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Saturday 28 November 2015

Why did Regency lovers elope to Gretna Green?

A travelling chariot in the museum at Gretna Green
A travelling chariot in the museum at Gretna Green (2015)
If you’ve read many Regency romances, then you are probably familiar with the notion of couples eloping to Gretna Green. But why did couples need to go all the way to Scotland to get married?

The problem of irregular marriages

It all started with Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. Before this Act came into force, although most people were married in church and subject to the rules laid down by the Church of England, this was not legally necessary. 

According to the Church’s rules, marriages had to take place in the church of the parish where one or both people getting married were living. Either banns had to be read—that is, the intention to marry had to be publicly announced in the church prior to the wedding—or the couple had to procure a license to marry. 

However, as long as the marriage was conducted by an Anglican clergyman, it was still legal, even if all the other conditions were not met!

The Fleet Prison from Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The Fleet Prison from Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1808-10)
As a result, there was a roaring trade in irregular marriages, particularly at the Fleet Prison in London, where imprisoned clergymen were happy to marry couples at any time of day or night, provided the price was right.

Another popular, but not quite so disreputable location, was St George’s Chapel, Hyde Park Corner, which seems to have been built for the express purpose of conducting irregular marriages. According to the marriage register of St George’s Chapel, an incredible 61 couples were married on 24 March 1754, eager to escape the restrictions that would be imposed by Hardwicke’s Act which came into force the following day (1).

St George's Chapel, Mayfair c1761 from Mayfair and Belgravia: being an historical account of the parish of St George, Hanover Square by G Clinch (1892)
St George's Chapel, Mayfair c1761
from Mayfair and Belgravia: being an historical
account of the parish of St George, Hanover Square
by G Clinch (1892)
Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1753

Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was devised to put a stop to these irregular marriages. 

The Act required that:
• All marriages had to take place in the parish church of one of the parties getting married and be performed by the minister of that church.
• All marriages had to take place in a public ceremony.
• All marriages had to take place during daylight hours.
• Anyone under the age of 21 wanting to get married had to have parental consent. Formal consent had to be given before a marriage license could be issued and an objecting parent had the right to forbid the banns. However, if the banns were read without challenge, it did not make the marriage illegal even if the parents were against the marriage.
• Marriages could only take place after giving three weeks’ notice of the intention to marry, that is, the banns being read in the parish church for three times before the wedding took place. Marriages without banns required a marriage license. This was more expensive and could only be acquired from a bishop or archbishop.

These rules made it virtually impossible for those under 21 to be married without their parents’ permission.

Scottish marriage law

But crucially for the Gretna Green story, Hardwicke’s Marriage Act only applied in England and Wales. It did not apply in Scotland. The Scottish government was encouraged to adopt the same law, but it did not.

Sign saying Scotland Welcomes You

It was still possible for those aged under 21 to be legally married in Scotland without their parents’ permission. In fact, Scottish law allowed boys as young as 14 and girls as young as 12 to be married. No parental consent was required and the marriage did not have to be consummated to be valid. 

By travelling into Scotland, underage lovers from England could still get married without parental consent. 

Another group of people who took advantage of the more relaxed marriage laws in Scotland were Dissenters. There were special dispensations for Jews and Quakers, but not for non-conformists and some chose to make the journey to Scotland rather than get married in a Church of England church.

Why Gretna Green?

A new trade developed along the Scottish border providing swift marriages for couples eloping from England. The most famous location for these runaway marriages was the blacksmith’s shop at Gretna Green, but other popular places in the Scottish Borders included the toll house on the Scottish side of Coldstream Bridge and the toll house at Lamberton.

Sign saying Welcome to Gretna

Graitney, more familiarly known as Gretna, was the first village in Scotland on the main post road from London. The blacksmith’s shop was ideally located as one of the first buildings that an eloping couple came to.

The blacksmith's shop, Gretna Green
The blacksmith's shop, Gretna Green (2015)
All that was required for a marriage in Scotland to be legal was a declaration in front of witnesses. Couples arriving at the blacksmith’s shop in Gretna Green were married by a self-appointed ‘anvil priest’ – not a clergyman, but an entrepreneur who could see that conducting runaway marriages was big business. As the eloping couples were typically rich and in a great hurry to be married, the anvil priest could charge whatever he liked and the couple would probably pay. 

The anvil priest conducted a short hand-holding ceremony over the anvil in front of two witnesses and pronounced the couple man and wife. If the couple had arrived without witnesses, the anvil priest would obligingly provide them.

