henderson, in his “Notes on the Folk Lore of Northern Counties of England and the Borders,” published in 1866, says: “St. Agnes’ Fast is thus practised throughout Durham and Yorkshire. Two young girls, each desirous to dream about their future husbands, must abstain through the whole of St. Agnes’ Eve from eating, drinking, or speaking, and must avoid even touching their lips with their ringers. At night they are to make together ‘dumb cake,’ so called from the rigid silence which attends its manufacture. Its ingredients (flour, salt, water, &c.) must be supplied in equal proportions by their friends, who must also take equal shares in the baking and turning of the cake, and in drawing it out of the oven. The mystic viand must then be divided into two equal portions, and each girl taking her share is to carry it upstairs, walking backwards all the time; and, finally, eat it and jump into bed. A damsel who duly fulfils all these conditions, and has also kept her thoughts all day fixed on her ideal of a husband, may confidently expect to see her future partner in her dreams.”

In Northumberland, Mr. Henderson tells us the formula is somewhat different. There a number of girls, after a day’s silence and fasting, will boil eggs, one apiece, extract the yolk, fill the cavity with salt, and eat the egg, shell and all, and then walk backwards, uttering this invocation to the saint :

“Sweet St. Agnes! work thy fast,
If ever it be to marry man,
Or man to marry me,
I hope him this night to see.”

Or as follows :

“Fair St. Agnes! play thy part
And send to me my own sweetheart,
Not in his best or worst array,
But in the clothes of every day,
That to-morrow I may him ken
From among all men.”

A raw herring, swallowed, bones and all, is said to be equally efficacious, and, doubtless, is very productive of dreams and visions. Northumbrian swains sometimes adopt this plan to get a glance of their future wives.


The customs and superstitions of St. Mark’s Eve are numerous. The chief are as follows:

Watching the Smock.

In Poor Robin’s Almanack for 1770, the following lines occur:

On St. Mark’s Eve, at twelve o’clock,
The fair maid will watch her smock,
To find her husband in the dark,
By praying unto good St. Mark.

We suppose the custom was to hang up the chemise at the fire before going to bed, the rest of the family having gone to rest, the anxious maiden would plant herself and wait till the resemblance of him who was to be her husband should come in and turn the garment.

Divination by Nuts.

This observance was carried out by a row of nuts being placed amongst the hot embers on the hearth, one from each maiden, and the name of the loved one being mentioned, it was believed if it was in any case to be successful, the nut would jump away; if otherwise, it would go on composedly burning till all was consumed:

If you love me, pop and fly;
If not, lie there silently.

Riddling the Ashes.

In a “Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases, collected in Whitby and neighbourhood,” and published in 1855, the usage of ash riddling is referred to as follows : On St. Mark’s Eve the ashes are riddled or sifted on the hearth. Should any of the family be destined to die within the year, a shoe will be imprinted on the ashes. Many a mischievous wight, says Grose, has made some of the superstitious inmates miserable, by slily coming down stairs in the dark and impressing the ashes with a shoe of one of the party.

Watching in the Church Porch.

Mr. W. R. Elliott, of Alfreton, says, “Some couple of generations ago it was devoutly believed by a portion of the then inhabitants of Alfreton, that whoever had the hardihood to watch the old church porch during St. Mark’s Eve would be gifted with the power of prophecy for the ensuing twelve months, as to who would be married and who would be buried of the parishioners in the period, as the legend stated that all passed the church porch in review during the nocturnal watching of the mortal who dared to test the ordeal. One, Joseph Dawes, who died an old man, about 48 years ago, was stated to be a watcher of the old church during the eve of St. Mark; so much dread of the old man was felt by timorous mothers, that some feared to meet him, for fear of the dreaded fiat that a dearly loved child or husband would be numbered with the dead before another festival of St. Mark. It is quite true that a superstitious dread of the harmless old man was felt by some weak-minded persons. Both the watcher and his contemporaries have passed away, and there are not many here now, save a solitary dyspeptic or two, that place any faith in the prophetic festival of St. Mark.” We may add the parish church at Alfreton is dedicated to St. Mark. – William Andrews.


