Sunday, June 24, 2012

Eloping to Scotland and the Marriage Act of 1753

by Regina Jeffers

“An Act for Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage,” known popularly as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act (1753), was the first legislation in England and Wales to require formal ceremonies of marriage. The validity of a Scottish marriage precipitated the dispute, and the legislation became effective on 25 March 1754.

Prior to the Act, canon law of the Church of England governed the legal requirements for valid marriage in England and Wales. This involved the calling of the banns and a marriage license. It also required that the wedding should take place in the resident parish of one of the participants. However, these stipulations were not mandatory and did not render a marriage void for failing to follow the directory requirements. Having an Anglican clergyman to pronounce the vows was the only indispensable requirement.

The existing ecclesiastical rules regarding marriage were tightened by the Act, except for Jews, Quakers, and, interestingly, members of the British Royal Family. The exemption for the Royal Family was the basis of the objection for Prince Charles’s civil ceremony with Camilla Parker-Bowles in 2005, civil marriage being the creation of statue law. It was also provided that the 1753 Act had no application to marriages celebrated overseas or in Scotland.

The village of Gretna Green sat on the most southerly point of the English border on Scotland’s west side. It was on the main road between Carlisle and Glasgow. It crossed the Sark River, which marked the border, half a mile from Gretna Green. On the English side of the border was another village, Longtown.

Near the Solway Firth, Greta Green of the Regency era is described in the Gretna Green Memoirs as “…[a] small village with a few clay houses, the parish kirk, the minister’s house, and a large inn. From it you have a fine view of the Solway, port Carlisle and the Cumberland hills, among which is the lofty Skiddaw; you also see Bowness, the place where the famous Roman wall ends.” Within Gretna, at the Headlesscross, is a junction of five coaching roads, and here sat the Blacksmith’s Shop.

A common phrase of the time was to be married “over the anvil,” which meant that the eloping couple said their vows at the first convenient stop, the blacksmith’s shop. “Blacksmith priests” conducted the ceremony, which was simply a public acknowledgment of a couple’s pledging themselves to one another.

Truthfully, many couples married at the inn or at other Scottish villages, and any man could set himself up as an ‘anvil priest.’ It was a lucrative trade. The anvil priests would receive the necessary pay, as well as a tip, which could be upwards of fifty guineas. According to the Romances of Gretna Green, “…[t]he man who took up the trade of ‘priest’ had to reckon on the disapprobation of the local Church authorities.”

The Marriage Act effectively put an end to clandestine marriages (valid marriages performed by an Anglican clergyman but not in accordance with the canons). It increased the traffic, however, along the North Road to Scottish “Border Villages” (Paxton Toll, Coldstream Bridge, Mordington, and Lamberton). During the 1770s a toll road which passed through the hitherto obscure village of Graitney led to Gretna Green becoming synonymous with romantic elopements.

Despite many claims to the contrary, the Act did not render invalid marriages involving minors (those under 21) who married without their parents consent. Because the Act specifically prohibited the courts from inquiring into the couple’s place of residence until after the wedding had been performed, many chose having the banns called in a different parish without their parents’ consent. The Act also did not end common-law marriages, or informal folk practices such as handfasting or broomstick marriages.

One of my favorite Regency authors, Louis Allen, has a fabulous post on Community on “The Romance of Elopement,” in which she speaks of the expense of the race to the Scottish border. She says, “
London to Gretna, via Manchester, is 320 miles. That is £20 for the chaise and horses alone at a time when a housemaid would be glad to earn £16 a year, all found.”

Rules of Marriages:
1. The reading of the Banns occurred on 3 consecutive Sundays or Holy Days during Divine Service, immediately before the Offertory. At least one of the marrying couple must be a resident of the parish of which they wished to be married; the banns of the other party were read in his/her parish, and a certificate was provided from the clergyman stating it had been properly done. Banns were good for three months. The wedding ceremony was scheduled at the church between 8 in the morning and noon.
2. The wording:
 "I publish the Banns of marriage between Groom's Name of--his local parish--and Bride's Name of--her local parish. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first [second, third] time of asking."
3. A Common/Ordinary Licence - This could be obtained from a bishop or archbishop. A common/ordinary license meant the Banns did not need to be read - and so there was not the two week delay. A sworn statement was given that there was no impediment [parties were not related to one another in the prohibited degrees, proof of deceased spouse given, etc.]. The marriage must take place in a church or chapel where one of the party had already lived for 4 weeks. It was good for 3 months from date of issue also. The cost of the license was 10 shillings.
4. A Special License - This would be obtained from Doctors Commons in London, from the Archbishop of Canterbury or his representative. The difference between this and the Ordinary license was that it gave the right of the couple to marry at any convenient time or place. All other requirements were the same. Names of both parties were given at the time of the application. The cost: In 1808 a Stamp Duty was imposed on the paper, vellum or parchment the license was printed upon of £4. In 1815 the duty went up to £5.

So how do the details of such a Scottish marriage fit into my latest book, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy? An ill-fated rush to the Scottish border plays a major role in the mystery surrounding Georgiana Darcy’s vanishing from the Fitzwilliam property and in Darcy’s subsequent search for his sister.

Book Blurb:

Shackled in the dungeon of a macabre castle with no recollection of her past, a young woman finds herself falling in love with her captor – the estate’s master. Yet, placing her trust in him before she regains her memory and unravels the castle’s wicked truths would be a catastrophe.

Far away at Pemberley, the Darcys happily gather to celebrate the marriage of Kitty Bennet. But a dark cloud sweeps through the festivities: Georgiana Darcy has disappeared without a trace. Upon receiving word of his sister’s likely demise, Darcy and wife, Elizabeth, set off across the English countryside, seeking answers in the unfamiliar and menacing Scottish moors.

How can Darcy keep his sister safe from the most sinister threat she has ever faced when he doesn’t even know if she’s alive? True to Austen’s style and rife with malicious villains, dramatic revelations and heroic gestures, this suspense-packed mystery places Darcy and Elizabeth in the most harrowing situation they have ever faced – finding Georgiana before it is too late.

Twitter - @reginajeffers
Publisher – Ulysses Press


Regina Jeffers, an English teacher for thirty-nine years, considers herself a Jane Austen enthusiast. She is the author of 13 novels, including Darcy’s Passions, Darcy’s Temptation, The Phantom of Pemberley, Christmas at Pemberley, The Scandal of Lady Eleanor, A Touch of Velvet, and A Touch of Cashémere. A Time Warner Star Teacher and Martha Holden Jennings Scholar, as well as a Smithsonian presenter, Jeffers often serves as a media literacy consultant. She resides outside of Charlotte, NC, where she spends time teaching her new grandson the joys of being a child.


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing....

  2. Thank you, Regina, for enlarging upon the significance of Gretna Green and the Marriage Act. Very helpful.

  3. That's interesting. I have always wondered about the significance of Gretna Green in Georgette Heyer books. I did figure out that it was the Las Vegas of 17th century England, but it is nice to know more details.

  4. Elizabeth Gayle FellowsAugust 6, 2012 at 9:10 PM

    Well isn't that informative! I had heard about marriages at Gretna Green but did not realize the significance nor the history behind it. Thank you.


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