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Gretna Green, or the Red-Hot Marriage

Gretna Green, or the Red-Hot Marriage

Another Elopement–A considerable sensation has been created in Dublin by the disappearance of the lovely daughter of Sir Thomas Butler, of county Carlow, with Captain Gosset, son of the Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant. An attachment had existed between the parties for some time, but the friends of both were averse to the marriage, in consequence, it is said, of “almighty love” being their only patrimony. The lady is one of ten children. (The Court Journal: Gazette of the Fashionable World, No. 319, Windsor, Friday, June 5th, 1835, p 357.)

The short announcement above of the elopement serves as a literary amouse-bouche to a longer elopement tale about a Lord and his housekeeper. Clandestine elopements to Gretna Green created scandalous sensations in England during the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian periods. There was nothing quite like peer pressure to keep the daughters of peers and the rising middle class in line to protect lands, inheritances, and investments. There were enough exceptions to the rule, however, to hold all but the most daring in check when held in love’s hormonal thrall. About 300 marriages were celebrated yearly in that border Scottish town in what were popularly termed “o’er the march” weddings.

Gretna Green

Gretna Green

Traveling to Gretna Green along the Great North Road was no mean feat back then. Today, it takes a little over 5 hours via M40 and M6 to travel the 326 miles from London to the Scottish border town. In 1818, it took an average of four days, with carriages traveling and average of 6 miles an hour. Frequent stops to change tired horses and rest for food. and an overnight stop for a room at an inn added to travel time. Should a virginal heiress spend at least one night on the road, her reputation would be lost, even if she slept in a separate room from her paramour and was chaperoned by her maid.

A close male relative needed to catch up with her before she reached Scotland, for her fortune was at stake. A wealthy bride who married in haste missed out on the careful negotiations made on her behalf before her wedding for her future security. Without those arrangements, she would forever be at the mercy of her husband, for he would have full control of her fortune from the moment they said their “I do’s.” Wickham ran through Lydia’s 10,000 pounds (so generously negotiated by Mr. Darcy) in no time. He could do this with impunity, aided and abetted by a law that gave the husband all the rights and the wife none.

Gretna Green, trois cartes postales illustrées (d’une série de 4) représentant les épisodes d'un mariage à Gretna Green : (Le Départ) ; Moments d'angoisse. Image @Wikimedia Commons

Gretna Green, trois cartes postales illustrées (d’une série de 4) représentant les épisodes d’un mariage à Gretna Green : (Le Départ) ; Moments d’angoisse. Image @Wikimedia Commons

After the Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, which tightened the conditions for marriage, fortune hunters and scoundrels, and even amorous gents, trundled their “beloveds” in fast equipages and sped north before their “sweethearts” could come to their senses. Couples could marry in haste in Scotland, where marriage laws were lax. The Scots, bless their hearts, were more than willing to accommodate runaway couples and speed them on their way to marital bliss.

Not all Gretna Green elopements involved heiresses and fortune hunters. Lord Erskine, a baron and a Lord Chancellor, ran off with his housekeeper. Their story is told by Peter Orlando Hutchinson in Chronicles of Gretna Green: in two volumes, Volume 2.

Hutchinson chronicled the joining in 1818 of 66-year-old Lord Erskine to his much younger mistress/housekeeper, Miss Sarah Buck, in a way that conveyed the scandalous nature of the elopement. The amorous couple brought along their two bastard children, for once the parents were wed in Scotland, the children would be legitimized. One can only imagine what Erskine’s eight legitimate children must have thought of this misadventure when they discovered that their papa had run off with one of the servants. Erskine headed straight towards the village of Springfield, successfully eluding his pursuing son, Thomas, until it was too late.

Those peregrinators who enter into the village of Springfield, in the parish of Gretna in the county of Dumfries, in that part of Great Britain denominated Scotland, would do well to draw their handkerchiefs from their pockets, and give free vent to their feelings when they contemplate that especial hostelrie yelped “The King’s Head.”

The King’s Head Inn stands in the midst of the village of Springfield…This hostelrie is a glorious ruin; we say ruin, because forsooth. since the alteration of the road the tide of passengers and the channel of business have been turned aside into another course, and hence the prosperity of former days has dwindled away to a lamentable extent.

King's Head In external appearance the edifice is ordinary and humble; — no lawn or parterre in front; no flowers and sweet smelling shrubs no long carriage drive from the lodge up to the steps, for it stands flush with the street; no grounds; no sentimental walks; no trees to hang on. It forms the coin or angle of two streets; it is entered from the principal one by a door in the centre of the facade; there is a sash window on each side of the door, whilst three similar windows appear in the story above, ranged equidistant; the roof is of slate, but the heart sinks when the eye surveys it, for with tears be it recorded, the said roof is but sparingly adorned with chimneys. Hence, in passing through Springfield, no pictures of profuse hospitality arise in the imagination of the peregrinator; no visions of good cheer, or pleasant fellowship, and no bright ideas of rich entertainment gladden his spirit.

