Charles II and the First English Divorce

This is an abridged extract from The Story of Divorce, which looks at the first English divorce, and the role that Charles II’s marital woes may have played in the outcome.

The year was 1670 and Charles II, the ‘Merry Monarch’, was on the throne. The Cavalier Parliament was only halfway through what would become the longest Parliament in history. And it was this predominantly Royalist Parliament that was asked to consider the ‘curious case of adulterine bastardy’ which emerged from the extraordinary scandal surrounding the marriage of John Manners, Lord Roos of Belvoir Castle and heir to the eighth Earl of Rutland and his wife, the Lady Anne Manners.

Lady Anne was well-connected, spirited, wealthy and stubborn. She was also cursed with an impulsive nature and a voracious sexual hunger. She was the daughter of Henry Pierrepont, the Earl of Kingston and later the First Marquess of Dorchester. She was also the second cousin of Lord Roos, the man she would marry before humiliating with behaviour that was so scandalous it would cause ladies to faint in shock when they heard of it. Because of course, it was a scandal so delicious that it played out for the delight of a titillated society.

The distant relatives married in 1658, the marriage joining together the vast wealth to which both were expected to inherit, with the seventeen-year-old Lady Anne Pierrepont also bringing with her a dowry of £10,000, worth over £1million in real terms today. Their families hoped to create a family dynasty that could not be rivalled for wealth or power. There was not even a significant disparity in age to cast a shadow over the nuptials, with Lord Roos being just twenty years old. In short, it seemed like the couple were to embark on what appeared to be an ideal marriage and a promising married life. The hopes of two families rested on the loins of this youthful couple, with Lord Roos being the last male heir of the Manners family. It was imperative that Lady Anne produce a son.

Initially at least, the marriage proved to be successful, with the bride and groom fulfilling their duties, with Lady Anne almost immediately conceiving. It was during her pregnancy that Lady Anne had the first of what would become many furious tussles with her mother-in-law, when the Countess of Rutland criticised Lady Anne for wearing stays far too tightly for her liking given Lady Anne’s pregnancy. The Countess of Rutland was a lady of indefatigable spirit, stubborn and determined to do things her own way. Lady Anne refused to defer to her mother-in-law, with the end result that the Countess took her son home with her to Belvoir Castle, together with most of the servants, leaving Lady Anne to sulk on her own at Christmas in the huge, isolated house in Haddon. It signalled the beginning of a marked decline in the marriage, made worse when, like Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn before her, the expectations placed on the contents of Lady Anne’s womb met with crushing disappointment when she gave birth to a mere daughter. This girl did not survive infancy.

Following the death of their daughter, which seemed to cast an ill omen over the union, it soon became apparent that the marriage was nothing short of a disaster. As Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon and Lord Chancellor to King Charles II commented after shrewd observation, Lady Anne ‘not finding the satisfaction she expected where she ought to have received it, looked for it abroad where she ought not to find it’. It seemed that the young bride had become somewhat jaded with the restrictions her marriage imposed upon her, and as a passionate young woman in the prime of her youth, brimming with sexual energy, she was frustrated with the failure of her husband to satisfy her in bed. Compounding the slur of the suggestion of infidelity that had started to follow her as she danced her way through courtly society, was the fact that she was openly contemptuous of her husband, writing to a friend: ‘my husband gives his mind so much to drinking and hunting that he is not fit to perform the duty of a husband to a wife, and one may as soon raise a house as raise him.’ Lady Anne was a woman who had needs. But there was no doubting that she had gone too far, even for the lax morality and licentiousness of the court of Charles II, when she abandoned her husband before she had done her duty to provide an heir for him, to make merry in London, returning some months later pregnant. And all knew the horrifying truth. There was no possibility that her husband could be the father of her unborn child.

As husband and wife faced each other after the return of the prodigal wife, an incensed Lord Roos demanded to know who had fathered the child that she carried. Undaunted and defiant, a spirited Lady Anne refused to name her lover, and told her husband that ‘whoever got it, if it proved a boy as she believed it would, he should be Earl of Rutland.’

