Chapter 7 : Getting Divorced

Divorce, as a concept, did not exist before the Reformation. If you did not want to be married to your spouse any more, you had to prove that the marriage had never been valid in the first place and persuade the Church to annul the union. To do this you would have to show one of the following grounds:

  • a lack of consent;
  • a level of consanguinity or affinity that had not been properly dispensed;
  • a pre-contract by one party to someone else;
  • non-consummation; or
  • that one of the parties was insane at the time of the marriage. 

The whole area was rich seam of gold for the canon lawyers. Most people were too poor to go through the legal hoops necessary, but it was a fairly common practice amongst royalty and nobility. There were a couple of other options:

  • if a spouse joined a convent or monastery, the other could remarry – used by Louis XII of France to cast off his first wife and grab the heiress Anne of Brittany; or
  • you could persuade the local bishop to give you a separation from bed and board. You were still married, and could not marry anyone else, but you were permitted to live apart.

To protect the position of the children of annulled marriages, if one at least of the parents had contracted the marriage in good faith, and through a Church marriage with banns called, the children were usually deemed legitimate by the Church court and often by secular courts. Nevertheless, uncertainty over their status could affect their inheritance rights and often did so, if there were important estates at stake.