Ah, Gretna Green!
Who hasn’t heard of it?
If you’ve read one Regency romance in your entire life, then chances are you’ve heard of Gretna Green.
The place of forbidden love.
The “nest” where lovers would go to get married, away from the scorn of society.
Do you have a secret lover that your parents disapprove of? Are they trying to push you into a marriage of convenience? Are you looking for a way out?
Time to get to Gretna Green, lovebirds!
In the middle of the 18th-century, lords approved new laws to tighten marriage arrangements.
In 1754 a new law, Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, was brought into force in England. This amendment required young people to be over 21 years of age if they wished to marry without their parents’ or guardian’s consent. The marriage was required to be a public ceremony in the couple’s parish, with an official of the Church presiding. The new law was rigorously enforced and carried a 14-year sentence of transportation to the colonies for any clergyman found breaking it.
The scottish law, however, was different: you could marry on the spot, in a simple “marriage by declaration”, or “handfasting” ceremony, only requiring two witnesses and assurances from the couple that they were both free to marry.
This marriage contract could be made wherever the couple liked, in private or in public, in the presence of others or no-one at all.
The ‘irregular marriage’ ceremony would be short and simple, something like:
“Are you of marriageable age?”
“Are you free to marry?”
“You are now married.”
A wedding in the Scottish tradition could take place anywhere on Scottish soil.
Such a relaxed arrangement within reach of England, soon led to the inevitable influx of countless thousands of young couples running-away to marry over the border.
Why Gretna Green? Gretna Green was the first village in Scotland and conveniently situated on the main route from London into Scotland. Traveling to Gretna Green along the Great North Road was no mean feat back then. Today, it takes a little over 5 hours to travel the 326 miles from London to the Scottish border town. In 1818, it took an average of four days, with carriages traveling an average of 6 miles an hour. Frequent stops to change tired horses and rest for food and an overnight stop for a room at an inn added to travel time.
However, should a virginal heiress spend at least one night on the road, her reputation would be lost, even if she slept in a separate room from her paramour and was chaperoned by her maid.
Forbidden romance and runaway marriages were popularized in the fiction of the time. I’m sure you’re very well acquainted with ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen.
Even though the presence of a third party was not required, English couples usually preferred to keep some English marriage traditions and so looked for someone in authority to oversee the ceremony. The most senior and respected craftsman or artisan in the countryside was the village blacksmith, and so the Blacksmith’s Forge at Gretna Green became a favorite place for weddings.
The tradition of the blacksmith sealing the marriage by striking his anvil led to the Gretna blacksmiths becoming known as ‘anvil priests’. Indeed, the blacksmith and his anvil are now symbols of Gretna Green weddings. Gretna Green’s famous Blacksmiths Shop, the Old Smithy where lovers have come to marry since 1754, is still in the village and still a wedding venue.