Saturday, June 14, 2014

Medieval Russian Weddings

by Carol Mcgrath

The years following The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 saw a period of unrest in the lands of the Rus. The three sons of the Prince of Kiev, Yaroslav I, united in a triumvirate to keep control of the great cities of 11th century Russia against warring Steppe tribes, but later competition between their princely families led to several decades of internecine conflict. 

The Rus lands ruled from Kiev were extremely wealthy. There was much to protect and great power to gain. The prince who controlled Kiev controlled other Rus cities and, importantly, trade routes to Byzantium. The Russian princes made significant European marriages throughout the 11th century. They also married Steppe princesses as part of treaty-making and they married into the hugely wealthy Byzantine royal house. Grand alliances were made through marriage. 

The princes were deeply religious but they wooed the Byzantine Church. They built Cathedrals and monasteries along Byzantine lines and followed the creed of The Greek Orthodox Church. The greatest were replicas, placed in Kiev and in Novgorod, of St Sophia in Constantinople (later named Istanbul).

Saint Sophia in Kiev built in IIthC

Sometime between 1068 and 1073, Gytha, the daughter of King Harold II of England, was married to a Rus prince, Prince Vladimir. At the time they were exactly the same age, around 18 years old, and he later became one of medieval Russia's greatest rulers. He was the only son of the youngest brother in the triumvirate mentioned above. Gytha, whom I call Thea in my novels, had gone into exile in Denmark with her brothers and grandmother in 1068. Her second cousin, King Swegn Estrithson, brokered the marriage. 

Vladimir's testimony, left to their sons, can be discovered in The Russian Primary Chronicle which was set down in Kiev in the early 12th C. As always The Primary Chronicle has the bias of those monks from the Caves Monastery of Kiev who wrote it and, naturally, women are rarely mentioned. However, The Primary Chronicle does otherwise give a reliable account of these years. It is within this Chronicle's ancient pages that a reader can trace the events of the 7th decade of 11thC Russia. It also contains stories within stories and even in translation is a wonderful work.


So what would Princess Gytha's marriage ceremony have entailed? Marriage ceremonies did not change significantly for centuries since Russia became Christian in the second half of the 10th C. So looking at a 16th C marriage ceremony sheds light on the wedding rituals of the 11thC.

First there was the betrothal. Although usually both bride and groom were present, the groom did not view his bride. A popular 17thC saying was 'A maiden seen is copper. An unseen lady is gold.' A marriage was not viewed as a matter of choice but rather it was preordained by fate. 

The financial contract was made. In Russia a woman kept control of her dowry which was a quarter of her father's worth. A half went on the wedding ceremony and the other was made up of valuables. 

At the betrothal ceremony the girl was inspected for chastity, and then she was given a ring by the groom's mother. She was also presented with a cross, fruit and, interestingly, head gear for her servants. Betrothal was as binding as the marriage ceremony itself. It was sanctified in a church and rings were exchanged by both parties.

Rus wedding costumes

Marriage rituals were even more important. On the first day of the wedding which spanned three days, the bride was veiled for the entire day to protect her from evil. She wore this veil throughout the first night. She could not speak until the end of the third day. 

The first day began with a pre-wedding feast held separately. After this the groom's mother visited the bride, blessed her and helped her dress. A bridesmaid was sent to the groom to summon him to the bride's hall. He would arrive accompanied by his captain, the best man, a priest bearing a cross, candlebearers, and then other members of the procession would follow in order of age. Upon entering the antechamber of the bride's hall the groom and his captain knelt in four directions. The bride entered carrying a great loaf of bread. The consumption of this loaf by all present represented wealth and prosperity. After this the bride's hair was combed. Her women undid her single plait and rebraided her hair into two tresses, the symbol of marriage.

Medieval Wedding Costume from The Kremlin Collection

The bride was led to a sleigh covered with rich material.  The bride and groom traveled separately to the church where they did not touch the bare earth but walked on damask until they stood on gold material before the altar. The ceremony was extremely lengthy, consisting of blessings, readings from Genesis, St Paul to the Corinthians, the Miracle at Canna, and then the bride and groom each received a burning candle. The couple exchanged rings and were crowned with garlands.

The feast that followed had a center piece. This was a swan. Yet, the bride and groom did not eat. Gifts were exchanged, one of which was a whip presented by the bride's father to the groom, symbolizing that he has passed control of his daughter to her husband.  He tucked it into his tunic sash. At the end of the wedding feast the couple were bedded in the presence of the priest and guests. At last they were able to eat since others then fed them. All night long the bride's candle was lit. All night long she wore her veil.

Medieval but Greek.

In the morning the couple were bathed separately and placed back in bed where they received an audience with gifts. There was a second feast and day long celebration.

The third day was a repeat of the second. It involved the bathing ceremony again but this time along with a third great feast the bride and groom held court in the hall. Only now were they considered truly married and officially she could remove that veil.

So what did Princess Gytha experience as she came to Russia at a time of unrest? And did this couple fall in love? This is impossible to know. Vladimir was regarded highly as a great warrior and a good ruler and a religious man and a prince of great integrity, as least so the monks of the caves said in The Primary Chronicle. The couple had many children, and it is said that their first son, though he had an official Russian name, was called Harold for his grandfather. Princess Gytha died in the first decade of the 12th C. After her death Prince Vladimir married again twice.


Eve Levin- Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs 900-1700

Dorothy Atlanson- Society and Sexes in the Russian Past
Rubinovich- The Women in the Ancient Russian Family, Ukrainian Wedding Customs
The Russian Primary Chronicle- The Department of Slavonic Studies, Oxford. 

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife, 2013, The Swan-Daughter to be published by Accent Press September 18th 2014 and she is currently working on The Betrothed Sister, the story of Gytha Godwinsdatter and Vladimir of Kiev, a story of Medieval Russia.

Her website is



  1. Fascinating history. All one needs to know can be daunting when writing of this time and place! ....however every bit of history is grist for the fiction mill . One does research because one should....but also to attain fuel


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