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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gretna Green: Part II

In coaching days, a blacksmith's shop was an obvious stop for any carriage—wheels often needed repair and horses often needed shoes replace. The blacksmith’s also became a prime spot for many eloping couples to stop and wed before parental pursuit caught up with them on the trip north and stopped any marriage. An elopement to Gretna became known as a “wedding over the anvil,” and the “blacksmith priests” were the ones to ask for to perform the ceremony.

In fact, however, many couples wed at the inn, or at other Scottish villages, and any man could set himself up as an “anvil priest.” It could be a lucrative trade, for a fee had to be paid, along with a handsome tip, which could be upwards of fifty guineas. According to Romances of Gretna Green, "...the man who took up the trade of 'priest' had to reckon on the disapprobation of the local Church authorities..." but that was the only requirement for the job.

Between 1780 to 1790, a second village took shape about a half a mile from Gretna. Springfield was built on land leased from Sir Patrick Maxwell. Small, with one streets, it was a weaving town, but David Lang (or Laing) set up as an anvil priest to marry couples at the Queen's Head Inn.

But Gretna had its own anvil priest, and as the first in the wedding trade, he kept most of the fame and business.

Joseph Paisley had begun marrying eloping couples in Gretna in 1753 when the Hardwicke Act had passed but had not yet taken effect. It is said he continued to wed couples until his death (which Robert Elliot reports as 1811, but other sources give 1814). Paisley had been a smuggler, and reports paint him as, "grossly ignorant and insufferably overgrown mass of fat weighing at least twenty-five stone....who drank a good deal more than was necessary to his thirst." He had been a fisherman, and reportedly kept "...a store for the sale of groceries and odds and ends...," but he made weddings his main trade. He is also said to have drunk a Scotch pint (or three English pints) of brandy a day. He must have reeked like a distillery.

Paisley, however, had a comely granddaughter, Ann Graham. In 1810, Robert Elliot courted Ann, and they wed a year later. Elliot stepped into what had become the family business of wedding lovers who came to Gretna or Springfield.

Robert Elliot began marrying couples in 1811. The son of a Northumberland farmer, Elliot had worked at various trades, most of them involving coaching work. When he went to work for a Mr. Wilson, keeping his coach horses at Springfield, he met Joseph Paisley.

Elliot quite liked his grandfather-in-law, and says of him, "He was an upright, well-disposed man, beloved by all his neighbors, and esteemed by all who had his acquaintance." But he also reports, "Over a mixed glass of mountain dew, or good smuggled cognac, would our village patriarch relate...the most remarkable events he remembered." So perhaps Elliot found nothing amiss with a man downing a Scotch pint of brandy a day.

Elliot continued to perform weddings until 1839. In 1842 he published his memoirs, which sold in private subscription at one guinea each, and this is all we have of the records of marriages performed. The story goes that Paisley and Elliot's records were stored on a bed canopy, and were lost when Elliot's daughter set fire to the bed, unintentionally killing herself and destroying the records.

All told, Elliot laid claim to having married almost 4,000 couples, from 1811 to 1839.

Some famous couples who eloped to Gretna include John Fane, the tenth Earl of Westmoreland, who ran off with Sarah Anne Child. As the daughter of Robert Child, of the famous Child’s Bank, Sarah Anne stood to inherit a fortune. But when the earl went seeking Mr. Child's consent, the banker is said to have replied, "Your blood, my lord, is good, but money is better."

And so the earl talked Sarah into running away with him.

They were chased to the Scottish border by an irate Mr. Child and barely made it across to be wed. Child never forgave them. He changed his will to leave his wealth to Sarah Anne's second son, or to her eldest daughter, so that no Earl of Westmoreland would inherit. But, as in a good romance, Sarah and Westmoreland were happy enough, had six children, and the eldest daughter, Sarah Sophia, inherited Child's riches.

Interestingly, Sarah's granddaughter, Lady Adela Villiers (Sarah Sophia's daughter), also eloped to Gretna, to avoid her mother's matchmaking and wed her beloved Captain Charles Parke Ibbetson. Runaway marriages seem to have run in the family.

