One such specialist wrote to us after we discussed the history of marriage, and if you'll indulge us, we'll let Professor Rebecca Probert explain:
"A day or two ago I watched a re-run of episode 15 in series 7 of QI which had a question about Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753 and its effect on Scottish tourism. While it's fair to say that Gretna Green wouldn't have become a focus for romantic elopements had it not been for Lord Hardwicke, your answer did repeat some of the commonly-held misunderstandings about marriage in the eighteenth century and the effect of the Act. The truth, as always, is more complex and interesting than the myth.
Before the Act came into force in 1754 (not 1753, by the way), marriage in England and Wales was governed by the canon law of the Church of England. The canon law laid down detailed requirements including the calling of banns or obtaining of a licence, parental consent for minors, the need for at least two witnesses, and specified times of day within which marriages had to take place. It wasn't just brothers and sisters who couldn't marry, but anybody related within the prohibited degrees (including those related by marriage). While all these things were essential in the eyes of the Church for a "regular" marriage, their absence didn't inevitably invalidate a marriage in the eyes of the Church and the law. One thing, though, was indispensable: the ceremony had to be conducted by an Anglican priest. Having a priest wasn't, as Stephen implied, optional, as seems to have been the case in Scotland.
The Act wasn't so much brought in to help give clarity in legal disputes over marriage, but instead (as its full title of "An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriages" indicated) was squarely aimed at ending the large number of valid but irregular marriages carried out by unscrupulous parsons in London's notorious Fleet Prison: the possibility of their offspring marrying unsuitable spouses in irreversible but valid ceremonies while in a haze of gin and/or puppy love was a considerable worry for the upper classes!
As to Gretna Green, true, it was the first settlement over the border - depending on one's starting point - but it wasn't until some decades later that the road north was improved to the extent where eloping couples could reach the village easily. Before this, lovers tried to evade the Act by heading to Coldstream or even Edinburgh, or even overseas. It'd be fair to say that Gretna owes its fame as much to tollpikes and to the technology of metalled roads as to the Marriage Act of 1753.
"The truth, as always, is more complex and interesting than the myth." We couldn't agree more Dr Probert, and thanks so much for all the extra information,
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