Last month I travelled up to Gretna Green to do a little research. I’d been trying to find out what actually happened when couples arrived there for ages, and I’d found nothing valuable on the internet so I thought, right, get in the car and go there, and they’ll be something around there I’m sure. Oh, I can’t tell you how right I was. We discovered this fabulous little museum set up in an old ironmonger’s forge, one of the places where marriage ceremonies used to take place.
I learned so much I didn’t know.
Prior to the 12th Century, a man could just take a woman to his home and call it marriage. But the church, being more powerful than kings at the time, wanted some control over who married who, and so they began introducing formal religious ceremonies.
In 1563, the Church then became even more defiant over its role in marriage, and said that marriages would only be deemed valid if they were recognised by the Church. But even so Civil Law still stated that if a man and woman made a declaration before two witnesses, that was enough.
So there was a divide then, in places where the Church had no sway, people could be deemed officially married under civil law, on ships for instance. But what I didn’t know was about the industry which developed in London for quick marriages, in the Fleet Prison.
Apparently by the 1700’s jailed priests, who did not care about any reprisal from the church, had expanded their illicit marriage business from the prison chapel to sixty ‘Fleet marriage rooms’ outside the jail. They’d set themselves up there to perform hurried weddings, and people would elope and run to the Fleet Prison. Men even went out touting for business to encourage couples in off the street. And there was no care about who they married, numerous bigamous marriages took place, and marriage certificates might be backdated, to avoid having an illegitimate child. Or marriages, as they were performed anytime of the day or night, might be a drunken couple, who’d regret it in the morning.
So in 1754, Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was voted in by the House of Lords, whose daughters were often caught out by the seduction of penniless men, and when they only had to persuade the woman to go as far as the Fleet, their angry family didn’t have much chance to catch them up before the deed was done.
The Act introduced three distinct changes to marriage law. Couples had to marry in a church, and secondly, they had to be 21 to marry without the written consent of their parents, and lastly they had to give notice of their marriage, so bans would be read in parishes, to ensure both couples were eligible for marriage.
In a rush to beat the deadline for the new law 217 marriages took place in and around the Fleet Prison on 25th March 1754. But the law only changed in England, and once it had, so Gretna Green came into its own. As Gretna was the first place people reached when they came over the eastern Scottish border, this was the place couples wishing to marry without parental consent started rushing up to. Scottish marriages were recognised in England, and Scottish law still allowed anyone over sixteen to marry, just with a statement before witnesses.
Therefore anyone could set themselves up as the person to host marriages, and many people did in Gretna, to satisfy demand. Including the ironmonger, at the forge I went to. The museum had records of thousands of marriages, and details of the history of some of those who undertook marriages there. And here’s a picture of the anvil the ironmonger used.
The ironmonger ‘the anvil priest’ is believed to be the most remembered because of the symbolism of metal being forged together, as two people might be in marriage, and a mystical element grew up around this. There were letters there, written to the ironmonger of Gretna, mostly by women, asking for good luck in winning the man they chose, or advice, or even asking him to help plot their elopement.
An artist eloped with the daughter of a friend he’d been staying with in Carlisle, in the early 1800s. And later he painted pictures of his experience, they were the most telling thing for me. There was an image of their hurried coach ride. Then one of the couple arriving at the ironmonger’s forge, standing on a mud track outside as he walked out with his leather apron on, wiping his hands. They merely stood before the man in the squat old building as they made their declaration and he declared them forged together in marriage, and then banged his anvil to declare it. There weren’t a lot of houses around the forge, and no one else there, just the ironmonger and his family. When her father arrived the couple are merely walking back and the ironmonger is turning his back and leaving the couple to it.
So that’s the experience of a couple visiting Gretna Green, until in 1856, when the cooling off Act was introduced and Scottish marriages only became recognised in England when one of the marriage parties had been born in Scotland, or had resided there for 21 days. And that was the end of the booming marriage trade in Gretna Green…
More of Harriette’s story at the weekend.
Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.
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