“You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise tomorrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton.” So the sex-crazed 15-year-old Lydia Bennet scribbles to her friend as she is packing her bags in Jane Austen‘s immortal Pride and Prejudice. Her more sensible sisters Lizzie and Jane panic, but why?
Gretna Green was the first coach stop, crossing the border from England to Scotland, en route to Edinburgh – I knew that already. But why hop off at this remote and undistinguished village, rather than the next? I knew there was something legal about crossing to Scotland, but I didn’t know how much this particular little burg had everything that yelled “quick quick quick” and “hot love” about it. At least in the 19th century. A recent Mental Floss piece, “10 Things You May Not Know about Pride and Prejudice“ enlightened me.
The trouble began with the 1754 Marriage Act, which outlawed clandestine marriages in England. Lord Hardwicke championed the law, which introduced an age of consent at 21. The law also required couples to marry within a church, with all the rigmarole and prep time that required. If a parent or guardian objected, the wedding was legally nixed. As the middle classes were rising, the privileged classes were trying to keep their fortunes and their families out of the hands of upstarts, paupers, and guys on the make. The lords were quick, quick, quick to enact this law – almost as quick as Lydia on the run, with her family in hot pursuit. (The “hot pursuit” were also part of the elopement tradition, apparently.)
Scotland refused to conform this law, however, and once eager couples discovered this loophole they, in turn, were quick to take advantage and eloped to marry over the border. Gretna Green soon became a haven for fleeing couples who wanted to marry in haste before Daddy-O could track them down.
That’s not all. The Scottish rite held to the ancient tradition of a “marriage by declaration” or a “handfasting” ceremony. Declare your wish to be husband and wife in front of two randomly chosen witnesses, and the deal was done. No promises to lifelong devotion or stipulations about “in sickness and in health.” None of that, thank you very much. A favorite locale to tie the very informal knot was the Old Blacksmith’s Shop and Gretna Hall Blacksmith’s Shop. According to the Gretna Greene website (yes, there is one, here), “At the Blacksmiths Shop the canny blacksmith soon downed his tools and took up the role of ‘Blacksmith Priest’… To seal the marriage he would bring down his hammer upon the anvil (the tools of his trade). The ringing sound heard throughout the village would signify that another couple had been joined in marriage.”
It’s hard to see how he could get any work done, given the number of clients in the era. Well, you can see why the Bennet family might be all of a doodah over this kind of an arrangement. As fun as it might be for a young couple, who wants to tell their kids that they were married in hot-blooded haste with a vague promise over an anvil?
Even Scotland had second thoughts. In 1856 Scottish law was changed to require 21 days’ residence for marriage, and the law was changed again in 1940. While the residential requirement was lifted in 1977, a “Gretna Green wedding” came to mean any quickie elopement destination to avoid procedures in the couple’s home district. Think Reno or Las Vegas in the twentieth century.
In short, young Lydia Bennet knew what she was about when she legged it the hell over the Scottish border. The place was notorious. Gretna Green, as well as the blacksmith’s shop, as you will see below, is still one of the world’s most popular wedding destinations. Gretna Green, and the area around it, hosts over 5,000 weddings each year and one of every six Scottish weddings. Who knew?
(P.S. Austen fans alert: Check out a pretty good Austen website, here.)