Wife-beating was both widely tolerated and sanctioned by law in 18th-century England. Yet the ordeal suffered by Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, at the hands of her husband so shocked Georgian sensibilities that she not only won landmark legal battles but her husband was banished to prison.
Marital violence is as old as marriage itself. In Georgian England, husbands were legally entitled to strike their wives in order to ‘correct’ their conduct so long as moderation was the watchword. One judge, Francis Buller, even went so far as to specify that a husband could beat his wife with a stick so long as it was no thicker than his thumb, earning himself the nickname ‘Judge Thumb’ in satirical prints for his wisdom.
But even when domestic abuse far exceeded such nice distinctions, wives enjoyed little recourse to the law. The torment endured by Mary Eleanor Bowes was among the most extreme.
A wealthy young widow, Mary was tricked in 1777 into marrying an Irish fortune-hunter, Andrew Robinson Stoney, who faked a duel to win her hand. Squandering her wealth, Stoney – who changed his name to Bowes – beat Mary with sticks, whips and candlesticks, tore out her hair, burned her face and threatened her with knives.
Terrified for her life, after eight years of torture Mary fled the marital home and embarked on audacious legal suits to win a divorce, reclaim her fortune and obtain custody of her children. Her divorce case in the church courts on grounds of adultery and cruelty, backed by courageous eye-witness accounts from servants, was one of only a handful of successful cases initiated by women when first resolved in 1786.
But her ordeal was far from over. Horrified that he might lose his fortune, her husband kidnapped Mary from a London street in a desperate bid to force her to rescind her case. Dragging her across snow-covered moors, Bowes threatened Mary with a pistol and with rape. Eventually rescued after eight days, Mary went on to win her divorce through two appeal stages as well as reclaiming her property and her children, while Bowes spent the rest of his life in jail for what The Times described as ‘a detail of barbarity that shocks humanity and outrages civilisation’.
When Mary died, in 1800, she asked for the blindfolded figure of Justice to stand guard at her tomb. But it would be nearly another century before women earned even minimal protection against abusive husbands.
Wendy Moore is author of Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore and The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery.
Wendy Moore, Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore (Crown, 2009).
Jennifer Ramkalawon, Love and Marriage (British Museum Press, 2009).
Elizabeth Foyster, Marital Violence (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Image: “Judge Thumb or, Patent Sticks for Family Correction: Warranted Lawful!” (1782) Courtesy of the British Museum.