Gretna Green: The “Las Vegas” Marriage Destination of the Regency Period

Scottish Elopements and the Marriage Act of 1753

“An Act for Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage,” popularly known as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act (1753), was the first statutory legislation in England and Wales to require a formal ceremony of marriage. Precipitated by a dispute about the validity of a Scottish marriage, the legislation took effect on 25 March 1754.

Before the Act, canon law of the Church of England governed the legal requirements for a valid marriage in England and Wales. These requirements involved the calling of the banns and a marriage license. The stipulation also required that the marriage should take place in the resident parish of one of the participants. However, these stipulations were not mandatory and did not render a marriage void for not following the directory requirements. An Anglican clergyman pronouncing the vows was the only indispensable requirement.

The Act tightened the existing ecclesiastical rules regarding marriage, except for Jews, Quakers, and, ironically, members of the British Royal Family. The exemption for the Royal Family was the basis of objection for Prince Charles’s 2005 civil ceremony with Camilla Parker-Bowles, civil marriage being the creation of statue law. It was also provided that the 1753 Act had no application to marriages celebrated overseas or in Scotland.

On the most southerly point of the English border on Scotland’s west side was the village of Gretna Green. It was on the main road from Carlisle to Glasgow. The road crossed the Sark River, which marked the border itself, a half mile from Gretna Green. On the English side of the border was the village of Longtown.  

Near the Solway Firth, the Regency era’s Greta Green is described in Gretna Green Memoirs as, “…[a] small village with a few clay houses, the parish kirk, the minister’s house, and a large inn. From it you have a fine view of the Solway, port Carlisle and the Cumberland hills, among which is the lofty Skiddaw; you also see Bowness, the place where the famous Roman wall ends.” Within Gretna, at the Headlesscross, is the junction of five coaching roads, and here lay the Blacksmith’s Shop.

The common phrase of the time was to be married “over the anvil,” meaning that the eloping couple took their vows at the first convenient stop, a blacksmith’s shop. “Blacksmith priests” conducted the ceremony, which was nothing more than a public acknowledgment of a couple’s desire to pledge themselves to one another.

In truth, many couples wed at the inn, or at other Scottish villages, and any man could set himself up as an ‘anvil priest.’ It was a lucrative trade. Anvil priests would receive the necessary fee, as well as an appropriate tip, which could be upwards of fifty guineas. According to Romances of Gretna Green, “…[t]he man who took up the trade of ‘priest’ had to reckon on the disapprobation of the local Church authorities.”

The Act effectively put a stop to clandestine marriages (valid marriages performed by an Anglican clergyman but not in accordance with the canons). It brought about the end of the notorious Fleet Marriages associated with London’s Fleet Prison. However, it increased the traffic along the North Road to Scottish “Border Villages” (Coldstream Bridge, Lamberton, Mordington, and Paxton Toll). In the 1770s a toll road passing through the hitherto obscure village of Graitney led to Gretna Green becoming synonymous with romantic elopements.

Despite many assertions to the contrary, the Act did not render invalid any marriage involving minors (those under 21) who married without parental consent. Since the Act specifically prohibited the courts from inquiring into the couple’s place of residence until after the marriage had been celebrated, many chose having the banns called in a different parish without their parents’ permission. The Act also did not do away with common-law marriages, or informal folk practices such as handfasting or broomstick marriages.

One of my favorite Regency authors, Louis Allen, has a fabulous post on Harlequin.com Community (http://community.harlequin.com/content/romance-elopement) on “The Romance of Elopement,” in which she speaks of the expensive race to the Scottish border. She explains, “
London to Gretna, via Manchester, is 320 miles. That is £20 for the chaise and horses alone at a time when a housemaid would be glad to earn £16 a year, all found.”

Rules of Marriages:

  1. Reading of the Banns occurred on 3 consecutive Sundays or Holy Days during Divine Service, immediately before the Offertory. At least one of the marrying couple had to be a resident in the parish, in which they wished to be married; the banns of the other party were read in his/her parish of residence, and a certificate provided from the clergyman stating it was properly done. Banns were good for three months. The wedding ceremony was scheduled at the church between 8 A.M. and noon.
  2. Wording:
 “I publish the Banns of marriage between Groom’s Name of–his local parish–and Bride’s Name of–her local parish. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first [second, third] time of asking.”
  3.  Common/Ordinary Licence – This could be obtained from any bishop or archbishop; a common/ordinary license meant the Banns need not be read – and so there was not the delay of two weeks. A sworn statement was given that there was no impediment [parties were not related to one another in the prohibited degrees, proof of deceased spouse given, etc.]. The marriage was required to take place in church or chapel where one party has already lived for 4 weeks. It was also good for 3 months from date of issue. Cost of the license: 10 shillings.
  4. Special License – Obtained from Doctors Commons in London, from the Archbishop of Canterbury or his representative. The difference between this and the Ordinary license was that it granted the right of the couple to marry at any convenient time or place. All other requirements were the same. Names of both parties were given at the time of the application. Cost: In 1808 a Stamp Duty was imposed on the actual paper, vellum or parchment the license was printed upon, of £4. In 1815, the duty increased to £5.

So how does the details of a Scottish marriage fit into my latest novel, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy? An ill-fated race to the Scottish border plays a major role in the mystery surrounding Georgiana Darcy’s vanishing from the Fitzwilliam property and in Darcy’s subsequent search for his sister.

Shackled in the dungeon of a macabre castle with no recollection of her past, a young woman finds herself falling in love with her captor – the estate’s master. Yet, placing her trust in him before she regains her memory and unravels the castle’s wicked truths would be a catastrophe.

Far away at Pemberley, the Darcys happily gather to celebrate the marriage of Kitty Bennet. But a dark cloud sweeps through the festivities: Georgiana Darcy has disappeared without a trace. Upon receiving word of his sister’s likely demise, Darcy and wife, Elizabeth, set off across the English countryside, seeking answers in the unfamiliar and menacing Scottish moors.

How can Darcy keep his sister safe from the most sinister threat she has ever faced when he doesn’t even know if she’s alive? True to Austen’s style and rife with malicious villains, dramatic revelations and heroic gestures, this suspense-packed mystery places Darcy and Elizabeth in the most harrowing situation they have ever faced – finding Georgiana before it is too late.

Website – www.rjeffers.com

Blog – https://reginajeffers.wordpress.com

Twitter – @reginajeffers

Publisher – Ulysses Press http://ulyssespress.com

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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5 Responses to Gretna Green: The “Las Vegas” Marriage Destination of the Regency Period

  1. Cora Lee says:

    Very nicely done. I’m always surprised by historical romance authors that don’t know details like this, especially when it’s important to the story. Thanks for taking the time to lay it all out in an easy-to-read format 🙂

    • Cora,
      I think the majority of authors attempt to use accurate details. I have had a few incidents (after a book was published) where I discovered errors. However, I agree that such attention to detail is important.

      • Cora Lee says:

        It is important, and a lot of authors do get things right. I’m a curious sort, so I will go look things up if a detail or event catches my fancy. I’ve learned quite a lot through fiction that way, and I’m always pleased when the author’s usage matches what actually happened 🙂

  2. suzan says:

    As usual I loved the info. Yikes, tho’ it sounds intense (your new book). I definitely have to read it, but it sounds like I’ll be on pins and needles.

    • You will love “The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy.” It is your style of book. It’s very much in the vein of “The Phantom of Pemberley.”

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