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.

6 Facts About International Women's Day

iStock.com/robeo
iStock.com/robeo

For more than 100 years, March 8th has marked what has come to be known as International Women's Day in countries around the world. While its purpose differs from place to place—in some countries it’s a day of protest, in others it’s a way to celebrate the accomplishments of women and promote gender equality—the holiday is more than just a simple hashtag. Ahead of this year’s celebration, let’s take a moment to explore the day’s origins and traditions.

1. International Women's Day originated more than 100 years ago.

On February 28, 1909, the now-dissolved Socialist Party of America organized the first National Woman’s Day, which took place on the last Sunday in February. In 1910, Clara Zetkin—the leader of Germany’s 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party—proposed the idea of a global International Women’s Day, so that people around the world could celebrate at the same time. On March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day was held; more than 1 million people in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark took part.

2. The celebration got women the vote in Russia.

In 1917, women in Russia honored the day by beginning a strike for “bread and peace” as a way to protest World War I and advocate for gender parity. Czar Nicholas II, the country’s leader at the time, was not impressed and instructed General Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District to put an end to the protests—and to shoot any woman who refused to stand down. But the women wouldn't be intimidated and continued their protests, which led the Czar to abdicate just days later. The provisional government then granted women in Russia the right to vote.

3. The United Nations officially adopted International Women's Day in 1975.

In 1975, the United Nations—which had dubbed the year International Women’s Year—celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th for the first time. Since then, the UN has become the primary sponsor of the annual event and has encouraged even more countries around the world to embrace the holiday and its goal of celebrating “acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

4. International Women's Day is an official holiday in dozens of countries.

International Women’s Day is a day of celebration around the world, and an official holiday in dozens of countries. Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Uganda, Mongolia, Georgia, Laos, Cambodia, Armenia, Belarus, Montenegro, Russia, and Ukraine are just some of the places where March 8th is recognized as an official holiday.

5. It’s a combined celebration with Mother’s Day in several places.

In the same way that Mother’s Day doubles as a sort of women’s appreciation day, the two holidays are combined in some countries, including Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, and Uzbekistan. On this day, children present their mothers and grandmothers with small gifts and tokens of love and appreciation.

6. Each year's festivities have an official theme.

In 1996, the UN created a theme for that year’s International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future. In 1997, it was “Women at the Peace Table,” then “Women and Human Rights” in 1998. They’ve continued this themed tradition in the years since; for 2019, it's “Better the balance, better the world” or #BalanceforBetter.

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

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