Lord Roos did what any weak man of quality faced with such a dilemma would do. He went running home to his mother to confide in her how badly his wife had used him. The Countess of Rutland, a woman with an indomitable spirit of her own, was furious, and she vowed justice for her son. Setting to her task with steely determination, she confined the ‘great-bellied’ Lady Anne to her chamber and replaced Lady Anne’s servants and attendants with those that were loyal only to her.  It had been the law since the time of Edward III, that the ‘paternity of a child could not be tried before its birth’ and the Countess was alert to the danger of a false heir being foisted on her son. She was not going to allow Lady Anne to give birth in secret so that she could try to manipulate the date of birth of the child to make it consistent with having been conceived with Lord Roos after Lady Anne had returned from London. She wanted the world to know that the child that Lady Anne carried was no grandchild of hers.

Lady Anne, now a prisoner of her mother-in-law, managed to smuggle out of her captivity a missive to her father, Lord Dorchester, in which she claimed that the Countess was trying to force her to miscarry. Whether this was a fair accusation or not is unknown. However, despite the alleged evil machinations of her mother-in-law, Lady Anne did give birth to a healthy child. Just as she had predicted, her child was a boy. Even though both mother and father knew that the child was no son of Lord Roos, the baby, simply by virtue of coming into the world as the first-born male child of the marriage, was, by strict right of law, the next in line after Lord Roos to be the Earl of Rutland.

The cuckolded Lord Roos made his feelings in relation to the birth of this cuckoo in the nest more than plain. He had the child baptized ‘Ignotus’. In Latin, it means unknown.  Lady Anne retaliated by calling her son John, after her husband, the man who refused to acknowledge the child as his. Mother and child were then cast out of the house, but not together. Lord Roos exerted his absolute rights as the assumed father to take control of the baby and separate him from his mother. The child was seized by the Countess and sent to be nursed by a local poor woman, while Lady Anne was returned in disgrace to her father, Lord Dorchester.

Lord Dorchester, despite all the evidence to the contrary, believed his daughter to be innocent of the vile accusations of adultery that had been made against her. Enraged at the treatment of his beloved only daughter and refusing to accept that she had brought any of it on herself, he challenged Lord Roos to a duel. Lord Roos, rather sensibly, refused to be baited and terse correspondence was exchanged between the wronged husband and his incensed father-in-law, trading insults and threats.

Lord Dorchester, having failed to force Lord Roos to confront him in a duel, took his grievance to the King. What followed was an almost forensic examination of the sex life shared between Lord and Lady Roos, where much of the evidence was given by servants employed by them. This evidence was of such an explicit nature, giving so many ‘indecent and uncleanly particulars,’ that many of the ladies in attendance fled the hearing in shock and delighted disgust. It was pure theatre.

Charles II listened to all the evidence that was brought before him, but in the end, he refused to make a judgment against Lady Anne, or to confirm the parentage of Ignotus. The King, however, was left in no doubt that the couple despised each other, and that there was no hope of a happy reconciliation between them. The wisdom of his Majesty therefore suggested a separation by mutual consent in order to allow them to live their lives in peace and placing the child with a third person ‘to prevent the apprehensions of either parties’. The King had spoken and would say no more on the matter.

Lord Dorchester was triumphant, believing the King’s judgment had exonerated his maligned daughter, and he took her home where he expected that her virtuous behaviour would confirm her innocent of any conjugal offence against her husband. It would prove to be a futile hope. While her father and her husband tried to thrash out an agreement to provide financially for Lady Anne, as well as determining the future of poor Ignotus, Lady Anne cloistered herself away in her father’s home, and waited impatiently for things to sort themselves out.

Unfortunately for Lady Anne, her rash conduct which led to the birth of her son left her husband and father with a dilemma that was almost impossible to find any compromise on. Lord Dorchester insisted that the child Ignotus should be returned to Lady Anne. Lord Roos, however, was adamant that he would keep the child, saying ‘although the child be not of my begetting, so long as the law reputes it mine, I must and shall keep it.’ However, the ruthless conduct of Lord Roos in the negotiations that followed suggests that he was withholding Ignotus from his desperate mother as emotional blackmail, to try and force a confession out of her that the child was not his. For without such a confession, and in the absence of a judgment against his wife, the child Ignotus, no son of his, would continue to be his legitimate heir. Lord Roos also refused to provide for Anne financially while she withheld her confession.

