Why is Everyone Eloping in Gretna Green?

Why does Lydia Bennet want to get married at Gretna Green?

Oh, Lydia Bennet, why do you make such trouble for your family? Besides being the biggest flirt in the country, you also decide to run away with reprehensible George Wickham to Gretna Green.

But, wait, what is Gretna Green? Why would Lydia want to go to Gretna Green, when clearly London is more her jam?

Those are great questions, let’s answer them.

So, if you love classic literature or period dramas set in England, you may have heard characters speak of running off to Gretna Green.

What is Gretna Green? It’s a small town in Scotland near the English Border.

I actually drove past the motorway exit to Gretna Green, Scotland, when I was over there and it was quite the most exciting two seconds of my driving-in-the-UK life.

But what does this small Scottish town have anything to do with marriage, elopements and Lydia Bennet?

We can answer that by taking a closer look at the legalities of marriage in Jane Austen’s times. We’ll discuss the following two ideas:

  1. Regency Marriage Basics
  2. The Marriage Act of 1753

Regency Marriage Basics

Couples in Regency England had three basic ways they could get married: by the reading of banns, by purchasing a common license or by being super special and getting a special license.

Banns

The reading of the “banns” served as the cheapest and most common method of getting married. Essentially, a couple would pay an Anglican preacher to read their “banns” to his flock for three Sundays in a row before their wedding. The “banns” which essentially served as a we’re-planning-to-get-married announcement.

The preacher would get up on his little podium and say “By the way, Mr. So and So, a widower, and Miss So and So, a spinster, wish to get married. If anyone knows why these two should not be united in wedlock, please speak now or for forever hold your peace.” (Not the exact wording, but you get the idea).

The preacher would read this announcement for three Sundays in the home parishes of the man and woman. After that they could finally marry.

Couples like Harriet Smith and Robert Martin from Emma would have used this method to wed.

Common License

Similar to getting a marriage license today, couples who could afford a common license in Regency England could simply buy a marriage license and wed without three Sundays of announcements. The higher classes used this method too as a show of their wealth.

Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightly from Emma would have gotten married with a common license.

Special License

Lizzy and Darcy Will Have Special Marriage License, Not Gretna GreenIf you belonged to the nobility or otherwise were of very high rank, you could hope to get a “special license” from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Not only did you not have to have banns read, but you started off your marriage feeling super special. Admittedly, you’d have to be special and rich, since this was the most expensive way to wed.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet rejoices at the thought that Lizzy and Darcy will get married with a “special license.” People debate whether Mr Darcy could get a special license when he himself was not nobility. But that’s okay, we love him anyway.

The Marriage Act of 1753 AKA An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage

So if England has so many great ways to get married, why would anyone run off to Scotland? The answer is age.

Apparently, the British had way too many eloping teenagers on their hands and decided to put an end to with the Marriage Act of 1753. They also called this act The Marriage Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriages.

It essentially formalized the marriage system in England, requiring couples to use one of the three approved marriage methods that we have already gone over in this video. It also required that anyone under the age of 21 get their parent’s permission in order to get married.

But what if you’re under 21, like Lydia, but you’re totally in love with a tall, handsome army officer that a couple months ago was hitting on your sister? You know your parents will never approve of you marrying him, but you just must be together.

Then you need to run away to somewhere that the Marriage Act of 1753 doesn’t apply- like Scotland, where 12 and 14-year-olds can get married without their parent’s consent.

Gretna Green, which was along a major road from London to Edinburgh, was just two miles over the Scottish border. Which made it the nearest Scottish town that young, English couples wishing to elope without their parents’ consent could reach.

Essentially, Gretna Green, Scotland was the original Las Vegas Nevada. Its very name became synonymous with eloping young couples and questionable marriage.

Which is exactly why fifteen-year-old Lydia Bennet runs off with Mr. Wickham to Gretna Green to get married, because Mr. Bennet would never approve of their marriage. Of course, Mr. Wickham does not even have the decency to elope with Lydia. Rather he talks her into just shaking up with him in London.


Which brings up another question.

One of my followers on Instagram wanted me to answer the question: Why does Mr. Darcy use his influence to have Lydia marry the scoundrel, Mr Wickham? After all, he used that same influence to save his own sister Georgiana from him. Why not save Lydia?

The answer comes down to Regency era morality. If a young lady slept around before marriage she would loose her good reputation. Having lost her reputation, she would never be able to make a good marriage match. Lydia’s decision to shack up with Wickham in London ruined her ability to even ever hope to marry anyone else. In fact, her disgrace affected her sister’s reputations by association and ruined their marriage prospects too.

Lydia’s two choices at that point were either marry Wickham and live a somewhat respectable life which would remediate the damage to her sisters’ reputations, or leave him and live the rest of her life a scarlet woman in loneliness, poverty, and shame. While Wickham isn’t a great guy, he’s actually a lot better than her other option.

On the other hand, Georgiana Darcy, while planning to elope with Wickham, never did anything immoral. This allowed her brother to save her before she married Wickham. Lydia’s immorality prevented Mr. Darcy from being able to save her from her ill thought out fate. So instead, he helps her secure the lesser of two evils.

Conclusion

So why does Lydia want to run away with George Wickham to get married at Gretna Green? Because she’s too young to get married in England without her parent’s consent, she needs to run away to Scotland to elope with her beloved officer.

How would you get married if you lived during Regency England? Would you choose banns, a common license or a special license? Or would you be one of those couples running away to Gretna Green? Leave your answer in the comment section below. Also, do you have any questions you’d like to me to answer? Leave them below in the comments section or follow me on Instagram @elliedashie.

Jane Austen Gifts and Prints on the Dashie Shop Super Cute Mr Darcy Buttons

Further Reading

Wikipedia. “Gretna Green.”

Gretna Green. “Why Flee to Gretna Green?”

Weber, Esther. “Gretna Green: The bit of Scotland where English people go to get married.” BBC News. 19 August 2014.

Ives, Susanna. “Victorian Wedding Etiquette in 1852.” 14 November 2015

Dietze, Susanna. “Regency Weddings.” 

Wikipedia. “Marriage Act of 1753.”

Wikipedia. “Banns of Marriage.”

Ellie Dashwood

Hi! I'm Ellie Dashwood. Blogger. Youtuber. Classic literature lover. Illustrator of beautiful things. Thank you so much for visiting my blog!

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Hi! My name is Ellie Dashwood and I am a youtuber, blogger, lover of classic literature and illustrator of beautiful things! Welcome to my blog where we discuss the best of books and films.

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