Post-restoration, the Court of Arches typically dealt with four types of case; matrimonial, testamentary, morals of clergy and laity, and parochial disputes. Of these, matrimonial and testamentary cases accounted for the vast majority of all suits heard in the Arches Court between 1660 and 1857, at which point they become the jurisdiction of the secular courts. Unlike other cases bought before the Court of Arches, in matrimonial cases, there was a lot more circumstantial and background evidence discussed.
For example, in the 1721 case of Paul v. Paul, Elizabeth Paul of St. James’, Westminster was obliged to publicly recount to the court how she met her future husband. They had married in secret, first meeting when they were both twelve years old at a dancing lesson. Daniel Paul had insisted on secrecy, knowing that his parents would never consent, particularly his mother who was assisting with his advancement in the military. Obviously, by appearing in court the illusion of secrecy was somewhat shattered.
While the case of Elizabeth and Daniel Paul’s is one of young love and comparative innocence, frequently the evidence exhibited during marital disputes was shocking in its sordidness. During the case of Stamford v. Stamford, the court heard from Thomas Grey, the 2nd Earl of Stamford, that his wife was having sexual relations with numerous members of his household and had become a violent alcoholic, threatening at one point to cut his lordship’s throat. This claim was supported by witnesses who stated that Lady Stamford had wished for her husband’s execution after he’d been implicated in the Duke of Monmouth’s failed rebellion in 1686. Lord Stamford further claimed that because of his wife’s extravagant and reckless spending, she had racked up to £30,000 in debts. Lady Stamford insisted that these debts were as a result of his lordships fondness for fast women and slow ponies. Their subsequent divorce seems to have been a sensible decision. The image here is Lady Stamford’s testimony in court. We can see her signature at the bottom of the page.
In order to corroborate or contradict these claims, large numbers of witnesses were called to give evidence. Many witnesses were the servants of the couples appearing in court. We can only imagine the looks of ill-disguised satisfaction as they were asked to recount the scandalous behaviour of their masters and mistresses. These witnesses would often prove invaluable during a case. The evidence of Revd. Edmund Robert’s butler, Charles Cook, proved pivotal in his divorce proceedings. In court, the butler alleged that he had discovered that the door to the library had been locked and that the key hole had been bunged up. He further added that he believed the occupants of the locked room were his master’s wife and the young tutor.
While many cases would become topics of local gossip, some cases were so sensational that they became the talk of society. A particularly shocking and notorious example was the divorce case of Bowes v. Bowes. In 1776, the wealthy heiress, Mary Eleanor Bowes, met and married Andrew Robinson Stoney, a man of more modest means. High society buzzed with the rumour that Bowes had fallen pregnant before the marriage had taken place and that Stoney was not the father.
Whether Stoney was aware of the rumour or not, the marriage nevertheless deteriorated rapidly when he discovered that a trust had been set up that prevented him from controlling his wife’s fortune. Incensed, Stoney resorted to violence against his new wife to gain control of her wealth. Bowes appealed to the courts, citing domestic abuse and adultery. However, before the courts could intervene, Stoney abducted his wife and subjected her to further torment. Stoney was eventually apprehended and brought before the Court of Arches to answer for his crime which resulted in his imprisonment. Bowes was granted her separation and reclaimed control over her money.
We know that this particular case captured the imagination of the public as a book was written in 1789 that gave extensive details of the case. An engraving depicting the “cruelty displayed” by Stoney towards his wife formed the frontispiece of the book and is seen here. In the engraving we can see Stoney threatening his wife with a knife while pulling at her hair.
Today, it would be unthinkable that a case such as this would be handled by anyone other than a criminal court, such are the severity of the charges. However, as marriage was a sacrament, the dissolution of a marriage would only ever be handled by those with an understanding of ecclesiastical law.
M. Barber, “Records of the Court of Arches in the Lambeth Palace Library”, Ecclesiastical Law Journal: Vol. 2 (ed. Michael Goodman), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 14.
Ibid., p. 15.
R. Cosgave, “The Court of Arches”, Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collection of the Archbishop of Canterbury (ed. R. Palmer and M.P. Brown), (London: Scala Publishers, 2010), pp. 144-145.