Under what circumstances, was the first divorce granted by law?
The first DIVORCE CIVIL granted in England was enacted by Parliament in 1546 in order to make lawful the bigamous marriage of Lady Sadleir of Standon, Herts. She had formerly been Mrs Margaret Barr, but had married Sir Ralph Sadleir after her previous husband had disappeared and been presumed dead. Mr Barr having made an unwelcome reappearance, the Ecclesiastical Courts were powerless to confirm Lady Sadleir’s second marriage, since they could only nullify a union where it could be proved to have been contracted unlawfully. Because in these peculiar circumstances the unfortunate Lady Sadleir had entered into her second, bigamous marriage in perfect good faith, a Private Bill was introduced into Parliament to dissolve the contract made with her first husband.
Lady Sadleir had been born Margaret Mitchell in humble circumstances, and was employed as a laundress at the time she married Barr. Her second marriage was exceptionally happy, despite the social gulf that separated her from Sir Ralph, one of Henry VIII’s most trusted Ministers. They were not only blessed with seven children, but with ever-increasing wealth, for when he died in 1587, Sadleir was perhaps even more fortunate than she knew, for hers was the only civil divorce granted to a woman before 1801.
The first CIVIL DIVORCE on the Grounds of Adultery was granted by Act of Parliament to William Parr, Marquess of Northampton, in 1551 and dissolved his marriage to Anne, née Bourchier. The Act gave him the right to marry again while his first wife still lived, a measure that has been described by H.M. Luckcuck in his History of Marriage as ‘the first real inroad on the indissolubility of Christian matrimony, as a principle of English law ‘. The Marquess had in fact been too impatient to await any revocation of the principles of English law and had and taken to himself a second wife, Elizabeth Brooke, some four years earlier. The divorce regularized this union, though the Marquess is probably unique in English history in actually having his divorce annulled—when he later fell into Royal disfavour—as well as his marriage.
The Northampton and Sadleir divorces are the only one two civil cases on record prior to the Restoration. The only alternative form of decree enabling remarriage was an ecclesiastical divorce, a vinculo matrimonii (from the bonds of marriage), a recourse opens to those who could satisfy the prelates that the original contract of marriage was invalid. In effect this meant that in the eyes of the Church the marriage had never taken place. On occasion the ecclesiastical judge found it expedient to employ the narrowest interpretation of the law on just impediments to marriage, as in the classic example of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
DIVORCE COURTS OF THE CIVIL JUDICIARY were first established under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which came into effect on 1 January 1858. There were two immediate and interrelated effects. For the first time divorce was brought within the means of the middle classes; whereas the cost of obtaining a Private Act of Parliament to annul a marriage had been estimated at an average of £700 or £800, the judicial process involved expenditure of, perhaps, an eighth of this sum. Consequent on this change was a very marked increase in the number of divorce suits, so much so, that the Chairman of the Divorce Commissioners, Lord Campbell, was constrained to remark that in recommending the transfer from a legislative to a judicial procedure of divorce it had not occurred to him that the number of divorces would rise much above the average of three a year current before the Act. He was shocked beyond measure to find that only a few months after it became law, there were no less than 300 cases pending before the Courts.
Divorce for all cannot be said to have become an economic reality before the introduction of Legal Aid in 1949.