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Dissolving a Marriage

The church of England was as opposed to divorce as the church of Rome. Though other Protestant countries allowed people to divorce fairly easily, the church of England would only allow a couple what we call a legal separation. They called this a divorce which is confusing for modern readers.

Because men needed a legitimate heir, and because the child of a married woman was assumed to be her husband’s, the men felt they needed a way to get rid of their adulterous wives and remarry. They decided on parliamentary divorce. This involved a bill in parliament– just as all other bills were introduced and voted on.

By the early nineteenth century there were three steps a man had to take to divorce his wife and be able to marry again. One was to get a legal separation from her on the grounds of her adultery while suing her lover in a different court for damages.

He sued for criminal conversation or crim.con, as it was called. The wife was guilty of adultery but the man of having illegal intercourse with her– crim.con. The jury awarded the husband damages. Some awards were very high.

Having separated from his wife, sued her lover, and collected the money, the husband then petitioned parliament for a divorce. He had to repeat the testimony of the crim.con case and it all published in the newspaper. Then finally the bill was passed and they were free of each other. Many in parliament wanted to have a clause put in that the guilty parties could not marry but that clause was usually omitted from the final decree.




Only two women were able to divorce their husbands. Both claimed that the husband committed adultery with her sister and was cruel to her. All other wives were laughed at when they wanted a divorce for cruelty.

In Scotland, both husbands and wives could sue for a divorce for adultery. The crim.con suit was the main part of the suit for divorce ( In Scotland). The adultery had to occur in Scotland and the guilty person had to have lived in Scotland for at least six weeks. The court said that a traveling salesman and moved around all the time and so could not be said to have been in residence so his wife’s suit failed. Lord Paget, who went to Scotland with his lover whose husband had cited him in the parliamentary divorce, rented a house and stayed put so was said to have established residence.

Many authors have their hero and heroine agree to a temporary marriage – marriage for a year to be followed by a quiet annulment. They usually plan to claim that the marriage was never consummated. The problem is that in that day, non-consummation was not grounds for an annulment but inability to consummate– impotence- was. The man had to be examined and prove that he was incapable of consummating the marriage. The other grounds for annulment were insanity at the time of the wedding so that the person did not know what she or he was doing, having a living spouse, and being related either by blood or marriage to the spouse.

There was a table of consanguinity and affinity that laid out just who one could not marry.

The most important ones were father, mother, or siblings of the spouse.



A widow could not marry her dead husband’s brother or his father, and a widower could not marry his deceased wife’s sister any more than he could her mother.

Once married, a couple usually stayed married until one or the other died. There was no easy way out.

Of course, in most stories of the supposedly temporary marriage, the reader knows that the couple will stay together and won’t try to get an annulment. Still, the story is contrary to any possibility in the period. The most the husband could agree to would be a marriage in name only, That would mean that neither could have legitimate children, and the man would not have an heir. I do not see that as romantic.



Wilkie's A Penny Wedding. Courtesy of New York Public Library


Wife Selling

Though there are reports of men selling their wives it was by no means common or usual.The horror expressed in most newspaper accounts show that it was a known occurrence but not an acceptable one .It wasn't legal , either, and did not constitute a legal divorce.

Neither, however, was it quite as bad as it sounded. Ordinarily, the husband did not just sell his wife to any passerby. Usually the wife had found a lover she preferred to her husband and it was to him he sold her.

The husband led the wife to the fair or a local market with a halter such as used on cows around her . He then offered her for sale . The lover, usually, came forward with the money. The husband then signed a bill of sale, the purchaser took the halter off the woman and they departed.

The man and his new "wife" would set up housekeeping and the husband would often "marry" another woman.

Of course as the sale did not annul or dissolve the original marriage, any other ceremony would be bigamous.No clergy person would knowingly officiate at a wedding of any of the participants.

It was a means of getting out of an unpleasant situation used by members of the lower classes.It had more validity to them back in the days when merely living together constituted a common law marriage. However, it was never accepted by the majority of the people even then. The Hardwicke act did away with common law marriages in England.

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