Three degrees of separation: alternatives to divorce in early modern England

As part of the History of Parliament’s blog series on marriage, Dr Paul Hunneyball, assistant editor of the Lords 1558-1603 project, considers the options available four centuries ago to those whose marriages had broken down…

Contrary to popular belief, Henry VIII never got divorced. In sixteenth-century England, the option of divorce as we now understand it didn’t exist. The only way to end a marriage so that both parties might go their separate ways and start new lives (not necessarily a choice available to Henry’s consorts) was through annulment. In other words, the Church had to agree that, for whatever reason, the marriage in question should never have happened in the first place, and was therefore null and void. It was Henry Tudor’s failure to obtain such a ruling from the Pope with regard to Katherine of Aragon that led to the English Reformation, the king rejecting Rome’s authority in order to secure the verdict that he required.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Church of England failed to follow the example of other Protestant churches, which generally permitted divorce on the grounds of adultery or desertion. Instead, Anglicans continued to uphold the Catholic belief that a legal and consummated marriage was indissoluble except by death, the strictest interpretation of biblical teachings. Formal separations were allowed, but remarriage was prohibited until one party died. This stance was reaffirmed when the Church’s canons were revised in 1604. In that same year, Parliament passed an ‘Act to restrain all persons from marriages until their former wives and former husbands be dead’, classifying premature remarriage as bigamy and declaring this to be a felony.

William Parr, marquess of Northampton (Hans Holbein the Younger) [Wikimedia Commons]

So, for the unhappily married, there were just two officially sanctioned solutions, separation and annulment, both of which had significant drawbacks. In 1542 William Parr, marquess of Northampton obtained a formal separation on the grounds of his wife’s adultery, but then fell foul of the ban on remarriage. Being one of Edward VI’s principal courtiers, he felt able to flout church law and take a new bride in 1548, and then used his influence four years later to secure an Act of Parliament which annulled the first marriage and  legalised the second. Unfortunately for Northampton, he backed the wrong horse when King Edward died in 1553. A vengeful Mary I promptly stripped him of his titles and offices, and his marriage Act was repealed during her first Parliament. Although Northampton was rehabilitated by Elizabeth I, the status of his second wife was apparently still unresolved when she died 12 years later. A chastened marquess cautiously waited until after the death of his original spouse in 1571 before marrying for a third time, and the novel strategy of legislative annulment was not attempted again during this period.

Legalities aside, public opinion remained firmly against post-separation remarriage. Penelope Rich, the wife of Robert, 3rd Lord Rich, informally separated from her husband around 1590, and embarked on a discreet 15-year affair with Charles Blount, 8th Lord Mountjoy, bearing him five children. All went smoothly until 1605, by which time Mountjoy (now earl of Devonshire) was a national hero on account of his success in crushing Tyrone’s rebellion in Ireland. However, with his health rapidly failing, he and Penelope sought to regularize their relationship. Penelope duly obtained a formal separation from Rich, then, barely a month later, she and Devonshire secretly married. Once word of this leaked out, there was an immediate, violent backlash. Given the 1604 double ban on ‘bigamous’ remarriage, the couple were fortunate not to face prosecution, but Penelope was banished from court, and the earl’s reputation never recovered. When Devonshire died in April 1606, one commentator observed: ‘most say he is happy, for the world began to change the titles of honour into notes of infamy, for his last most dishonourable and both unlawful and ungodly match’ [HMC Buccleuch, i. 63].

The complete break provided by an annulment did allow for new relationships – but the formal process of obtaining them was much more stringent, and inevitably the dirty washing of each failed marriage was aired in public, increasing the risk of embarrassment and scandal. William Bourchier, 3rd earl of Bath opted in 1578 for an annulment after his first, somewhat hasty union failed to meet with his family’s approval. However, since this wedding had been perfectly legal, it took almost two years to get it dissolved – and then only after intimidation of the court, and alleged bribery. Bath was still trying to live down this travesty of justice two decades later.

Frances Howard, countess of Essex, and later of Somerset (William Larkin) [Wikimedia Commons]

The experience of Robert Devereux, 3rd earl of Essex (Penelope Rich’s nephew) was yet more mortifying. In 1606, aged just 14, he was pushed into marrying Frances, daughter of Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk. The couple were completely incompatible, and the marriage was never consummated. By 1612 Frances wanted an annulment in order to marry the royal favourite, Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester. Essex agreed, but the only possible pretext was non-consummation, and in the eyes of the law this had to be the result of permanent physical impairment. Essex, with one eye on his own future happiness, maintained that he was impotent only in his marital bed, and tried to shift the blame onto his wife, who accordingly underwent a physical examination which cleared her own name. At this juncture the non-consummation strategy fell apart, several of the ecclesiastical commissioners, including the archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, declaring themselves opposed to an annulment. However, James I, who was determined that Rochester should marry Frances, simply appointed additional, more pliable commissioners to sew up the final vote and end Essex’s marriage. The ensuing scandal put the Devonshire affair into the shade, while the miserable Essex, fearing that this annulment was illegal, waited nearly two decades before remarrying.

Given these horrors of public exposure, it is perhaps understandable that many unhappy couples preferred to settle for a third option, that of informal separation. However, while this arrangement worked well for Penelope Rich, she had an unusually compliant husband who continued to support her financially. By comparison, Theodosia, the wife of Edward Sutton, 5th Lord Dudley, was obliged to appeal to the Privy Council for help after her husband rejected her in favour of ‘a base collier’s daughter’, and cut off her maintenance [William Salt Archaeol. Soc. ix. pt.2, p. 112]. Similar complaints were levelled against Edward Stafford, 4th Lord Stafford, who preferred ‘certain lewd women and infamous’ to the company of his wife Isabel [Hatfield House, Cecil mss. P.2361]; while Francis Norris, earl of Berkshire, became so hostile towards his estranged wife Bridget that he not only starved her of cash, but was suspected of trying to disinherit their daughter. Even so, when handled more sensitively, informal separation was often the most civilised outcome to marital disharmony. Another of the earl of Suffolk’s daughters, Elizabeth Howard, had hoped to marry Edward, 4th Lord Vaux. Instead, for political reasons, she was matched in 1606 with the middle-aged William Knollys, Lord Knollys, later earl of Banbury. For nearly two decades Elizabeth played the dutiful wife, but at length she embarked on an affair with Vaux, who had himself remained unmarried. Far from renouncing her, Banbury actually provided both for her and her sons by Vaux, thereby enabling her to live peacefully with the partner she’d always wanted.


Further reading:

Lawrence Stone, The Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987 (1990)

Roderick Phillips, Untying the Knot: a Short History of Divorce (1991)

Biographies of George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Blount, earl of Devonshire, William Bourchier, 3rd earl of Bath, Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester (later earl of Somerset), Robert Devereux, 3rd earl of Essex, Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk, William Knollys, earl of Banbury, Francis Norris, earl of Berkshire, Robert Rich, 3rd Lord Rich, Edward Stafford, 4th Lord Stafford, Edward Sutton, 5th Lord Dudley, and Edward Vaux, 4th Lord Vaux appear in our new volumes on the House of Lords 1604-1629 ed. Andrew Thrush, published last January.

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