In 1752 William married Catherine Wharton (1730?-1794), the daughter of a mayor of Durham. As was reported in Read’s Weekly Journal Or British Gazetteer (London, England), Saturday, February 8, 1752: ‘Last Monday was married William Ettrick of High Barnes …
William was about 26 years old. He obtained a fine wife, it would appear, at marriage. After all, the young Catherine was a beauty, and her portion was substantial as the announcement of their wedding in the newspaper noted: she brought a ‘large fortune’, and her social status was solid.
William was even more blessed. In the same year he wed, his father died and he came into his inheritance. This was typical timing for a gentleman, for the two major life-cycle events combined well: a wife brought property and cash with her, in the form of a portion (previously known as a dowry), which enabled a husband to fund his newly owned property. Some men refurbished their house, and others like William paid off a mortgage.
So William was now entering the prime of his life: master of himself, his wife, his servants and his property. What could go wrong?
Well according to Catherine, everything did. We know this because after thirteen years of marriage she reached her personal breaking point and in 1765 sued William for separation on the grounds of cruelty at Durham Consistory Court. In this period, divorce with remarriage was impossible. Couples could obtain a decree to live apart from the ecclesiastical courts, on the grounds of either adultery or cruelty. If a wife could prove that her husband was cruel (the legal definition for acts that went beyond legitimate correction) then she could live separate and have maintenance granted.
Some cases went through the courts relatively quickly, or were abandoned when terms were agreed. The Ettricks’ case did not; it lingered in the courts for years. William defended his behaviour and in turn the case was appealed to York and then to the Court of Delegates. My account comes from these astoundingly detailed written legal documents. They began when Catherine’s Proctors presented her Libel which set out her case in numbered, detailed articles. They continued as William responded, point by point. Their servants, friends, family, and even their daughter were called as witnesses.
When you read them, you might see Catherine as a long-suffering woman, something of a victim. Maybe she was. BUT you must remember that to leave her husband and accuse him of cruelty was an immense – almost catastrophic move – on Catherine’s part. To sue William, she had to leave him, but more agonising, she had to leave her children with him, because ALL fathers had automatic custody of their children. It was only in 1839 that the marvelous Caroline Norton’s vocal campaign successfully obtained custody of infants for their mothers.
Then Catherine had to employ legal representatives: proctors, and such cases were even heard in the diocesan court itself. In this case Durham Cathedral.
Catherine was certainly desperate, yes, but she also had immense courage as you will come to see.