Friday, January 8, 2010

May I Have the Honor of Hopping the Broom--Part I

They are the stuff of legend: young ladies and gentlemen, madly in love, but unable to marry because of family protests or lack of fortune. Romeo and Juliette, the Hatfields and McCoys, West Side Story. In nineteenth century England, though, if you wanted to marry your sweetie and your family protested, there was one clear answer.

Elope to Scotland.

You see, in the 1700s, getting married in England, particularly London, was easier than it should be. A law had been passed in the 1690s that required certain rules to be followed for a marriage to be legal, but a quirk in the law exempted ministers operating in the environs of Fleet Prison in London. So, if you wanted to be married, at any age, at any time (literally 24/7), for any reason, you could just find a willing cleric near the prison and exchange vows with your sweetie and that was that. Thousands of marriages a year were conducted this way, and taverns and houses in the area did a booming business catering to those who wanted, for whatever reason, to get married quickly.

But this opened the door for all kinds of problems. What if some fortune hunter grabbed a rich heiress and seduced her into marriage? What if a young lady of good family decided to marry, gasp, the young strapping butcher! At the time, the legal age for getting married was 7 (yes, 7—feel free to shudder), with no parental consent required. Most people were far older, of course, and most who married quickly weren’t trying to be shady. But, sad to say, some were bigamists and many were schemers.

In 1753, Parliament passed the Marriage Act to stop such abuses. The act abolished common-law marriages like the ones at Fleet Prison where you merely had to exchange vows. Now for your marriage to be recognized in England and Wales, you had to be at least 21 or your parents had to agree you could be married. If your parents agreed, the boy had to be least 14 and the girl 12. You had to have a formal church wedding in the Church of England (or a license to wed elsewhere) and the official had to be a cleric in the Church of England, unless you were Jewish or Quaker. Your marriage had to be officially recorded in the parish record. Before you could be married, you either had to have a minister read the banns--the announcement of your upcoming wedding--in your home church and your betrothed’s home church for three weeks in a row (so people could protest if they happened to know you were already married or had some other reason not to wed) or you had to buy a license. Generally, you married in the morning (between eight and noon).

These rules would have effectively put a stop to quick marriages, except that Scotland had no such rulings. A marriage made there was legal anywhere in the Empire, as long as you had proof. Many a couple ran for the border, with a father toting a pistol or horse whip chasing after them.

And what happened once they got to Scotland? I’ll explain next Friday. In the meantime, thanks again for all your interest in the Young Bluestockings Book Club! Marissa and I can hardly wait for our first discussion in February! Keep those suggestions coming!

10 comments:

QNPoohBear said...

Ah those pesky banns. Haven forbid you discover your lover has a wife locked in the attic! I'm curious about the hopping the broom title. Are you going to cover that next week? I know about slaves jumping the broom.

Regina Scott said...

Wouldn't that be awful! You'd feel as if you didn't know the fellow at all! I am going to talk about hopping the broom next week. And anvil priests. :-) Blessings!

Evangeline Holland said...

I find it interesting that the post was titled "hopping the broom"--was this not an antebellum African-American tradition?

Regina Scott said...

I'm no expert on post Civil War practices but I certainly believe you, Evangeline, and QNPoohBear! All I know is that hopping or jumping the broom (or besom) was a Scottish form of marriage or betrothal and is still part of some marriage ceremonies there today. While it was less common in the nineteenth century than in the fifteenth, the term was sometimes used as slang for marriage. More next week, I promise!

Sara Leslie said...

This was really intersting; thanks! :-)

Sara Leslie said...

Whoops, *interesting

Michaela MacColl said...

I knew about eloping to Scotland, but I had never heard about Fleet Prison. Do you happen to know what the quirk in the law was? Something to facilitate inheritance for the condmened man maybe?

Fascinating post!

Regina Scott said...

I haven't been able to find the exact wording, but here's what I understand. Fleet Prison was largely for debtors, who were allowed to roam freely within a certain radius of the prison (the area known as the "Rules of the Fleet." This area included houses, taverns, and inns. The Rules of the Fleet were exempt from church law (again, not sure why), so clergymen imprisoned there for debt could perform marriages, no questions asked. Actually, two questions were apparently asked: how much are you willing to pay to have me marry you and how much liquor will you supply for the party afterward. Not my idea of romance!

Joanna said...

lol that reminds me of the scene in My Fair Lady where Eliza's father gets married for some reason.

I can't image having to wait until I was 21 to be married.... Than again I'm 28 and not married so I guess either way it doesn't matter. :)

Dara said...

Gretna Green in Scotland seems like it was "the" place for runaway marriages. :P Probably because it's right on the border.

Elopement though had to be scandalous, especially for the family members--like unmarried sisters--left behind. At least it's portrayed as such in Pride and Prejudice, but perhaps that's because Lydia and Wickham weren't planning on marrying until Darcy paid for it...