What does Margaret, Duchess of Argyll’s story teach us about British divorce? A legal review of ‘A Very British Scandal’

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Home > Knowledge Hub > What does Margaret, Duchess of Argyll’s story teach us about British divorce? A legal review of ‘A Very British Scandal’

Whilst the now-infamous Argyll V Argyll divorce case took place nearly 60 years ago, the issues that arose from the 1963 court battle are still relevant by modern-day standard, which is exactly why the historical matter recently became the subject of a juicy, three-part BBC drama adaptation entitled ‘A Very British Scandal’. But what made this case so startling, and how does Margaret, Duchess of Argyll’s story reflect upon divorce in the present day?

In this, the first of our three-part blog series on this landmark case, we take a closer look at the scandalous court case between Margaret, Duchess of Argyll and her husband – the 11th Duke of Argyll Ian Campbell.

Who was Margaret, Duchess of Argyll in ‘A Very British Scandal’?

‘A Very British Scandal’ dramatizes the very real and extremely high-profile divorce of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, who obtained her status through her marriage to Ian Campbell – the 11th Duke of Argyll. It was an event that generated a media frenzy, much of which was focused on the Duchess and her alleged promiscuity.

The series makes it clear at the outset that we are heading for a bitterly contested divorce and one in which the Duchess is compelled to take the witness stand and answer questions about her behaviour during the marriage. But why?

Much of the interest at the time was driven by the fact that Margaret, Duchess of Argyll was a celebrity in her own right even before her marriage to the Duke, which took place in 1951. Born as Margaret Campbell into what was then known as ‘high society’, she was the daughter of Scottish millionaire and businessman George Hay Wigham and his wife Mary, growing up in New York before moving to the UK and making her debut at the age of 18.

Margaret was the perfect tabloid fodder for her day. Garnering much press coverage and rumour-mongering (she allegedly had an affair with actor David Niven that resulted in a pregnancy and a secret abortion) Margaret had already been engaged four times before she turned nineteen years old. These engagements involved Prince Aly Khan, the Earl of Warwick, the son of the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook and the married millionaire sportsman Glen Kidston.

During this period Margaret also gained notoriety for her penchant for blunt-talking and an unusually liberal attitude towards sex – namely that she was rather fond of it! This was considered deeply risqué and inappropriate for a woman of her era.

As well as being written and talked about, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll was much photographed at society events, always sporting her trademark three strings of pearls. It was her history, celebrity status and those very same strings of pearls which came back to haunt her during the divorce case itself…

Why was the ‘A Very British Scandal’ divorce so bitter?

Before marrying the Duke of Argyll, the Duchess was wedded to Charles Sweeney, a wealthy stockbroker. Although the marriage ended in divorce in 1947, the split was so amicable that the couple remained friends, likely, because both parties were independently wealthy going into and leaving the marriage.

On the face of it, the case in ‘A Very British Scandal’ was a hugely different beast. Finance, and the determination of one party to take as much as possible from the other, played a huge role in turning what might have been a relatively swift divorce case into the most expensive ever seen in the British courts at that time.

By the time the case reached court, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll and the Duke had been estranged for five years; both leading completely separate lives and suing and countersuing each other over a variety of both alleged and genuine grievances.

These claims included allegations that Margaret, Duchess of Argyll had faked documentary evidence purporting to demonstrate that the Duke’s children by a previous marriage were illegitimate, an accusation that the Duke was having an adulterous affair with his stepmother, and assertions that he had the Duchess’s car followed to monitor her movements.

During the earlier years of the marriage, the Duchess had poured large sums of her own money into restoring the Duke of Argyll’s ancestral home, Inveraray Castle. Her efforts had been bolstered by sums provided by her millionaire father, and this money was to play a part in the fall-out of the relationship ending and the bitterness of the divorce.

The case itself was finally prompted when the Duke filed for divorce in 1963, citing multiple cases of adultery on the part of the Duchess as his grounds. She could have agreed to the divorce, of course, given the Duke what he wanted and started over, but this was hardly Margaret, Duchess of Argyll’s style. She felt that his own behaviour – which included drunkenness, violence, and an addiction to prescription medication – was more than enough to counter-balance the arguments which he was bringing against her.

The fact that the resulting case cost huge amounts of money and badly damaged the reputations of both parties – with the Duchess coming off far worse in both aspects – illustrates to this day, just how much of a risk fighting a contested divorce represents.

How has divorce changed since the case shown in ‘A Very British Scandal’?

