Last week’s post about Regency Landmarks Beyond London, glossed over the question of “Why are they always running off to Gretna Green?” So this week, I decided we’d take a closer look at some of the customs and circumstances that might surround a Regency marriage or elopement.
Once Hardwicke‘s Marriage Act of 1753 was passed in England and Wales, parental consent was required for anyone to marry under the age of 21. The Act also put a stop to Fleet Marriages, legally binding marriages (under both Common and Ecclesiastical Law), that took advantage of a Common Law loophole which allowed couples to marry by a simple exchange of vows. Fleet Prison, a debtor’s prison in London, was the best known place where these marriages could be performed, hence the name. Jewish and Quaker ceremonies were exempt. Clergymen conducting clandestine marriages risked transportation.
After 1753, in order to get married, a couple needed either to have a license or the reading of the Banns to be legally married in England or Wales.
The Reading of the Banns
“I publish the Banns of marriage between [Groom’s Name] of [his local parish] and [Bride’s Name] of [her local parish]. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first [second, third] time of asking.”
The Marriage Banns, as worded above, were read on 3 consecutive Sundays or Holy Days during Divine Service, immediately before the Offertory. Any minor was required to provide proof of parental or a guardian’s consent. At least one of the marrying couple had to be resident in the parish in which they wished to be married in. If the persons marrying came from separate parishes, the Banns were read in both and the curate of one parish could not solemnize Matrimony without a certificate from the curate of the other stating the Banns had been “thrice asked”. Banns were good for 3 months or would be required to be read again. Also weddings had to take place in the church between 8 in the morning and noon before witnesses.
A Common or Ordinary Marriage License could be obtained from any bishop or archbishop and meant the Banns need not be read – thus reducing the two to three week delay to a seven day waiting period. These types of licenses were also called Bishop’s Licenses. Proof of parental or a guardian’s consent must be provided for minors under 21 years of age as well as a sworn statement was given that there was no impediment [the parties were not related to one another in the prohibited degrees, proof of deceased spouse given]. The marriage was required to take place before witnesses in the parish church named on the license where one party had already lived for 4 weeks. It was also good for 3 months from date of issue. The cost of a common or ordinary license was 10 shillings to one pound.
Obtained from Doctors Commons in London, from the Archbishop of Canterbury or his representative. The difference between this and an Ordinary license was that it granted the right of the couple to be married by a member of the clergy before witnesses at any convenient time or place. All other requirements were the same (something that is frequently left out of the details in Romance Novels) and the names of both parties were given at the time of the application, you couldn’t fill them in later. You also couldn’t transfer them and there was no provision for marriage by proxy in England at the time. They were only available to peers and their children, baronets, knights, members of Parliament, Privy Councillors and Westminster Court Judges. Special licenses cost at least 20 guineas. In 1808, a Stamp Duty was imposed on the actual paper, vellum or parchment the license was printed upon, of £4 which increased to £5 in 1815.
Gretna Green & Other Elopements
The Marriage Act of 1753, made it much more difficult to marry without parental consent or if the couple was in a hurry to marry. It also did not apply in Scotland (or the American Colonies). Some couples evaded the Act by traveling to various Scottish “Border Villages” such as Coldstream Bridge, Lamberton, Mordington and Paxton Toll. In the 1770s, the construction of a toll road passing through the unremarkable village of Graitney led to Gretna Green which became synonymous with romantic elopements.
Many couples eloped without parental consent and were married “over the anvil” at the popular blacksmith’s shop in Gretna Green. After 1856, Scottish law changed to require 21 days’ residence for marriage, yet Gretna Green remained a center for romantic and irregular weddings until 1940. In 1977, the residency requirement was replaced by a two week notice of intention.
Engagement rings in the Regency Era were not diamonds. Sometimes a ring might be given as a token of affection in a long engagement, but it wasn’t expected. Edward in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility wears such a ring made from his fiancee’s hair (a common token in the 19th century).
Invitations were handwritten personal letters inviting friends and relatives to attend the ceremony or letters to announcing the marriage to those who could not be expected to attend.
In the heart of Mayfair, St George’s Parish Church was the home parish of the majority of the ton. St George’s has been considered a fashionable church almost from its beginning in 1725 and it’s popularity kept rising until about 1,000 weddings a year were performed there in the Regency Era. In 1816, St Georges was the location of 1,063 weddings, or about three a day, making it the Regency equivalent to a Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, with a much higher social appeal. Often you’ll see the difficulty in securing a reasonable date for a wedding to be held there as an excuse for the couple to acquire a license.
Regency Wedding Gowns
The notion of a white wedding gown wasn’t widespread during the Regency but gained popularity during Queen Victoria’s reign. Most women during the early 19th century were married in their Sunday best. Brides were much more practical in those days, especially if they did not rank high on the social scale. They might have a new gown made for the occasion, but often that became their new “best” gown.
The following appeared in Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Artin 1869:
Although a ring is absolutely necessary in a Church-of-England marriage, it may be of any metal, and of any size. Some years since, a ring of brass was used at Worcester at a wedding before the registrar, who was threatened with proceedings for not compelling a gold one to be employed…. The church-key was used in lieu of a wedding-ring at a church near Colchester, early in the present century; and that was not a solitary instance within the past one hundred years in England. The Duke of Hamilton was married at May Fair with a bed-curtain ring.
Today we just call the party after a wedding ceremony “the reception” and are done with it. During the Regency, members of the ton would be expected to fast and then take communion after the ceremony, so the meal served after the ceremony would have broken their fasting. Add to that, the majority of weddings were held between 8 am and noon, and there’s our modern interpretation creeping in. Remember at the time, Venetian Breakfasts were very popular and were essentially afternoon parties that could last into the evening.
More information regarding Regency Marriage and Weddings along with a variety of other Regency-themed topics can be found on my Regency Resource page. If you’d like more information on a specific place or topic, please let me know in the comments section below.