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!