The trip to Gretna from London could not have been pleasant, even in a well-sprung coach that would absorb most of the ruts and swaying. It was some 300 miles or so from London to Gretna. The trip would be longer if a couple, in fear of pursuit, chose to stay to side roads in an attempt to throw anyone following off the scent. To travel fast, the horses would need to be changed every 10 or 20 miles, meaning at least 16 stops along the way. And the cost of it! A post chaise and four might cost as much as 3 shillings a mile. Plus there's the hire of fresh horses, tips to encourage fast changes, food and drink to be bought, and a room to hire as well as the wedding in Gretna to pay for. There is also the cost of the return trip home. A man might spend from £50 to £100 for his elopement if he were in a great hurry. But such expense would seem as nothing if the bride came with a fortune attached.

I used the discomfort of an elopement in Border Bride, but I only had my couple (and their best man) making the journey from Yorkshire north. But the trip itself could still turn into an adventure, as it does in Border Bride, particularly with snow, mud, and weather conditions making for adverse conditions. Or with the bride perhaps having second thoughts on if she has indeed chosen the right groom for her wedding.

The trip would also be tedious. Horses can average 8 to 10 miles an hour, with the occasional “springing them” for short bursts that might net you 14 to 16 miles an hour for perhaps a quarter hour. With this in mind, the trip from London to Scotland might take as little as 25 hours, with very good horses and frequent changes. But the delays of a horse going lame, a wheel falling off, floods or other hazards could slow the pace.

To give a more exact time estimate, the Royal Mail left London for Carlisle at 7:30 PM and arrived at 10:00 PM on the second night. That's two full days on the road. But a private coach could make better times since it would be lighter and therefore faster.

After such an ordeal, if a couple arrived still inclined to wed—instead of kill each other from exhaustion and too much of each other's company—that would seem to bode well for a long and happy marriage.

To wed in Gretna, a couple had only to find one of the anvil priests. He would call on his neighbors to have the necessary two witnesses. The ceremony was brief and went like this, according to Elliot's Gretna Green Memoirs:

"The parties are first asked their names and places of abode; they are then asked to stand up, and enquired of if they are both single persons; if the answer be in the affirmative, the ceremony proceeds.

"Each is next asked: 'Did you come here of your own free will and accord?' Upon receiving an affirmative answer the priest commences filling in the printed form of the certificate.

"The man is then asked 'Do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, forsaking all others, kept to her as long as you both shall live?' He answers, 'I will.' The woman is asked the same question, which being answered the same, the woman then produces a ring which she gives to the man, who hands it to the priest; the priest then returns it to the man, and orders him to put it on the forth finger of the woman's left hand and repeat these words, with this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, with all my worldly goods I thee endow in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen. They then take hold of each other's right hands, and the woman says, 'what God joins together let no man put asunder.' Then the priest says "forasmuch as this man and this woman have consented to go together by giving and receiving a ring, I, therefore, declare them to be man and wife before God and these witnesses in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen."

In 1856, and with railways coming into their own, a bill finally passed to make a Gretna wedding ceremony illegal, and that effectively ended the days of a runaway marriage.

Since then, wedding laws have relaxed somewhat and Gretna Green is again a popular spot for weddings, but for romantic rather than legal reasons. Gretna's Blacksmith Shop now houses a museum, with a collection of 19th century coaches, including the State Landau used during King William IV's reign, and a stage coach that ran between the Lake District and Scotland.
While legislation has done away with the need for couples to flee to Greta Green, the village thrives by playing on its association with star-crossed young lovers and desperate romantic rides through the night for a happily ever after. And what more could any romantic wish for?

The Gretna Green Web site at
The Family, Sex and Marriage: In England 1500 - 1900 by Lawrence Stone
Great Britain Post Roads, Post Towns and Postal Rates 1635 - 1839, Alan W. Robertson

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.


Amber Howard said...

Thanks so much for this post! This blog is such a great resource for readers and writers of romance alike. Really enjoyed this, thanks again!

eenayray said...

Part I and II of Gretna Green were fascinating and very informative. I often wondered how long the flight from London to Gretna took depending on your equipage. It sounds like modern Gretna is similar to Las Vegas in the US.

A Heron's View said...

Oh dear me how on earth do you support this phrase of yours "a Scotch pint of brandy a day"
Let me elucidate: the word 'Scotch' is an euphemism for Whisky.
Correctly what you should have written is a Scots pint of Brandy a day.For Scot or Scots refers to the people of Scotland.