Sowing Hempseed.

‘Tis Midsummer eve, the much-dreaded, desired;
‘Tis the mystical eve of the Baptist St. John;
The eyes that watched o’er us to rest have retired,
And midnight draws near we are now left alone.
Such grace hath the hour, ’twill the future make known;
But test we the proof; to the garden let’s steal;
Try the spell of the hempseed, our fates ’twill reveal.

Cross we but the threshold, and gain’d is the bower,
The watch-dog the steps of his mistress will know;
So holy the season, all charms now have power,
The moon shining brightly above and below;
All in turn to some undisclosed influence bow.
With the magical fernseed, Oh! were we supplied,
That no one might see us invisibly glide.

Though now they no blessing-fires raise on each hill,
Through which to gain passage, or boldly leap o’er;
Though no garlands are woven, in sign of good will,
Of the orpine or birch overshading each door,
Keeping foul things afar, as in bright days of yore;
Yet, we’ll sow the charmed hempseed, love’s secret make
‘Tis the time, ’tis the time, ’tis the eve of St. John.

Caution ! ope the door gently, and forth let us go;
All is silent; fear nothing; the garden is gained.
Now sow we the hempseed, now use we the hoe;
Draw the mould softly o’er it, and all is attained ;
Pause not, and the wish of our hearts shall be gained.

Yes, “hempseed I sow;” yes, “hempseed I hoe;”
Oh! thou who’st to wed me come after and mow.
Ah! a step. Some one follows. Oh ! dare I look back?
Should the omen be adverse, how would my heart writhe.
Love, brace up my sinews. Who treads on my track?
‘Tis he, ’tis the loved one; he comes with the scythe.
He mows what I’ve sown; bound my heart and he blythe.
On Midsummer eve the glad omen is won;
Then hail to thy mystical vigil, St. John.


Divinations or love-spells were formerly much practised by young maidens who hoped to gain some knowledge as to their future husbands. One of the most common of these was sowing the hempseed, which was thus carried out at Ashbourne.

When a young maiden wished to learn who was to be her future spouse she went to the churchyard, and, as the clock struck the witching hour of twelve, commenced running round the church continually repeating the following lines:

I sow hempseed, hempseed I sow;
He that loves me best
Come after me and mow.

After going round the church twelve times without stopping, her lover was said to appear and follow her.

This ordeal she had to pass through alone, without any companions, and we may well believe that if she was of a nervous temperament, and with the excitement of the long-continued race, her fancy would conjure up a resemblance to some one whose love she hoped to gain.


We are indebted to our friend Mr. Joseph Barlow Robinson, of Derby, for the following notes of the practices of this season:

Halloween, the vigil of All Saints’ Day, was formerly kept by our ancestors with much festivity, and many spells and conjurations were practised by the young of both sexes to gain a knowledge of their future partner. “The nut burning charm was performed after this fashion. A pair of nuts had the name of a woman and man given to them, and were then placed in the fire. If they burned quietly together, then it promised a happy marriage, or a hopeful love ; but if the female nut burned off with a bang, or the male nut exploded with a crack, or if they flew apart in any way, then it was useless for that couple to think any more of each other, for their courtship would be nothing but a series of bouncings, bangs and cracks, which would be more likely to end in perpetual misery than in a happy wedding day.

But if the nuts should blaze together, and lie burning side by side, motionless as love birds on the perch, then the happy couple might make themselves easy as to their settling in life.”

The poet Gay thus refers to the custom :

Two hazel nuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweetheart’s name;
This with the loudest bounce me sore amazed,
That in a flame of brightest colour blazed.
As blazed the nut, so may thy passion grow,
For ’twas thy nut that did so brightly glow.

Another charm was to go alone to a looking glass, candle in hand, and eat an apple, or comb the hair before it, and after a while they would see the face of him or her they were to wed in the glass peeping over their shoulder.

A third spell was to dip the left shirt sleeve in a running stream, situated where three manors meet; and after this to go to bed in view of the fire, having previously hung the wet shirt before it. They steadily gazed upon it until midnight, at which hour the phantom figure of their intended spouse would come and turn the other side of the sleeve to the fire as if to dry it.

