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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

Although Henry VIII is usually described as having divorced Catherine of Aragon, he in fact arranged for Cranmer to annul his marriage – to declare not that it had ended, but that it had never begun. Subsequently parliament became the only body in Britain which could end a marriage by divorce, but this process was so lengthy and expensive that it was only open to the very rich; in more than 250 years, from 1602 to 1859, there were only 317 parliamentary divorces. The breakdown of a marriage more often resulted in a *common law action brought by the husband against another man for the offence of crim. con. Short for criminal conversation, and meaning adultery, this crime had the legal status of trespass – on the husband's property, his wife. This was the charge brought unsuccessfully by George Norton against Lord *Melbourne.

Crim. con. was rendered obsolete by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which for the first time made it possible to obtain a divorce in the courts on the grounds of adultery. But this was available only to the husband, for whom it was enough to prove a single act of infidelity on his wife's part; the wife, by contrast, had to prove that an adulterous husband was also cruel, or had committed sodomy, rape, incest or bigamy, or that he had deserted her for two years or more.

This inequality survived until 1923, when a single act of adultery by the husband became sufficient for the wife to obtain a divorce. Subsequent campaigns, boosted by A.P. Herbert's satirical novel Holy Deadlock (1934), added cruelty and desertion as grounds for divorce even if adultery was not proved. But any couple wishing to divorce simply because their marriage had failed still had to go through an embarrassing charade, in which the husband would arrange to meet a woman and a private detective in a seedy hotel so that the court could be provided with apparent evidence of adultery.

The Divorce Reform Act of 1969 introduced the concept which is central to modern divorce law in Britain – the right to a divorce, if both partners wish it, without legal guilt on either side. All that the court required under the new law was proof of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. In addition to the previous ways of proving this, such as adultery or cruelty, it became sufficient for the couple to have lived apart for two years (if both parties wanted the divorce) or for five years (if only one wanted it). The act ruled out divorce within the first three years of marriage, but this period has subsequently been reduced to one year. Divorces are granted in two stages: the decree nisi is a provisional divorce (nisi is Latin for 'unless'), which may be cancelled if good cause is shown; the decree absolute, completing the process, usually follows six weeks later.

The number of divorces in Britain doubled after the 1969 act, as people trapped in unhappy marriages took the first easy opportunity to break free. The annual rate continued to drift up during the 1970s, but it has remained fairly level since about 1980. Nevertheless a statistical projection forward, based on contemporary figures, suggests that more than one in three marriages taking place in the early 1990s will end in divorce.

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