The Heartbreaking History of Divorce

Historian Amanda Foreman explores the other side of love and marriage

(Anne Boleyn In The Tower, Shortly After Her Arrest Francois Edouard Cibot / Photo By Erich Lessing / Art Resource, Ny)
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Frances’ lawyers believed they had found a solution in the form of an obscure pronouncement by the 13th-century saint Thomas Aquinas. According to Aquinas, a man could be rendered temporarily impotent if witchcraft were involved. The Earl of Essex, claimed Frances’ lawyers, had been the victim of malevolence by a person or persons unknown. An annulment was therefore possible with all honor intact.

Few people were taken in by the Aquinas argument, and certainly not the Archbishop of Canterbury, who headed the panel of ten judges. But Frances and Somerset had a powerful ally in the form of the king. The suit was granted by a majority vote, and the couple were married in December 1613 in the society wedding of the year.

This was not the end of the story, however. Two years later, the king received a letter that he could not ignore. It accused Frances of having poisoned Sir Thomas Overbury, one of the loudest critics against the annulment, who conveniently died just ten days before the court decision. If that were not damaging enough, Overbury had died while a prisoner in the Tower of London—sent there on the orders of the king. Behind the obvious scandal lay a possible conspiracy that reached all the way to the throne. Suspects were rounded up with bewildering speed. Frances was arrested and pleaded guilty to attempted murder. The disgraced couple was permanently banished to the country, where they lived out their days in bitterness and mutual recrimination.

The Essex affair had a dampening effect on annulment suits. Subsequent litigants invariably failed unless they had an incontrovertible case involving, for example, two women and a deception, such as the 1680 suit of Arabella Hunt, who thought she married “James Howard” only to discover “he” was a woman named Amy Poulter. A woman married to a castrato could also claim valid grounds, as in the doomed 1766 love affair between Dorothea Maunsell and the Italian opera singer Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci. This left two grounds open to women: bigamy and being underage at the time of the marriage. Both were easy to prove and surprisingly common until the 1753 Marriage Act established a set of rules for the performing and recording of marriages. Before then, a woman married to a scoundrel could only hope that he had a secret marriage somewhere in his past.

In 1707, Barbara Villiers, one of Charles II’s favorite mistresses, was rescued from years of misery after she discovered that her husband of two years was already married. Barbara had been long pensioned off with a handsome allowance and the title of Duchess of Cleveland when, at the age of 64, she fell for a man ten years younger named Robert “Beau” Fielding. She married him on November 25, 1705, despite his reputation as one of London’s worst rakes. But what Barbara did not know was that two weeks earlier, Fielding had married Anne Deleau, a widow with a fortune of £60,000. Fielding kept the deception going for six months until he discovered that an even greater deception had been practiced on him. “Anne Deleau” was actually Mary Wadsworth, a friend of the real Anne Deleau’s hairdresser. Fielding turned his rage on the Duchess of Cleveland, beating her so badly that she jumped through a window to escape his violence. She brought a successful suit against him in December, by which time he had already run through a great deal of her money and seduced her granddaughter, leaving her pregnant with his son.

Since the hideous violence Fielding inflicted on Barbara would not, in itself, have been sufficient to secure a divorce, it raises the question whether there was ever a case so extreme that the courts intervened. The answer is just once, but not in the manner traditionally associated with divorce. In April 1631, a grand jury indicted the Earl of Castlehaven on the capital charges of rape and sodomy. The list of his alleged crimes included hiring his male lovers as his servants and giving them full control of the household, marrying off his eldest daughter to one of his lover/servants, colluding in the seduction of his adolescent stepdaughter, and finally, holding down his wife while she was raped by one of his servants. Castlehaven’s chief defense was that a wife’s body belonged to her husband, to dispose of as he saw fit. According to English law, the prosecutors could not disagree with the first part of his statement, but they rejected the logical conclusion of the latter. The earl was sentenced to death.

Castlehaven was beheaded on May 14, 1631, almost exactly 100 years after the execution of Anne Boleyn. The irony was that in both cases, death had been easier to achieve than divorce. Contrary to popular belief, Henry VIII did not divorce any of his wives. He had sought an annulment from Catherine of Aragon—which he finally awarded to himself after the pope’s continued refusal. When it came to Anne’s turn, Henry took the easy route by having her found guilty of treason. Two days before her execution he became anxious and ordered his bishops to decree an annulment as well. Henry did not like to think of himself as a wife killer. If Anne Boleyn was guilty of starting any sort of trend, it was in adding new significance to the line “till death do you part.”


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