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GUIDE: The principal registry is the place to search, with a D440 form - and help is at hand with this guide

It's a sad fact of Life that, besides records of marriages, our family histories are also peppered with those of divorce. But they can prove vital in tracing part of your family tree - says Anthony AdoLph

The act of divorce dissolves marriages, absolving the two people concerned from all of their marital obligations and leaving them free to marry again.

In 1531, Henry VIII separated from his wife, Catherine of Aragon. His ministers argued that his marriage was over and two years later, he married Anne Boleyn. Henry, excommunicated by the Pope, established the Church of England in which divorce, though frowned upon, was a possibility -in stark contrast to Catholicism.

The first non-royal divorce was that of John Manners, Lord Roos, in 1670. His wife had produced two children whose paternity was clearly not her husband's. Manners obtained an Act of Parliament declaring her children to be bastards, and obtained a second bill allowing him to marry again.

Between then and 1858, when divorce laws were reformed, a procedure for divorce became established. It was entirely geared up for men who wanted to dispose of their wives. Occasionally, women tried bringing similar actions: between 1830 and 1857, for example, four per cent of petitions were made by women. None succeeded.

First, the husband went to the local ecclesiastical court - that of the local archdeacon or bishop - whose records form the basis of our modern country record offices. Here, the husband sought a decree of divorce a mensa et thoro, 'separation from bed and board', which secured the Church of England's consent to the couple living apart. The husband then had to bring a civil action against

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