How Gretna Green Became the Quickie Wedding Capital of 18th-Century Englanders

Ed Marshall/BIPs/Getty Images
Ed Marshall/BIPs/Getty Images

In the U.S., Las Vegas is known as the ultimate quickie wedding destination. But across the pond, the verdant village of Gretna Green in Scotland has been a hotbed of runaway “I do’s” for more than 260 years—longer than Sin City has even been around. And it was all thanks to one stuffy British lawyer who, in an attempt to reform English marriage laws, inadvertently made elopements to the tiny Scottish hamlet de rigueur for couples looking to tie the knot as soon as possible.

Before the 1750s, couples in England who wanted to get married only had to make a declaration to make the union legal and binding. However, the Church of England’s rules on marriage were a little more complicated. In order to hold an official church wedding, a couple had to make their plans publicly known several weeks before the ceremony through the reading of banns—public announcements, made on three different Sundays before the wedding, that would give the public the chance to object to the union for any legal or religious reasons, such as if one half of the couple had a previous marriage that was never annulled. (In a time when a divorce was hard to obtain, it wasn’t uncommon for people to simply try to skip town, then get married to someone else later on.) And if either person was under 21, they had to have parental permission to marry.

But since weddings that didn’t comply with these church rules were still considered legal by the British government, these so-called clandestine or irregular marriages became quite common. There were a number of other reasons why couples might have opted to forgo an official wedding, whether it was to avoid a pricey marriage license or parish fees, evade the public announcement requirement, marry despite parental opposition, conceal a pregnancy, or comply with religious beliefs outside the Church of England (Quakers, for example, often preferred to marry privately).

Skirting the marriage laws

An 18th Century Fleet Wedding—a marriage performed without banns or license at the Fleet Prison, London by unprincipled clerics
An 18th-century Fleet wedding
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some clergy members were willing to perform clandestine marriages for a fee, but those who did so risked being fined and suspended by the church for up to three years. Couples looking to get around the rules could seek out imprisoned clergy, who ostensibly had nothing to lose. As a result, London’s Fleet Prison, which fell outside the jurisdiction of the local bishop, became an especially popular place to get married ... until the glut of Fleet weddings came to the attention of one of the highest-ranking members of the British government.

To combat this scourge of irregular marriages, Lord Chancellor Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, introduced "An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage,” also known as the Marriage Act of 1753. The law established two main requirements for a marriage to be considered legal: The ceremony had to be performed in a church (usually the bride’s local parish) according to Anglican rites [PDF] and both members of the couple had to be at least 21 years old or have their parents’ permission (though there were ways around that).

Still, some young lovebirds were determined to get around the rules. Numerous English couples avoided Lord Hardwicke’s Act by traveling to Scotland—very often in secret. There, girls as young as 12 years old and boys as young as 14 could get married without parental consent. They simply needed to express their desire to be married in order to be legally bound together. So Gretna Green, the most easily reachable village across the Scottish border from England, became a hotspot for elopements.

Tying the Knot with Anvils

An eloping couple are married in the blacksmith's shop in the Scottish village of Gretna Green, the nearest place over the border where English people can take advantage of Scotland's more relaxed marriage laws
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though Scottish marriage laws allowed for pretty much anyone to legally marry a couple, bride- and grooms-to-be arriving from England often felt as if they needed some kind of formality to make their wedding seem more official. In seeking out responsible, upstanding local citizens in a town where the likely knew no one, couples often turned to toll keepers, innkeepers, and blacksmiths to perform the ceremony.

As the local lore goes, when earnest couples crossed the Scottish border and arrived at Gretna Green, they spotted the village’s blacksmiths at their forges and would ask if they'd be willing to join them in matrimony. So it became a local tradition for couples to seek out these anvil priests in the village’s two blacksmith shops and inns, and thus the anvil came to symbolize the commitment newlyweds were making to each other.

“As a blacksmith would join metals together over the anvil, two hearts were also joined,” Susan Clark, director of Gretna Green Ltd., a local wedding planning business, tells Mental Floss. It became a popular side gig for local blacksmiths. One anvil priest, Richard Rennison, reportedly performed as many as 5147 marriages.

It didn’t take long for the village to gain a reputation as a perfectly quaint destination for elopements. By the 19th century, numerous references to the village’s popularity as a spot for runaway weddings began to appear in literature. In Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, for example, Lydia Bennet leaves a note for her friend that she is on her way to Gretna Green to elope with George Wickham. Austen wrote about Scottish elopement in Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park as well.

Gretna Green has also garnered mentions in everything from Agatha Christie’s 1971 novel Nemesis to the early 2000s Japanese manga series Embalming: The Another Tale of Frankenstein. On television, running off to Gretna Green has been a plot point on numerous series, including the long-running British soap opera Coronation Street and, more recently, Downton Abbey.

