Skip to main content

Another Wedding and Gretna Green

Well, this weekend we’ll celebrate our second wedding this summer – another son is tying the knot, and we are about to gain another wonderful daughter-in-law. My husband and I thrilled about the way our family is growing. That doesn't mean, however, that the weddings themselves aren't a bit overwhelming at times.

I believe that there comes a point in every run-up to a wedding that a fond parent almost wishes their child would simply elope. No fuss, no muss, and no scores of hand-tied wedding favors to make.

Today’s couples who desire to skip an elaborate wedding may be tempted to flee to Las Vegas. During the Regency there was a similar escape plan, one that involved a town just over the Scottish border called Gretna Green.

The border crossing at Gretna Green, photo by Val Vannet
(Wikimedia Commons)

Gretna Green became an attractive wedding destination for English couples as result of Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, which became law in 1754. The purpose of the act was to prevent clandestine marriages, and it required a formal ceremony for a marriage to be valid. Other requirements included having the banns of marriage announced from the local church pulpit three Sundays in a row prior to the wedding, or the obtaining of a special license. 

More importantly, the Act required parental consent for the marriage of a minor (defined as under 21). 

These rules didn't apply in Scotland, where boys as young as 14 and girls as young as 12 could be married without their parents’ consent. In addition, in Scotland no priests were required - virtually anyone could perform the ceremony.

According to Scottish law, all that was needed for an “irregular marriage” to be performed was for the couple to make a declaration in front of two witnesses. And the marriages were recognized as legal in England. No wonder parents panicked when they learned their young daughters were headed to Gretna Green with their impulsive suitors.

You might think an eloping couple would head for the nearest Scottish church. But unlike Las Vegas, where couples might choose a flower-bedecked wedding chapel and a ceremony officiated by an Elvis impersonator, most English couples headed for a blacksmith’s shop located just over the border.

The blacksmith's shop at Gretna Green, by Niki Odolphie 
(Wikimedia Commons)

There they would easily find willing blacksmiths (who became known as “anvil priests”) to perform the ceremony. One Scottish blacksmith, Richard Rennison, is said to have performed over 5,000 of these “over the anvil” ceremonies. 

The drama of a Gretna Green marriage is featured in many a Regency romance. Often the plot will include a desperate attempt by parents to stop their daughter’s elopement. A more sinister plot may involve a young maiden being abducted by the villain and taken to Gretna Green for a forced marriage. The hero, who is also her one true love, naturally races to save her.

A Las Vegas wedding chapel, a modern alternative to
Gretna Green. Photo by Lola's Big Adventure
(Wikimedia Commons)

In Pride and Prejudice, when the foolish Bennet sister Lydia elopes with the dastardly Wickham, she left a note declaring they were on their way to be married at Gretna Green. Instead, the couple is found living together in London without the benefit of matrimony. If this had become known, the ensuing scandal would have forever ruined not only Lydia’s reputation but cast a stain on her whole family, blighting her sisters’ marriage prospects. Fortunately the gallant Mr. Darcy was able to force Wickham to marry Lydia before any harm was done.

Signing the Register, painting by Edward Leighton (Wikimedia Commons)

In a story set more recently, you may recall the scene in Season 2 of Downtown Abbey where Lady Mary and Lady Edith drive through the night heading north to Gretna Green to prevent their sister Sybil from marrying Tom Branson. The two sisters managed to intercept the couple and convince them to go back to the manor to try to obtain their father’s permission to marry. (And we know how happy Lord Grantham was about the prospect of having the family chauffeur for a son-in-law.)

I’m just as glad that we’re having a wedding this weekend instead of hearing about an elopement. However, as we get closer to dealing with the nitty-gritty details of accommodating guests, planning seating arrangements and renting tuxes, I can’t help but appreciate the simplicity of an elopement. Maybe some of those Regency parents, too, pretended to object but didn't really mind when their children opted for the blacksmith’s shop in Gretna Green. 

I can't say I'd blame them. 


  1. Great post! I love how you tied your own personal story in with the history of Gretna Green. I've both read Pride and Prejudice and watched the Downtown Abbey episode you mentioned, but I was missing the whole Gretna Green bit. Thanks for enlightening me! Have fun this weekend! xo Jennifer

  2. Thanks, Jennifer! I think getting married in Gretna Green sounds like more fun than going to Las Vegas. Too bad Scotland is so far away from Oregon :) Maureen

  3. Maureen,

    I am sooooo with you on this one! Even though both of the family weddings were wonderful, and I do mean wonderful!!!!, I think they were both very stressful on the couples and all of the parents, not to mention expensive. Elopement, or a simple ceremony in front of a judge is a lot less stressful. Then let the partying begin!!! I'm right, yeah?

    - Momma Cat

  4. Nice post!! Great to see this wedding event. It reminded me of my sister’s wedding at one of wedding venues. We hired best wedding planners there who really made the day wonderful with their amazing efforts. Really found the event enjoyable.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The end of the Holy Roman Empire, or what happens when the Empire doesn't strike back

This is the way the world ends Not with a bang  but a whimper T.S. Eliot wasn't actually describing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire when he wrote those words in his poem, “The Hollow Men.” Nonetheless, his words are an extremely apt way to describe the end of the Holy Roman Empire, which ended quietly with a stroke of a pen exactly 212 years ago in August of 1806. That’s when the last emperor decided it was his duty to abdicate, letting the ancient dominion under his protection dissolve rather than allow Napoleon to usurp the role of Holy Roman Emperor and everything that came with it. Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor By that August the end of the empire had become inevitable. Napoleon’s victory over Russia and Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in December of 1805 and his formation of the Confederation of the Rhine the following July (after he convinced 16 German princes to renounce their allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire and join him)

Macaroni Men and Yankee Doodles

The Spirit of '76  (original title Yankee Doodle ) by Archibald Willard, painted in the late 1800s November is a month that here in the United States is defined by food, culminating in a huge Thanksgiving Day feast. It's also the month we honor our military veterans. So I'm going to focus on both food and patriotism - especially an Italian pasta product that became synonymous with a controversial English fashion and developed uniquely American associations. "The Macaroni"- 1773 During the 18th century, it was all the rage for young men of the English nobility to take a trip through Europe to soak up its art and culture. It was called the Grand Tour. In Italy, these privileged lads discovered a pasta dish far removed from their usual British fare. It was called maccaroni , and they raved about it when they got back home. The travelers became known as the Macaroni Club, though there is no evidence an actual club ever existed. But it

The Cato Street Conspiracy

The Cato Street conspirators getting arrested Conspiracy and treason go hand in hand. Throughout history, conspirators have huddled in back rooms and dark corners in secret, concocting schemes that are both dangerous and illegal. So it’s no surprise that their plans often spiral out of control and end in disaster.  A good example of a conspiracy plot gone wrong happened during the Regency. It’s been dubbed the Cato Street Conspiracy because of where the conspirators were caught. This is a tale that, according to historian J.B. Priestley (author of The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency) “begins in absurdity and ends in horror.” The year was 1820. Though the Napoleonic Wars were over, Britain had paid a heavy price for its victory against the French. The costs of the war had strained the country’s economy. The working classes were hit hard by periods of famine, rising food prices due to the Corn Laws, and high unemployment, the latter driven by soldiers returning from th