Elopement. It’s a major theme in Georgian and Regency romances. Like many people, I spent my teens reading the romances of Georgette Heyer and a number of my favourite stories had an elopement theme. These days the runaway match made at Gretna Green still frequently crops up.
The tradition of English couples heading to Gretna in order to marry is rooted in Scottish law. Compared with their English neighbours, the marriage laws of 18th century Scotland were less strict. Girls aged 12 and boys aged 14 were able to marry without parental approval. By contrast, from 1753, England’s Marriage Act prevented couples under the age of 21 marrying without their parents’ consent.
In Scotland there was also no need for the reading of banns, or even the necessity of tying the knot in church, hence the fact that the Gretna village blacksmith was renowned as an “anvil priest.” Rather sweetly it was said that like the metals he forged, the blacksmith would join couples together in the heat of the moment, but bind them for eternity. (Although contrary to popular belief, the blacksmith’s shop was not the venue for Gretna marriages until the late 19th century.)
In fact the blacksmith was not the only person who could marry a couple. Under Scotland’s “irregular marriage” traditions anybody could carry out marriages whether they were the farmer, the blacksmith, the toll masters, or the landlord of the local tavern, a passing highwayman or the local smugglers.
It was not until the Lord Brougham Act of 1856 that the marriage laws were tightened. After that the couples were required to be resident in the parish for 21 days before the ceremony.
In The Lady and the Laird it was fun to explore Scotland’s marriage laws. Lucy and Robert take advantage of the fact that they do not need to have the banns read before they marry. Lucy’s brother Lachlan, whose elopement with Robert’s fiancée Dulcibella causes so much trouble, runs away to England with his bride, passing through Gretna Green on his way south from the Scottish Highlands in a reverse of what eloping couples normally did! And in the next book, One Night with the Laird, I delve once again into the more obscure Scots marriage laws. These have always fascinated me – for Notorious, in my previous series The Scandalous Women of the Ton, I researched grounds for annulment in 19th century Scotland.
There is one thing that has always puzzled me about Gretna elopements. Runaway couples so often head off up the Great North Road to Scotland. This makes perfect sense if setting off from London or the eastern side of England. However a route like that would take an eloping pair via York to the Scottish border north of Berwick on Tweed and from there to Edinburgh, as the poet Shelley did with Harriet Westbrook, for example in 1811. The one place the Great North Road would not take you was to Gretna, which is, to coin a phrase, way out west. Author Louise Allen, who is an expert on stagecoaches and coaching routes comments:
“Anywhere across the border would be OK although you had to be very, very careful with the Great North Road because of Berwick being in England. The toll keeper who usually did the weddings once they’d crossed out of Berwick’s boundaries into Scotland actually got sent to prison for performing the ceremony in Berwick town itself for one couple who arrived at the tollgate.” Clearly the English authorities were keen to stamp out this pernicious irregular act if the toll-keeper made the mistake of straying over the border!
In order actually to get to Gretna Green from London you had to take a left turn at Boroughbridge in Yorkshire onto a road that crossed the country from east to west. This route took the weary runaways to Penrith and from there to Carlisle and points north to Glasgow. So Gretna Green was not on the route from London to Edinburgh, nor was it necessarily the easiest or closest point at which an eloping couple could cross the border from England (unless they were coming up from Cornwall and the South West!) In fact it wasn’t even the first place after the Scots border, which was actually a village called Springfield where couples could marry at the King’s Head. (My thanks to author Joanna Maitland for that information and the picture of the King’s Head circa 1840.)
According to Olga Sinclair’s book on Gretna Green, the rush began in the 1770s although there was no turnpike road to Gretna until 1777 so before that eloping couples had to travel by boat or by fording the Solway (dangerous; see my previous post on Morecambe Sands). Joanna Maitland again: “Marriages were performed in lots of border places, but Gretna was the most popular. One of the Fleet prison parsons, having been forced to stop doing Fleet weddings after the Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, shut up shop and advertised that he was removing to Gretna Green.” According to Louise Allen, eloping couples would usually arrive on the 6am stagecoach at an average of 2 per day.
Gretna might not have been the closest or easiest place in Scotland but it does seem to have achieved a reputation as being the pre-eminent place for “irregular weddings”. A case of very clever 18th and 19th century marketing, perhaps?