The 18th century divorce between the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort was a battle of phenomenal proportions. They both came from wealthy families, and their marriage was more or less arranged before they were even born. They had tried to have children during the first ten years of their marriage but were unsuccessful. Their relationship became strained and they began drifting apart.
The Beauforts owned several homes, so he just began staying at one place and she at another. Before long the Duchess began an affair with Lord Talbot. They had lots in common, including the fact that both of their spouses were in poor health and unable to satisfy their sexual needs. The Duchess’ affair with Talbot lasted several years, and they even had a child together.
The Duchess wasn’t very discreet, and it was not unusual for the servants to walk into the kitchen or dining room and catch her and the Lord in very compromising positions. (The Duchess considered it absolutely inappropriate to bring another man into the marital bedroom.)
About three years after the marriage began breaking down, Duke Beaufort grew tired of being the town clown and filed for a divorce. The Duchess’ trail of indiscretions and the mounting evidence of her adultery made the Duke believe the separation was all but a formality. But, he underestimated the Duchess; she wasn’t going down without a fight. She filed a counterclaim alleging that he was impotent and had been unable to consummate their marriage. Since she had a child with Talbot, the burden was on Beaufort to prove that he could perform his husbandly duties. That was easier said than done.
He first tried to establish his virility by having his maids testify to seeing stains and marks on his and his wife’s beds sheets. However, on cross-examination the maids were forced to admit that they did not know whether the stains came from a man or a woman and that the Duke might have stimulated the Duchess through other forms of sexual manipulation.
The Duke was then forced to submit to a virility test. He had to choose between two tests. The first would have required him to masturbate until he ejaculated. He was given six attempts and was allowed to pick the time and place. Two doctors had to feel the intensity of the erection to determine whether it was sufficient to support penal penetration and then testify in court about their conclusions. The other test would have required him to have sex with a prostitute in the presence of several doctors and attorneys. The record is not clear what test the Duke chose, but whichever one it was, he passed and the court ruled in his favor.
Under current North Carolina law, impotence is not grounds for divorce. North Carolina is a no-fault divorce state which means either party may petition the court for divorce after they have lived separate and part for one year. However, impotence, if diagnosed by a doctor, may be grounds for annulment.
Excerpt from Divorces from Hell Copyright (c) 1995 by Jacqueline D. Stanley
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