During the Regency, despite what some authors may include within the story line, the age of consent for females was twenty-one, not twenty-five as some would lead the reader to believe. Although I do not know from where the idea of the female having a guardian until age 25, what I assume is happening is the author (and many times the reader) is confusing the idea of a female’s guardianship with the age of majority. The confusion likely comes from fathers or another person setting up a trust for a female. The trust would provide the woman a “fortune” at age 25 or when she married (if she married with the approval of the man named as guardian of her money.)
If the woman did not have her guardian’s approval (and was less that age 21) and chose to marry, she just would not receive the money. So age of consent was not the issue as much as age of majority. In most places it was 21. In the Danish West Indies it was 25.
If an underage lady eloped to Gretna Green without her guardian’s consent, can the guardian have the marriage declared illegal and annulled? The answer is “No.” One could marry in Scotland at 14 without permission, so as long as the girl was 14, the marriage could not be annulled.
English males and females considered a journey to Gretna Green when permission was withheld because Scottish Law meant they required only a witness, not even a priest, and as long as they were fourteen or over then English Law accepted a marriage that was witnessed in Scotland. For the aristocratic class, there were fewer mad escapes to Scotland than the Regency romance genre would lead the reader to believe. The “Smithy” was just the first building one came across over the Scottish border, and that is how the Smithy became the place the deed was done (or generally not done), but when English Law first changed there were some ten different people all over Gretna who set themselves up to offer to be a witness to couples crossing the border.
A book about Robert Elliot: Gretna Green Anvil Priest 1814-1840 describes his stint
as a “marriage priest” in Gretna. “Elliot was born in Northumberland, the son of a farmer. While working for a stagecoach company, he met Ann Graham, the granddaughter of Joseph Paisley. They were married in January 1811 at the village church in Gretna Green, as was considered proper; very few of the local people were married in the irregular way.
“The couple lived with Paisley, and Elliot assisted the old man with his marriage ceremonies. When Paisley died in 1814, Elliot was a natural successor and he continued the marriage trade.
“In 1842 Elliot had his memoirs published. In them he states that he performed between 4,000 and 8,000 ceremonies. He also claims that he was the only priest working in Gretna Green at that time and had been for the last thirty years. However, it had been put beyond doubt that there were at least two other priests at the time.
“The majority of Elliot’s history is taken from his memoirs in which he also gives accounts of ‘noteworthy elopements’ but it is likely that the events of some of his stories occurred before he became a Gretna Green Priest. Unfortunately the majority of his registers, and those of Paisley, were lost when Elliot’s handicapped daughter set fire to her bed one night, and burned herself to death together with the registers that were stored on the bed’s canopy.” (Visiting Gretna Green)
“He [Elliot] gives the form of service he used for celebrating marriages – which, though much abbreviated, appears to be taken almost direct from the Marriage Service of the Church of England. He also narrates several stories of runaway marriages – some of them tragic ones. The most dramatic, if I remember aright, told of the shooting of a bridegroom, immediately after the consummation of the marriage, by the father of the bride – infuriated to find that his pursuit had been in vain…. These tragic occurrences, however, would appear to be matters of the far past. Nothing of the kind was ever mentioned by Mr Linton – who succeeded Elliot as Priest – as I was informed by Mrs. Armstrong, his daughter, when I came to examine Gretna Hall Registers; which, together with copies of the marriage certificates, are in her keeping. In these Registers – which date from the year 1825, and some of which are in the handwriting of Robert Elliot appear, among many of less note, the names of a Bourbon Prince of Naples, Duke of Capua; of a Duke Sforza Cesarini, a Lord Drumlanrigh, and a Lady__Villers, a daughter of one of the Earls of Jersey. (The Scot’s Magazine. Volume 4, June-November 1888-1889, Edited by the Rev. W. W. Tulloch, B. D., Perth: S. Cowan & Co., Printers and Publishers, 1889)
The Scottish “priest” asked the couple their purpose in appearing before him and then asked the traditional question of whether the male took the female to be his wife and if the female took the male to be her husband. He also presented them with a marriage certificate and recorded the marriage in his books. Scotland had a civil register years before such a recording appeared in England. One could be married merely by going to this registrar and having him record the marriage. Quite often the man was willing to predate the entry back several months if the woman was pregnant even though it legally did not matter when the child was conceived. All that mattered was whether or not the parents were married when the child was born.
What about marrying by common license? Did those have to be done at the local parish as well, or could they be done at any church? Also, how common were common licenses?
Some sources lead us to believe that most aristocratic marriages were done by common license and only the lower classes had the banns read. Is this true?
The Common license required the name of the parish church in which the wedding would take place. According to the parish registers, many people of the gentry and middling sort, as well as aristocrats married by common license. However, some felt that the ribald remarks and boisterous fun executed by some of the villagers/friends kept them from having the banns called. Most of the special licenses were used by the aristocracy.
Did couples need to receive special approval to marry at a local church, like St James or St. Peter’s? A couple married at their parish church unless they had a special license so they could marry at any place a clergyman would conduct the ceremony, including a drawing room in a great house or even a village green.
Although it was legal to marry in Scotland at 14 without permission, English children needed permission until they were 21. However, a child could be married off at age seven in England with parental permission. Supposedly this child had the right to deny the marriage at age 12. Any marriage after age 12 for girls and age 14 for boys was considered valid if done with parental permission. The number of marriages of infants decreased during the age of enlightenment until the 18th century when people started to think age 16 was too young. Also, the trend of the day was towards “nuclear families,” instead of more communal living with many generations in the same house. Marriage statistics take in all classes of people. A peer of the realm or his wealthy heir could marry at any age, for he had the fortune to provide for his new family, as well as his widowed mother and siblings. A man of lower status had to be established in his profession or job to be able to afford a wife. In such cases, quite often the would-be bride was also working in some way to acquire money for the new home.
The fact that it was legal to marry at fourteen does not mean it was common. There are statistics that say during the early 19th Century the average age for women to marry in the British Isles was mid-twenties. As for the short life expectancy, one must look at how the statistics were developed. For example, many who passed early on did so in the first few years of infancy and childhood. If one had six children, and three passed before the age of one and the other three lived to be fifty, their average life expectancy was only twenty-five. We must remember that numbers can be manipulated to prove whatever we wish.