‘The Divorce of the Empress Josephine’ (1843) by Henri Frédéric Schopin

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Divorce Laws Have Evolved, But One Country Is Holding Back

(Read the article on one page)

Divorce can be traced all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman societies. But the idea of marriage in these cultures was different from what is found in modern Western society, so it makes sense that their understanding of divorce would have also been different. This means that divorce, within the context of a modern Western concept of marriage, has a much shorter history – beginning around the middle of the 19th century.

Since the fall of the Roman Empire, a large part of Western Europe was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. Apart from governing the spiritual lives of the faithful, the Church wielded temporal authority as well. Thus, many aspects of everyday life, including marriage, were regulated by ecclesiastical authorities. As the Church viewed marriage as a sacred bond that should not be broken, divorce during this period was forbidden.

Fragment from the front of a sarcophagus showing a Roman marriage ceremony

Fragment from the front of a sarcophagus showing a Roman marriage ceremony. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

Breaking Up with the Church

It was during the 16th century, as Europe was experiencing the Renaissance, that one of the best-known cases of divorce took place. In 1527, Henry VIII, the King of England, tried to have his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, annulled by Pope Clement VII, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn . This did not succeed, and in 1533, the king broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, thus allowing him to divorce his wife without needing the consent of the pope.

Henry with Anne Boleyn, by George Cruikshank, 19th century.

Henry with Anne Boleyn, by George Cruikshank, 19th century. ( Public Domain )

Ironically, the newly-formed Church of England was even more severe than the Catholic Church when it came to the issue of divorce. For instance, under the consanguinity rules of cousinhood, the Catholic Church allowed a marriage to be annulled if the couple were found to be distantly related. This, however, was prohibited under Henry’s new religious institution. Moreover, the only way to obtain a divorce was via an act of Parliament. In other words, a divorce could only be obtained if it were voted through by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

1846 painting ‘The Divorce’ by Jan Hendrik van de Laar.

1846 painting ‘The Divorce’ by Jan Hendrik van de Laar. ( Public Domain )

Caroline Norton Advances Divorce Rights

Things began to change around the middle of the 19th century, when the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. In effect, this Act established a model of marriage that was based on contract, rather than on sacrament, and shifted matters of marriage and divorce from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to civil ones. This Act came into being thanks to one woman - Caroline Norton - a social reformer and writer.

Scene from ‘Marriage à-la-mode’ by William Hogarth showing a marriage settlement

Scene from ‘Marriage à-la-mode’ by William Hogarth showing a marriage settlement. ( Public Domain ) A new form of marriage, one based on contract, emerged.

Caroline was trapped in an unhappy marriage, as she held diametrically opposed views from those of her husband. For instance, Caroline favored social reform, whilst her husband was a staunch Tory, serving as the MP for Guildford between 1826 and 1830. Moreover, George had been abusive to Caroline, beating her, barring her from the family home, and even denying her access to the children. Realizing that the law was not protecting women like herself, Caroline resolved to take up arms against this gross injustice. Her years of tireless campaigning eventually resulted in the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857.

Settling a Divorce

It was a gradual process until divorce settlement took on the form that it has today. For example, a private members’ bill in 1923 made it easier to seek a divorce for adultery, though it still had to be proven. Another significant milestone was achieved in 1969, with the passing of the Divorce Reform Act, which allowed couples to divorce after they had been separated for two years (or five years if only one of them wanted a divorce). Additionally, in 1984, the bar on divorcing before three years of marriage had elapsed was lowered to only a year.

Scene from ‘Marriage à-la-mode’ by William Hogarth. The marriage is suffering - the husband and wife are going their separate ways - as evidenced by their state of overindulgence and disinterest in one another

Scene from ‘Marriage à-la-mode’ by William Hogarth. The marriage is suffering - the husband and wife are going their separate ways - as evidenced by their state of overindulgence and disinterest in one another. ( Public Domain )

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Photo of Zecharia Sitchin (left)(CC0)Akkadian cylinder seal dating to circa 2300 BC depicting the deities Inanna, Utu, and Enki, three members of the Anunnaki.(right)
In a previous 2-part article (1), the authors wrote about the faulty associations of the Sumerian deities known as the Anunnaki as they are portrayed in the books, television series, and other media, which promotes Ancient Astronaut Theory (hereafter “A.A.T.”).

Ancient Places

Opinion

Hopewell mounds from the Mound City Group in Ohio. Representative image
During the Early Woodland Period (1000—200 BC), the Adena people constructed extensive burial mounds and earthworks throughout the Ohio Valley in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Many of the skeletal remains found in these mounds by early antiquarians and 20th-Century archaeologists were of powerfully-built individuals reaching between 6.5 and eight feet in height (198 cm – 244 cm).

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article