A very public and messy divorce – Beaufort v Beaufort

Today’s post is a little unusual, as I welcome back legal eagle, Mel Barnes who has worked with me in a joint article, to tell the story of a very messy divorce (quite literally), as you’ll discover later.

As most of us know from experience, the golden rule when talking to someone about their divorce is that almost always, ‘the other spouse is always to blame’, a principle enshrined in natural law when Adam pointed his apple-scented finger at Eve and told God it was all her fault.  But that’s all about to change with the introduction of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 on 6 April 2022 with a no-fact, no-fault, quickie online divorce.  While the country perhaps celebrates this long-awaited change, in this post we will instead commiserate with a divorcing couple from the eighteenth century.

Historically, the Ecclesiastical Court could only pronounce a divorce mensa et thoro, separation from bed and board, now known in law as judicial separation for couples who do not want to divorce for religious reasons.

A divorce à vinculo matrimonii, one that dissolved the marriage, was only possible with a private member’s bill and were very rare, with only sixty divorce acts were passed between 1715 and 1775.

Holland House, Kensington. Yale Center for British Art
Holland House, Kensington. Yale Center for British Art

This brings us to our unhappy couple who wed on 14 June 1729 at Holland House in Kensington: Henry Somerset, the 3rd Duke of Beaufort (aged 22), and Frances Scudamore (aged 18); otherwise, Lord and Lady Beaumont.

Henry Somerset, the 3rd Duke of Beaufort
Henry Somerset, the 3rd Duke of Beaufort

Sadly, for the young couple, their respective fathers both died young, but fortunately at a time when they were fantastically rich.  This was the marriage of two extremely affluent families, bringing to it both money and land and a union of wealth and assets, though Henry gifted jewellery with a value of £500 to Frances (about £60,000 today), which shows he was committed to the union.

Part of the marriage agreement included the requirement for Henry to also take Frances’ surname:

Obliging the duke and Duchess of Beaufort and her children to take the additional surname and bear the arms of Scudamore, pursuant to a settlement made by James, late Lord Scudamore and vesting in the duke in fee the manors of Wickhall and Ditton Camois and lands in Cambridgeshire, late the testate of Lord Scudamore, in lieu of the portion provided by him for his daughter, the said Duchess and other provisions.

As the years went by, the couple’s separate lives and absence of the pattering of small feet began to attract attention.  The lack of an heir and a spare would have been seen as a major problem for these two dynasties, and it was highly likely that medical advice would have been sought about why Fanny couldn’t conceive (obviously, this was automatically assumed to be her fault).

Married life wasn’t great for Frances and Henry  and it became a whole lot worse when, in 1736 Frances it would appear, contracted small pox and returned to the family home, Holme Lacy in Herefordshire to rest and be treated by the Scudamore physician, but she did recover from this.

Holme Lacy
Holme Lacy

In 1740, Frances met William, Lord Talbot (1710-1782), at that time a lawyer and politician referred to by Horace Walpole as having

some wit, and a little tincture of a disordered understanding; but was better known as a boxer and man of pleasure than in the light of a statesman.

William had also married for money, his wife being Mary de Cardonnel, but after two children (a daughter, Cecil (1735-1793) and a son, William who only survived until 1742), she was advised that she was unlikely to survive another pregnancy, so with that, he declared that he was ‘deprived of her sexual services’ and sought solace elsewhere.

Ramsay, Allan; Mary de Cardonnel (c.1719-1787), Countess Talbot; National Trust, Newton House, Dinefwr Park and Castle

With Frances looking for love and William for pleasure, the couple made a perfect match.  They began an indiscrete relationship, which soon led to tongues wagging and an open secret that they were having an affair.

Initially, Henry was pragmatic about the affair and he and Frances executed a Deed of Separation under which each agreed not to make a claim against the other’s estate.  This amicable relationship would not last long, as just few months later, Frances discovered that she was pregnant to William – this was not good!

As far as high society was concerned, indiscretion was forgivable, but public adultery was not.  On 13 September 1741, Frances gave birth to a daughter who she named Fanny Matthews to hide her real identity.  With Henry being in poor health, Frances hoped that he would soon die, so she could pass off her daughter as his, but alas, he recovered!

Meanwhile, William had grown bored with Frances, and he ended their relationship, but it’s not clear at that stage what became of their daughter, was she raised by Frances or perhaps William who had returned to his wife, something which was not unusual at that time.

Henry, continued with his mission and by June 1742, had obtained all the damning statements and evidence he could against Frances, and issued divorce proceedings against her for adultery.

What he hadn’t bargained on though, was that Frances would make a counter-application on the basis of his impotency, a claim that she knew would involve humiliating Henry with a very intimate examination.

In his Reply, Henry claimed that they had slept together in one bed for ten years and produced witness statements from servants swearing that they had ‘actually seen the stains’ on the bedding, proving their intimacy.

None of the evidence was given much weight, and a judge eventually held that Henry needed to prove once and for all that ‘duke-junior’ could ‘rise to the occasion‘.

This would involve either: masturbating and ejaculating, or having sex with a woman before court-appointed witnesses.  Soul-crushing shame aside, what we want to know is whether the woman was also to have been appointed by the court.  What sort of terrible employment would she have agreed to? However, a very embarrassed Henry eventually decided on the former and was successful.  Thereby, winning his case, which gave him damages and costs of £80,000 (about £1 million in today’s money).

After a protracted bill through Parliament, the parties were finally divorced in March 1744, when the Act took effect.  Any happiness with the freedom to marry would be short lived for our unhappy couple, as Henry died less than a year later, in February 1745.

As for Frances, well, she married again, not to Lord William Talbot, but to Colonel Charles Fitzroy, the illegitimate son of the 2nd Duke of Grafton. The couple married on 4 July 1748, at Holme Lacy, Herefordshire.

Francs died just seven months later, and was buried on 27 February 1749 at Holme Lacy, aged just 38. This was just six days after giving birth to another daughter, Frances, who was presented for baptism at St George’s, Hanover Square on 14 February 1749.

Derby Mercury 16 February 1749
Derby Mercury 16 February 1749

For anyone recently separated, know that everything will now be a lot easier in terms of the process, and be thankful for a divorce that no longer has anything to do with ‘private members!’.

As for Frances’s illegitimate daughter, Fanny, little is known about her life, but in his Will of 1782, William referred to his daughter Cecil, but, also, more curiously, ‘my very dear daughter, Miss Fanny Talbot, now living with me’.

So, it looks as if his illegitimate daughter ended up being cared for in a loving home, which means we can end on a happy note.

Sources

Hansard debates 3 June 1830