Historic Divorce Facts: 10 Reasons Why It Ended In Divorce

by Jennifer Wright

Three Unusual Historic Reasons For Divorce

In 1613 the Countess of Essex demanded a divorce from her husband because, as her father quipped, “the Ear has no ink in his pen.” Essex and the court decided that he was impotent as a result of witchcraft, which is probably not how that would go today.

After meeting his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII exclaimed, “I like her not! I like her not!” and it was claimed that she gave off “evil smells.” She won out in the end though. After the divorce, she was considered the “sister” of Henry VIII, which left her with a house and her own income. Supposedly she and Henry even became good friends.

Charles Dickens; It Ended Badly Divorce

Dickens was 45; Ternan was 18. Anxious to preserve his image as a pillar of Victorian morality, Dickens purchased a house for her near London, where he visited her secretly. Dickens seemed both to revel in and regret the affair.
Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.org

Dickens left his wife of 20 years, with whom he had ten children, most likely to pursue an affair with the 17 year old Ellen Ternan, but not before he, strangely, had his marital bedroom remodeled into two separate rooms.

Three Methods Disposing Of Your Spouse

There was almost a ban on lipstick in the early 1900s because New York’s Board of Health suspected that women could use it to poison men.

In 1851, the purchase of arsenic by women was almost banned by the House of Lords because so many were using it to poison their husbands.

It Ended Badly; William S. Burroughs; Divorce

One of the most influential writers of the 20th century, William S. Burroughs shot and killed his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, on September 6, 1951.
Image is in the public domain via criminaljusticeschools.com

William S. Burroughs shot and killed his wife in 1952. Supposedly it was because he was attempting to recreate William Tell at the time, which is the worst party game a human being could play.

Four Forms Of Retribution

George Sand ended her relationship with Chopin by writing a kiss and tell memoir about “what happens to all the rapture of love when he who is the object of it behaves like a raving madman.” It wasn’t considered a very balanced take.

It Ended Badly Divorce

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch – WebMuseum. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.org

The painting The Scream is thought to have been influenced by the end of Munch’s affair with a woman named Millie Thaulow. He wrote, “I had the misfortune to suffer passionate love… and for several years I was close to insanity.” And screaming, just screaming all the time (not really).

In 1825, when Harriette Wilson wrote her memoirs about her love affair with the Duke of Wellington, the publisher first tried to blackmail Wellington, suggesting that for enough money he could stop them from being printed. Wellington famously replied, “publish and be damned!” They did, and it caused a sensation, but both the publisher and Harriette were financially destroyed by libel suits.

If men broke off an engagement with a woman in 19th century England she could initiate a “breach of promise to marry” lawsuit. Approximately a hundred a year did, and the men in question had to pay the modern equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars.


Jennifer Wright is the author of IT ENDED BADLY: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History and is a columnist for the New York Observer and the New York Post, covering sex and dating. She was one of the founding editors of TheGloss.com, and her writing regularly appears in such publications as Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Maxim. Her breakup cure is gin, reruns of 30 Rock, and historical biographies. She lives and loves in New York City.

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Posted in Ancient History, Medieval History, Modern History

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