The Traditional Wedding Vows

by Jennifer Cram - Brisbane Marriage Celebrant ©
Categories: | Vows  |  Wedding Legals |
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Bone China saucer that has the words
                              For Better For Worse In Sickness In Health
                              round the rim and an illustration of two
                              blue birds in the centre together with
                              stylised floral elementsFor Better. For Worse. For Richer. For Poorer. Possibly some of the most familiar words in the English language. The "traditional wedding vows".

These words have been said by millions, hundreds of millions of marrying couples since they were first included in the religious rite of marriage 500 or so years ago. With slight tweaks over the years to reflect changes in the English language and in social norms, they been said in religious and secular weddings, by real marrying couples, and by actors in stage and screen.

There is nothing wrong with them! For many people, their familiarity appeals. They cover the bases in succinct, simple words. In fact, a large part of their power lies in their simplicity. And in the fact that, with the exception of the promise to love, every single thing that they promise is an observable behaviour. Something that can be seen to be done.

They can also serve as a template for a more personal expression of your commitment to how you will behave towards one another in your marriage.

Using the Traditional Vows as a Template


How would you use the traditional vows as a template for your personal vows?

Rewrite the traditional vows in your own words. Personalise with examples of what is important in your own relationship, how you will demonstrate your love. How you will cherish one another in practical terms.

The Legal Bits


The (Australian) Marriage Act specifies that each of you must say to the other
I call upon the persons included in the ceremony. They present to witness that I, A.B. (or C.D.), take thee, C.D. (or A.B.), to be my lawful wedded wife (husband or spouse)’ .

It you are being married outside a church ceremony, therefore, by a civil celebrant or in the Registry Office or at a courthouse, you must say this, which means you can't use the first line of the traditional vows, which is

I, (First name), take you (First name) to be my wedded wife/husband

But, as you might notice, those words are the core of the legal vows that we say in civil ceremonies. And there is a good reason for this.

A little bit of history


History explains why the legal vows that must be said in Australia to create your marriage are so similar to the first line of the traditional vows, the legal vows said in English speaking countries everywhere, and to the first line of the vows still said in Church of England ceremonies. It all goes back to Henry VIII's break with Rome.

From the time of the Reformation, the Church of England (the template used for civil marriage ceremonies which, in the Registry Office version have always been pretty well the same ceremony with the religious bits stripped out), operated under legal provisions established by the Parliament in Westminster. And the traditional marriage vows, as per the Book of Common Prayer, were part of the civil laws of England. At least, until Oliver Cromwell abolished them and substituted a system of civil marriages (An Act touching Marriages and the Registering thereof; and also touching Births and Burials,1653).

Under Cromwell's Act
  • The couple had to appear before a Justice of the Peace to give at least 21 days notice (3 consecutive Sundays) notice of their intention to marry
  • If either was under 21 they had to have parental consent
  • Once the required notice period had passed, and their intentional published on those 3 consecutive Sundays, a certificate of Due Performance was issued. Without that certificate the couple could not be married
  • The wedding was in the presence of Justice of the Peace
  • The wording in the Act is:
The Man to be married, taking the Woman to be married by the hand, shall plainly and distinctly pronounce these words:

I A. B. do here in the presence of God the searcher of all hearts, take thee C. D. for my wedded Wife; and do also in the presence of God, and before these witnesses, promise to be unto thee a loving and faithful Husband.

And then the Woman, taking the Man by the hand, shall plainly and distinctly pronounce these words:

I C. D. do here in the presence of God the searcher of all hearts, take thee A. B. for my wedded Husband; and do also in the presence of God, and before these witnesses, promise to be unto thee a loving, faithful and obedient Wife.
  • The Justice then had to declare them married by saying No other Marriage shall be good.
This Act also established the practice of recording civil marriage details in a register.

The Puritan Legacy in the Traditional Vows


There are three things that I find fascinating about the legacy of Cromwell's short-lived marriage reforms
  1. The trend towards simplicity and reduced ceremonial, together with the downplaying of marriage as not a sacrament and not peculiar to the Christian Church, and therefore of universal public interest, formed the basis of the implementation of civil, registry office marriages as we know them today.
  2. Likewise, the conducting of marriage ceremonies by persons not ordained as clergy, a feature of registry office marriages, has continued with the implementation of the civil celebrant program in Australia and the push for independent marriage celebrants to be authorised to solemnise legal marriage in England in Wales.
  3. While, post Restoration, the Church of England dispensed with the Puritan, Scots-Presbyterian influenced alternative vows of Cromwell's Marriage Act, in reverting to the previous version of the vows it retained one thing. The requirement of the bride to promise to obey. And it wasn't until relatively recently that most Christian religions, fundamentalist churches being the exception, eliminated that requirement.

Related Information


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                        Jennifer Cram Brisbane Marriage Celebrant
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