Not because it was a romantic spot for a honeymoon — Gretna was just an obscure little village. Not exactly the Poconos, or even the Vegas, of the Regency era.
But its location, right on the toll road and just over the Scottish border from England, was ideal for a couple racing to get married without the restrictions of English law, especially if there were an angry father or rival suitor in hot pursuit.
Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1754 required parental permission for anyone under age 21 to marry, but that law did not apply in Scotland, where the age of consent was only 14.
Furthermore, in England everyone had to ‘post banns’ (announce the upcoming marriage for 3 weeks in a row at the local parish church), or else obtain a costly special license in order to wed.
In Scotland, however, as long as a declaration was made before two witnesses, almost anyone was allowed to conduct the marriage — including the blacksmith on the green in the village of Gretna.
For anyone who could not get consent of the parents, or who, for whatever reason, did not wish to publicize their marriage, Gretna Green was the only option.
It wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly, either. Although an elopement to Gretna sounds very romantic, it was a scandalous and expensive undertaking. The journey took several days…and nights!…over a long road.A young, unmarried lady was not even supposed to drive around the park in a gentleman’s carriage without a chaperone. To travel together in a private chaise — alone! — was the height of impropriety. Especially because the unmarried couple would be forced to stay at several public inns along the way, all without benefit of chaperone.
Furthermore, there was the cost of hiring the post chaise, the postillions, paying for the horses, the tolls, the rooms at the inns…So those who undertook an elopement to Gretna Green must have been driven by desperation, passion, or both. 😉
Gretna Green still does a thriving business in marriages, but now it’s more of a tourist attraction and a quaintly historic venue for a wedding, rather than a last recourse for a couple desperate to marry.