Marriage in the Celtic World

The Uninvited Guest by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Uninvited Guest by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Marwage. Marwage is whaught bwings us togethor, today. Marwage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam within a dweam.”

(If you don’t know where that quote is from, get thee to Netflix!)

Celtic marriage was very different from what we think of today. It was very rarely done out of love, usually out of political gain for the families/tribes involved. It also was not a religious event, but a contractual agreement. (Celtic law is very complex, so what I’m going into here merely skims the surface. It’s based in Brehon Law, which is the only extant law we have for the Celtic people. It is known as the law of Ireland, but likely similar laws existed in Britain as well.) The laws governing marriage were set up to ensure children were protected (illegitimacy did not exist – more on that in a future post), make clear the rights of the husband and wife, and protect the property rights of both parties.

You may have heard of the practice of handfasting, trial marriages that lasted a year and a day. These did happen, most commonly on Lughnasa when the tribes were together, but when this occurred, it was more like an engagement. The realities of contractual marriage were much more complex. (If you want details that will make your head spin, read Thompson’s book, p. 129-175)

Under Brehon Law, there were 10 forms of marriage, each diminishing in importance, legal rights and desirability (thanks to Epona Perry for this simplified list):

  1. A first degree union takes place between partners of equal rank and property.
  2. A second degree union in which a woman has less property than the man and is supported by him.
  3. A third degree union in which a man has less property than the woman and has to agree to management of the woman’s cattle and fields.
  4. A fourth degree union is the marriage of the loved one in which no property rights changed hands, though children’s rights are safeguarded.
  5. A fifth degree union is the mutual consent of the man and woman to share their bodies, but live under separate roofs. (And ideal situation for some, I’m sure!)
  6. A sixth degree union in which a defeated enemy’s wife is abducted. This marriage is valid only as long as the man can keep the woman with him. (We see this a lot in Arthurian legend and traditional Welsh tales.)
  7. A seventh degree union is called a soldier’s marriage and is a temporary and primarily sexual union (a one night stand).
  8. An eighth degree union occurs when a man seduces a woman through lying, deception or taking advantage of her intoxication (equivalent to the modern definition of “date rape”).
  9. A ninth degree union is a union by forcible rape (this also occurs in Arthurian legend and Celtic folk stories).
  10. A tenth degree union occurs between feeble-minded or insane people.

Under the law, women had the right choose their husbands and could not be forced to marry. Although, given the nature of some of the types of marriage listed above, and the likely influence (read: threats) of family members, one has to wonder how much choice some women really had. Dowries were very important, as brides were purchased from their fathers by their husbands for what became known as a bride-price. Some of this was kept in reserve for the woman, should her marriage end at the fault of her husband, so she would not be left destitute. (More on divorce in a future post.) There was also a virgin-price that guaranteed the wife’s purity. It’s also interesting to note that if two people of unequal rank wanted to marry, the person of lower rank was responsible for the financial burden. We can assume this was meant to keep Celtic nobility from “marrying down.”

The Celts were believers in polygamy, so second wives and concubines were common, especially before the Roman invasion of their native lands. Multiple husbands were less common, but not unheard of. There were even laws that stated a first wife could legally murder the second wife within the first three days of marriage! She would still have to pay a fine, but other than that she was within her rights. (Brehon Law used the payment of fines to solve just about every problem, from divorce to murder.) Some say this is where the tradition of a honeymoon, or a husband and second wife going away for the first few days of their marriage, originated. (Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) A chief wife had rights to her husband’s estate, while other wives were govered by informal contracts that often didn’t require the first wife to provide for them at all, or for the husband to leave them anything in the event of his death.

It’s hard to tell how Roman law, and then Christianity, affected these practices, but I believe it’s safe to assume polygamy and some of the more scandalous forms of marriage fell out of favor once Christianity became a major factor in Celtic life. We know that by the time these laws were written down by Irish monks, they were already amending pagan-era rules to suit their Christian audiences.

In my books, I use these laws as the basis for my characters’ actions, but I don’t stick strictly to them since we know so little about where and when they were really applied. Besides, the threat of death is much more dramatic than just paying a fine, and I find it hard to believe that the war-like Celts didn’t exact bloody revenge when they were wronged.


Ancient Celts: Celtic Marriage by Epona Perry
Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson
The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook by Laurence Ginnell

What about you? What have you read/heard about Celtic marriages? How have you seen them portrayed in books and in Hollywood? What do you think about these laws?

9 thoughts on “Marriage in the Celtic World

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    • Unfortunately, I haven’t come across anything that specific in my research. I don’t even know if records that detail the ceremony have been found. The best I can surmise from what I’ve read is that there wasn’t a ceremony like we think of it. At best it would have been like a business transaction: a signing of a marriage contract and payment (often on both sides) of money, cattle, land or something else agreed upon. Knowing the Celts, there likely would have been a grand feast after to celebrate the alliance of the two families/tribes. (They liked to party!) There wasn’t a religious element to it, at least until Christianity took hold. (This, of course, is in the cases where the parties and the families all agreed to the marriage. The other forms would have been different.)

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  4. seriously, this is completely fascinating. It also reminds me a little bit of the Norse customs and laws — wherein payment of gold could usually right any wrong, also. ha. Really cool! Thanks for sharing this!

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