Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Regency Elopements: Lord Erskine and Sarah Buck

During the Regency era, elopements to Gretna Green, Scotland often involved some degree of scandal. No different was the elopement of sixty-six-year-old John Francis Ashley Erskine, 1st baron of Erskine. During the course of his life, Lord Erskine was a midshipman, a lawyer, and a member of parliament (Lord High Chancellor). He wed his first wife, Frances Moore, in 1770. They were married for thirty-five years and had eight children.  Frances passed away in 1805.

(image from

Sarah Buck was his housekeeper and mistress, and by 1818 they had two illegitimate children. Scottish law allowed illegitimate children to be declared legitimate by way of marriage (even after the fact), so off to Gretna Green Erskine went with his mistress (thirty years his junior) and two bastard children in tow.

Erskine’s eight legitimate children and heirs vehemently disapproved of the marriage (and the idea that their inheritance was in jeopardy), and when Thomas, the eldest, discovered his father gone with the housekeeper, he rode off after them into the night.  Here, two differing accounts emerge, both involving disguise and deception. The account chronicled by Peter Orlando Hutchinson insists that Lord Erskine merely disguised himself in plainclothes and declared his name a “Mr. Thomas.” A second version of the story appears to have derived from various sources. In this account, Erskine traveled in elaborate costume wearing a wig, leghorn bonnet, and a long, flowing cape. When asked, he declared himself to be Sarah Buck’s mother.

(A satirical print found at the British Museum)

During the ceremony and in accordance with the Scottish superstition, the children were supposedly hidden beneath Sarah’s cloak to give the impression that they were as yet “unborn.” The marriage took place at the King’s Head uninterrupted by Erskine’s son, who arrived too late to put a stop to the nuptials. Thomas’s reaction to his father’s newly married state was supposedly so violent as to incite a quarrel with his new stepmother, thereby causing a gathering of villager-voyeurs, who later recounted the story in what, some say, was embellished detail.

Erskine was a man of many interesting, idealistic, and romantic pursuits. He went on to write Armata, a romance novel, which apparently sold well. He also defended the cause of Greek Independence as well as that of animals. A lifelong lover of animals, Erskine introduced a bill into the House of Lords in an effort to stop animal cruelty, although it did not pass due to the gentlemen’s love of fox hunting and horse racing.

Sadly, the marriage between Erskine and his housekeeper was ill-fated, and the couple separated within a few years. After his death, Sarah did not inherit his wealth, and she ended with many children of her own to care for and only a charitable allowance upon which to live. She lived for over thirty years after Erskine’s death.

I want to take this moment to wish everyone a happy, blessed, and safe Thanksgiving!


  1. Happy Thanksgiving to you!

    How funny the son ran off to stop the marriage of his dad. I can see why if he was afraid of the inheritance, but its usually the other way around :) Interesting man Lord Erskine was.


    1. Ha! Yes, and the sources said the son acted like an irate parent. Role reversal!

  2. Happy Thanksgiving to you! Hope you enjoyed the holiday.