Other charms of similar character were carried out on this night, which was famous as an anniversary of the good fairies who were at hand to check the machinations and baleful malevolence of the witches, warlocks, and hobgoblins who were then supposed to hold sway.


We have noted the following examples in Yorkshire:
Get the first egg laid by a pullet and boil it, uttering not a word during the boiling, and looking straight into the fire all the time, and sitting on something that has never been sat upon before, as, for instance, a flat-iron, candlestick, astride a poker, or any other
article the fertile brain of the maiden may suggest. When the egg is boiled and eaten she will go direct to bed without speaking or making the least noise, and go to sleep. She will then dream of the man who will be her future husband. If a girl has more than one admirer, and is wishful to decide which is to be the favoured one, she will call the Bible and a key to her aid in deciding her choice. The Bible being opened at the passage in Ruth, “Whither thou goest will I go,” &c., the wards of the key are placed upon the verses, she ties the book firmly with a piece of cord, and having mentioned the name of an admirer, very solemnly repeats the passage, at the same time holding the Bible suspended by joining the ends of her little fingers under the handle of the key. If the key retain its position during the repetition of the words, the person mentioned is considered to be rejected, and another name is tried, till the book turns round and falls through the fingers, which is a sure sign the person just named will marry her.

There is another plan for obtaining the name of a future husband. The maiden must get a peas-cod with nine peas in it, hang it upon the house door, and whosoever comes first in at the door, she may rest assured her sweetheart will have the same name.

About Wakefield and in other parts of Yorkshire, the marriageable maidens get on the top of a gate and look through a silk handkerchief at the first new moon of the new year, and repeat the following rhyme:

“All hail to thee, new moon,
All hail to thee!
I pray thee, new moon,
Reveal to me this night
Who shall my future husband be.”

The girl expects to have presented to her in her dreams during the night her future husband. The number of moons seen through the handkerchief represents the number of years that must pass before she becomes a wife.

The Lead Melting.

If a damsel is wishful to know the calling of her future husband, she will, on New Year’s Eve, melt some lead and pour it into a glass of water, and observe the forms the drops assume. When they resemble scissors, she concludes he will be a tailor; if the form is that of a hammer, he will be a smith or carpenter; and so forth.

There is quite a bit of material in regards to the different aspects of courtship and marriage to be found in Ozark Magic and Folklore, including a fair amount concerning the matter of how a girl may determine the identity of her future husband. There are a number of practices similar to those found above, such as is with the ‘dumb cake’ practice which is reported here as a ‘dumb supper’. There is also a poem to be found, said to the first moon which is said to cause dreaming of the future husband, much as above:

The girl who looks at the new moon over her right shoulder and repeats:
New moon, new moon, do tell me
Who my own true lover will be,
The color of his hair, the clothes that he will wear
And the happy day he will wed me,
will dream of her future mate that night.

Among the many other methods of determining a future husband, my favorites included:

Placing a snail in a jar over night, which will in turn reveal the initials of the future husband in its trail.

Boiling an egg, removing the yolk and filling the cavity with salt. Eating the egg before bed, the future bride is to dream “that somebody fetches her a gourd filled with water. The man who brings her the water is destined to be her husband.”

A girl finding a pod with nine peas hangs it over the door and the next eligible man walking under it is to be her husband.

If a girl wets her nightdress, hangs it before the fireplace to dry, and goes to bed stark naked in a room by herself, she is sure to see her future mate before morning. The story is that his image appears as soon as the nightdress is dry enough to be turned; he walks into the room, trns the nightdress around and walks out again. There are many stories about this “conjure,” some of them a bit ribald.

Or a girl might urinate on the sleeve of a man’s shirt and hang it up between her bed and the fireplace. In this case her future husband is forced to appear in the night and move the shirt so that it will not burn. “He aint really there, of course,” one waman told me. “She just dreams it.”

By wrapping up some of her hair and fingernail clippings in a green leaf and placing them into the ashes of the fireplace a girl is said to be able to conjure a phantom of the man she is to marry. She sits at the fireplace and when the package begins to get warm, the future husband phantom is supposed to save them from the fire.

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