The Marriage Act of 1753 made it increasingly difficult for upper class men to “marry down,” and for women to marry men outside their rank. To get around this law, a desperate couple could obtain a special license from the Archbishop of Canterbury, or elope to Gretna Green in Scotland, where English law held no sway and marriage at 16 was legal.
Over the years many couples would run away to Gretna Green for their marriages to take place. The ceremonies were usually performed by one of the village blacksmiths who in those days were at the heart of the community and held in suitable regard. Even today, many of the Ministers refer, in their services, to the similarity of a blacksmith joining 2 metals over the anvil to the marriage ceremony joining 2 people as one.
The following is an excerpt from Pride & Prejudice when Lizzie learns of Lydia’s foolish elopement with Wickham. Later, the reader learns that the couple has not married, but were living without benefit of marriage, an even worse situation:
She burst into tears as she alluded to it, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. Darcy, in wretched suspense, could only say something indistinctly of his concern, and observe her in compassionate silence. At length, she spoke again. “I have just had a letter from Jane, with such dreadful news. It cannot be concealed from any one. My youngest sister has left all her friends — has eloped; — has thrown herself into the power of — of Mr. Wickham. They are gone off together from Brighton. You know him too well to doubt the rest. She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to — she is lost for ever.”