Begging Your Husband for Forgiveness? What? What? What?

Begging Your Husband for Forgiveness? What? What? What?



Yesterday Ted Hurdis sent me this photo about a quaint little custom that used to be practised at the turn of the last century – yes, from the 1800s to the 1900s – where traditionally at Christmas women would get on their knees and beg forgiveness from their husbands for all the mistakes they had made during the past year.
How sweet. I am glad that at the turn of the last century, when everyone was still sane, they knew that it was only the women who made mistakes and who needed to apologize.

Why did this tradition disappear?!? One can just imagine how the men in the 1800-1900s would be hanging on with their fingernails at this time of year knowing that there were still around 1 000 000 seconds before their wives begged for forgiveness and all would finally be well again–while they were were out gambling,sniffing coke and shagging hookers.


In the early Victorian era, a woman entering upon marriage had almost no rights. All her property automatically became her husband’s. Even if she had her own land, her husband received the income from it.

A husband had the right to lock up his wife. If he beat her, she had no legal redress. The law mostly removed itself from marital relations.

Married women were put into the same category as lunatics, idiots, outlaws and children.

Even her children were not hers, according to the law. And if a woman left the home to take refuge elsewhere, as Caroline did twice, her husband could lock her out, without needing a court order.

As for divorce, there were only three ways of applying for a separation, 150 years ago, all of them under the control of the Church of England, which regarded it as an offence against God’s will, each of them with a heavy penalty.

One was if the marriage was a nullity, through impotence, insanity or potential incest.

In those cases, the Church permitted the divorcees to remarry, but rendered their children illegitimate.

A second was available in cases of adultery, sodomy or physical violence: it did not let the petitioners remarry, but permitted a separation.

A third was to get a separation and then sue the spouse for adultery. If successful, Parliament eventually allowed the couple a proper divorce which did not make their children illegitimate.

Yet this long, expensive process was out of reach of nearly everyone, as the Church intended it to be.



The new Act transferred jurisdiction from Church courts to a new civil court – a principle which gave rise to the divorce courts of day, and which set in motion the social revolution that has ended in today’s statistic that 40per cent of marriages end in divorce.

It permitted men to be divorced on the grounds of adultery and women to be divorced on the same grounds so long as there was also physical cruelty, incest, rape, sodomy, bestiality, bigamy or two years’ desertion.

It also gave women control over money from bequests and investments, and was the first crack in the wall which barred women from sexual and financial equality. Traditionalists were outraged.

There was still a long way to go. Infant Custody Acts of 1873 and 1886 built upon Caroline Norton’s measure. The Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 gave married women the same rights over property as unmarried women: they could retain their capital, possessions and wages.

But no grounds for divorce other than adultery were recognised: women were still second-class citizens. Well into the 20th century, women had no remedies against abusive husbands.

A solicitor defending a husband against an application for separation could argue that, “in Blackburn and in Wigan it is the usual thing for the husband, when he comes home at night, to give his wife a kicking and beating”.

The children were still legally the husband’s, and if a couple separated, the husband had first claim to them, unless he had a conviction for assault.

Divorce was still the preserve of the rich – among the peerage, one-third of the marriages of the 1900s ended in divorce.

In Edwardian times only one politician held the torch for reform of the divorce laws.

Earl Russell in 1902 spoke up in the House of Lords for allowing trial separations, making the legal position of men and women equal and giving the poor an equal right to divorce.

He argued that the law was illogical and unjust, that it encouraged immorality by denying unhappily married people release.



The Lords reacted with horror, moving that his Bill be rejected, not least because they believed Russell “had form”.

The elder brother of Bertrand Russell, the earl was a distinguished barrister who had been thrown in jail, after being convicted of bigamy.

He had married a harridan, who in the Lord Chancellor’s words “had poisoned the whole atmosphere in which he lived”.

Having – as he thought – divorced his wife, after getting a decree of judicial separation, Russell went to Nevada where he married an American divorcee Mollie Cooke.

In 1918 there were more divorces than ever before; in 1919 there were half as many again.

Divorce still held a social stigma in stuffy circles, and it was still a matter of honour for the man to take the blame in adultery lawsuits – even if they had to spend a weekend with a “woman unknown” in a hotel to gather the necessary evidence from a chambermaid.

But divorces only truly proliferated after the 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act which established equality between the sexes in divorce cases, and made divorce more accessible to poorer people.

Divorce numbers rose, and the most telling drawback to divorce was newspaper publicity.

Papers revelled in the 1921 case of Archdeacon Wakeford, accused of committing adultery at the Bull Hotel in Peterborough, in which the verdict appeared

But his British wife had successfully appealed against the decree, and when Russell returned to England he was found to have been in defiance of the law.



He was sentenced to three months in jail – although at the end of it his divorce went through and his marriage to his second wife was made legal.

The divorce issue would not go away.

While Russell continued his campaign in the Lords, a Royal Commission was appointed to consider reforms in the divorce laws.

The mood was changing. On the throne, in place of prim Queen Victoria, was Edward VII, whose succession of mistresses gave a lighter tone to public life. But the Church still objected.

The Archbishop of Canterbury abhorred divorce as unChristian, also expressing his alarm at “extending those facilities to classes other than those who take advantage of them now”.

The Suffragette movement and the rise in the use of contraception sharpened fears that women and the lower classes were getting out of control.

After three years of hearings, the Royal Commission delivered their report. The majority, comprising social, medical and legal experts, favoured reform.

The minority, the Church militants, resisted. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, shelved the issue, and it didn’t return until after World War I.

It re-emerged into a different world. The war had made people aware that life was for living.

Promiscuity was no longer associated with the upper-classes: it was down to tennis-club level.

A kiss no longer signalled an engagement. Young people smoked and drank, and women put on lipstick in public.

They talked about “companionate marriage” which amounted to living in sin but being faithful to one partner.

It was rumoured that in Los Angeles and New York one girl in 10 carried a contraceptive in her vanity case. Gradually, at least among the Bright Young

Things, the American view prevailed that marriage was a social habit, not a sacrament.

In 1918 there were more divorces than ever before; in 1919 there were half as many again.

Divorce still held a social stigma in stuffy circles, and it was still a matter of honour for the man to take the blame in adultery lawsuits – even if they had to spend a weekend with a “woman unknown” in a hotel to gather the necessary evidence from a chambermaid.



Clipped from

  1. The Capital Times,
  2. 18 Dec 1935, Wed,
  3. Page 14



    Medicine for Weak Women — Hokum Era

  4. Several Shades of Christina Gray –Home for Friendless Women in Ottawa

  5. Women of Ramsay – Spindles and Flyers–Sarah Ann

  6. The Remedy Women of Lanark County

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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