The history of divorce from the Dark Ages to the Five Facts

8th March 2015 by


The etymological root of divorce is from the Latin word divortium, from divertere (“to turn aside”), and in the very earliest divorces this was exactly the case. There was no need for divorce solicitors or court ordered financial settlements – a husband could simply decide that he no longer wished to be married and his wife would have to leave the marital home. This was considered a legal divorce.

If there had been a dowry, the wife would be allowed to take it back unless she had committed adultery.

However, in all but the wealthiest of households early marriages, separations and divorces were not always recorded, so our knowledge of early family law amongst ordinary couples is scant.

The early historian Valerius Maximus, writing during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, 14 AD to 37 AD, wrote that divorces had been occurring before 604BC and a law code for marriage dissolution was ratified by the Twelve Tables (Leges Duodecim Tabularum the foundation of Roman law and core of the mos maiorum or custom of the ancestors) in the mid-fifth century BC.

At that time divorce was seen as socially acceptable, but only if it was carried out within certain norms of behaviour. For instance, Lucius Annius was expelled from the Senate in 307 BC for moral turpitude after divorcing his wife without consulting his colleagues and friends. It was said that he had failed to consider the effects the break-up would have on his social circle.

Around 230 BC it was claimed the first divorce occurred due to a wife’s infertility and this was recognised as reasonable grounds for divorce for some time. However, after the fall of the Roman Empire, in medieval Europe, the Church became the favoured regulatory body for familial life and lore and by the ninth to the tenth century divorce was reducing significantly as the Christian Church held that marriage was a sacrament founded by God and Christ, and which no human action could dissolve.

Since the Reformation, a period of religious history largely brought about because Henry VIII wanted to divorce his various wives and was thwarted by the Pope, non-Catholic religions have asserted marriage is a civil contract dissolvable by civil authorities. Yet, even though civil courts assumed powers to grant divorces, the previous rulings and declarations of ecclesiastical courts were adopted to determine the circumstances under which a marriage was legally dissolvable.

For many years, and possibly still in some situations and amongst certain groups of people, divorce was seen as against the public interest and divorce would only be granted if it was adjudged that a spouse had broken sacred vows of marriage. If both husband and wife were found to have been guilty of violating their marriage vows, or even in colluding in the fabrication of grounds for divorce, then neither would be allowed to escape and they would be forced to remain in wedlock.

Eventually, grounds for divorce became more recognisable and the embodied causes of violation of vows became seen as abandonment, adultery or “extreme cruelty”, much as the Five Facts of today.

Healys thoroughly modern divorce solicitors in Brighton and London
Although the laws of divorce and separation are ancient, they are ever-changing and precedential rulings regarding pre-nuptial agreements, financial settlements and judgments in international contact disputes regularly make the headlines as they are assimilated into divorce law.

The divorce solicitors at Healys in Brighton and London are experienced and knowledgeable, and are able to negotiate and draft separation and ancillary relief agreements in all circumstances including complex and high-value divorce financial settlements. We are also able to make or defend divorce and finance claims on behalf of both husbands and wives in local courts across the south east of England and beyond, and in the High Court.

To contact a divorce solicitor in Brighton please you can speak directly to Catherine Taylor on 01273 669 124 or e-mail on

Or call our London office on 020 7822 4000 or email