Not-so-Quickie Weddings

A wedding party during a wedding at Gretna Green Smithy
Three Lions/Getty Images

In 1856, to reduce the flow of English couples looking to marry on the sly, Scotland amended its marriage laws, requiring that one member of the soon-to-be-married party live in Scotland for at least 21 days before saying “I do.” Which meant that couples could no longer just hop over the border for the day and head back to England as husband and wife. (That law has since been repealed.)

Even still, couples managed to make their planned elopements work. Eileen and Dennis Howell of Worcestershire, England, who were married by Richard Rennison at Gretna Green in 1939, came up with a clever workaround to comply with the residency regulation without alerting their parents, who had told them they were too young to marry. As they told the BBC in 2004, Eileen rented a house in Gretna Green for the 21-day stay legally required to secure Scottish residency, while telling her parents she was in Ludlow, Shropshire, an English town 30 miles from Worcestershire. To keep up the ruse, Dennis often rode his bike to Shropshire to send pre-written postcards to Eileen’s family. (In 2004, the couple returned to Gretna Green to celebrate their 65th anniversary.)

As it turned out, the Howells were one of the last couples to be married by Rennison. Anvil priests were not ordained ministers or priests, and Rennison’s exorbitant amount of knot-tying in the 1920s and 1930s eventually caught the eye of government officials and inspired them to write a new law. The Marriage (Scotland) Act of 1939 decreed that only ministers or registrars could marry couples, putting the nail in the coffin for anvil priests.

A Modern Wedding Destination

Laura Lines stands for pictures after getting married in February 29, 2008 in Gretna Green, Scotland.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

While irregular marriages are a thing of the past, even today, people are still drawn to the mysticism of marrying at Gretna Green. Saying “I do” over the village anvil or in the area around Dumfries continues to be a popular matrimonial choice for modern-day couples. Whereas young couples once rushed into the nearest blacksmith shop to tie the knot, now companies like Gretna Green Ltd. offer would-be spouses luxury hotels, reception halls, and restaurants for a destination wedding in the village (where family and friends happily celebrate the occasion).

According to one Scottish tourism website, about 5000 couples get married at Gretna Green each year. The tidal wave of weddings occurs not just during typical romantic holidays, like Valentine’s Day, but on other memorable dates on the calendar as well. On November 11, 2011 (11/11/11), for instance, 51 weddings and two civil services took place in Gretna and the surrounding area.

People "want to become part of the magic that is Gretna Green—the history, the intrigue, the romance and rebellion,” Clark says.

9 Facial Reconstructions of Famous Historical Figures

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Why look at a painting of a historical figure when you can come face to face with one? Forensic facial reconstruction using scans of skeletal remains allows researchers to create 3D models of the face through a combination of science, history, and artistic interpretation. The results may be somewhat subjective, but they’re fascinating anyway. Here are nine facial reconstructions of famous people.

1. Richard III

In 2012, King Richard III’s skeleton was found below a parking lot in Leicester, England, where in 1485 he was hurriedly buried after dying in battle. A reconstruction (above) shows a young man, only 32 years old, with a gentle, approachable face. It’s a far cry from the child-murdering villain portrayed by Shakespeare and other writers. One thing they said does seem accurate, however: The skeleton had a curved spine from scoliosis, suggesting that Richard’s humpback may have been real.

2. Bach

J.S. Bach’s bust has sat on innumerable pianos for centuries, but he only posed for one portrait in his lifetime. So this reconstruction of his face—which was taken from a bronze cast of his skull—offers an interesting glimpse into the man beneath the 18th century wig. You get the same thick neck, underbite, and stern brow you see in the painting, but the reconstruction’s friendly, confused stare lacks the soul of the real man … and his music, for that matter.

3. Shakespeare

Apparently, no one knows anything about Shakespeare for sure—his hair color, his sexual orientation, how he spelled his name, whether he liked his wife, etc. Some people aren’t even sure whether he wrote his plays or not. So this rendering, taken from a death mask found in Germany, is bound to be controversial. But if it is Shakespeare, it’s pretty intriguing. It shows a man who suffered from cancer and had a sad, soulful face.

4. Dante

Maybe it’s because The Divine Comedy dealt with the ugliness of sin that Dante Alighieri is usually depicted as unattractive, with a pointy chin, buggy eyes, and enormous hooked nose. But a reconstruction done from measurements of the skull taken in 1921—the only time the remains have been out of the crypt—reveals a much more attractive Dante. The face has a rounder chin, pleasant eyes, and smaller nose than previously thought. It’s a face with character.

