Until Annulment Do Us Part: Divorce and Annulment in the Regency Era

So the last chapter of Desire and Decorum, was really bothering me. In it it you, the main character, discovers that you were not illegitimate as your parents were married, but that they were annulled before you were born. Your father still wants to write you into the will but I’m questioning the whole legality of it all.

So I decided it was time to do some research and see if I could find some answers.

Before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 divorces had to go through the Church and Parliament. The church would only give legal separation, while if you wanted a real divorce in order to remarry you would need to go through Parliament as well. Parliament divorces were very, very expensive and you had to take legal action in a three courts: ecclesiastical (church), common-law court, and finally Parliament.

No amount of money could give you a quiet divorce, as any divorce was a huge scandal as newspapers would play it up. And it would be a stain on both spouses’ characters, although men would get over it must faster (think of Maria Bertram-Rushworth in Mansfield Park).

So we know divorce was difficult, but what about an annulment? I had to keep digging.

I can’t stop myself.

The church occasionally did some annulments in certain cases. The annulments were only granted if the marriage wasn’t consummated (they didn’t sleep together), a man married his dead wife’s sister (it was seen as too close to a relative although marrying your first cousin was alright 🤷🏻‍♀️ ), or if it turned out one of the couple had committed bigamy.

So none of those reasons would apply here for the game as the character’s mother was pregnant (obviously they consummated), no previous marriage had taken place to invoke a “too close relationship”, and there was no bigamy. Of course the grandpa could have said that she was sleeping around, but that wouldn’t grant his son an annulment he would have had to be granted a divorce and the game was specific to annulment. It was clear, more digging must be done.

Annulment by not consummating the relationship was really hard to prove. More often then not either the husband or wife had to be examined and declared impotent. This rarely happened as it had to be proven by a medical examination, which as I’m sure as you can imagine, very few people would succumb to having.

Annulments could also be granted if there was an error in name on the marriage certificate, they were too young and married without parental consent (they would have to go to Gretna Greene to do that), or if they were deceived as to who they were marrying. All of which don’t apply here.

Hmm…

Insanity was another route for annulment but it was very tricky to prove (and still is today) as one would have to prove that the person was insane at the time of the marriage. For instance look at the case of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, as he didn’t suspect she was crazy in the beginning (her family hid it well) he can never get a divorce or annulment and instead has to live with a crazy woman who is constantly trying to kill him. Also most families would fight this route as being named insane would taint an entire family and family line as well.

If a woman’s marriage was annulled, she was reduced from the status of wife to concubine, and any children the couple had were declared illegitimate. So that tracks right in the game, as my character is still illegitimate. But could an illegitimate inherit? And I still haven’t figured out how the grandfather had them annulled.

Hmmm…

So I did some more digging and discovered that if a couple was annulled the woman would have a ruined reputation and:

“Also, any children of an annulled marriage become bastards (who cannot inherit or be declared legitimate at the whim of the peer) and likewise outcasts of society.”

Kristen Kostner, “A Primer on Regency Divorce and Annulments,” Kristen Kostner (blog), entry posted October 11, 2018, accessed July 22, 2021,

So it looks like that plot point in the last chapter is impossible. The MC/Catherine would never be able to inherit, even with my father writing me into the will. The only way I could would be if I was to prove that the annulment never legally took place and my stepmother’s marriage is invalid.

This does kind of kill the spirit of the game for me as it only took me a day to research this, which any of their staff could have easily done. But maybe there are more twists coming, I guess I’ll just have to keep playing to find out.

Hmm…?

Sources:

Field, Alina K. "10 Facts about Marriage and Divorce in Historical England." Simply Romance (blog). Entry posted September 16, 2014. Accessed July 22, 2021.

Grace, Maria. "Divorce, Regency style." English History Authors (blog). Entry posted January 11, 2017. Accessed July 22, 2021.

Hatch, Donna. "Annulments, Separations, Divorce and Scandal." Historical Hussies (blog). Entry posted May 3, 2013. Accessed July 22, 2011

Kostner, Kristen. "A Primer on Regency Divorce and Annulments." Kristen Kostner (blog). Entry posted October 11, 2018. Accessed July 22, 2011

For more on the Regency era, go to Modesto Jane Con: Dressing the Regency Lady

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