Divorce, or the dissolution of a marriage, is an institution which has existed for centuries. Although we may not realise it, there were hundreds of historical divorces which preceded the case of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, where a marriage was legally terminated – usually because the husband wished it so.
Until recent times, legal divorce was far less readily available to the general masses because of the costs it implied -travelling to court, paying for the legal expenses and so on-; the social and anti-religious stigma attached to marital problems also made divorce a very undesirable solution to a bitter and dysfunctional marriage. But despite these factors, divorce has existed in the civilised world ever since the time of the Ancient Athenian society. The Romans started to turn matrimony into a watertight institution where divorce was a rare alternative to an unhappy marriage, but Christianity gave marriage a moral taint which made divorce even rarer still. However, it was still there. Annulments -that is, the legal procedure whereby a marriage is declared null and void and is therefore regarded retroactively as never having taken place- was used by many Medieval monarchs who had lost interest in their wives or when other political alliances through matrimony seemed to be more advantageous to them. Problems usually arose when there were children involved, as the existence of issue could make matters difficult for the estranged parents. If the annulment went ahead, they risked making their child illegitimate, with grave consequences for the child’s eventual inheritance prospects.
Divorce was certainly rare in Spain eve before the times of the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, the parents of the unhappy Catherine of Aragon. The lack of methods to attain an ecclesiastical annulment for ordinary couples usually pushed the husband t osuddenly abandon his wife and children, never to be seen again (such was the case of my grandmother’s maternal grandmother, whose bigamous father left her and her mother to search for a better marital life in Argentina, where he sired a second family).
You may well imagine my surprise when, about a year ago, I stumbled across a document signed in 1840 which referred to the divorce of one of my 5x great-grandfather’s younger brothers. Ciprián de Lojo was born, like most of my ancestors on my great-grandmother’s side, in the tiny fishing village of Puerto del Son, in NW Spain, in 1785. His was a large family -he was the seventh child and sixth son out of his parents’ ten children- and I have no reason to believe that they were particularly wealthy or prosperous. By 1817 both his parents were dead and Ciprián may have turned to marriage for company and comfort. His wedding to Ignacia Sieira took place on 3rd August 1820 in the local parish church, and would have been attended by Ciprián’s numerous relatives, including his young niece Joaquina, my 4x great-grandmother, who died in her 90’s in 1908.
The marriage remained childless, and by 1840, two decades after the wedding took place, it had started to crumble. Neither husband nor bride wished to convey the reasons for their divorce when in September of that same year they both stated before the local public notary that they mutually wished to separate. The fact that they had no legitimate children made them sure of their irrevocable decision.
Everything seemed to be finalised between Ciprián and Ignacia, so you can imagine my surprise when less than two years later, in early 1842, Ciprián drew up his last will and testament and stated that he was still married to Ignacia Sieira. Reading further down, Ciprián declared that despite their mutual agreement to divorce, he and his wife had voluntarily decided to “fraternally” overlook their passed differences and resume their marital life; he then made her the sole benefactress of his small inheritance, being close to death. But the document reveals one further point of interest which could explain the whole sad history of my relatives’ divorce. Ciprián stated that, upon his wife’s death, the said possessions should go to a David Sieira. This David Sieira seems to have been the illegitimate son of a Manuela Sieira, herself the extramarital daughter of Ignacia Sieira by another man.
Could Manuela and David’s mere existence have embittered Ciprián and Ignacia’s marital relations over the years? If so, I can only imagine that Ciprián’s final illness may have forced him to reconsider his divorce plans as well as his animosity towards his wife’s illegitimate descendants. In a final effort to make a good gesture, he may have left them everything he had in this world, before entering the next.