Dissolution of Marriage

Boxgrove Priory

Boxgrove Priory

Painful though it is for someone whose novels always have a Happy Ever After ending (I don’t think I’m giving anything away there), I have to conclude the short series on betrothal and marriage with a post on the dissolution of marriages.

Whilst it was normal for a marriage to continue until one of the parties died, marriages could end in a variety of ways.

An acceptable end to a marriage was for both parties to agree to enter the religious life. The husband would become a monk and the wife a nun. Things were obviously less satisfactory if only one of them wanted this. They were even less satisfactory if one of them (the husband) used it as a means of shutting the other away. This was usually done so that a mistress could be installed in the wife’s place, often in the hope of being able to marry the mistress later. Since the husband concerned had to be fairly powerful to achieve this, it was not something to be feared by all women.

What we would call a separation could also take place, but it was not necessarily straightforward. These would usually occur because of adultery or cruelty. Except for the very poorest, a marriage would involve a transfer of property. The bride’s family would have provided a dowry, which was given to the groom. If she and her husband no longer wished to live together, some arrangement had to be made about the dowry. Should the whole thing be returned to the bride’s family? Should the groom keep part of it? If the dowry was a cow, for example, should any offspring go to the bride’s family? Should any go to her children? Clearly, a third party would have to make a decision and this could be expensive. Sometimes the separation was less formal, but either way, neither party could marry again. Marriage was indissoluble. They might not be living together, but they were still married to one another.

There was only one option for a man who wished to marry again. It was usually the man who wanted to follow this course and it would be because he wanted an heir, or, in the case of Phillippe II of France, because something (unknown) went terribly wrong on the wedding night. In order for another marriage to take place the existing marriage had to be annulled, which meant both parties would be single again, as if the marriage had not taken place.

Marriages could be annulled for very few reasons. The marriage might be annulled because it was not valid in the first place. This would apply where the marriage was bigamous or where one of the couple was too young to marry. For poorer people, bigamy was the most common reason for an annulment. Among the aristocracy the most frequently used reason was consanguinity, i.e. the couple were so closely related to one another that their marriage was really incest. Eleanor of Aquitaine requested an annulment of her marriage to Louis VII of France for this reason. This was originally opposed by her husband, but he gave way after they had a second daughter. They had been married for fifteen years and there were no sons. Shortly after the annulment was granted by the pope, Eleanor married the future Henry II, to whom she was just as closely related.


I’ve been asked, more than once, to reveal my sources, as it were.  I shall try to remember to do so. Here they are for this post:

Unmarriages by Ruth Mazo Karras

Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies



Filed under Medieval Marriage

18 responses to “Dissolution of Marriage

  1. Absolutely fascinating and a good read, as always. I must admit I hadn’t considered the nunnery option; don’t think the ex would have gone for that 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It sounded a rather a complicated process, especially where the dowry was concerned. I would certainly not fancy the nunnery option, that’s for sure! This was a very interesting read, thank you for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Marriage (Western European style) always seems to have been easier to get into than out of.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was and I’m beginning to understand why. There’s the religious side, but there’s also the contract side. Once you have exchange of property at the same time, things become complicated.


      • They do. When people began to negotiate and draw up quite detailed marriage contracts, they covered what happened to property in the case of death. I assume that by then religious antipathy to divorce meant no-one was prepared to consider the possibility even of separation.

        It’s always surprised me that pre-nuptial agreements fell out of fashion, though they do seem to be making a comeback. Pre-nups with an agreed division of property in case of divorce would have prevented a lot of grief.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much, April. This was fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ali Isaac

    A very interesting glimpse into the past, April! Things sure were complicated in the old days! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Church Courts | A Writer's Perspective

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