Marriage, Separation, and Divorce in England, 1500-1700 by K. J. Kesselring (Professor of History, Professor of History, Dalhousie University)
England is well known as the only Protestant state not to introduce divorce in the sixteenth-century Reformation. Only at the end of the seventeenth century did divorce by private act of parliament become available for a select few men and only in 1857 did the Divorce Act and its creation of judicial divorces extend the possibility more broadly. Aspects of the history of divorce are well known from studies which typically privilege the records of the church courts that claimed a monopoly on marriage. But why did England alone of all Protestant jurisdictions not allow divorce with remarriage in the era of the Reformation, and how did people in failed marriages cope with this absence? One part of the answer to the first question, Kesselring and Stretton argue, and a factor that shaped people's responses to the second, lay in another distinctive aspect of English law: its common-law formulation of coverture, the umbrella term for married women's legal status and property rights. The bonds of marriage stayed tightly tied in post-Reformation England in part because marriage was as much about wealth as it was about salvation or sexuality, and English society had deeply invested in a system that subordinated a wife's identity and property to those of the man she married. To understand this dimension of divorce's history, this study looks beyond the church courts to the records of other judicial bodies, the secular courts of common law and equity, to bring fresh perspective to a history that remains relevant today.