Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Long-term Consequences of a Failed Scottish Marriage

by Anna Belfrage

These days we’ve grown quite accustomed to the fact that if a marriage doesn't work, we can simply get a divorce. No big deal, in this modern world of ours, and unhappy couples separate legally and are free to find happiness elsewhere. Happiness, of course, is just as elusive now as it always has been, but at least the modern man and woman can attempt to try anew.

Not so the people of the past – or so we believe. Once married, they were permanently tied to each other, their union impossible to break. But in reality, things weren't all that different in the past to how they are now: people with money and clout could always wiggle themselves out of uncomfortable situations – such as an unhappy marriage.

Back then, most of the people with money and clout were men, so it follows it was the wife who was put aside, either because her spouse discovered they were more closely related than he had known, thereby falling within the forbidden circle that required Papal dispensation (how convenient), or through assorted creative methods, one of which was forcing the wife to take the veil.
However, divorce before the 20th century was rare. Very rare. Consanguinity, pre-contract or lack of consent were essentially the only acceptable grounds. So most married couples did, in fact, live together until parted by death. Once again, quite often the wife was the one who did the departing, mainly due to the strains of childbirth.

A marriage that worked?
James V and Marie de Guise
From our advantage of hindsight, we can shake our heads and shudder at the barbarity of arranged marriages, and there is no doubt that now and then these marriages were horribly unhappy, but just as often they were not. One must remember that the men and women of the previous centuries (except for the latest one) did not necessarily expect to be happy. They aimed for content and safe, settled for someone who would help them raise their children, someone who somehow added to their families’ overall standing and fortune.

In England, acquiring a divorce remained a messy thing well into the 20th century. The accepted grounds for divorce were essentially adultery, but further to that, a spouse had to prove cruelty and abuse of some kind or another to be free of the philandering partner. In Scotland, however, things had been much, much easier since back in the 16th century. Personally, I think John Knox deserves a pat on the back for this – but then I am quite ambivalent to this fascinating man, on the one hand vilifying female rulers in his tract “First Blast of the Trumpet”, on the other a man who clearly enjoyed the company of women – and respected them.

So what did Scotland do back in the 16th century? Well, they decided to allow divorce, that’s what those savvy Scots did. Furthermore, the issue of divorce was transferred out of the ecclesiastic courts to be handled by lawmen rather than priests – which makes a lot of sense when one considers that most marriages at the time were contractual arrangements that involved property moving hands. (This is not to say the powerful Scottish Kirk did not keep a beady eye on proceedings – it most certainly did!) However, divorce was still a last remedy, and was essentially only granted for two reasons, one of which was adultery.

These Scots were progressive types, very much into gender equality (well…) How else to explain their decision that both men and women could demand a divorce on account of adultery – quite unheard of in a world where a man’s indiscretions were just that – indiscretions – while a woman’s adventures with another man than her husband were a sin, a grievous, grievous sin, very much in keeping with the female lack of morality and propensity for uncontrolled lust.

Interestingly enough, no law was ever passed confirming the right to divorce due to adultery. Instead, it was assumed that the prohibition against divorce on account of adultery went out of the window together with the allegiance to the Pope, and a decade or so later, divorce due to adultery was an established common law practise.

A rousing Reformation sermon with John Knox

Had the Scots left it at that – divorce on account of adultery – it would have been an improvement, but maybe not a major improvement. However, due to the antics of two people with that intoxicating combination of money and clout, Scottish divorce legislation came to recognise another reason for divorce, namely desertion by either party. This had the benefit of being much easier to arrange – and prove – plus it did not tar one of the parties as being an unfaithful git. But let me introduce you to the main protagonists in all this, namely the Earl of Argyll – Archibald Campbell – and Lady Jean Stewart, one of James V’s many by-blows.