Marriage room at the blacksmith's shop, Gretna Green (2015)
Marriage room at the blacksmith's shop, Gretna Green (2015)
Famous Gretna weddings

One of the most famous marriages to take place at Gretna Green was between Sarah Anne Child and John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland, which took place on 20 May 1782. Sarah Anne’s father, Robert Child, chased the couple all the way to Scotland, but failed to prevent the marriage. He was so angry that he cut his daughter out of his will, determined that no Earl of Westmorland should benefit from his wealth. As a result, his fortune passed to his eldest granddaughter, Sarah Child Villiers, Countess of Jersey.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian Regency era romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to encourage me and help me to keep making my research freely available, please buy me a virtual cup of coffee by clicking the button below.


(1) The Gretna Green website states that Hardwicke's Marriage Act came into force a day later, on 26 March 1754.

Sources used include:
Armytage, George J, The Register of Baptisms and Marriages at St George's Chapel, May Fair (1889)
Clinch, George, Mayfair and Belgravia: being an historical account of the parish of St George, Hanover Square (1892)

Glasgow University website
Gretna Green website
Parliament website

Photographs ©

Friday 20 November 2015

Rowlandson’s comic art at the Queen’s Gallery, London - 2016 exhibition

Doctor Convex and Lady Concave
by Thomas Rowlandson (1802)
Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) was one of the greatest caricaturists of his time. The exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery – High Spirits – was all about his comic art and included nearly 100 of his prints and drawings. The exhibition ended on 14 February 2016, but you can still enjoy it on this blog.

High Spirits exhibition at the Queen's Gallery,
Buckingham Palace, London
Here is the promotional video for the exhibition narrated by Brian Blessed. It is a lovely introduction to the subject of Thomas Rowlandson's art and caricatures in general.

There is a comprehensive book that accompanies the exhibition which includes all the prints and pictures on display (and a few more besides) together with the background and provenance for each.
The fashion for caricatures

Before I start telling you about the exhibition, I have a confession to make. I am not a huge fan of caricatures—they are very Georgian, but not always to my taste. Rowlandson’s cartoons are often quite ugly and frequently bawdy. However, I appreciate their cleverness even when I’m not keen on the pictures and I did find some prints in the exhibition that I liked.

A wall of Rowlandson prints at the exhibition
Caricatures were a great source of amusement to rich and poor alike. It was fashionable to collect prints and display them on a wall or screen or keep them in an album. Showing off your print collection was a popular after dinner entertainment. If you couldn’t afford to build up your own portfolio, then you could hire one from a print shop for the evening to share with your guests. If that was beyond your means, you could still enjoy spotting the royals and politicians lampooned in cartoon form by gazing at the latest prints on display in the print shop window.

I'm looking at a screen at the exhibition covered
 with cut-outs of Thomas Rowlandson prints
 which dates from c1806
A close-up of the print screen shown above
Everyday life

Many of Rowlandson’s prints were social satires – taking a humorous view of daily life and topics that were in the news. Rowlandson was fond of depicting opposites - such as Doctor Convex and Lady Concave at the top of the page and the very streamlined outline of Buck's Beauty contrasting with the curves of Rowlandson's Connoisseur below.

Buck's Beauty and Rowlandson's Connoisseur
by Thomas Rowlandson (c1799)
Three Principal Requisites to form a Modern Man of Fashion
by Thomas Rowlandson (1814)
Overset by Thomas Rowlandson (c1790)
Rowlandson delighted in caricaturing current events, such as the news that Richard Brinsley Sheridan was going to pull down the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in order to build a bigger one. Rowlandson depicted this as the theatre tumbling down during a performance.

Chaos is Come Again! by Thomas Rowlandson (1791)
Ridiculing the royals

George III and his family were frequently the subject of Rowlandson’s cartoons. His caricatures included prints about George III's illness of 1788-9; George, Prince of Wales' bad behaviour; and the Mrs Clarke scandal of 1809 involving the Duke of York. During the Mrs Clarke scandal, Rowlandson produced an incredible 27 caricatures in little over 6 weeks!

Money Lenders [featuring the young George IV]
by Thomas Rowlandson (1784)
Suitable Restrictions [for a regency] by Thomas Rowlandson (1789)
Yorkshire Hieroglyphics by Thomas Rowlandson (1809)
[depicting a love letter from the Duke of York to Mrs Clarke in pictures]
A York address to the Whale. Caught lately off Gravesend.
[The Duke of York pleads with the whale to distract the public
from the Mrs Clarke scandal] by Thomas Rowlandson (1809)
Political satire

Rowlandson began producing political caricatures around 1780. The battle between the Whigs led by Fox and the Tories led by Pitt gave ample scope for his wicked wit. His series of prints on the Westminster Election of 1784, published by William Humphrey, was particularly successful, firmly establishing him as one of the leading satirists of his day.

