Gretna Green is a village located in south Scotland famous for runaway weddings. People who partook in these weddings usually did so to avoid the prohibitions and legalities of England’s marriage laws. In my new release, The Wallflower’s Godmother, the Earl of Dunford’s brother flees to Scotland to marry his ladylove in an effort to help her escape her abusive brother.
England’s Marriage Act of 1753 made a marriage null and void if the marriage took place without the reading of the banns or procuring a special license. This law also stated that the marriage ceremony must be carried out publicly in a church or chapel with a clergyman, during the approved daylight hours. No one under the age of twenty-one could marry without parental consent. All marriages must be entered into record, which was usually a parish registry.
England’s Marriage Act of 1836 legalized marriages of Jews, Quakers, and Roman Catholics, who previously had to obtain approval to validate their marriage by having an Anglican ceremony. This law also allowed people to marry in a registry office allowing them to conduct a civil marriage contract.
Prohibitions to Marriage:
A widower could not marry his wife’s sister, his niece by marriage, his stepdaughter, or his aunt by marriage. A widow could not marry her husband’s brother. A lunatic or crazy person could not marry unless lucid.
Due to the marriage laws some couples found it necessary to head for Scotland’s border where marriage laws were more lax. In Scotland it was possible to marry at a young age, boys could marry at 14 and girls at 12, without parental consent. The most favored location was Gretna Green. Gretna Green’s location of being two miles over the border, along with the construction of the toll road in 1770’s, made this village easily accessible from London.
To accommodate the visitors seeking to strike the anvil, a local home was converted into an Inn called Gretna Hall in 1801. Accounts from the time period claim that the men who performed these wedding ceremonies were seen as unprincipled in the town. This in part could be due to the fact that these weddings were conducted speedily as there was a good chance parents were in hot pursuit of the elopers. I assume it depends on who was conducting the ceremony, as true blacksmiths were respected tradesmen in their communities. The term “striking the anvil” came into being as the blacksmith would strike an anvil after the ceremony, this also led to the officiators being referred to as “anvil priests.” The weddings were done for a price, anywhere between 5 to 50 guineas, and then some were done for a pint of ale. It all depended on your status and financial standing, and likely your manner toward the anvil priest. There had to be two witnesses present during the quicky ceremony. In the village of Gretna Green witnesses consisted of Gretna Green citizens, which often included a man named Joseph Paisley. For 60 years Paisley officiated as Gretna Green’s parson. The poor could not afford to make the trip to elope in Scotland, unless they were marrying someone with financial backing. It is estimated in 1798 that 72 weddings took place at Gretna Green, although the average was around 45.
England’s Marriage Act of 1857 prohibited marriages to be conducted in Scotland unless one of the parties had lived in Scotland for three weeks prior to wedding. The residential requirement was lifted in 1977. Gretna Green remained a hot spot for weddings until 1940, when new laws forbid anyone other than clergy or an official registrar from conducting weddings.
Today, Gretna Green remains one of the world’s most popular wedding destinations and hosts over 5,600 weddings a year. The most popular and hard to acquire venue is the “World Famous Old Blacksmith’s Shop,” called the Old Smithy. It has three wedding rooms and each have an anvil. It is also a tourist attraction and museum.
A special thank you to Kristine Hughes, Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, http://www.gretnagreen.com/why-flee-to-gretna-green-a739 , Roy and Lesley Adkins, Jane Austen’s England.