Thankfully, since the events portrayed in ‘A Very British Scandal’, there have been many developments in British law, court procedures and legal practices to help couples deal with their divorce as amicably as possible and minimise the risk of contested divorce being battled in court to the degree that it was between Margaret, Duchess of Argyll and her husband.

Changes to divorce laws within England and Wales this year will see the introduction of the ‘no fault’ divorce, meaning couples will no longer have to prove that that one party was to blame for the breakdown of a marriage to be granted a divorce.

Why is that important? To demonstrate how the law currently works compared to when the change passes, we will look at the case that inspired the change in law Owens v Owens [2018] UKSC 41, to get a better understanding of why this development is so significant.

Mrs Owens was seeking a divorce from her husband of 40 years due to a belief that the marriage had broken down irretrievably as a result of Mr Owen’s unreasonable behaviour. She petitioned for the divorce after leaving the family home in 2015, but Mr Owens contested the divorce.

At the initial hearing, the Family Court accepted that the marriage had broken down but refused to grant the divorce on the grounds that Mrs Owens had failed to satisfy the court that Mr Owens had behaved in a manner that rendered it unreasonable to expect her to carry on living with him. This arguably unfair – albeit legally sound – ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, creating a situation in which one party was trapped in a marriage that had to all practical intents and purposes, ended.

The result was that Mrs Owens had to wait for five years from the date of separation to finally end the marriage because if a couple has been separated for 5 years they do not need the other party’s consent for the divorce to proceed. At the time, there was already intense demand for reforms to the divorce law, but cases such as Mrs Owen’s compounded the situation.

Eventually, the impetus for change was boosted by the Supreme Court judgement which explicitly called for Parliament to ‘consider replacing a law which denies Mrs Owens a divorce in the present circumstances’.

Had this law existed during Margaret, Duchess of Argyll’s divorce, not only would she have been saved thousands in legal fees, but she would have been spared the humiliation of having those famed, intimate polaroid photographs cross examined by the courts. Although in some instances, parties may still choose to point the finger of blame rather than agreeing to pursue divorce on the basis of “no fault”, knowing Margaret’s character it is entirely possible she would have chosen the more contentious route. The change in the law does mean though, that there will be limited grounds to challenge the divorce such as fraud or coercion.

What are the new rules surrounding divorce?

The Divorce, Dissolution, and Separation Act 2020 finally comes into force on April 6th, 2022. In simple terms, this new law will make it possible for couples to agree to a ‘no fault’ divorce rather one party having to establish that the other is to blame for the irretrievable breakdown of the relationship.

This removes the need to cite grounds such as adultery (as Duke Ian Campbell claimed in order to obtain a divorce from Margaret, Duchess of Argyll), unreasonable behaviour, desertion, or to have a two-year separation if both parties agree to the divorce, or a five-year separation if one party doesn’t agree to the divorce.

In addition, if the statement of irretrievable breakdown is presented by only one party, the other party will have no right to contest the divorce, resulting in divorces taking up less court time than presently.

Changes will also be made to the language surrounding divorce. ‘Decree Nisi’ will become ‘Conditional Order’, while the ‘Decree Absolute’ will be known as the ‘Final Order’ and the ‘Petitioner’ will become the ‘Applicant’.

Another new feature will be the introduction of a minimum period of 20 weeks from the start of proceedings to the date of the Conditional Order. This is intended to offer both parties a chance to think carefully about whether divorce is right for them, although the period between the Conditional Order and the Final Order will remain at six weeks as it is currently.

These changes aim to simplify the procedure and foster a more constructive approach to the process, rather than one which hinges upon ‘blame’ like in the case of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll and Duke Ian Campbell. At the same time, hopes are that these new rules will encourage couples to focus more efforts on resolving vital issues such as finances, property, and children.

To conclude

It’s hard to imagine Margaret, Duchess of Argyll and her husband ever being able to reach an amicable agreement about anything, with their court case seemingly representing a chance for each to subject the other to as much humiliation as possible.

In our next blog, we’ll assess the battles at the heart of ‘A Very British Scandal’ in greater detail, whilst reviewing the risks involved of getting mired in a bitter and protracted divorce battle. We’ll also take a closer look at the kind of evidence that was used to incriminate and embarrass Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, how it was discovered and whether the same thing could happen today, before finally addressing the steps which high net worth individuals can now take to protect their assets should the worst happen.

Disclaimer: General Information Provided Only
Please note that the contents of this article are intended solely for general information purposes and should not be considered as legal advice. We cannot be held responsible for any loss resulting from actions or inactions taken based on this article.


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