Frustrated by her implacability, Lord Roos brought the first of what would evolve into a series of legal proceedings against his recalcitrant wife. Then, as now, the wheels of justice moved slowly, and before the first of the proceedings against her had time to play out, Lady Anne, still ensconced in her father’s home, started to chafe against the restrictions that a virtuous life demanded. Bored of her isolated and sober existence in the country house of her father, frustrated in her passions, and fired with a restlessness that she could not quell, she fled from the home of her father and returned to the den of iniquity that could only be found in London in the court of Charles II, known for its amoral and hedonistic ways. Heedless of the consequences, in no time at all, she was with child again. She would go on to give birth to another son. This time she did not even try to pretend that the child had been fathered by her husband. At this point, her own infuriated father renounced his profligate daughter, and joined with the Manners family against her. Lord Roos went on to secure a separation from his wife from the ecclesiastical courts. But this was not a severance of the marital bond that still was wound around the warring Lord and Lady Roos. And the sons of Lady Anne were, in law, still deemed to be the legitimate heirs of Lord Roos, even though almost the entirety of the court of Charles II was aware that the children were not of his blood. Something had to be done. Lord Roos had exhausted the remedies that the law had made available to him, but he was still married to an unfaithful wife, and father to two sons and heirs that he had not sired. He looked to Parliament for the freedom he sought from his harlot of a wife and the fatherless children she had foisted on him. What he needed was an Act of Parliament to bastardize Lady Anne’s children, as well as any other children she might bear in the future while she was still lawfully his wife. It was the only solution he could see to counter what had become an intolerable situation.

In October of 1666 a Bill detailing the ‘foul carriage’ of Lady Anne was read, however, it was only in 1667, recognising the seriousness of the matter before it, that the House of Lords referred it to a committee made up of eminent jurists. The House then did something that was contrary to all the laws relating to evidence. They accepted, as undisputed fact, the testimony of Lord Roos that he had no carnal knowledge of his wife since 4 March 1659, without hearing from Lady Roos, or any counsel on behalf of the children ‘born of the body’ of the Lady Anne. The Lords therefore ordered the Bill to be engrossed and passed it over to the Commons.

When the Bill went before the Commons, the Manners family were not prepared to leave anything to chance. The family hosted a dinner at the Dog Tavern, an establishment nearby to the Palace of Westminster, where Samuel Pepys, the famous London diarist frequently dined. No expense was spared in the entertainment of the forty to fifty Members of the House of Commons who attended as their guests. As soon as the Honourable Members had finished dining, no doubt having consumed generous amounts of alcohol, they were escorted to the House of Commons where the Bill to illegitimize the children of Lady Roos was passed without amendment. It received the Royal assent just over a week later. Lady Anne’s sons, known as John and Charles Manners may have carried Lord Roos’ family name of Manners, but by this Act of Parliament, they had been bastardized and could never inherit the title and estates of Lord Roos, or that of the Earl of Rutland. The Act also bastardized any future children of Lady Anne, which was just as well, as by this time it appeared that she had given birth to a third son. This child she called Henry Manners. Lady Anne was condemned as a woman who had ‘abandoned all honour and virtue…frequented light, loose company in an impudent, infamous, and lascivious way’. The House wanted her made an example of lest any other ‘worthy women’ be emboldened to engage in such ‘graceless, wicked’ behaviour. 

This, however, only solved part of the problem. Lord Roos was no longer burdened with heirs that were not of his own blood. But he was still married to Lady Roos, and as such, could not take another wife to provide him with legitimate heirs. The Manners family wished to ensure that if Lord Roos were to marry again, that any sons of the subsequent marriage would be considered as the lawful heirs to the earldom of Rutland. By 1670, Lord Roos had brought a petition to the House of Lords for a divorce. Once more the Manners family scandalised the court of Charles II, with his Majesty even commenting that the debates in the House of Lords were as good as a play. But Charles II had an even greater motivation for attending the sessions than pure voyeurism. The marriage of Lord and Lady Roos had become something of a test case. Because like Henry VIII before him, the King was considering a divorce of his own.

