The myth of common law marriage – that couples who live together have the same legal rights as married couples – springs from a time when there was uncertainty about what constituted a marriage. Church and State marriage ceremonies are relatively recent – grafted onto older popular rites whose legitimacy was not dependent on written law.
Marriage by consent
In earlier times, the validity of a marriage depended on the consent of the two parties publicly announced or at least symbolised by the exchange of rings or love tokens.
These common rituals were spoken transactions, celebrated by the parties themselves; their witness and memory of the events were the evidence that gave the marriage legitimacy.
Among Anglo-Saxons, the Beweddung was a public ceremony led by the father of the bride. The groom and his people offered weds to the bride’s guardians – guarantees that she would be looked after.