A brief history of honeymoons (and how the post-wedding holiday got its name)

When did newlyweds start taking ‘honeymoons’? As Emily Brand explains, the tradition of couples taking a holiday immediately after marriage most likely stems from ‘bridal tours’ popular amongst the upper classes, combined with the rise of popular travel and tourism in the 1800s…

c1954: A photo-fiction serial telling the story of a young couple on honeymoon in the South of France. The parts are played by actors Mark Hashfield and Simone Lovell. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is only natural that a newly-married couple might want some time away from the spotlight to enjoy each other’s company after their wedding day, and a short trip following the ceremony is a long-standing tradition. In the early modern era, undertaking a post-wedding ‘tour’ allowed wealthy couples to visit friends and family, while others preferred to retreat from society and get to know each other better. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn reportedly spent more than a week at Thornbury Castle, Gloucestershire; while Charles II withdrew with his new bride to Hampton Court Palace. There were other reasons to wish for privacy: one late 18th-century newspaper boldly declared that after their wedding a military officer and an heiress “set out for Norwich, to consummate their Nuptials”.

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In the 19th century, affordable railway travel allowed even working-class newlyweds to take a special trip to the seaside or the city, while more affluent couples might escape to the continent or plan a ‘bridal tour’ of the Lake District. But far from the pleasure-filled break we hope for today, Victorian critics described this period as “a month of enforced seclusion”. If married during the summer, at least, they might go sightseeing – winter brides would be stuck inside, “fearfully bored”.

The changing face of marriage

Learn more about the history of relationships…  

Why is it called a ‘honeymoon’?

Until the end of the 1800s, the word ‘honeymoon’ did not in fact denote the post-wedding excursion, but merely the first month of marriage. Providing one of the earliest recorded uses, a book of 1552 explains that the term ‘hony mone’ originated with “the vulgar people” and proverbially applied to such a be newe maried, whiche wyll not fall out at the fyrste, but thone loveth the other at the beginnynge excedyngly, the likelyhode of theyr exceadynge love appearing to asawge…”

In the mid-18th century, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary defined it as “the first month after marriage when there is nothing but tenderness and pleasure” – the implication being that their affections would wane with the moon. Claims that it was linked to an ancient practice of drinking honey-mead for 30 days seem to have been sown by the Victorians.

In the later 19th century the term was increasingly applied to the wedding trip itself – in 1881 a fashionable magazine declared that avoiding society was no longer a prerequisite and “short honeymoons” were now in vogue. “Some brides are contented with three days’ retirement”, it declared, “a whole month is hopelessly old-fashioned”. In “these fast-going times”, it explained, the pace of life was simply “too great”. By the turn of the century, as the length of the traditional celebration shortened, the holiday could become more extravagant. Journalists of the early 1900s gleefully described adventurous honeymoon trips in balloons, caravans, submarines, or scaling mountains and voyaging to the South Pole.

Fashions in honeymooning come and go like any other. With the cost of modern weddings often prohibitive, many couples now choose a less expensive ‘mini-moon’ – a return, perhaps, to the more modest bridal tours of our ancestors.

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Emily Brand is an author and historian specialising in the long 18th century, especially the trials and tribulations of romantic (and not-so-romantic) relationships in England. Her new book, The Fall of the House of Byron, is out now