Little Jean might have been born out of wedlock, but her royal father was well-practised in handling such sensitive issues and in general took good care of his offspring. On her mother’s side, she was related to the Beatons – a powerful family which counts among its more (in)famous members Cardinal David Beaton. He was the Archbishop of St Andrews who instigated the trial and execution by burning of religious reformer George Wishart, and who some time afterwards was assassinated by William Kirkcaldy and a couple of aggravated Leslies. Beaton’s body was hanged from the window of his castle for everyone to see, and in many ways his handling of Wishart was the fuel that led to the roaring bonfire that was the Scottish reformation.

Enough about David Beaton (a man who deserves his own post, what with his relaxed attitude to celibacy, his constant focus on Number One – this being Davie, not Our Lord – and his strong Catholic and political convictions). Suffice it to say that little Jean was of good lineage on both sides, no matter what side of the blanket she was born on.

Archibald was no royal bastard, but his family was wealthy and among the most powerful in Scotland. Very early on, our Archie became an ardent Protestant. During the long regency that followed James V’s death, he, together with James Stewart – yet another of James V’s bastards, later to be Earl of Moray – became a vociferous opponent to Marie de Guise and her pro-French policies, fearing that the little Queen’s mother had every intention of keeping Scotland a loyal member of the Holy Roman Church. Probably a correct assumption, but Argyll’s decision to seek help and support from the English was not to endear him overmuch to his countrymen.

Jean was very fond of Marie de Guise. The Queen Mother treated her husband’s bastards with kindness, and she was very protective of Jean, the young queen’s only sister. Jean was raised at court and became one of Marie’s most trusted maids, living in close familiarity with the beleaguered regent.

Marie de Guise
Archie and Jean were married in 1553. Maybe they disliked each other on sight. Maybe their differing opinions on matters religious drove an immediate wedge between the young spouses, at the time still in their teens. Whatever the case, the marriage very quickly deteriorated, with Archie living openly with various mistresses, fathering a number of illegitimate children while Jean remained childless. And things were definitely not helped when Archie became a prominent member of the Lords of Congregation, the Protestant faction that led the rebellion that resulted in the Scottish reformation in 1560. Jean couldn’t forgive her husband for siding against her beloved Marie de Guise.

Jean decided to get her own back by taking a lover. The Campbell clan roared in anger at this dishonour to their chief, and Jean was effectively held prisoner. Through the efforts of her – and Archie’s – extended family, the couple achieved some sort of reconciliation in 1561, very much at the hands of John Knox, who seems to have had quite the vested interest in this couple’s marriage.

A very young Mary, Queen of Scots
In 1561, Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland from France, and Jean quickly became a favoured lady-in-waiting while her husband was one of the Queen’s chief political advisors. This didn’t help the marriage. Things went from bad to worse, one could say, with Jean complaining to the Queen, who was quite torn between her loyalties to her sister, and her dependency on the Earl of Argyll to maintain peace in her realm.

John Knox and Queen Mary -
not seeing eye to eye
In 1563 the Queen decided to rope in some help in attempting to heal the breach between Archie and Jean. She contacted John Knox. Picture this scene for a moment: The devout Catholic queen turns to her foremost adversary when it comes to matters of faith and asks for a tete-a-tete. In a low, concerned voice, she expresses that something must be done to save the fragile thing that is Jean’s marriage. John Knox agreed, and in 1563, the Queen and the Reformer had a number of sessions with Jean and Archie - you know, a very early version of present day marriage counsellors. Ultimately, it didn't help – but it was nice that they tried!

Archie was becoming desperate. He needed an heir, and whether it was because Jean refused him access to her bed (in itself no mean feat in the 16th century) or because she was barren, so far there had been no reconciling patter of little feet. Plus, the two spouses obviously hated each other’s guts. So Archie offered Jean a settlement if she would agree to a divorce on the grounds of adultery, with him taking the blame. She refused – as the so called injured party she could.

