Age, we’re often told, is just a number—which means it’s subject to the same creative accounting as any other number. Charles Villiers—a distant relative of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall—now knows this to his great, great cost. In the latest twist in the Tarantino-grade separation saga that has so intrigued English society, the former magazine publisher has claimed that his estranged wife of nearly two decades diddled her own age to the tune of five years—costing him a larger litter in the process.
In Dickens’s Bleak House, the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce comes to satirize the groaning intractability of the Victorian legal system, where original disputes snowball into a sticky mass of paperwork and ill will, where petty grievances are strung out for generations, and where nobody wins and everybody loses (except, it should be said, for the lawyers). In England’s divorce courts, the case of Villiers and Villiers is currently giving all that a bloody good run for its money—not that there’s any of the stuff left.
It all started in 2014, when Charles Villiers filed for divorce in the Scottish Courts after 18 years of marriage. His estranged wife, Emma Villiers, who was living in London, then filed for maintenance support in the English court system—kicking off a cross-border legal wrangling that has metastasized beyond all recognition, and sucked in more than a dozen judges along the way.
At the end of 2020, the six-year battle took a dramatic turn when Charles accused Emma of bigamy, claiming she was already married on their wedding day, and citing “compelling” evidence that this mystery man was still alive. Police in Scotland swiftly investigated the allegation, for which there is a two-year maximum sentence under Scottish law—only to find that “no crime was identified” whatsoever.
Cue a rapid pride-swallowing from Charles, who went on the record to say how “it now transpires that my wife is not a bigamist.” A source close to the saga told The Times of London that “if that is not wasting police time I don’t know what is” and how, “in the middle of a pandemic, officers were diverted to trawling through old divorce papers in response to claims that were entirely false.”
But Charles had another trick up his sleeve. Unperturbed by the foundering of the first ruse, he has now accused Emma of shaving five years off her age when they married, in 1994. The estranged husband claims that he thought Emma was 35 at that time, and that this was the age recorded on their marriage certificate. He says he has since discovered, however, that her age was previously submitted as 30 on the occasion of her earlier marriage, a decade before, in 1984—making her 40 on their own big day. Her older age, he now alleges, scuttled his chances of having more children—a tension that became a “corrosive” influence in their family life. Emma has not responded to this allegation about her age.
The six-year battle took a dramatic turn when Charles accused Emma of bigamy.
As Charles told The Times, “I couldn’t understand what the ‘problem’ conceiving additional children was. Now I know. I’m left in the situation that my wife might still try to claim millions of pounds off me, solely owing to the fact that we were married when, arguably, she married me under false pretences, as I believed she was in her thirties, not in her forties in 1994, almost past child-bearing.”
“Most of my friends were in their thirties at the time, with wives of a similar age, and additional children kept appearing for them,” he added.
Red flags might have been raised earlier, Charles now reflects. “My wife didn’t seem to want either her ostensible 40th, 45th or 50th birthdays celebrated—so neither were celebrated with any kind of party, nor with any relations or friends of hers. Bit bizarre that, looking back.”
Charles, who is related to the Duchess of Cornwall through his mother’s side, is said to have a right to a slice of the nearly $5 million trust fund accrued by the aristocratic family. Before the separation, he and Emma lived with their only daughter in a handsome Georgian mansion in Dumbarton, in western Scotland, with its very own loch.
But that fortune has since been obliterated by the Sisyphean legal proceedings, which are the “product of exceptionally strong mutual antipathy,” according to one judge involved in the hearings. Mr. Justice Mostyn, of London’s High Court, tried his best to sum up the brutal badminton of the divorce—before concluding that it was all likely moot as no one had any money left anyway. “This has been a case where love has to hatred turned to an extraordinary degree,” he said. “The husband has vented his spleen by alleging that the wife is a bigamist. The husband has accused the wife of being a fraudster, a fantasist and generally useless,” said Mostyn.
“I’m left in the situation that my wife might still try to claim millions of pounds off me, solely owing to the fact that we were married.”
“The wife, with some justification, has accused the husband of being dishonest, manipulative, vindictive and bullying,” he said—before turning his critique to Emma. “She has conducted her pursuit of the husband in this litigation in a completely disproportionate manner,” Mostyn concluded, “and has wilfully blinded herself to the reality that the vast amounts of inherited funds that she believes the husband has at his disposal are, in fact, a chimera.”
Mostyn meant the word, presumably, in the modern sense: the chimera as a maddening fantasy that will never be realized. But the other meaning—of a mythical, fire-breathing, all-devouring snake-lion monster that sets light to absolutely everything in its path—might be just as applicable.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for Air Mail