Gretna Green – The Place for Elopements

Two years before Marie Antoinette was born, the “Marriage Act in Churches” passed in 1753 but was popularly known as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act. It suppressed clandestine marriages by requiring English and Welsh couples to marry in a church and to be 21 or older to marry without parental consent. This resulted in clandestine marriages being conducted in Scotland where the requirements for marriage were different and easier. Thus, Gretna Green became the notable spot for marriages by eloping couples because it was just over the border.

Gretna Green

“The Elopement” by John Collett. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Part of the reason Scotland was so attractive for runaway marriages was because boys could marry at 14 and girls at age 12. They could also marry without parental consent. Additionally, couples could marry in irregular ways — by declaration before two witnesses and in a “handfasting” ceremony — and almost anyone had the authority to conduct a marriage. It was also reported:

“For the Scotch law … [they are] satisfied with the consent of parties declared before witnesses; whereas, in England, the entrance into the state of matrimony is hedged round with sundry legal obstacles, such as the necessity of obtaining the consent of parents, or other near connexions, procuring a license, or the publication of banns; the parties, if thwarted by friends, or impatient of the law’s delay, (and the impatience of lovers is proverbial,) may say to themselves, ; ‘We’ll get rid of these difficulties at once by stepping across the Border; let us off to Greta.'”[1]

A ceremony at Greta Green was also brief and to the point:

“The Parson (Bishop or Blacksmith) asks the parties whence they come, and what parish they belong to … They are asked if they be willing to receive each other for better, for worse … and [after] a wedding-ring passed between them, they are declared to be married persons.”[2]

Gretna Green Elopement by Clementina Clerke and Richard Vining Perry

Famous elopement to Getna Green by Clementina Clerke and Richard Vining Perry depicted by Thomas Rowlandson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Gretna Green became even more attractive for eloping couples in the 1770s. At that time, a toll road was constructed in Graitney, called Gretna. The road was in “a place lying on the very frontier between two (long) hostile kingdoms.”[3] That made Gretna Green easily reachable and the focal point for English and Welsh elopements. Thomas Pennant, a Welsh writer, naturalist, and antiquarian described the place in 1771. He stated you could distinguish it “from afar by a small plantation of firs.”[4] A further description of it published in 1825 stated:

“Gretna Green, then, is a small parish situated immediately on the north side of the small river Sark, which forms the boundary between Scotland and England. It is also clos eupon the main road leading to the North, through Preston, Penrith, and Carlisle; hence, as the frontier takes an east and northerly direction from this to the other side of the island, Gretna is the nearest and most easily accessible point in Scotland to those form the sister kingdom.”[5]

Joseph Paisley was the first Gretna Green parson responsible for tying the knot between young lovers in the eighteenth century. Paisley was a former tobacconist, farmer, and fisherman. He was also a stout and robust man, “upright, well-disposed … beloved by all his neighbours, and esteemed by all who had his acquaintance.”[6]

Paisley, like other clergymen, got the nickname “blacksmith.” How the nickname came about is unclear, but one person noted that Paisley “acquired the name from his quickness in uniting eloping parties, for the common saying, ‘strike the iron when it is hot, Joseph.'”[7] Another claim was that the parson or priest who acquired the title of “anvil priest” or “blacksmith,” likely got it “figuratively, from his office of forging matrimonial chains, or possibly as in the case of other great dynasties, the first of the race may have transmitted his name to his successors.”[8]

“Gretna Green” etching with hand-coloring. The blacksmith, wearing a parson’s hat, wig, and gown, stands in the middle of his smithy between two couples. He holds the wrist of an older woman (left), addressing a young woman (right). Beneath the design: ‘A Lady of Sixty, and a young woman of seventeen, lately presented themselves with their paramours at Gretna Green. “Hold hold (said the Matrimonial Vulcan to the Virgin) you are young and can wait a little, I see your Grandmother is impatient, let me put on her fetters first.’ c. 1800. Courtesy of the British Museum.

The Gretna Hall Blacksmith Shop built in 1710 and the Old Blacksmith’s Shop built in 1712 became intertwined in folklore with the eighteenth and nineteenth century elopements. Of the Hall the following was reported in the 1830s:

“Gretna Hall, a very respectable-looking country inn, is immediately contiguous to Gretna Green, which latter is, as many people, know a small rural common, nine miles from Carlisle. At this house all the modern matrimonial affairs, among the higher classes, have of late years been conducted; and hither all inquiring strangers are directed point blank; besides, a painted board points out the way from the Green to lovers and travellers, along a wide, straight drive leading to the door. The establishment possesses considerable advantages over the old one – indeed, the one is comfortable country residence, whereas the other more resembles a pot house, such as the ‘Jolly Sailor,’ or ‘The Three Loggerheads,’ in a seaport town.”[9]

Apparently, anyone could marry eloping couples and Pennant stated as much. He declared:

“[Gretna Green is] the resort of all amorous couples, whose union is forbidden by parents and guardians. There a young couple may be instantly united by a fisherman, a joiner, or a blacksmith, who marry from two guineas a-job to a dram of whiskey: but the price is generally adjusted by … the postillions from Carlisle, who are in the pay of one or the other of the above worthies; but even the drivers, in case of necessity, have been known to undertake the sacerdotal office.”[10]

The Elopement by Edmund Blair Leighton, Courtesy of Wikipedia

“The Elopement” by Edmund Blair Leighton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] The Oriental Herald, Vol. 7, 1825, p. 268-269.
  • [2] The Kaleidoscope, 1826, p. 195.
  • [3] The Oriental Herald, p. 268.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] The Court Journal, Vol. 7, 1835, p. 369.
  • [6] Elliott, Robert, The Gretna Green Memoirs, 1842, p. 3.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 2.
  • [8] The Oriental Herald, p. 269.
  • [9] Head, Sir George, A Home Tour Through the Manufacturing Districts of England, in the Summer of 1835, 1836, p. 299-300.
  • [10] Ibid.

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