Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
If your ancestors were living in England from the 1750s onward, and you can’t find the expected marriage record, maybe you should look in Scotland.
Traditionally, and in accordance with church law, marriage in England took place in a parish that was the residence of one of the potential spouses.
A marriage license had to be obtained beforehand, marriage banns had to be announced publicly prior to the wedding, and an Anglican clergyman had to solemnize the marriage.
There were, however, a large number of marriages that did not occur in this manner. These were called “clandestine” marriages, and they included nuptials that took place in parochial churches – legal marriages without banns or license.
The vast majority of clandestine marriages were conducted by an ordained minister. Although considered “irregular,” they were legal under English common law.
In 1695 the Marriage Duty Act was passed. This attempted to put an end to irregular marriages that were taking place in the parochial churches by penalizing the clergy who performed such marriages.
There was, however, a quirk in the law’s jurisdiction. It did not include the area of London in and around the Fleet Prison. Irregular and clandestine marriages continued to be performed in this area. They were often called “Fleet marriages.”
The first known Fleet marriage took place in 1610. The Fleet Marriage Register dates back to 1694. At first, these unions were consecrated within the prison walls, allowing the wardens to share in the profits of such marriages.
A law passed in 1711 penalized the wardens for doing this. At this point, the marriage trade was moved outside the prison walls and into the surrounding community, which was a rather unsavory and lawless neighborhood.
Weddings often took place in taverns. As many as 100 disgraced and defrocked ministers lived in the area in the first half of the 18th century, performing the Fleet ceremonies. The area attracted the poor as well as any Londoner who wanted to marry instantly and in secret. In the 1740s, 6,000 Fleet marriages were being performed annually. This was nearly1⁄8 of all the marriages in England.
In 1754, Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was enacted. The act required any party under the age of 21 to obtain parental consent prior to marrying. This was a further attempt to get the business of clandestine marriage under control.
This law affected England but not Scotland. Scottish tradition allowed a man and woman to declare themselves married in front of witnesses, without parental consent or waiting periods, and be considered legally married.
It permitted boys as young as 14 and girls as young as 12 to marry. After the passage of the Marriage Act in England, a small village on the Scottish border in Dumfries County called Gretna Green became the destination of many English underage lovers and anyone who wanted a quick or secret marriage. Scottish weddings could be overseen by any trustworthy adult.
In Gretna Green this person was the local blacksmith.
For the next 250 years, thousands of “anvil marriages” involving English eloping couples were conducted in the blacksmith shop at Gretna Green.
The unions took place relentlessly, despite the passage of an 1857 act requiring a couple to have 21 days of residence in the area before marrying.
Locals took the eloping couples into their homes to live out the 21 days so that they could then marry.
In 1940, the blacksmith ministers were finally laid to rest, and marriages had to be performed by an ordained minister or a civil registrar. Nowadays, Gretna Green is still a destination for eloping couples all over the world. There are again no residence requirements and anyone over 16 can marry without parental consent.