The Queen was deposed, the realm was in upheaval, and in all this chaos Jean took the opportunity of fleeing for ever from her husband’s tender care. In 1567 she ran away from him, and the couple’s very public separation forced the Scottish Kirk to attempt to deal with it. Archie needed a full divorce, not a separation. He wanted to be free to wed again and beget children. Jean had no intention of making anything easy for him, and so the Kirk’s leaders – such as John Knox – sucked in their lips and mulled this little conundrum over.

Earl of Moray
In 1573, the Earl of Argyll succeeded in having the Scottish Parliament pass an Act that allowed divorce on the grounds of desertion. This time, when he pushed Jean for a divorce, she didn't protest. Her position was far too shaky at present with her sister imprisoned by the English and her brother, the powerful Earl of Moray, busy with other matters. And so, in August of 1573, Archibald Campbell became a free man again, hastening to re-marry. Unfortunately for him, six weeks later he was dead… Unfortunately for his hapless widow, Jean decided the time was ripe to protest the divorce, insisting she had been forced.

After endless squabbles, a final settlement was made some years later. Jean retained the title of Countess of Argyll (very important to her, apparently), received a generous lump sum and retired to live out the rest of her life at her Canongate residence in Edinburgh, busying herself with her famous button collection. I’m thinking she laughed all the way to the bank, our Jean – or maybe she didn't. Maybe now and then she felt genuine regret for what could have been a marriage and never rose above a constant bloody strife.

The legal outcome of all this was that in 1573, Scotland implemented an Act that allowed for spouses to be divorced, assuming they could prove desertion by the other. Suddenly, all those unhappy marriages had a “get out of jail” card. Not a bad thing, all in all, even if divorce continued to be rare in the following centuries. A failed marriage was a stigma – especially for the woman, who, as we all know, probably was to blame for its failure to begin with. After all, either she was a nag, or she was barren or, worst of all, she was a lewd and immoral creature, far too tempted by carnal sin, as demonstrated by Eve when she yanked that apple off the branch!

~~~~~~~~~
This is an Editor's Choice and originally published on September 24, 2014

Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. 

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Hugh Despenser plays a central role.The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

More about Anna on her website or on her blog!

15 comments:

  1. This was a thoroughly delightful post. I learned so much from it.

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  2. Thanks for this - it was really informative. Scotland certainly led the way when it came to attitudes towards marital desertion. I was quite horrified when I researched local magistrate trials for my area (NE England) for 1910. I discovered that 50 % of the cases were (mostly) men who had been tried for desertion. They could be imprisoned if found guilty, which helped no-one. Scottish attitudes towards failed marriages were obviously far more liberal.
    Karen Charlton
    Author of
    The Heiress of Linn Hagh
    Catching the Eagle
    The Mystery of the Skelton Diamonds
    Seeking Our Eagle

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    1. And let us not forget the Scots were pretty relaxed about getting married as well. Very progressive people!

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  3. Very good - except that the much earlier (religious) cases were of annulment, not divorce.

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    1. You're absolutely right - either a marriage had never existed or it existed for ever, so to say. I kept it somewhat simpler...

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  4. Just to remind us that women's rights went seriously down the drain after 1066. Anglo-Saxon women and men frequently and easily divorced, with the wife retaining custody of minor children, receiving half (sometimes all) of all household goods, and any goods and properties she had brought into the union. Poorer folk merely parted, making any division of goods deemed equitable from their own and families' point of view. A desertion of five years rendered the remaining spouse legally free to wed again. Did the Church like all this? No - but it went on, regardless, until women essentially lost all property rights under Norman rule. Sigh.

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  5. Wow! Fascinating article! Thanks for sharing! 😃

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  6. Charming and informative as always, although John Knox was a loathsome, misogynistic villain--the fact that he enjoyed having sex with his extremely young wife does nothing but confirm my opinion of him...

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  7. An entertaining account! Thank you, Anna.

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  8. Great stuff! I'll have to check out your Graham Saga... :)

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