Mixed-up marriage

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A QI elf has to be something of an all-rounder, but we also have to know our limitations, and we have nothing but respect for experts. We count ourselves extremely lucky when such an expert takes time to put us right in points of fact.


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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2 Comments

Obviously not the place for feedback, but I can't seem to find one. I wish to comment on a possible mistake in The Noticeably Stouter Book of General Ignorance - where can I do this please?

The most common problem bothj on the program and on pages such as the 'Fact Of The Day' is a failure to understand what is being said. Stephen Fry rarely understands the nature of the 'knowledge', and the language used is pretty poor. I remember him doing one of his supposed impromptu demonstrations of knowledge, virtually quoting verbatim (but, of course, unacknowledged) from half-witted website involving discussions about fighting: he authoritatively instructed the world that Ali would have beaten Bruce Lee because it taskes longer to kick. This isn't fact, this is half-baked opinion. I note that today's 'Fact of the day' states 'Human beings are born with only two inbuilt fears: the fear of loud noises and the fear of falling. All other fears are abnormal and have to be learned'; but learned doesn't mean abnormal at all. These errors are everywhere on QI.

However, my favourite moment was when Fry tried to pretend he could speak French fluently, using an awful French accent and talking about 'Bonus points' - I was with a Frenmch friend at the time and she couldn't stop laughing at his atrocious pretensions. I find it funnier when he mutters 'meaning is use' without having that faintest idea what he is saying!

And that's pretty much what QI and Mr Fry is: atrocious, ignorant pretension. I notice that he waxed indignant about one giest who insists on knowing the questions in advance: yet Fry is given all the information well in advance, spends time looking up extra bits on the internet (and has no judgement about what is reliable and what is not) then still needs both cards and autocue. Pathetic.

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This page contains a single entry by eggshaped published on December 12, 2010 10:45 PM.

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