An honorable man and his equally honorable wife come to realize and have to admit that their marriage is not working out well, that the relationship is unhealthy for them and is producing an atmosphere of tension in their home. They respect each other and love their children. After serious reflection they agree that their own health and the happiness of the children will be promoted by divorce. They agree to petition for a divorce and they agree on custody and financial support.
From beginning to end, everything is clean and straightforward. They appear in court and tell the truth. They are accustomed to talking truth. And having sworn on the Bible in open court, surely they must tell the judge how they feel and why they have agreed. They start to do so.
At that point, the judge must dismiss the case. A divorce is legally impossible. The man and the woman are guilty of a crime they may never have heard of. It is the crime of “collusion.”
—Reginald Heber Smith, “Dishonest Divorce,” Atlantic Monthly, 1947
Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?
Tucked away in a secret archive deep inside of the Vatican, banished to an underground room so secure that it has been designed to withstand an atomic blast, rests what some historians consider the Western world’s most important historical document: a scroll, five pounds in weight and two feet wide by three feet long, hand-penned in Latin and notarized with 81 wax seals. It is a letter from Henry VIII, King of England and commander of the world’s most powerful empire, to the Pope. The letter contains a single request: the granting of a royal divorce.
As students of history are well aware, the divorce was not granted. King Henry subsequently made himself head of the Church of England, abandoning Catholicism for the Reformation, a movement that had begun in Germany but never really caught on in Great Britain. For the simple right to exit an unhappy marriage—his queen had repeatedly failed to deliver Henry a male heir—the faith of an entire nation was thus transformed, a revolution that would soon travel across the Atlantic to a nascent America and around the world. After granting himself an annulment, Henry married his ex-wife’s most charismatic lady-in-waiting, her sister, Anne Boleyn. When she, too, failed to deliver a male heir, he decided to move on once again. But this time, rather than attempt to jump over the bureaucratic hurdles of divorce all over again, the king chose a much more direct route. He ordered Boleyn’s head chopped off. This pattern would repeat itself more than once in King Henry’s reign. The resultant rift between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe, most of which remained beholden to the Vatican, echoes in England’s present-day refusal to use the Euro as currency, as well as in family courts, where the process can seem oddly—and disturbingly—similar to the process in the United States.
Every divorce, whether that of a medieval king or an average person in 21st century America, obviously begins with a marriage. While most modern couples, just as the Vatican’s ruling indicated all those years ago, still like to think of marriage as a perfect union blessed by a higher power, the truth is that marriage has changed a great deal over time, both in terms of mechanics and purpose. In Henry VIII’s time, for example, most marriages were probably arranged based on financial and social considerations, or to produce children, who were expected to work at a young age. While there is no record of the first marriage, it is safe to assume that unions made before that time were similarly based on practical concerns: coupling a hunter and a gatherer, for example. Moreover, wives and children were usually considered the property of their husbands, a standard that prevailed in the United States until the 1930s. Buy the book to read more…