January 13

25 comments

Getting Divorced in Regency England

Hello there my dear Regency lovers,

It’s me again, and now I’m here to share some very interesting information with you!

Do you remember how last time we talked about couples who got their Happily Ever Afters and how they got married in the Regency Era?

Well, not everyone gets a Happily Ever After...So today, we’re going to talk about divorces in Regency England! Or, to be more accurate, annulments.

First of all, it should be said that divorces were very few in that era. The Church of England was firmly against divorces, making them nearly impossible to obtain and really expensive.

So if you belonged in the lower class, your chances of ending your marriage were...close to zero. So a custom was born, called “wife-selling”. And yes, it is as horrible as it sounds.

The husband would first parade the wife with a halter around her neck, or arm or waist. Yikes. And then he would auction her off to the highest bidder. Literally.

Selling a Wife, Thomas Rowlandson Public Domain

Of course, the wealthier members of society did not need to participate in such customs to end a marriage. They generally had two options: getting an annulment or an actual divorce.

Annulments would make it as if the wedding never existed. They were not easy to obtain, though, and could leave either the wife or husband (in some cases, both) as outcasts. There were three cases in which an annulment could be granted: fraud, incompetence or impotence.

In more detail, fraud could mean either one of the spouses having a false identity. For example, using a fake name could get a marriage annulled. In some cases, even not using your full name could give your spouse cause to request an annulment. But bishops had the freedom to refuse the annulment if that was the reason.

Seeking an annulment on the basis of incompetence simply meant that a marriage was not legitimate if one or both of the spouses were mentally ill or underage. If either party was under 21 and had no parental consent, the marriage could be annulled.  Moreover, if either party was declared legally insane, they would be locked away for life and lose all claim to their possessions. Titles were not taken away, of course, but there was a guardian appointed to handle the affairs. For a woman, claiming her husband was insane was unforgivable and she would be considered a pariah. However, men did use this to get rid of unwanted wives, even if it was not an usual occurrence.

And lastly, impotence. Non consummation of the marriage was not enough for a marriage to be annulled. The husband would have to prove that he shared a bed with his wife for three years and she was still a virgin. And as for the husband, it had to be proven that he could not reach an erection, even with the courtesans provided for him by the court. How scandalous…

Lincoln's Inn Hall, 1808 Public Domain

And if you were wealthy AND a man, then maybe, just maybe, you could be granted a divorce or legal separation. Under the law, a legal separation could be granted when there was adultery and lethal cruelty from the part of the husband or adultery committed by the wife. Equality, right?

When granted a legal separation, the couple could reside in different homes, the husband no longer had any financial obligations to the wife and none of them could get married again.

To get a divorce, the husband would first have to bring a suit in a civic trial against his wife’s lover. And since the wife was considered property of the man, it was tried as a form of trespass or property damage. Can you imagine?

After obtaining the conviction, the husband would then have to charge his wife with adultery, and unless an exception was passed specifically for him by the Parliament, he could not remarry.

What a fuss! I can only imagine how much scandal those procedures may have caused…

Did you know about any of these requirements? Did you enjoy the article? Let me know in the comments!

See you next time!

Written by Patricia Haverton


Tags

Articles, Regency Romance


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  • I enjoy your regency stories and appreciate the extra info on real life there. This latest one about divorce was interesting. Even tho I like stories based in the 1880s, I am glad not to have been a woman back then. Best wishes on your continuing success in writing.
    A faithful reader, Page

  • From the stories I’ve read, living under the same roof even while the men might have paid companions who they supported in they’re own apartments or houses that included servants was accepted in the upper classes. I would guess that poor people were either learned to tolerate each other or domestic violence was much more common than we might guess.

    • It was tricky a lot of the time. Yes, they always went against those social norms, but there would be times where it would be considered a scandal.

  • Fascinating info! I enjoy learning so much about the reality of the Regency Era since it is only mentioned slightly in the books. Thank you for making me a wiser regency romantic!!

    • We’re glad you liked the article! You’re right, it’s so much better reading the reality sometimes 🙂

  • Those poor women of the Regency era; and even long before then! For example, many people casually use the expression “Rule of Thumb ” as a general term used to refer to something as how it should be done. In fact, that term was first rendered under Medieval English common law that stipulated that women should be beaten by their husbands with a stick or rod “No thicker than a man’s thumb!” It was amazingly actually supposed to be more lenient in the treatment of women by their husbands; but if you stop and think about it, some men’s hands are quite big , and the thickness of their thumbs quite large! I am shocked to realize that this “common law” said nothing about men should NOT be beating their wives, but that it was okay to do so as long as the stick wasn’t “too large “! It was almost expected that a man should, or would be expected to eventually beat his wife and children. Needless to say, I make it a point to never use the phrase “rule of thumb ” in my vocabulary!

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