Lord Erskine’s Marriage

Lord Erskine

“Visitors to this shrine have somewhat liberally amused themselves with writing, by means of certain diamond rings, their names or those of their friends, mottoes, apophthegms, and amatory verses. On one of the panes of the window in the apartment over the kitchen appears the name and title of a noble baron of these realms, now no more…” (Hutchinson found it doubtful that Erskine scratched his name on the window pane, for no noble baron would have added the prefix of “Lord.”)

Thomas Erskine, Baron Erskine of Restormel, in the county of Cornwall in England, was born into this wicked world in the year 1750…He fixed on the study of the law…and in due course he became eminent.

At the age of twenty, videlicet, in 1770, he wedded the amiable and accomplished Miss Moore; he became a widower in 1805, she being the mother of several [8] children his offspring.

An acute man, a first-rate lawyer, an ingenious arguer, a specious reasoner, and an orator that claimed the willing attention of his hearers, he at last rose to the exalted and honourable office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain.

Alas and well-way! there is no stability in human nature, no reliance, no confidence, no trust. Oh what a fall was here!–honour, respect, high place, dignity–all, all, came rushing down to the dust.

If it be the historian’s greatest delight to record mighty and noble achievements, so, also, it must be his greatest affliction to tell of weaknesses and acts unwise that the heroes of his pages may have perpetrated.

[He] married his housekeeper–ye powers!–but hush!–hold your tongue.

The manner of it was this to wit,–hush, hush!–cannot it be evaded? Evaded? how? Shall the just and impartial chronicler record what he likes and omit all that he chooses to omit? There is no help.

Coloring the events with highly emotional language, Hutchinson described the ceremony in the downstairs parlor of the King’s Head as an execution, no pun intended. At this point, the he backtracks his tale and describes the couple’s journey from London to Scotland. “–hush! do hold your tongue.”

We are told by such rare chronicles as have made especial note of this matter, and eke by such contemporaries as are now living and remember it, the noble baron laid aside his honours, and became a plain man by assuming an alias–even that of “Mr. Thomas,” and that name, indeed, was returned to those who inquired whose carriage stopped the way.

Mr. Thomas passed unknown for a space; but deception will endure only for a season, and the will eventually prevail. So it was here Mr Thomas’s doublet was soon peered through, and the Lord Erskine was perceived withinside.

It even got about, through the horribly libellous exertions of the gossips of the day, that he travelled in woman’s attire for the purpose of preserving a more certain incog…We pray you to abjure all credence in this assertion; to eschew harbouring it in any wise; and to abhor the mention of it…

Such a scandalous report arose after this fashion,–namely, as my Lord journeyed in the vehicle, together with Mistress Sarah Buck, the lady of his especial election, and the two little pledges of his dearest affection; he did in fatherly love, and that he might beguile the way, and amuse these, the said little pledges, facetiously put upon his own head the bonnet of the herein-before-mentioned Mistress Sarah Buck. Now this is the historical relation of the fact the clearing up the mystery and the expungement of all slur and detraction.

Gretna Green, trois cartes postales illustrées (d’une série de 4) représentant les épisodes d'un mariage à Gretna Green

Gretna Green, trois cartes postales illustrées (d’une série de 4) représentant les épisodes d’un mariage à Gretna Green

They sped on their journey at a fair pace and…Arrived at Springfield by the old road–for neither the present new one nor Gretna Hall were in existence–they repaired to the King’s Head hostel, and in that hostel, to the parlour or sitting-room on the right hand of the door at entering. Here they…”married in haste:” and let us add also… they shortly afterwards” repented at leisure,” but with that we have nothing to do.

Hutchinson describes how Lord Erskine alighted from the carriage wearing an ample traveling cloak, which he wore inside the King’s Head. “It was gathered round his neck by a collar; and by flowing in long folds down to the ground, it served well to cover his whole person. Under this he took his children during the ceremony, in order, as I was told, that they should become his heirs.” A contemporary announcement of the marriage stated, “His Lordship formally signed certificates on the spot to give his children the advantage of the conduct pursued.”

Lord Erskine's marriage

The inscription on the plaque is thought to refer to the elderly Lord Erskine, who eloped to Gretna Green with his young housekeeper, Sarah (sometimes referred to as Mary) Buck. Stafordshire Figures: 1780-1840

According to Hutchinson, the marriage was not to last and Lord Erskine would soon ask for a divorce. While Hutchinson did not tell us why his lordship wished to divorce his lady, he shared the horrified reaction of Dame Beattie upon hearing the news: “Alas the inconstancy of man, the shallowness of his judgment, the instability of his resolution, and the insecurity of his love.”

Alas, yes, but this did not change the fact that the deed had been done…and undone.

Other tales of Erskine’s elopement provide vastly different accounts, despite Hutchinson’s protestations. According to the website for Gretna Green, Lord Erskine was married at the “Queen’s” Head Inn to his housekeeper. He was indeed disguised as a woman and wore the outfit until the “priest” arrived. Only then did he change out of female clothes in order to be married in male attire. The children were instead covered by Miss Buck’s cloak during the ceremony.

