House of Lords 1660-1715… and divorce

The History of Parliament publishes our first set of volumes focusing on the House of Lords TODAY. Covering the period 1660-1715, this five-volume work is still available for a special introductory price at Cambridge University Press. Over the past month we’ve published a series of blogposts inspired by research from the volumes.

Editor Dr Ruth Paley blogs today on one of the personal, sad, stories revealed in the publication – the tangled legal case following the earl of Anglesey’s abusive marriage to Catherine Darnley, an illegitimate daughter of James II…

Despite losing his father in 1690 at the age of 15 James Annesley, 3rd earl of Anglesey, seemed destined for a charmed life.  He inherited peerages and substantial estates on both sides of the Irish Sea. In 1699 he contracted what the History of Parliament has usually described as ‘a fortunate marriage’. His bride, Catherine Darnley, was an illegitimate daughter of the exiled king, James II.  Lady Catherine brought with her jewels and a substantial portion, worth in all about £20,000 – a sum that at a very rough estimate would have a purchasing power of something in the order of £2.5 million today.

That all was not well with the marriage became public knowledge on 13 February 1701 when Anglesey told the House of Lords that his wife had been kidnapped but that attempts to rescue her had been foiled by the chief justice, Sir John Holt. Instead of issuing a search warrant Holt made Anglesey enter into an £8,000 bond to keep the peace.  The ‘kidnapping’ had rescued Lady Anglesey who had then exhibited articles of the peace against her husband – a standard remedy for victims of violence. Anglesey demanded that the bond be overturned as a breach of privilege.

Summoned to the House to explain himself, Holt revealed that he had taken sworn statements about Anglesey’s abuse and had also seen Lady Anglesey’s bruises. Lady Anglesey herself petitioned the House, alleging that her life was in danger. She asked the House to make her husband waive his privilege so that she could secure a decree for a legal separation from the ecclesiastical courts.  Horrified by evidence of such scandalous behaviour, the House dismissed the petition and ordered that reports of its proceedings on the petition be suppressed.

The House seems to have thought that the issue might resolve itself.  It did not. Lady Anglesey remained in hiding as her husband’s claim to privilege continued to block her chances of a separation. On 25 Feb. 1701 she petitioned the House again asking that if her husband continued to claim privilege, she be given leave to bring in a bill to make it legal for her to live apart from him without fear of being forced to return and with adequate arrangements for her maintenance.  What she did not ask for was a divorce.  There was no precedent for divorce for a wronged wife.  Effectively Lady Anglesey was disadvantaged by her noble status and had to resort to Parliament to obtain the same protection as any other woman suffering from marital abuse.

Lady Anglesey’s petition was debated but neither accepted nor rejected.  Instead the House ordered a form of mediation.  When that failed and Anglesey’s ‘inhuman usage’ of his wife became known, she gained the sympathy not only of the House but of the king, who banned Anglesey from court, and Princess Anne, who sheltered her.  Anglesey tried to claw back support by entertaining a group of peers but his determination to stand on his privilege convinced the House of his obduracy and persuaded them to give leave for a bill.

During March and April the House heard evidence and legal arguments, trying hard to match their proceedings to what would have been permissible in the ecclesiastical courts.  The evidence left no doubt of Anglesey’s guilt.  Holt told the House that he had never seen such bruising before. Lady Anglesey had even been forced to give birth in the dark in order to prevent the midwife from seeing her injuries. The House also learned that Anglesey’s abuse of his wife extended beyond the physical.  He prevented her from having her hair done because ‘it was sluttish’ and had declared that despite her royal parentage ‘I will make her as humble as a kitchen wench.’

It seems that Anglesey’s only ally was Lord Haversham, who insisted that Lady Anglesey’s allegations were nothing but ‘a malicious fancy’ and that the bill created a dangerous precedent for ‘any designing wife’.  The bill passed easily through both Houses but it scarcely provided a happy ending. Lady Anglesey gained her freedom at the cost of losing custody of her infant daughter. In failing physical and mental health, Anglesey died later that year, leaving custody of the child to Haversham who was instructed never to permit his widow to see her.


Click here for the rest of our series inspired by our upcoming House of Lords 1660-1715 volumes.

To order your copy, visit Cambridge University Press.

About The History of Parliament

Blogging on parliament, politics and people, from the History of Parliament
This entry was posted in Early modern history, House of Lords 1660-1715, social history and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s