Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Banished to the Far Country

by | May 14, 2012 | 13 comments

Banishment was best for the disposal of unwanted wives.

In the eighteenth century, divorce and separation were scandalous matters for men with ambition in the British Isles.  The next best thing, for the husband who discovered something objectionable in his wife, was banishment.

Rachel Chiesley, Lady Grange, (1679-1745) had been married for some time to her husband James Erskine, Lord Grange, a Scottish lawyer who aspired to more than just puttering about Edinbugh.  She discovered his affair with a coffee shop proprietress and threatened to expose his Jacobite sympathies, a matter that would have proved fatal to his dreams of advancement in a world dominated by English rule.  He had her kidnapped by a few Highland lairds looking for some cash and she was hidden away in a variety of places far removed from charted waters, including St. Kilda, where she occupied a cliet (stone storage hut resembling a large Christmas pudding) and a cave where she had to dig out snow from behind her head in the morning.  Her lawyer and other friends attempted to find her after her unexplained removal from Edinburgh, but oddly enough, none of her nine children pursued the matter.  Search parties were sent, but their purpose was foiled.  Her husband was ruthless in his endeavor.   She died thirteen years later, presumably from exposure, all rescue attempts having been blocked.

Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville and the man who would one day be the first Scotsman to serve in the British cabinet, received a letter from his wife.  She had been a mere fifteen years of age when they married, her fortune a castle and one hundred thousand pounds.  During their marriage it was the custom for her to remain in the country having babies while he pursued his political dreams in Edinburgh.  She was a nobody, the daughter of a man who made his money in trade.  But this letter had given him the means to keep her money and wipe his hands of her sordid merchant background once and for all.  She admitted she had been indiscreet, with one Captain Fawkner.

“I know not what time and business may do, but at present I feel nothing on my mind but a settled gloom and melancholy.”  —  Lord Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville

Five days later, after writing this epistle of outrage, Lord Melville obtained his divorce.  He made certain his former wife was moved away–the far country being England.  She married her gallant captain, but a military man’s stipend was insufficient to keep a woman in the customary fashion she had been used to.  She was reduced to begging her former husband for money, ironically hers.  To add insult to injury, she and her captain had to vacate their home in Berkeley Square.  Lord Melville was coming to London–he had been elevated to the cabinet of William Pitt the Younger, and a divorced wife’s presence in the capital was an embarrassment.  She made for Paris, an unfortunate choice given the Reign of Terror and had to be rescued by friends to settle in Cornwall.  She lived until the age of ninety-seven, forgotten even by her own children.

Her great-grandson was surprised to find, upon the death of his father, a small annuity was being paid out of the Melville estate to one Mrs. Fawkner in Cornwall.

Who the devil is that? he wondered.


  1. Nancy

    The men used the fear of spurious children as the grounds for the severity of treatment for an erring wife. The punishment was severe in an attempt to make wives afraid to misbehave.
    I do believe in marriage but don’t like double standards.
    Still, much depended on the character of the husband.There were families that stayed together though few of the wife’s children were the husband’s.
    When parliament granted a divorce they set the amount of alimony a wife could receive. Little sympathy was given to an erring wife.
    I do think it a tragedy that the children never sought out their mother when adults, but they could have been told she was dead, or have had her sins so emphasized to them that they didn’t want to see one who had destroyed their family.

    • Angelyn

      I think you must be right about the children being kept ignorant of the true state of affairs. And it did depend on the husband’s personality in many cases. You can almost feel Dundas’ seething ambition and ruthlessness from the contemporary accounts which blamed him for obstructing the abolition of the slave trade. Thanks for commenting

  2. Sandy Rowland

    Throttle these men!
    Thank goodness women fare better in the current age.
    It gives more understanding for the fear women felt in entering marriage, left to their husband’s good will. It makes the women’s movement, and the opportunity to work, a clear improvement.

    Thank you for the post.

    • Angelyn

      Precisely! Throttle them, I say!

      Thanks for stopping by, Sandy.

  3. Ella Quinn

    They would probably have been told their mother was dead. True story, my maternal grandfather’s parents were divorced and he was told his mother had died. It was not until he was an adult that a woman walked up to him and introduced herself as his mother.

    • Angelyn

      Oh, what a terrible story, Ella. I can just think of the child’s suffering being reopened all over again. It is a pity we still see so much of that today.

  4. Callie Hutton

    Wow. Amazing at what husbands could get away with. Unfortunately, even today in some cultures, a woman could be hidden away.

    • Angelyn

      Or worse. Your observation is so very true and, in a way, haunting. Thanks for commenting, Callie.

  5. Nancy

    A wife who was legally separated from her husband was abducted by him and hidden away. Her friends went to court and got a court order for him to produce her alive and well. She was fortunate.
    wives could testify against their husbands in two cases– when they asked for a legal seapratin and when they made them take out a peace bond not to disturn the peace by assaulting them. This wasn’t often done but even peers could be brought to court to answer why he had violated a bind to keep the peace. The trouble was that most wives didn’t know about such measures or were afraid to go after them, or didn’t have the support of family and friends . Sad but true, families and friends would prefer that the woman endure physical restraint an injury than that she should cause a scandal by taking her husband to court. It is still that way. Despite the progress that has been made in how domestic violence is seen, there are those who blame the vicitm and those who are ashamed to confess it.
    18th century Lady ferrers was described as being meek and non-confrontational, modest, chaste and the pattern card of perfection as a wife. She had to appeal to the House of Lords three times to be allowed to separae from her husband.She feared for her life. They rightfully told her that separations were the business of the ecclesiastical courts. Her reply was that her husband had no fear of excommunication and so wouldn’t pay any attention to that court. Friends and family supported her plea until it was granted. Not a divorce, just the right to live apart from her husband. She got out in time because he killed a man shortly thereafter. The money alloted to her, etc. were safe from the forfeiture laws. She married again later and I believe happily.
    I wonder what happened to the husband whose wife died of neglect and starvation?
    The sister of Caroline, Princess of Wales was said to have been sent away in Russia( her husband was a diplomat there) to a distant castle by Catherine the Great– with the husband’s agreement, of course. Her body was found some years later– she too starved to death.

    • Angelyn Schmid

      abduction: fascinating. Was it someone famous?

      Lady Ferrers: I’ve heard of that one, but not in so much detail as you’ve given. I hope she did find her happily ever after.

      Lord Grange: apparently he did eventually marry his long-time companion, the coffee-house proprietress, once he had heard about Lady Grange’s death. His connections with Jacobite Highlanders were instrumental in Lady Grange’s repeated evacuations from prison to prison

      I didn’t know about that re: Princess Caroline’s sister. How appalling.

      Thank you for adding those details.

  6. Barbara Bettis

    I find it just incredible people couldn/can be so cruel to each other! And prosper, at that. These stories were incredibly sad.But thanks for sharing them.

    • Angelyn Schmid

      These historical events certainly provide perspective, don’t they?

      Thanks for stopping by, Barbara.

  7. Ally Broadfield

    Wretched men. How convenient to not have to suffer the consequences of one’s actions.



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