Edinburgh World Heritage

Assembly Rooms - A Shelley Business

In 1811, after allegedly attending as few lectures as possibly at Oxford University, Percy Bysshe Shelley published the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, causing outrage amongst university administration.

Shelley admitted to the authorship of the pamphlet in front of a panel of professors and was subsequently expelled on March 25, 1811. Further alienating those around him, five months later, 19 year old Shelley married 16 year old Harriett Westbrook. Harriett and Percy eloped to Scotland, taking the night mail from London to York, from York to Edinburgh. Friends suggested that the couple elope to Scotland, as marriage laws required no parental approval, which was particularly opportune as Shelley’s parents were still disgruntled over his expulsion from Oxford.

The couple reached Edinburgh on Wednesday morning, August 28th, 1811 and immediately obtained a marriage license and were promptly married by Reverend Joseph Robertson at his house at 225 Canongate. Seven years later Rev. Robertson was expelled from the Church for performing such illicit marriages.

Whilst in Edinburgh Percy and Harriet stayed at 60 George Street, next door to the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms, where a plaque now marks their infamous stay. Numerous recounts by friends who accompanied the couple blatantly reveal Shelley’s lascivious and erratic nature. For example, Shelley was yelled at by elderly women for laughing too loud on the Sabbath. Similarly, Shelley’s disapproval of Scottish colloquialisms and organised religion led to his attendance of numerous Church communions whereby he was known to audibly guffaw.

The couple went on to have two children, but the marriage began to fail in 1814 when Shelley fell in love with another 16- year old, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, the famed author of Frankenstein. Therefore, it appears that the “Shelley business” in Edinburgh continued throughout his later relationship but he remains a pivotal figure in the British romanticist movement despite his scandalous actions.

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