The Devonshire or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes
by Thomas Rowlandson (1784)
 Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, is shown kissing a butcher
 in order to secure his vote for Fox.
Views of England and other works of art

In addition to all the caricatures, a number of Rowlandson's other works were on display. These included book illustrations from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London and An excursion to Brighthelmstone made in the year 1789. This volume included what was probably my favourite picture in the whole exhibition – that of the bathing machines at Brighton pictured below.

Bathing Machines by Thomas Rowlandson in An excursion
to Brighthelmstone made in the year 1789 by H Wigstead (1790)
Christie's Auction Room from The Microcosm of London
published by R Ackermann (1808)and illustrated by Augustus
Pugin [the architecture] and Thomas Rowlandson [the people].
The paintings in the exhibition included this one, featuring George III returning from a hunting trip.

King George III returning from hunting through Eton
by Thomas Rowlandson (c1800)
A Georgian connection with the Dutch paintings

Having examined the Rowlandson exhibition thoroughly, we decided to take a quick look round the exhibition of Dutch paintings which ran alongside it. Although these were pre-Georgian, mostly dating from the 17th century, there was a Georgian connection. Many of the paintings were acquired by George IV and prints of various rooms in Carlton House and Windsor Castle from Pyne’s The History of the Royal Residences showed the paintings had been displayed. One or two of the paintings in the exhibition were even identifiable in the prints.

An Old Woman called The Artist's Mother
by Rembrandt van Rijn (1627)
The King's Drawing Room, Windsor Castle
from The History of the Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819).
The Old Woman is on display to the right of the doorway.
There was also a small selection of Sèvres porcelain on display.

Chocolatière from the Sèvres
porcelain factory (1777)
Acquired by George IV in 1815.
Pot-pourri à vaisseau or pot-pourri en navire
from the Sèvres porcelain factory (1758-9).
It is extremely likely that this item was originally
owned by Madame de Pompadour,
mistress of King Louis XV of France.
In summary, High Spirits was a great little exhibition and the exhibition book details all the works of art on display.

All photos © except Money Lenders and The Devonshire © The Royal Collection.
All prints and objects © HM Queen Elizabeth II.
 Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes faith-based Regency romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to encourage me and help me to keep making my research freely available, please buy me a virtual cup of coffee by clicking the button below.

Thursday 5 November 2015

The Regency History blog is four years old!

Rachel Knowles standing in the Royal Crescent, Bath
Can you believe that it is four years since I started this blog? I began in October 2011 and in the past four years I have posted 246 blogs and 16 pages and my blog is now visited by around 14,000 people every month. 

To celebrate my blog’s 4th anniversary, I have compiled a list of my all-time top twenty posts, according to Google analytics:

1. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
2. When is the Regency era?
3. Lady Elizabeth Foster, later Duchess of Devonshire
4. Prince Edward, Duke of Kent
5. Queen Charlotte
6. The rise and fall of Beau Brummell
7. When was the London season?
8. Headdresses and hairstyles for Regency evenings
9. 30 Beau Brummell quotes
10. George IV and Queen Caroline: a disastrous royal marriage
11. George IV
12. Mrs Fitzherbert
13. Princess Caroline of Brunswick
14. Who was ‘Silly Billy’?
15. Lady Caroline Lamb
16. Almack’s Assembly Rooms
17. The Grand Tour
18. Regency History’s guide to the Mysteries of Udolpho
19. The Six Princesses: Princess Amelia
20. Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough

Two of my pages also rank highly – my lists of fashion links and Regency novels.

Hats from La Belle Assemblée (1812)
Of course, posts that have been around longer have a higher chance of being ranked highly but, perhaps surprisingly, the list of my top twenty posts during the past year is virtually identical.

My two best days ever

When there is a spike of activity on my blog, I am always interested to know why. During 2015, I have had two days where I have witnessed unprecedented activity on my blog. Are you interested to know why?

The first spike occurred on Monday 4 May when nearly 4000 people visited my blog in a single day. Why? Because the new Princess of Cambridge had just been named Charlotte and lots of people suddenly wanted to know about Queen Charlotte!

Queen Charlotte
from Posthumous memoirs of his own time
by NW Wraxall (1836)
The second spike was even more pronounced. It occurred on 8 August and over 7000 pages were viewed on my blog. Most of these occurred after 10pm and came from within the UK. Why? The BBC showed The Duchess starring Keira Knightley that evening and this sparked an interest in what the real Duchess of Devonshire was like!

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
(painting in the South Sketch Gallery, Chatsworth)