Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Why's and How's of Eloping

by Maria Grace

What could be more romantic than a couple so in love they could not wait to be married and eloping to Gretna Green or some other location for an immediate marriage? 

Turns out eloping could cause quite a bit of trouble, including bringing the legality of the marriage and legitimacy of the children from such a marriage into question. It also put a young woman, especially one with a fortune, in a dangerous position. If the marriage was considered legitimate, her fortune would be irrevocably in the hands of her husband, and she would have no guaranteed provision for her or her children's future. If it was not, her reputation would be ruined and her chances of making a good marriage possibly gone forever. Not exactly a win-win proposition.

If it could cause so much trouble, why would anyone consider it an option? In short, it was a way around the limitations created by the Hardwicke Act for the Prevention of Clandestine Marriages.

The Hardwicke Act

The Hardwicke Act  regulated the institution of marriage, providing clear and consistent rules about who could get married and how it was to be done.

The act stipulated couples must be twenty one years of age or have parental consent to marry. Further either a license must be purchased or banns (an announcement of the intention to marry during the church service) must be read, insuring that the couple was eligible to marry--specifically not otherwise married, engaged to be married, or inappropriately related. Finally the marriage must be conducted in a specified way by authorized clergy and duly recorded in a marriage register, providing definitive proof the marriage occurred.

Why Elope

If a couple was considering eloping, parental consent was the usual fly in the ointment. Sometimes, the reading of the banns might raise an objection. Perhaps one of the parties was promised to marry another, or worse, had already married another. Either could put a crimp on a young couple’s plans. Purchasing a license instead of reading the banns might provide a work around this, but since "The standard license from a bishop required a bond for £100 to be forfeit if the couple lied" (Mayer) about any pertinent detail, the option was not open to many.

How to Elope

With the stipulations of the Hardwicke Act in place, how did a couple manage an elopement?

An obvious solution might be to go somewhere else to get married, like perhaps Scotland. Scottish law merely required two witnesses and a minimum age of sixteen for both parties. (Of course for now, we’ll ignore the fact that whether or not Scottish marriages were legally valid in England was a matter of some debate.)

Gretna Green was just nine miles from the last English staging post at Carlisle and just one mile over the border with Scotland. The town took advantage of the situation and made something of a business in quick marriages, not unlike Las Vegas today. Hence, it was known for elopements, and it became a favorite plot device for romance writers everywhere.

The Trouble with Gretna Green

If it was so simple and convenient, why not go to Gretna Green to marry? Barring the fact that elopements were a good way to get ostracized from good society, there were practical considerations that made it unsuitable for many.

Gretna Green is three hundred twenty miles from London, the largest British population center of the early 1800’s. My local highways boast an eighty or eighty five mile per hour speed limit, so I can travel that distance in half a day, no bother. In the early 1800’s those speeds were unheard of. Most people walked. Everywhere. Only the very wealthy had horses and carriages of their own.

If one were moderately well off, they might purchase tickets on a public conveyance to go long distances. While better than walking, one could still only expect to travel five to seven miles per hour. Traveling twelve hours a day, with only moderate stops to change horses and deal with personal necessities, the trip would take about four days.

Four days packed in a carriage with as many other people as the proprietors could squeeze into the space and more sitting on top of the coach.

A lovely, romantic picture, yeah?

If a couple was wealthy enough to enjoy a private conveyance, they might not have to share the coach with others, but little if any time could be shaved off the trip.

Luckily, Gretna Green was not the only option. Other locations were available to facilitate a clandestine marriage. Towns along the eastern borders of Scotland, like Lamberton, Paxton, Mordington and Coldstream also catered to eloping couples. In some cases, the toll-keepers along the road provided the marriages at the toll houses.

From the south, those willing to sail might go to Southampton, Hampshire and purchase passage to the Channel Islands. The Isle of Guernsey in particular provided another alternative for a quick marriage.

Closer to Home

A far less romantic but simpler, cheaper and closer to home alternative existed. All a couple really had to do was have their banns read for three consecutive weeks in a church, then have the ceremony performed.

In a large urban center, like London, parishes could be huge and the clergy hard-pressed to verify each couple’s age and residency. If a couple could manage to get to a large town, or better London itself, they could lose themselves in the crowd and get married the conventional way and their families were unlikely to get word of it in time to prevent anything.

After such a wedding occurred, the only recourse an aggrieved parent had was to go to the church where the banns had been called and challenge that the banns had been mistaken or even fraudulent. The process was public, inconvenient and embarrassing, and thus not very common.

Despite a Gretna Green (or other Scottish) elopement being a romantic idyll, marrying in a big city parish was by far the most likely way young people married against their parents’ wishes.


Where to Elope in Regency England Linda Banche Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Eloping in Regency England Aug 5 2009 Linda Banche

An Alternative Elopement Laurie Alice Eakes June 25, 2012

Mayer, Nancy. Marriage Accessed 7/14/2016

Find previous installments of this series here:

Get Me to the Church on Time: Changing Attitudes toward Marriage
To Have a Courtship, One Needs a Suitor
Nothing is ever that simple: Rules of Courtship
Show me the Money: the Business of Courtship
The Price of a Broken Heart
Making an Offer of Marriage
Games of Courtship


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email 


  1. Were there no residency requirements in the Marriage Act? It doesn't seem to be in the spirit of the Act if a couple could just pop off to another parish where they weren't known to have the banns posted.

  2. Maria, I take it this is in the Regency era judging by your references? For what period of time did this apply?

  3. Thank you for the very interesting article! You motivated me to look up some of the links. Do you have a better link for the "Nothing is ever that simple: Rules of Courtship" article?

  4. Thank you for the very interesting article! You motivated me to look up some of the references. Would you happen to have a better link for the "Nothing is ever that simple: Rules of Courtship" article? Thank you!

  5. I wonder and I have read many articles on this subject without finding out if you would get a marriage certificate when you wed at Gretna Green. Do you know if you would get some sort of proof that the marriage took place?


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