The History of Divorce in England

In today’s society if you want to divorce your spouse you have to follow a fairly lengthy legal process and your reasons have to fall under specific ‘grounds for divorce’. However, in comparison with previous centuries, today’s divorce process is very streamlined and easily obtainable. The same system of applying for and gaining a divorce is available to both sexes and it is no longer presided over by the Church. The development of the divorce system was a long process and it was only in the 20th century that the system began to resemble the divorce proceedings we have today.
It seems likely that societies in very early history would not approve of divorce and would not even consider it as an option. This, however, was not the case. The Ancient Greeks and Romans had a surprisingly open attitude towards divorce – in Athens it was freely allowed. The person who wanted the divorce had to put the case before a magistrate who would decide whether the reasons given were satisfactory. do lawyers get paid commission The Romans, too, were open towards the idea of divorce and their system was equal in terms of gender as either the wife or husband could renounce their marriage. In early England the system was actually surprisingly similar to the divorce process we have today. In the 7th century marriages could be dissolved by mutual consent or as a result of desertion, impotence, long absence, captivity and adultery.
The attitude towards divorce changed after the Norman Conquest when the influence of the Church greatly increased. Under the Church’s teachings marriage was considered a sacrament and could not be dissolved by human action. In medieval England there were provisions for separation – where the husband and wife could live apart and have separate lives – but the marriage was still valid. In very specific law firm positions hierarchy cases annulments were allowed. This is when a marriage is deemed to have never existed between a particular husband and wife. No form of divorce was allowed; marriage was a sacred union and was regulated under Canon Law. The Catholic Church had developed its doctrine on marriage and divorce over hundreds of years and was set down officially as Canon Law in the 1560s by the Council of Trent.
An important event in the history of divorce is the Reformation – under Henry VIII a huge change was made to both religion and society. After the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, refused to give Henry a special dispensation that would allow him to divorce Catherine of Aragon, Henry took matters into his own hands. In 1533 he ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury to grant him a divorce, an action that would be in direct defiance to the wishes of the Catholic Church. The Archbishop agreed and Henry was able to end his marriage. As a result England broke away from the power of the Catholic Church and Henry was made Supreme Head of the Church in 1534. Although this was a huge step for Tudor society, much of the divorce process actually stayed the same. Though it had changed the stance on remarriage after a marriage ended, the formation of the Church of England did not mean a move away from the Catholic doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. Though a report was put together by a number of government officials that suggested a much more liberal stance on divorce, it was deemed unacceptable. The Church of England made provisions for separations but, like the Catholic Church, ruled out divorce.
The changes that made divorce accessible to the general population took place in the Victorian period. Before this the Church’s power had waned in matters of civil law and divorces could be obtained, but generally only the wealthy could afford either the complicated annulment process or the private bill needed for a divorce. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 was the first major change that made a divorce easier to acquire. The process took place in open court at the High Court in London. Men could petition for divorce on the grounds of their wife’s adultery (an act that had to be proved). Women could also petition for divorce but could not use the grounds of divorce alone, there had to be another ‘aggravating factor’ such as rape or incest. Following this Act, the process of gaining a divorce became more like the system we have today. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 allowed women to petition for divorce on the grounds of adultery in the same way as men. Just under twenty years later more grounds for divorce were allowed in the 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act. Husbands and wives could now petition for a divorce on the grounds of cruelty, desertion and insanity.

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