One of the reasons I love the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is the way it ended so romantically with the wedding of Marianne and Colonel Brandon. The scene began with children waving colorful ribbons on sticks following a man to church carrying a two- or three-tiered cake on a pole. How did this tradition start, I wondered? And why did the celebrants follow it?
First, let’s address the tiered wedding cake, whose origin lies in a romantic, though unsubstantiated tale:
Thomas Rich “was a young man apprenticed to a baker near Ludgate. He fell in love with his master’s daughter and, at the end of his apprenticeship when he set up his own business, asked for her hand in marriage. The proposal was given her father’s approval. As a baker, Rich wished to create a spectacular cake for the wedding feast, but was unsure of how to create something completely new for his betrothed…until, one day, inspiration hit him. A cake in layers tiered, diminishing as it rose. And thus began, according to the story, the tradition of the tiered wedding cake, based on Wren’s steeple for St. Brides. – City of London Churches, by Mark McManus
The origin of the wedding procession is steeped in history, tradition, and superstition. The custom began in the days of the Romans as a morning offering to the gods and an evening filled with song. Symbolically the bride was transferred from her home to that of the groom, who now assumed guardianship of his wife. While symbolism remained – wheat stood for ‘plenty’, for example – singers and musicians began to accompany the procession, adding an especially festive touch.
In medieval times, the processional was especially colourful. Gaily dressed minstrels sang and piped at the head of the procession. Next came a young man bearing the bride-cup, which was a chalice or vase of silver or silver-gilt, decorated with gilt, rosemary and ribbons. Then the bride walked, attended by two bachelors, and a dozen or so knights and pages. Next came maidens carrying bride cake, followed by girls with garlands of wheat. The bridegroom then appeared, led by two maidens, and walked in the midst of his close friends, including his “best man.” The relatives walked after him, and these were followed by less intimate friends. Finally, at some distance and appearing to have no concern in the festivities, or ceremony, appeared the bride’s father! – The Origins of the Members of the Bridal Party
As time progressed, the whole affair could become so noisy and disorderly that complaints were made by the town council. Should the groom elect not to walk with the procession, he would meet his bride at the door of the church or at the altar.
Ancient superstitions were attached to the wedding procession, many having to do with the success of the marriage and the couple’s happiness. One English custom said that the guest who found a ring in their slice of wedding place would be assured of happiness during the coming year. The ring would have been placed deliberately inside the cake before it was baked. In Yorkshire, if a plate holding wedding cake broke when it was thrown out of the window as the bride returned to her parents home after the ceremony, then the couple’s future would be happy. (From Wedding Superstitions)
Bonus Question: What role did Edward Ferrars play on the day Marianne and Colonel Brandon were married?