Erskine’s legitimate son, Thomas, arrived too late from London to stop the marriage. An argument with his new step-mama ensued, the details of which entertained the village for some time.

Upon Erskine’s death at 75, he left Sarah with very little money and a few more children to look after. One presumes that, as with most British estates, Erskine’s will left his lands and moneys largely intact, to be inherited by his eldest son.

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Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple makes an appearance with Sir Walter Elliot. Brock illustration.

“The Bath paper one morning announced the arrival of the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and her daughter, the Honourable Miss Carteret. . . ” – Jane Austen, Persuasion

I have often wondered about dowagers and their status in Regency society in relation to widows. When did a widow become a dowager? Did all 19th century widows acquire the title? Why or why not?

Mirriam Webster Dictionary provides an answer : “Dowager – The widow of a peer, eg the Dowager Countess of Somewhere. The term was not added to a woman’s title unless and until the new holder of the title married.” The definition contains the clue. Until the new heir married, an aristocratic widow retained the title she acquired on the day of her own wedding.

Widows were legally entitled to a dower share or a third of the value of her husband’s estate after his death, for under the law of primogeniture he was the only real property owner. Dower rights meant that she would benefit for the rest of her life from a third of the income produced by a farm or from rental property on his estate:

“Under English common law and in colonial America, dower was the share of a deceased husband’s real estate to which his widow was entitled after his death. After the widow’s death, the real estate was then inherited as designated in her deceased husband’s will; she had no rights to sell or bequeath the property independently. She did have rights to income from the dower during her lifetime, including rents and including income from crops grown on the land.

One-third was the share of her late husband’s real property to which dower rights entitled her; the husband could increase the share beyond one-third in his will.

Where a mortgage or other debts offset the value of real estate and other property at the husband’s death, dower rights meant that the estate could not be settled and the property could not be sold until the widow’s death.” Women’s History 

Dowager Maud, Lady Holland (Dame Eileen Atkins) and Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) were able to live comfortably on 1/3 of the income of their husbands' estates.

Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, would actively assume the title of dowager upon her son’s marriage so that there would be no confusion of having two Countesses of Grantham in the same room. But she did not always go by that title. Generally speaking the dowager would be known by the simplest title when encountered alone. Therefore, Violet would be referred to as the Countess of Grantham unless she attended the same event as her daughter -in-law. In that case, she would be referred to as the dowager countess.

Cora, Countess of Grantham

Upon the heir’s marriage, it was expected that the dowager would move from the estate into a house of her own to guarantee a smooth transition of power. This was not always the case. As Amanda Vickery made clear in her fascinating book, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, some brides needed to summon a great deal of patience and cunning when their mamas-in-law dragged their heels in moving to the dower house. In real life, the Dowager Duchess of Leinster chose to live at Number 14 Harley Street in London. She would leave town occasionally to stay in her cottage in Wimbledon. Eleanor Percy, the Dowager Duchess of Northumberland, was the childless widow of the 4th Duke. The dowager moved into Stanwick Park following her husband’s death in 1865, and after the 5th Duke had moved into Alnwick Castle, the ducal estate. Eleanor lived a productive life at Stanwick Park, creating elaborate gardens and cultivating fruits and flowers. Sadly, Stanwick Hall no longer stands today due to lack of fortune. – Stanwick Hall: England’s Lost Country Houses

Susan Fleetwood as Lady Russell in Persuasion

Widowhood could emancipate a woman or lead her to poverty, depending on the income she derived from her dower rights and her dowry, which was the money and goods that a bride’s father had negotiated for her upon her marriage. Take Lady Russell from Persuasion. She did not remarry again from choice. Her independent life, free from money worries, was so improved without the presence of a husband who could dictate her every move and who would have control over her possessions that she would be a fool to remarry unless she fell head over heels in love. In that event she would lose her first husband’s income as stipulated by dower rights, although she would retain her dowry and any property she received through her mother.

Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters await the arrival of her replacement as mistress of Norland.

In contrast to Lady Russell’s situation, Mrs. Dashwood’s circumstances in Sense and Sensibility were instantly reduced due to the stipulations of the estate her husband was overseeing, which decreed the inheritance would go directly to the son, regardless of how much Mr. Dashwood desired to make provisions for his second wife and daughters. This is why on his deathbed he tried to extract a promise from John Dashwood, for Mr. Dashwood had not lived long enough to save money from the income of the estate for his second family. Due to Fanny’s stinginess, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are left to live on the modest income from her dowry (which was barely enough to keep them comfortable) and the beautiful items that she had brought into her marriage (which she retained as her own, much to Fanny Dashwood’s chagrin).

An elopement to Gretna Green was a most foolhardy and risky step for a young heiress

The dowry was one of the reasons that it was more than foolhardy for a young woman of fortune to elope to Gretna Green. Upon marriage all her worldly goods were legally handed over to her husband. An unscrupulous man could spend every single one of her pennies – except the amount that her father had settled upon her. A young woman who eloped had no such protection, for her family, caught unawares, would not have had the time to provide for her personal welfare. Her husband could go through her fortune (and his) with impunity, leaving her penniless and without recourse after his death.

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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.”

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