Tuesday, December 11, 2012

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), for 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, among other restrictions.

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 also 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 of England church (there were exceptions for Jews and Quakers). 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. One could also buy a regular license, which allowed a marriage to take place within the next week.

But a trip to Scotland was quicker than waiting three weeks, and cheaper than the special license, which cost five pounds sterling in 1811, or even the regular license, which cost ten shillings. Since a laborer at the time earned about 15-20 pounds a year, ten shillings (half a pound), not to mention five pounds, was a large sum for many. And the prospective couple would have to wait an unspecified time to receive their license if they went that route. Also, religion was an important part of people's lives then, and some, even if they had the money, refused to set foot in a Church of England church for any reason.

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,


Anonymous said...

Linda, a regular license which allowed the wedding to take place in a week could be obtained as well for 10 shillings.

Linda Banche said...

Thanks, Ella. I updated the post.