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Monday, March 18, 2013

Gretna Green: Runaway Brides (Part 1)

A forbidden young love. A frantic carriage chase across England. A hasty wedding “over the anvil” at Gretna Green. Such a scene is a staple of many a Regency romance. In fact, it is with such a mad drive to the border that I chose to end A Dangerous Compromise, and I used an elopement to Scotland again in Border Bride.

But why might a young couple have to elope to Scotland to marry?

A chance of geography and an act of Parliament led Gretna Green to become famous as a haven for young lovers who could not win their parent's consent.

In 1753, Lord Chancellor Hardwicke's Act for the Prevention of Clandestine Marriages passed. The law took effect on the twenty-fifth of March in 1754.

The act had been passed after a good deal of debate and struggle, to regularize marriages and protect wealthy families from having their underage offspring preyed upon. Prior to this, London had become infamous for "Fleet marriages" where disreputable ministers would perform a wedding within the “Rules of the Fleet Prison.” Clergymen who had been imprisoned for debt could live in the Rules, an area just outside the prison, meant to provide them a sanctuary. Since they were already here for being in debt they could not be fined for performing irregular marriages, and so were effectively beyond the law of the time.

By the 1740's, it is estimated that around a hundred minister had set up in business to marrying anyone who had the money for it. They could even provide a groom if a pregnant woman needed legitimate status for her child. The bride and groom exchange vows, coins exchange hands, and the couple was married.

These Fleet weddings had been the bane of many a rich family. Stories circulated of underage heiresses who had been tricked, or kidnapped and forced, into marriage by unscrupulous men. Fathers also complained of sons who had married unsuitable brides—two dukes saw their sons married in such secret ceremonies.

In 1754, the informal wedding was swept away. The new act required that the groom and bride must each be 21 years of age, or have the consent of their parents or guardians. The wedding had to take place during daylight hours in a parish church ceremony within the Church of England. For "three several Sundays" prior to the wedding, the banns had to be posted—meaning the curate would ask "after the accustomed manner" if anyone knew any reason why these two could not marry. If the couple lived in separate parishes, banns had to be called in each. Finally, a license had to be obtained and the marriage had to be recorded in the parish church.

To avoid these conditions, a Special License could be bought, so that bans did not have to be posted and the marriage ceremony could take place anywhere. But such a license had to be obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury's offices, and the names of those to be married had to be written on the license. With these constraints, such a license did not help young couples who were trying to wed against the wishes of their families.

By requiring parental consent, the act gave parents the right to invalidate any marriage they considered undesirable. A clergyman who preformed an illegal marriage could be transported for up to fourteen years. English legislators expressed relief at having done away with foolish notions of romantic love in favor of more practical statutes governing the institution.

However, because Scotland and Ireland (and also the Isle of Man) were separate countries, the act applied to only those marriages contracted in England. It also did not apply to Quakers and Jews, who wed outside the Church of England (and who also stood outside the power and wealth the act sought to protect).

Ireland had already enacted laws with heavy penalties to do away with clandestine marriages. However, in Scotland, a couple had only to be 16 years of age and had only to declare their intentions to be husband and wife in the presence of two witnesses, and their word was law. So Scotland became one of the main places to flee to for a quickie wedding.

On the west of Scotland, at the most southerly point of the English border, the main road between Carlisle and Glasgow passed through the small village of Gretna Green. A half-mile from Gretna, the road crossed the river Sark, which marked the border itself. The closest village on the English side, before you reached Carlisle, was Longtown.

Near the Solway Firth, the Greta Green of Regency era is described in 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 the junction of five coaching roads, and here lay the Blacksmith's Shop.

Next month, Part II of Gretna Green

Romances of Gretna Green and its Runaway Marriage by Lochinvar
Gretna Green Memoirs by Robert Elliott

Shannon Donnelly Bio
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

Her Regency romances, including A Dangerous Compromise, can be found as ebooks on all formats, and include four novellas now out as a collection with Cool Gus Publishing.

Her Regency Novella, Border Bride, can be found as an ebook, or in print in her collection of Regency Novellas.

1 comment:

Donna Hatch said...

The whole idea of an elopement seems terribly romantic and scandalous and dangerous, which is probably why so many Regencies include them. Great post!