Gretna Green, The Las Vegas of 18th and 19th C. Britain?


On The Road To Gretna Green by Heywood Hardy



The earliest reference in fiction I have read to Gretna Green is in PRIDE & PREJUDICE when it is hoped that Lydia and Mr. Wickham (the bounder!) have absconded to Gretna Green to marry, else the entire family is ruined. And then it is repeated often in classic novels of the period and in today’s historical romance novels.

But why? Why couldn’t you just ride to the next town to marry? Why run over the border to Scotland?

The Marriage Act 1753, full title “An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage”, popularly known as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was the first statutory legislation in England and Wales to require a formal ceremony of marriage.

In England and Wales, it was traditional that you could marry either by the reading of Banns (in the Catholic Church where I grew up (US, 1960s) this still happened but I don’t know if it does now)

This post came about because I listened to THE HEIRESS by Lynsay Sands.  In that book the whole clan is heading up to Gretna Green. That’s a little weird because Gretna Green was where you went if your family would not stand up with you or might even object.

Gretna Green is a village in Scotland just over the border with England. When the coach road opened up to the village in the 1770s it became the premier destination for young men and women wanting, or needing, to marry.

As a reader, Pam,  pointed out on a FB comment, there is a good section in Wikipedia that helps explain:

It has usually been assumed that Gretna’s famous “runaway marriages” began in 1754 when Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act came into force in England. Under the Act, if a parent of a minor (i.e., a person under the age of 21) objected, they could prevent the marriage going ahead. The Act tightened up the requirements for marrying in England and Wales but did not apply in Scotland, where it was possible for boys to marry at 14 and girls at 12 with or without parental consent (see Marriage in Scotland). It was, however, only in the 1770s, with the construction of a toll road passing through the thitherto obscure village of Graitney, that Gretna Green became the first easily reachable village over the Scottish border.[3] The Old Blacksmith’s Shop, built around 1712, and Gretna Hall Blacksmith’s Shop (1710) became, in popular folklore at least, the focal tourist points for the marriage trade. The Old Blacksmith’s opened to the public as a visitor attraction as early as 1887.

The local blacksmith and his anvil have become the lasting symbols of Gretna Green weddings. Scottish law allowed for “irregular marriages”, meaning that if a declaration was made before two witnesses, almost anybody had the authority to conduct the marriage ceremony. The blacksmiths in Gretna became known as “anvil priests”,


After the Marriage Act there were four ways to marry in England or Wales depending on age, location and religion:

1.  If marrying within the C of E, you could have banns published, that is, announced three consecutive  Sundays from the parish pulpit and any marriage occurring in the next three months was valid unless someone spoke out during one of the announcements.   This was the least expensive way to marry, but that public reading gave people a chance to object.

English: Marriage Room, Gretna Green Historic ...
Marriage Room, Gretna Green Historic building in Gretna Green.Tthe boundary line with England is just to the right of the house. (Photo Wikipedia)

2. A License was considered more in keeping with “good society.” This was obtained for a few pounds from local clergy or at “Doctors Commons” in London.  The catch was ta 15 day residency requirement, but it was less public.

3. The well-off could afford a special license obtained only  from the archbishop of Canterbury and cost quite a lot.   They were obtained at the archbishop’s discretion but allowed you top marry wherever and whenever.  Given the difficulty in obtaining this and the expense this trope is possibly exploited a bit.

4. Civil License was for a couple who weren’t marrying in the Church of England, after 1836.  Obtained from the “superintendent-register”  (like a clerk of records) his allowed marriage in a church or at the registrar’s office.

But, between the 1770s (when the coach road was made) and the 1850s (when a residency requirement was enacted) couples wishing to evade any of these requirements, or their parental disapproval, could elope to Scotland, and Gretna Green.   The Scottish Presbyterian church had looser rules and you showed up and pledged yourself to another in front of any citizen.  Often, because they were required to be a citizen, the local blacksmith officiated. So Gretna Green was not only used by the underaged, but by people who did not want to wait for the banns to be read or who could not obtain a special license.

in 1856 Scotland enacted a residency requirement making Gretna Green a slightly less attractive spot for the young and desperate.  What happened in Gretna Green meant you had to stay there.

I have looked around and further entries on Wikipedia seem correct and concise.

The Marriage Act 1753, full title “An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage”, popularly known as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act (citation 26 Geo. II. c. 33), was the first statutory legislation in England and Wales to require a formal ceremony of marriage.,…The Act tightened the existing ecclesiastical rules regarding marriage, providing that for a marriage to be valid it had to be performed in a church and after the publication of banns or the obtaining of a licence (Special licenses being required to speed things up). Those under the age of 21 had to have parental consent if they married by licence; marriages by banns, by contrast, were valid as long as the parent of the minor did not actually forbid the ban.


I imagine, sometimes minor marriages were allowed by English parents; it’s likely to have depended on the families’ circumstances, positions, etc. Until then the license and/or the banns were kind of optional. The new law applied in Wales and England but not in Scotland.

Under early modern Scots law, there were three forms of “irregular marriage” which can be summarized as the agreement of the couple to be married and some form of witnessing or evidence of such. An irregular marriage could result from mutual agreement, by a public promise followed by consummation, or by cohabitation and repute.[11] All but the last of these were abolished by [January 1940]. Prior to this act, any citizen was able to witness a public promise. The tradition of eloping English couples searching for blacksmiths resulted legally from the fact that blacksmiths were necessarily citizens and could often be recognized by strangers by their presence at their forge….

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, marriage laws in Scotland encouraged the practice of couples wishing to marry eloping from England to Scotland. With transport less developed, many of these marriages were at Gretna Green, the first Scottish settlement on the main West Coast route from England; hence the term Gretna Green marriage for marriages transacted in a jurisdiction that was not the residence of the parties being married, to avoid restrictions or procedures imposed by the parties’ home jurisdictions.

So, in a case like Lydia Bennet marrying the nefarious Mr. Wickham, we can be assured that, having learned Wickham’s nature, he would not have been recommended by Lizzy to Mr. Bennett, unless Lydia had already been ruined. and we can imagine Wickham had no money for a license nor would he have liked the publicity of banns.

But, now you know why people would run away to get married.

By the way, it’s romantic associations continue to impact the village and I read that one in six marriages in Scotland occur there to this day!


Cover of "What Jane Austen Ate and Charle...
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, by Pool, Daniel, Published by Touchstone, SImon & Schuster, 1998. Pages 183 to 185 Cover via Amazon