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
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
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.
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
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.