5. King Henri IV

The mummified head of France’s King Henri IV was lost after the French Revolution until a few years ago, when it showed up in a tax collector’s attic. In his day, Henri was beloved by everyone except the Catholic fundamentalists who murdered him in 1610. The hard-living king looks a bit old for his 56 years, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes. What the model cannot show, however, was how much the king stank—apparently he smelled of ”garlic, feet and armpits.”

6. Cleopatra’s Sister

Cleopatra hated her half-sister Arsinoe IV so much she had her dragged out of the temple of Artemis and murdered. In 2013, researchers said they had discovered what may be Arisone’s body, based on the shape of the tomb, carbon dating, and other factors. The resulting facial reconstruction shows a petite teenager of European and African blood. And yeah, maybe this is closer to what Arsinoe would look like if she were trapped in The Sims, but since Cleopatra’s remains are long gone, this may be the closest we get to knowing what she looked like.

7. King Tut

King Tutankhamun, whose famous sarcophagus has traveled far more than the “boy king” did in his 19-year lifetime, had buckteeth, a receding chin, and a slim nose, according to 3D renderings of his mummy. His weird skull shape is just within range of normal and was probably genetic—his father, Akhenaten, had a similarly shaped head. Tut’s body also had a broken leg, indicating he may have died from falling off a horse or chariot.

8. Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, who challenged the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, died in 1543 at age 70. When his body was found in 2006 in a Polish church and confirmed by matching DNA to strands of his hair left in a book, the Polish police used their forensic laboratory to make this portrait. They made sure to include Copernicus’s broken nose and the scar above his left eye. Who knew that the Father of Astronomy looked so much like the actor James Cromwell?

9. Santa Claus

The remains of St. Nicholas, i.e. Santa Claus, have been in a church in Bari, Italy, since they were stolen from Turkey in 1087. This reproduction, taken from measurements of his skull, reveal that St. Nicholas had a small body—he was only 5’6”—and a huge, masculine head, with a square jaw and strong muscles in the neck. He also had a broken nose, like someone had beaten him up. This is consistent with accounts of St. Nicholas from the time: It turns out that Santa Claus had quite a temper.

A version of this list was first published in 2013.

Fabric Allegedly From Queen Elizabeth I’s Only Surviving Piece of Clothing Is Going on Display

© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton
© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton

When Eleri Lynn, curator of historic dress at Historic Royal Palaces, first laid eyes on the Bacton altar cloth, she had a feeling that it wasn’t your typical 16th-century altar cloth. She had come across it online while researching Welsh connections to the Tudor court, and decided to pay a visit to St. Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, England, to see it in person.

“I knew immediately that it was something special,” she told The Telegraph. “As I examined it, I felt as though I had found the Holy Grail, the Mona Lisa of fashion.” After a year’s worth of careful analysis, experts believe it was originally part of a dress that Queen Elizabeth I wore in the Rainbow Portrait of 1602. That makes it the only known surviving piece of clothing worn by the Virgin Queen.

Elizabeth I Rainbow Portrait
Isaac Oliver, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The cloth and Elizabeth I’s dress are both embroidered with roses, daffodils, and other flowers. The altar cloth shows animals like butterflies, frogs, squirrels, and bears, which Lynn thinks were added after the Rainbow Portrait was painted. Lynn also noticed that the altar cloth contains strands of gold and silver, which only the royal family could wear during Elizabeth I’s reign due to strict sumptuary laws.

Bacton altar cloth from Elizabeth I's dress
© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton

Close-up on Bacton altar cloth from Elizabeth I's dress
© Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St. Faith's Church, Bacton

Since royal attire was so extravagant, it was often handed down to the next generation or reincarnated as upholstery. And, according to a statement from Hampton Royal Palaces, Elizabeth I sometimes gave her hand-me-downs to Blanche Parry, her Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber and the woman who had nursed her from infancy. Parry, as it so happens, belonged to St. Faith’s Church. Lynn and her fellow historians posit that Elizabeth I may have even sent this particular fabric to St. Faith’s in memory of her companion.

While recycling or reusing clothing was sustainable, it has made it difficult for Lynn and her contemporaries to track down fashion relics from the Tudor dynasty. In addition to that, Lynn told The Telegraph, “Oliver Cromwell sold off every item of clothing in the royal stores, so the only things we have, including a hat which might have been worn by Henry VIII, have come back to Hampton Court after they have survived elsewhere.”

St. Faith’s has loaned the cloth to Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that oversees Hampton Court Palace, where you can see it on display along with the Rainbow Portrait and other Tudor artifacts from October 12, 2019, to February 23, 2020.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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