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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Eloping in Regency England

The scene is a common one in Regency romance: the young lovers, denied permission to marry, flee to Scotland to take their vows. Most of the action derives from the pursuit by the outraged parents to prevent the marriage.

I don't know how many of these stories I read before I asked why did they go all the way to Scotland? Scotland is about 320 miles from London. Even on the Great North Road, the main thoroughfare from London to Edinburgh, the trip, at the average carriage pace of about 5-7 miles an hour (we’ll assume 7), twelve hours a day, would take about four days. And we’re not including stops to change the horses, eat, or other personal necessities. Why not run to the next town, find the nearest clergyman, and tie the knot there?

The answer lies in the Marriage Act of 1753, also called the Hardwicke Act. This law invalidated marriages if either or both of the parties involved were under twenty-one and did not have the consent of the parents or guardians.

The law’s purpose was to prevent scoundrels from eloping with heiresses for their money. Did it work? To some extent. But it also created a flourishing trade in quick Scottish marriages because the Hardwicke Act was law only in England and Wales.

People over twenty-one also eloped. The Hardwicke Act required the calling of the banns for three successive weeks before a marriage could take place, as well as a formal ceremony in a church. Alternatively, one could purchase a special license from the Archbishop of Canterbury in London, which allowed a marriage to take place at any time, in any place.

But a trip to Scotland was quicker than waiting three weeks, and cheaper than the special license, which cost five pounds sterling in 1811. Since a laborer at the time earned about 15-20 pounds a year, five pounds was an enormous sum for many. And the prospective couple would have to wait an unspecified time to receive their special license, if they went that route.

The destination of choice for many eloping couples was Gretna Green, in Dumfries and Galloway, the most famous of the Scottish towns for irregular marriages.

But Gretna Green was not the only Scottish town that trafficked in quick marriages. Other Scottish border villages that had a flourishing trade in quick marriages were Coldstream Bridge, Lamberton, Mordington and Paxton Toll.

More on these towns in my next post.

Thank you all,



LK Hunsaker said...

Interesting, Linda. Gretna Green = Las Vegas ;-) It's funny to think of 320 miles taking 4 days of travel by carriage when it's now only about 5 hours.

Regencyresearcher said...

We never hear much about the other towns, must not have been as keen on publicity as Gretna Green-- or just not as easily accessible.
Marriage by declaration was possible everywhere in Scotland, no need to go to Gretna Green from Edinburgh as one author had her characters do.
Gretna and the other border towns were better set up to provide marriage lines and people willing to officiate at such weddings, though.
The scandal of an elopment was more the time spent on the road before the wedding than the means they chose to get married.
It will be interesting to hear about the other towns.

Sarah Simas said...

Lovely post, Linda! Thanks for the wonderful information. I'm very intrigued to know more about the other towns.

Thanks for sharing! :o)

Linda Banche said...

Hi LK, the past really is a different world, and we sometimes forget just how different.

As Regencyresearcher says, the scandal of elopement was not so much in the marriage, but in what they did during those 4 days. And of course, there was the good old double standard which hits the woman a lot harder than the man.

The stigma of what they did was still very much there even 40-50 years ago. Our modern attitudes are very modern indeed, and past attitudes still exist to some extent.

Reregencyresearcher (is that you, Nancy?), thanks for coming over. I bow to your more extensive knowledge of everything Regency.

Hi Sarah, nice to see you. Glad to provide some info. I try for accuracy, but if I miss, everyone, please correct me.

Kathy Otten said...

I always wondered why they went to Gretna Green. And I had no idea there were other towns. You just made Regencies a little more enjoyable for me, now that I have the facts.

Emma Lai said...

Great info, Linda! So scandalous...a couple locked in a carriage for four days to elope. I often wonder how many young ladies were compromised just driving around in town...

Kathye Quick said...

Interesting. I bet there are a lot of plots rolling around in your crative mind with this info

Mary Ricksen said...

Hmmmmm. I'd have opened an Inn just over the border at the first town you could get married in. I'd have been rich!
Thank goodness things are different these days or I woulda had to do the same thing to marry my DH. Fortunately things changed with time.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Linda: Fascinating post. I was an "eloper" because we had to drive from Ohio into Kentucky in his old car. Now a carriage ride, I'm thinking, would have been much more romantic. Loved the blog post.

Maggi Andersen said...

Interesting post, Linda. In my mid-Victorian novella, How To Tame A Rake, my lovers travel to Peak Village in the Peak District to be married, where a preacher could marry them immediately. Might not have been possible during the Regency period though.

Linda Banche said...

Hi Kathy, I'm glad to share the information. And I'm happy the info brings more enjoyment to your reading.

Emma, you're not far from the truth. A young lady could not accompany a man in a closed carriage at any time without compromising her reputation. And four days! That couple had better get married.

Hi Kathye, yes, I'm working on a story where a couple gets married in Coldstream Bridge, which is one of the towns I'll talk about in the next post.

Mary, you're right. People in the border towns did make a lot of money from eloping couples.

Hi Joyce, thanks, and thanks for having me on your blog. When you went from Ohio to Kentucky, you may have gone as far as those English couples had to go. But those Regency carriages weren't sprung well, and even the best roads weren't that great. You had a much easier ride.

Hi Maggi, You're right, your couple couldn't have been married immediately in the Peak District in the Regency because they were still in England. I'm not sure about the law in Victorian times. I do know that by then, they had changed the law, and also civil ceremonies were valid.

Thanks all, for coming over.

Martha Eskuchen said...

Linda - great history lesson on eloping! THANKS! I know I have read about other towns in Scotland and about hand fasting too - which is pretty intereting. But it seems Gretna Green was the major town of choice for eloping!