I’ve always assumed that the phrase “strike while the iron is hot” was simply a term derived from blacksmithing. I recently learned that the phrase has a history beyond the making of horseshoes and sword blades. Who would have thought it was linked to marriage?
Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1754 changed the laws governing marriage in England. Couples under the age of 21 couldn’t marry without their parents consent. Marriage could only take place in an Anglican church, and only after the banns were read in church on three successive Sundays. (The alternative to reading the banns was an expensive special license, obtainable only from a bishop.) The idea was to stop “irregular” marriages and to keep minors from marrying without parental consent.*
In Scotland, a couple could legally marry by simply declaring their intention in front of two witnesses and swearing that they were both over the age of sixteen and free to marry. As any reader of Jane Austen or Regency romances knows, Gretna Green, just one mile inside the Scottish border and on the main road from London, soon became the preferred stop for those who found the English laws inconvenient.
Although anyone could perform the ceremony, Gretna Green’s blacksmith, Joseph Paisley knew an opportunity when he saw one and soon established himself as the first of the so-called “anvil priests”. Eloping couples often arrived in the village with the bride’s angry father in hot pursuit and Paisley was renowned for his speed in performing the service. His motto was “strike while the iron’s hot” and he boasted that he could join two people in matrimony as firmly as he welded two pieces of iron together. **
Basically, getting married “over the anvil” was the eighteenth century equivalent of running off to Vegas, without the Elvis impersonator.
* The fictional trope of a wealthy young heiress pursued by fortune-hunters seems to have been a real fear among the political classes in Regency England. I haven’t yet figured out whether it was a genuine problem or a bit of class-paranoia. Anyone out there know?
** He also talked about welding the fetters of marriage, a phrase only a few degrees away from “the old ball and chain”.