Earlier this month the Rt Hon Lord Wilson of Culworth used the annual High Sheriff of Oxfordshire’s Annual Law Lecture to deliver an illuminating examination of the rights and struggles of wives in English history. It was clearly a fascinating speech and I wish I had been there to hear it.
In Out of his shadow: The long struggle of wives under English Law, Lord Wilson compared the relatively high status enjoyed by wives in Anglo-Saxon England with their diminished status in feudal England a few centuries later, when they could not own property and had little legal status.
“…the wife was legally in the shadow of the husband and she was substantially invisible to the law.”
This legally inferior status continued in various ways until the recent past, he noted. He also discussed the concept of dower (not to be confused with the relatively opposite concept of the dowry). Dower was – and indeed still is – a financial provision given to wives by husbands for their support in the event of his death. This could take the form of a life interest in land or property.
This life interest, noted Lord Wilson, was unaffected by any subsequent remarriage on her part. This was, he claims, effectively compensation for the wife’s lower legal status.
He also discussed some aspects of married life in historical times that would now be wholly unacceptable, such as the rights husbands once had to beat their wives. He noted the way in which wives once vowed to “obey” (what a telling word!) their husbands during their marriage ceremony and the truly extraordinary fact that women (in the UK) did not have the legal right to refuse sexual relations with their husbands until as recently as 1991!
Life was hard for women in the Victorian era as any who attempted to leave abusive husbands would lose access to their children and would not be entitled to financial support. Unhappy times.
Lord Wilson finishes his historical digressions with a series of thought-provoking questions on the current and future status of marriage:
“We should surely conclude… that in substance the long struggle of wives for rights under our law equal to those of their husbands has prevailed. This we should all celebrate. Yet I leave you with these questions to which, I should stress, I offer no answers. Has the vindication of the rights of wives arrived too late? Is the institution of marriage on the way out? A steadily increasing number of people in the UK, currently almost six million, cohabit with members of the opposite sex otherwise than in marriage. In part this reflects a dramatic fall in the number of marriages: in 1968 463,000 marriages were celebrated in the UK but, by 2008, the figure had gone down to 273,000. Now that no social stigma attaches to a couple who live together without being married, nor to a child whose parents have never been married, what arguments in favour of marriage remain?”
Lord Wilson has long been one of my personal heroes. I have admired his work and sound judgements for years and earlier this year I was lucky enough to meet him in person. I asked him to sign a copy of the book written in honour of Prof Cretney to which he head contributed the introduction. He was kind enough to write that I was “.. a voice with such authority in the field of financial remedies”. It was high praise coming from such an accomplished and erudite man