Gretna Green welcomed couples planning to wed. Lydia Bennet, in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, writes of going to Gretna Green with Wickham, the man she loves.
Almost 250-years have passed since lovers—denied permission to wed—eloped to Gretna Green a village flanking England in the south of Scotland. An aura of romance and adventure still attracts couples—the village hosts over 4,000 weddings a year.
Marriage, until the middle of the 16th century, involved little ceremony. A man went to a woman’s house, took her home and they were wed. The church believed marriage to be a personal agreement; no formalities, no clergy, prior notice or witnesses needed. Unconventional, yes, but recognized under common law.
Runaway marriages began in 1753 when an act of Parliament passed in England stated both parties to a marriage must be at least 21 years of age or receive parental consent. The act did not apply to Scotland’s lenient marriage laws where couples as young as sixteen could wed without permission.
Hotly pursued by family members or a protector, the couple’s vows were hastily taken in a short ceremony often presided over by the village blacksmith; a most important man. who made horseshoes, fixed carriages and farm equipment and forged hot metal over his anvil. Becoming an anvil priest he forged lovers together. Two neighbors witnessed, the priest whacked the anvil and the pair was wed. If the couple received word that an angry father approached and might disrupt the ceremony; the couple quickly slipped into bed. Father would find his beloved daughter under the covers with her mate.
Many runaways faced danger on their way to Gretna Green; in 1771, John Edgar and Jean Scott fearing her father would waylay them by the crossroads, headed for the coast and Burgh-by-Sands in England. Despite a windstorm the couple persuaded a group of bold seamen to help them reach Scotland—they were tracked and followed by Jean’s father and his crew. His boat overturned with a life lost and the hunt was abandoned. Reaching shore safely, the lovers were married by the infamous Joseph Paisley, a former smuggler.
The Earl of Westmoreland knew Robert Child, director of Child’s Bank, would never consent to the marriage of his daughter, Sarah Anne, with a penniless aristocrat. They eloped to Gretna Green in May of 1782. Child caught up with the couple between Carlisle and Penrith where he shot Westmoreland’s lead carriage horse. While Westmorland’s men sabotaged Child’s carriage forcing him to call off the chase, the couple proceeded with three horses. Child purged the couple from his will—the inheritance passed to their eldest daughter. The couple prospered but history repeated itself; sixty-years later, Sarah Anne’s granddaughter, Adele, unable to handle her mother’s meddling in her romantic affairs eloped to Gretna Green with a young officer.
Gretna Green scandalized the nation in 1826 when Ellen Turner, a lovely, romantic, teen-ager, the daughter of a prosperous mill-owner, was abducted by a scoundrel named Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Wakefield forged a letter stating Ellen must return home from Misses Daulby’s Seminary for the Daughters of Gentlefolk as her mother was ill. Her carriage stopped at a Manchester Inn to change horses where Wakefield, a fine-looking, older man introduced himself as her father’s friend and instructed her to travel to Kendal to meet him. On arrival, Wakefield told Ellen a fictitious tale about her father’s insolvent bank causing his mill to fail. Ellen would be given half the business but, as she was underage, must marry and give the mill to her husband in order to return it to her father. He then offered his hand, Ellen accepted and they continued to Gretna Green. After the ceremony they left for France where Ellen’s uncles found the pair and informed Ellen of Wakefield’s falsehoods. On the 23 of March 1827, the rogue stood trial; found guilty of abduction and unlawful marriage, he received a sentence of three years imprisonment at Newgate. A special act of Parliament annulled the marriage.
Today, couples need to give 14 days written notice of their weddings and Clergymen now conduct the anvil weddings. Since 1902, registrars have performed civil weddings in approved venues outside the registration offices.
Bests and congratulations to all newlyweds,