Divorce During the Regency

Elizabeth Boyce, author of Once a DuchessOnce a Duchess

The idea of divorce during the Regency has intrigued me for years. Like many of you, I’ve read historical romances in which either the hero or heroine threatens separation, annulment, or divorce. Luckily, true love always saved the day before this happened.

But I wondered: If these two people – who we know are perfect for one another – did divorce, could they ever reconcile? My novel, Once a Duchess, is my answer to that question.

At the time of the Regency, a married couple had a few options available to part ways, ranging from private separation to a nullification granted by the church. The most drastic measure was divorce by a private Act of Parliament. Hugely expensive, this route was available only to the wealthy aristocracy. Once a bill of divorce was passed, the parties were both free to remarry.

You probably know divorce was quite rare in those days, but how rare was it? Between 1700 – 1857, only 314 divorces were granted by Parliament. Only a charge of adultery against the wife was sufficient grounds for divorce, and adultery had to be proven via trial in the House of Lords. Of course, a divorce trial ignited a firestorm-grade scandal. All the publicly aired dirty laundry provided ample fodder for journalists, as well as society gossips.

For a wife to initiate divorce proceedings, she had to prove both adultery and extreme cruelty by her husband. Of the 314 divorces mentioned above, only four were initiated by women.

When a woman married during the Regency, she became her husband’s legal property. She did not exist as a human being in her own right, but as an extension of the man whose name she bore. Everything she had became his, including her body. The most important bit of that body was her uterus, because it was the vessel which would carry a man’s heir. But it was her husband’s uterus – not hers. This is an important distinction.

Any child born to a married woman was considered her husband’s legitimate offspring, whether or not he fathered the infant. From a Regency perspective, adultery exposed the husband’s uterus to the seed of another man. An adulterous wife put the husband in peril of having to recognize, and possibly pass his title to, another man’s get. For some, this was an unacceptable risk which made the humiliation of a divorce worthwhile.

‘Til death do you part wasn’t an idle threat back then. At the time of the Regency, divorce was expensive, rare, and only resorted to in dire circumstances. There was no recourse for a woman trapped in an unhappy – or even abusive – relationship. Luckily, we know our Regency romance heroines will find their happily ever afters, no matter what they have to go through to get there.

2 thoughts on “Divorce During the Regency

  1. Deborah O'Neill Cordes

    Robyn, this was an outstanding article. I may know a thing or two about the Roman Empire, but I know very little about Regency England. I do know it’s a fascinating time period, and I admire your ability to share your learning. Thank you! And your novel is definitely on my ‘to read’ list!