After many years in my “to visit” list, I finally had the chance to make it to Gretna Green recently, as part of a family trip to England. The actual place we stayed at was Gretna, which is right alongside but couldn’t be more different. Whereas Gretna Green conjures images of forbidden romance, runaway brides and clandestine weddings, Gretna’s main claim to fame is mostly utilitarian: it was built during the Great War to provide homes for the 30,000 employees of what was the biggest munitions factory in the world at the time.
But back to Gretna Green. A pretty village, it is just over 10 miles from Carlisle, the last English town along the road, and it sits right on the border. An ideal location, therefore, for anybody desperate to reach the safety of Scotland. And why Scotland?
Those of you familiar with the British Isles will know that Scots law is different from English law. A law in England does not a law in Scotland make, and this is precisely what happened with the Hardwicke Act of 1753. The new law made it compulsory for young people under 21 to obtain parental consent prior to their marriage, and for marriage ceremonies to be preceded by a publication of the banns, performed in a public ceremony in the parish of those getting married and presided by a Church official with the necessary license.
However, the Hardwicke Act applied to England and Wales only. Scotland maintained the old customs, which allowed boys over the age of 14 and girls over the age of 12 to marry without parental consent, provided they were not close relatives or in a relationship with a third party. All that brides and grooms had to do was make a public declaration. No surprise, then, that from 1753 onwards, a steady stream of Romeos and Juliets began the dash for Scotland to marry without parental approval.
A Very Convenient Location
To begin with, those eloping weren’t aiming for a particular place, other than somewhere north of the border, but in the 1770s a new toll road made Gretna Green the most accessible Scottish village for those travelling from the south. It quickly became the destination for those aiming for a secret wedding, because as well as fast access, ceremonies in the village had the added charm of being presided by the local blacksmith over an anvil.
Some say that the blacksmith’s shop was right next to the coaching inn, and he was so regularly asked to marry young couples that he ended up making a career out of it. However, I prefer an alternative explanation, which says that English couples, in spite of their eagerness to be married without the legal constraints of their country, were keen for their ceremony to be presided by someone in a position of authority in order to give it a more legitimate feel.
The Gretna Green blacksmith was happy to oblige, and added some theatricals to the ceremony by way of hammering on the anvil to symbolise the joining of new couples “in the heat of the moment but binding for eternity”. Genius!
Elopements to Scotland in Austen’s Novels
Whatever the actual reason behind the blacksmith’s story, the combination of the convenience of the toll road and the romance of the legendary anvil proved irresistible, and many couples of star-crossed lovers made Gretna Green their destination. By Jane Austen’s time, elopements to Scotland, mainly with Gretna Green as destination, were so established that they are mentioned in several of her works.
In Love and Freindship, Laura and Sophia convince young Janetta, who is to marry a man her father has chosen for her, that she is in love with Captain M’Kenzie. They manage to do the same with the gentleman, and they end up running away to “Gretna-Green”.
In Mansfield Park, Julia Bertram and Mr Yates elope to Scotland to marry. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia and Wickham are thought to have run away to Scotland when word gets out of their escape, and the bride herself declares Gretna Green to be their destination in the infamous letter she leaves to her friend, Mrs Foster:
”MY DEAR HARRIET,
“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, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an angel. I should never be happy without hi, so think it no harm to be off. You need not send word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater, when i write to them and sign my name “Lydia Wickham.” What a good joke it will be!”
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 47
And who does not remember the tragic love story between a young Colonel Brandon and Eliza, his father’s guard, in Sense and Sensibility? Before Eliza is forced to marry Brandon’s brother, the doomed couple plan to elope and get married in Gretna Green, but they are betrayed by “the treachery, or the folly” of Eliza’s maid.
In any case, the Gretna Green legend remains, so much so that the town has quite successfully marketed itself as a romantic wedding destination. And, I should add, rightly so, for who can resist the lure and romance of Scotland and of a marriage over the world’s most famous anvil, whether parental permission has been granted or not?
What do you think of Gretna Green’s reputation in history? Where should it feature in a list of Janeite locations in the UK?