What is Gretna Green?
I found this blog about missing marriage records. It suggests looking for the Gretna Green. Websters defines Gretna Green as a place many eloping couples are married. After reading, I would restate the definition as a place where the marriage laws are not as strict. I was curious of the meaning and origin of the name, and in researching encountered a bit of English and Scottish history.
First a bit of English history
In England, prior to 1695, marriage was governed by cannon law of the Church of England which recommended banns be called or a marriage license obtained and the couple be married by an anglican minister at a church where one of them was a member. While this was the normal practice in the 1600’s, a number of secret, or irregular marriages, marriages not conforming to Church law (without the use of banns and/or being preformed in a church that was not local to either of the couple, but still viewed as legitimate), were taking place. The Marriage Duty act of 1695 attempted to put an end to that by fining clergymen who performed marriages away from home parishes or without banns. Unfortunately as this act was mainly written to raise revenue for the war with France and had a loophole where ministers in the area around the Fleet prison (known as Liberties of the Fleet), a prison for debtors, could not be prosecuted against. As a result a number of clandestine or Fleet marriages continued. By the early 18th century it is estimated that 1/3 of all English marriages were irregular marriages, by 1750 about 50% of the marriages in London were Fleet Marriages. There were many reasons including, cost, speed, no parental consent, secrecy, bigamy, debt, or even backdating a marriage certificate. In 1753 England passed the Clandestine Marriages Act which in addition to banns books, required a separate form with signatures of the bride, groom, minister and two witnesses. Also, if under 21, parental consent was required. Note the act did not apply to Quaker or Jewish marriages
While the Clandestine Marriages Act, ended Fleet marriages it had no application to overseas marriages, or marriages celebrated in Scotland.
Enter Gretna Green Scotland
Although in Scotland ‘regular’ marriages also consisted of reading banns for three weeks at the church of both the bride and groom and being married by a priest at the parish of either the bride or groom. Scottish law allowed couples over 16 to marry without parental consent. Scotland also allowed for ‘irregular’ marriages. Although looked down upon by the church, they were accepted rather than let the couple be living in sin. These marriages could be either ‘marriage by declaration‘ or ‘handfasting’ where a man and woman could declare their marriage in front of two witnesses (allowed in Scotland until 1940). Once word got to England, a steady stream of couples headed for the Scottish border.
By stagecoach, Gretna Green was the first town they came to and the village blacksmith who serviced the coaches was the first building encountered. Enterprising blacksmiths quickly became ‘anvil priest’s’. This continued into the 1800’s and the advent of rail service in 1848. In 1856 Lord Brougham (who himself was married at Gretna Green) introduced the “Cooling Down Act” which required one of the couple to live in the parish they were to be wed for three weeks prior to the wedding. Although this did achieve the desired effect, Gretna Green farmers would look away when they found strangers using their barns as living quarters.
Look for the Gretna Green
So when searching for marriage records, if a record is not found in the usual places, it may be worthwhile to research those nearby towns where the marriage rules might not be as strict as where your ancestor lived. Finding the nearby Gretna Green’s may help you.