Charles II had married Catherine of Braganza in September of 1662. The daughter of King John IV of Portugal, Catherine was a devout Catholic, which made her an unpopular choice of King’s consort for a Protestant nation. She had also been brought up in a convent, secluded from courtly life, which made her singularly unsuited to take her place with confidence in the morass of immorality that was the court of Charles II. Needless to say, the marriage was not a happy one. Charles II indulged in frequent infidelities, fathering as many as fourteen illegitimate children, most of which he acknowledged. Catherine, however, to compound her misery at having to share her husband with a number of the King’s mistresses, the most infamous of which was Barbara Palmer, known as the Uncrowned Queen, suffered a series of devastating miscarriages. Her losses drove her half-mad with grief, and she was haunted by visions of undead children. The King despaired of fathering an heir with his fragile wife and the line of succession to the English throne was in peril. And like Henry VIII before him, the King looked to a divorce as the answer to this dilemma. But much had changed since the time of Henry VIII. Charles II could not be certain that he would have his divorce should he choose to demand one. The petition of Lord Roos therefore became something of a test case for the monarch. His Majesty watched the debates with a keen eye.

Charles II and his wife Catherine

The House of Lords knew that the royal eye was watching over their proceedings. The discussions that took place were a strange combination of the spiritual, the moral, the legal, and the financial. Much debate was given over to biblical interpretations as to whether a remarriage would constitute adultery.

Having considered the various religious arguments, the Earl of Rutland took to the floor to remind the House of Lords that if Lord Roos, ‘the sole male heir’ to the Manners family, was not to be allowed to remarry and have legitimate sons, the title would expire with him. It was clear that the sympathy of the House lay with Lord Roos. The Duke of York, brother to the King, ‘vigorously resisted’ the Bill, no doubt keenly aware that the Roos divorce would open up the possibility of a divorce for the King and potentially thwart his own ambitions for the Crown. Yet despite his objections, and the objection of thirty-three other Peers, the Bill was passed both through the House of Lords and the Commons. On 11 April 1670, the Bill granting Lord Roos a divorce received the royal assent. With that, the marital bond between Lord Roos and Lady Anne was finally severed, Lord Roos was freed to marry again, and the first Parliamentary divorce was entered into the annals of history.

It was not long before Lord Roos risked the perils of matrimony once more, marrying Lady Diana Bruce in 1671. That marriage ended in tragedy with the death of Lady Diana in childbirth, with Robert, the longed-for son of Lord Roos dying with her. Undaunted, the thirty-five-year-old Lord Roos returned to the matrimonial altar once more, this time with the fifteen-year-old daughter of Viscount Campden, Katherine Noel in 1673. In 1676, the new Lady Roos gave birth to a son, also called John. At long last there was a male heir to succeed Lord Roos to the title of the Earl of Rutland, a title which Lord Roos was to inherit just three years later. In 1703, John Manners, once Lord Roos, then the ninth Earl of Rutland, was made the first Duke of Rutland. The only blight to an otherwise happy ending for the thrice-married Lord Roos, was that his mother Frances, the resourceful and spirited Countess of Rutland, did not live to see her son hold a legitimate heir in his arms.

By John Clostermann – Duke of Rutland collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26587736

If you were to visit Belvoir Castle today, one of the finest examples of Regency architecture in the world, having been rebuilt by the fifth Duchess of Rutland, Elizabeth Manners in the early 1800s, and head up the grand staircase, you will see a stately portrait of John Manners, the first Duke of Rutland, smiling down on you. To one side of his Grace, the Duke, sits a portrait of the tragic Lady Diana, with the spirit of a lost baby hovering above her, a reminder that her life was sacrificed in her effort to give birth. To his other side, a serene portrait of Lady Katherine. The image of Lady Anne is nowhere to be found, almost as if all trace of the Duke’s first wife has been erased from the history of the family.

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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