Search This Blog

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

How to End a Marriage in Sixteenth Century England

                                                                                               By Carol Pratt Bradley

While writing my 16th century novel about historical figure Anne Askew, Fire of the Word, I reviewed the written summaries of her life. Many of the discussions centered on Anne’s efforts to obtain a divorce from her husband, citing her contemporary King Henry VIII’s marriages as an example. My research took me into the marriage customs of that time period. Turns out, severing a marriage tie during that time was very different from what we know in ours. 
According to 16th century English law, a marriage could be dissolved only if it could be proven that the marriage was not a legal union. The criteria were: if the marriage partners were too close in kinship, if the marriage was never consummated, if either partner was under the age of consent, or if either partner had already contracted to someone else previous to the marriage.
                When Henry VIII wanted to dissolve his marriages to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, he sought for an annulment. In Catherine’s case, he sought to prove that his marriage to her was invalid according to biblical law, which forbade a man to marry his brother’s widow. To rid himself of Anne of Cleves, he claimed that the marriage had never been consummated. In his efforts to rid himself of wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, Henry accused them of adultery, and had them executed. Contrary to modern interpretations, he did not end any of his four marriages by divorce.
But what if you were not a king and sought to end a marriage? You did not have many options.
In the case of an annulment, matters became complicated. If the marriage were annulled in the courts, the wife would lose her dower rights, in the event that she became a widow, which included the right to typically one third of the property owned by her husband. Plus, any offspring of the marriage were declared illegitimate (as in the case of Henry’s daughters by Anne Boleyn, Mary and Elizabeth). This would make life very difficult for a woman and her children.
In Anne Askew’s case, at age fifteen her father had forced her to marry Anne’s dead sister’s fiancé. When her husband cast her out of his house for her Protestant beliefs, she sought for legal grounds to end her marriage and found little to help her case. In order for the courts to dissolve her marriage, she could not claim to be under the age of consent, (which was age twelve), and since she had born two children, the marriage had certainly been consummated. She was not too close in kinship to her husband Thomas Kyme, or had previously consented to marry someone else.
The best Anne could do was to seek from the courts “a divorce from bed and board.” In this case, the couple remained legally married but were permitted to live apart. The wife could keep her dower rights and any offspring remained legitimate. But neither partner was free to marry again.
If I had simply accepted modern interpretations that Anne had sought to obtain a divorce, I would have been mistaken. Knowing these historical facts enabled me to more accurately portray the circumstances of her life.

Carol Pratt Bradley is a historical novelist with an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. She has three novels from WiDo Publishing:

Light of the Candle 2015
Fire of the Word 2016
Waiting for the Light 2017

Available on Amazon and WiDo Publishing's website

No comments: