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’s with such a mad drive to the border that I chose to end my second Regency, A Dangerous Compromise.
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 to protect wealthy families from having their underage offspring preyed upon. Prior to this, London had become infamous for it’s “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 such marriages by unscrupulous men. And fathers complained of sons who had married unsuitable brides. Two dukes even 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 that 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, it 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 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 structure that 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 the place 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 Sark river 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.
In coaching days, a blacksmith’s shop was an obvious stop for any carriage. And it became a prime spot for many eloping couples to stop and wed before parental pursuit caught up with them. An elopement to Gretna soon 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-street, it was a weaving town, but David Lang (or Laing) soon set up as an anvil priest to marry couples at the Queen’s Head Inn.
But Gretna had another anvil priest and, as the first in the wedding trade, he kept most of the fame and business.
Joseph Paisley had began 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 coarse…an 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 it is reported that he kept “…a store for the sale of groceries and odds and ends…,” but his main trade was in weddings. 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, and 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 of one guinea each, and this is all we have of the records of who he might have married. 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, killing herself and destroying the records.
All tolled, 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 so that his wealth passed 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, plus a room and the wedding in Gretna. And there is the return trip home to be paid for as well. 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.
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 might take as little as 25 hours, with very good horses and frequent changes. But there were the potential delays of a horse going lame, a wheel falling off, muddy roads, snow, or other bad weather conditions to 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–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 being, 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
Road to Divorce by Lawrence Stone
Romances of Gretna Green and its Runaway Marriage by Lochinvar
Gretna Green Memoirs by Robert Elliott
Great Britain Post Roads, Post Towns and Postal Rates 1635 – 1839, Alan W. Robertson