Friday, January 6, 2012

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 13: Married Over The Anvil: Gretna Green

Welcome to my continuing series on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.


It's a story as old as marriage itself: a young couple falls in love, but their parents don't approve. They rush off to find a friendly clergyman and tie the knot in secret. Under the watchful eye of God's representative, the couple is joined in holy matrimony. For all the emphasis on protocol and social etiquette, eloping Regency couples were hardly unknown.

Prior to 1753, that basic scenario above could pretty much work out in England and Wales. In theory, people were supposed to also have a license or a marriage bann (public posted announcements of the upcoming marriage to give people a chance to come forward if they knew a reason to object). In addition, the marriage was supposed to be celebrated in a parish of either the bride or the groom. The actual legal nitty-gritty, though, only truly required the aforementioned friendly clergyman. Where there are legal loop-holes, of course, there are people who take advantage of them. Young couples, and various other sorts who might otherwise have some difficulties getting married, took advantage of these opportunities.

In an effort to tighten down on these sort of clandestine marriages, the Marriage Act of 1753 was introduced. For couples under the age of 21, parents could potentially object, though there were ways around that. Technically a couple getting married with a bann, and, as long as their parents didn't register active dissent, the marriage was valid. This could still be tricky though, as it required some potential subterfuge and banns typically were posted for a period upping the risk of discovery.

The act also helped legally formalize the rules many people were previously bypassing and so helped reduce the number of clandestine marriages (though obviously didn't eliminate them all). It, however, had a number of important exceptions. Among one of the more notable was that the act only applied in England and Wales. It didn't apply to overseas marriages or marriages in Scotland. While the latter could potentially create some marriage legal issues for couples, the lack of standing in Scotland actually created a window of opportunity.

Scottish marriage law during the Regency period had much lower age requirements than the act established in England or Wales: 14 for boys, 12 for girls. It also didn't require parental consent for those of age. In addition, under Scottish law, a publicly witnessed promise and subsequent consummation was enough. So, if 18-year old Jane and William wanted to get married despite their parent's objections, if they could make it over the border, it was a simple matter of finding a willing public witness. Blacksmiths (so-called anvil priests or blacksmith priests) were popular choices, as they were distinct, known individuals of the community.

While a number of border villages and towns became stop for the occasional eloping couple, the village of Gretna Green was the first that would be encountered along the path from London to Edinburgh. This made it a popular destination for eloping English couples during the Regency.

No comments: