This latest article from Cheryl Bolen is about the sadder side of marriage, divorce. Though not a common event during the Regency, it was not completely impossible. But the process was slow and tedious and the options available to a couple were very different than the options open to most of us today.
What happened when a Regency marriage fell apart …
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Divorces, while not unheard of in the Regency, were extremely rare. Only the wealthiest could afford the expensive process of filing a bill of divorce, which must be approved by the House of Lords before moving to the House of Commons. It sometimes took years for Parliament to grant a divorce.
As women had few legal rights, the divorce petition had to originate with the husband, and in almost all cases was initiated because of the wife’s adultery.
Because few men wished to own they had been cuckolded, only the most furious of husbands would set themselves up for such notoriety.
For the divorce hearings where witnesses gave testimony to prove adulterous liaisons generated tremendous notoriety. Printings of the transcripts made bestsellers.
Few woman wished to expose themselves to such scandal. A divorced woman was barred from court and from almost all aristocratic functions. She could not obtain custody of her children, either. And if she went on to remarry (some divorce decrees forbid the wife to marry her seducer) she would be prohibited from presenting legitimate daughters from the second marriage. This happened to Lady Holland when her first husband (with her full support) divorced her so she could marry Lord Holland. (She also had to sign away her fortune to the first husband, Sir Godfrey Webster.)
Some men braved the notoriety the absorbed the expense of divorce in order to ensure they would not have to give their name to a child fathered by the wife’s lover. By English law, any child born during the marriage was the legitimate issue of the marriage and could claim titles, land, or other inheritances.
A much cheaper and more common option for a couple trapped in a miserable marriage was an ecclesiastical separation. The drawback to separation was the inability to remarry.
© 2006 – 2012 Cheryl Bolen
This article was first published in The Regency Reader in August 2007.
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.