The decision to release Thornton, pending her appeal, follows the freeing of two other women jailed for the murders of their violent partners.
It comes after an increasingly forceful series of calls from senior members of the judiciary and women's rights groups to abandon the compulsory life sentence for murder, so that judges can take into account the special circumstances when battered women resort to violence.
Last night Thornton walked out of Holloway prison in north London with her hands in the air and waved to a crowd of waiting supporters and well- wishers. As she left the gates, she shouted up to prisoners: "I love you."
She said: "I know what my grounds are and I know what my case is. I was hoping that I would be released today.
"Holloway is overcrowded and there is not enough staff - it is very, very bad. But I am very relieved, it is hard to believe it after so long. It has been a long afternoon and I am tired. I am going to have something to eat, probably some fruit."
Before being driven off by her solicitor, Gareth Peirce, she said she was confident she would win her appeal. Earlier in a statement, Mr Peirce said: "Mrs Thornton is very pleased to have been granted bail. The primary consideration that was focused upon in her application for bail was the strength of her arguments on appeal.''
Bail was granted at a brief private hearing before the Court of Appeal judge, Mr Justice Sachs. Her case has been referred back to the Court of Appeal by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary. The hearing is expected in the autumn. Mr Howard had refused a fresh appeal almost two years ago, but changed his mind after new representations, which included new eye- witness accounts of the violence inflicted upon her by her husband.
Thornton, 38, of Atherstone, Warwickshire, stabbed her husband Malcolm in the stomach with a kitchen knife in June 1989 as he lay on the sofa at their home recovering from a drinking bout. She was sentenced to life imprisonment at Birmingham Crown Court in February 1990. Her case was taken up by women's rights campaigners who regarded it as a test case for battered wives.
Mr Thornton's sister, Jean Murray, who has always claimed he was not violent, said she was "totally disgusted" at the release. "The whole of Malcolm's family feels let down and disappointed with British justice," she said. "I don't believe Sara Thornton was a battered wife, certainly not to the extent that it warranted a killing."
The Justice for Women group, which has supported Thornton's case, said it was extremely pleased at the court's "humane approach ... a brave and robust decision".
Thornton's original appeal against conviction was dismissed by the Court of Appeal in 1991. Three judges refused to hold that the murder conviction was "unsafe and unsatisfactory" or that it should be reduced to manslaughter because of provocation prior to the killing.
The court held that Thornton could not advance provocation as a defence, despite sustained domestic violence, because there had been no "sudden and temporary loss of self-control".
Two other women were recently freed in similar cases. Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who burned her husband to death after 10 years of brutality, had her murder conviction overturned in 1992 after it accepted her guilty plea to a manslaughter. Earlier this month, Emma Humphreys, who had spent more than 10 years in prison after being convicted of murdering her brutal boyfriend, was freed.Reuse content