Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Question from Claudia - Dispensations needed to marry god-children or step-children, etc.

When you married in the sixteenth century, your husband's sister became your sister, rather than your sister-in-law, and any relationship would therefore be considered incestuous and require a dispensation (if I understand it correctly).

Was this the same for your goddaughter, stepbrother etc.? Could you marry them or would you need a dispensation? Is the answer different depending on whether it was before or during the Reformation? I am interested in the time of Henry VIII. Thank you very much.


PhD Historian said...

I am not an expert on canon law, which governed marriage in the UK up to the 19th century (at which time it became a matter of civil law), but yes, there was a difference before and after the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. Prior to the Reformation, issues of consanguinity (degree of relation) and "diriments of marriage" (impediments to marry) were determined by Roman Catholic canon law as it had been established by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Persons related within the fourth degree under canon computation were forbidden to marry, and relation could be determined both by blood and what is legally called "affinity." The marriage of step-brothers and sisters was prohibited under canon law by an impediment of relation in that the parents having had "carnal knowledge" of each other, each parent became related to the entire family of the opposite parent. So technically, even step-third-cousins could not marry. An impediment of affinity might be created by illicit intercourse (having sex with any person to whom one is not married, regardless of whether or not the two persons involved were married to anyone else), regardless of whether or not the act resulted in children. Thus if Henry VIII ever had sex with Mary Boleyn, his later marriage to her sister Anne was illegal under Roman Catholic canon law because there existed a first degree diriment of marriage by impediment of affinity.

Dispensations were often granted by the Roman Catholic Church in cases of consanguinity and diriments of marriage, especially when high-level political motivations (what canon law calls "the welfare of the social order") for the marriage existed. But dispensations could not violate "natural law," so brother can never marry sister, nor can any two people in direct lineal descent (i.e., father-daughter, mother-son, grandparent-grandchild, etc.). And different popes approached the issue differently. Some were quite liberal in granting dispensations while others almost never granted them.

I have done a brief search of my materials on canon law as it relates to godparents (called "sponsors" in canon law) without finding any mention of whether or not a godparent relationship affects consanguinity and diriments of marriage.

After the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, the Church of England rejected all Roman Catholic canon law, especially that produced by councils, e.g., the Fourth Lateran Council mentioned above. Marriage law was thereafter derived directly from Levitical law, or the law as it is described in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. Marriage was prohibited within the
third degree as it is determined by civil (as different from canon) computation. That is, a man may not marry his aunt, but he may marry his aunt's daughter (his own first cousin). Dispensations are not possible under Levitical law.

Issues of consanguinity and affinity are enormously complex. Even the calculation of degrees of relation, whether by canon or civil computation, requires charts and tables and is not as straight-forward as one might think. But I do hope that the above has answered most of your initial question, even it if raises still more questions.

kb said...

I strongly recommend David Cressy's book "Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-cycle in Tudor and Stuart England"

He has a section on godparents and parents. Unfortunately I don't have a copy but you might try for a used copy on ABEBooks, or a good university library.