20 January 1827. If you are lower class, “a word and a blow go together”. But if you are a nobleman…
After years of conflict, the domestic battle between Lord and Lady Westmeath ended up in the courts. She had a ferocious temper, and it is fair to say, a lack of judgement on matters matrimonial. He was violent, beating her several times. Attempts at an agreed separation fail, and she sued for divorce. He countered with a suit in the Consistory Court for restoration of conjugal rights, and won. That judgement was overturned on 20 January 1827.
Sir John Nichol, judge of the Arches Court of Canterbury, was measured in his judgement. There are things he cannot not say because they did not contravene the law in 1827. He was judging aristocrats and, as a man of some standing himself, he struggled to give credibility to poor and poverty stricken witnesses against the word of a man of standing—Lord Westmeath. Early in a lengthy judgement, he opined on whether domestic violence is more acceptable among the lower classes.
“Among the lower classes, blows sometimes pass between couples who, in the main, are very happy, and have no desire to part; amidst very coarse habits, such incidents occur almost as freely as rude or reproachful words: a word and a blow go together. Still, even among the very lowest classes, there is generally a feeling of something unmanly in striking a woman.”
He was saying that it may be unmanly but quite expected that a lower class man might swear at and thrash his wife. What then of the noble classes? Judge Nichol continues:
“But if a gentleman, a person of education… if a nobleman, of high rank and ancient family, uses personal violence to his wife, his equal in rank, the choice of his affection, the friend of his bosom, the mother of his offspring—such conduct, in such a person, carries with it something so degrading to the husband, and so insulting and mortifying to the wife, as to render the injury itself far more severe and insupportable.”
To be fair to Nichol, after this crustaceous start to his judgement, he did identify Lord Westmeath as the principal guilty party, ruling that “to compel the wife to return to cohabitation would be but to expose her to the risk and danger of renewed violence”.
The image above is Gillray’s cartoon of Judge Thumb, Sir Francis Buller, who famously decreed that a man might beat his wife if the stick was no thicker than the man’s thumb. Buller was Anna Eliza’s legal guardian.