Monday, December 08, 2008

Question from Colleen - Grounds for annulment

I'm back...thanks for the answers on Mary I's death. My question now regards marriage - particularly, basis for annullments. This may sound farfetched (although you'll have to excuse me, as it happens in the book I'm writing) but say a commoner was raised to believe he was nobility. He marries an earl's daughter, the union is consummated, and then he discovers that he's really the child of some household servants, not nobility after all. Could there be grounds for an annullment? Keep in mind this character isn't very important politically and would therefore have no pull with Rome. This might seem silly but it's a very important plot point for me and I want to make sure I get it right before wasting my time writing thousands of words that might have to be trashed. Thanks!

17 comments:

Kathy said...

Does it have to be the child of the servants who annuls the marriage?

I would think the Earl would want the marriage invalidated more than anyone else and he would have some pull with Rome.

In any case, I think the easiest way out is to use pre-contract. That's what happened to Anne Boleyn with her first love, Henry Percy. His family suddenly remembered he was pre-contracted to somebody else and had him immediately married off.

Bearded Lady said...

You could condemn the earl’s daughter as a witch. That is certainly grounds for annulment. But a little messy. I think Kathy’s suggestion works the best. Pre-contract is an old standby to get rid of your wife. Henry used it with Anne of Cleves.

Better yet….why not just toss the wife off a bridge? That will get rid of her! Problem solved.

Haha this is why I could never write fiction.

Foose said...

I think your characters might be able to get an annulment on the canonical grounds of "lack of free consent," which covers "mistake in the identity of one of the parties."

Colleen said...

Thanks for the suggestions! Unfortunately, it's sticky because they are my hero and heroine so, going by the rules of historical romance, they have to end up together despite his attempt to annul it (and yes, plot-wise, it has to be him that does it). And that rules out killing her as well ;-) He doesn't want to get rid of her, because he loves her, but he wants to give her what he thinks she deserves - such as a husband of equal rank. Anyway, I realize this isn't my writing critique group so I'll back off of the plot summary. Thanks for the help, and I'm off to research "lack of free consent"!

PhD Historian said...

I agree completely with Foose: marriage contracts among the wealthy often involved oaths. Swearing an oath under false pretenses, including false identity, nullified the oath and voided the contract. And it could easily be construed that the bride was not able to give free consent if she did not know who she was marrying.

PhD Historian said...

Colleen, since you are a writer of fiction, perhaps you can answer a question that has always nagged at me. Why are some fiction writers concerned about being so very precise on a small matter of detail (e.g., points of obscure canon law related to marriage) while simultaneously constructing a plot line that contradicts everything we know about Tudor-era society? It just seems to me to be vastly inconsistent. Why "sweat the details" if the big picture so "far-fetched," as you put it?

I'm just trying to understand the glaring inconsistency.

Brynhild said...

PhD Historian - I'm also a writer of fiction (though I most of my historical fiction is based upon actual figures, and thus this problem of "far-fetching" overall plots is void, as they are already written in the annals of history) and I think this is all a result of inspiration.

Once an idea pops into a writer's head, the impulse to write it down is nigh irresistible. Thus, even a "far-fetched" plotline comes into existence. However, the writer has an overall desire to do justice to the history, hence "sweating the details." As the details were not conceived in the initial moment of inspiration, they remain to be written, so the writer retreats to historical context.

Also, when one has created a plotline, one does not necessarily stop to analyze how accurate it may or may not be, before one tells others of it. Rather, in the haze of inspiration, the writer thinks, "Brilliant! A plot!" and moves forward with the project. It is entirely possible that the writer is completely unaware that the plotline may be "far-fetched" until sitting down to tell outside readers of it.

I hope that made sense!

Marilyn R said...

Consanguinity (being too closely related), or a pre-contract to someone else usually did the trick. Richard III had the Princes in the Tower declared illegitimate and disinherited because their father, Edward IV, had apparently been betrothed to Lady Eleanor Talbot (later Butler) before he married Elizabeth Woodville.

Foose said...

I think you could also get an annulment if your spouse was a heretic, although I haven't read of any actual cases. I don't know when your story is set, but Anabaptists were popular objects of execration in the 16th century -- Catholics and Protestants both hated them.

You could also get a marriage annulled if one of the spouses entered religion (the Pope tried this with Catherine of Aragon, but she declined). Maybe your hero could voluntarily enter religion to free his wife; then, when the monasteries are dissolved under Henry VIII, he could apply to the new Anglican authorities to be released from his vows.

Impotence is also a valid reason, but perhaps inappropriate for a romantic novel. Catherine of Aragon's half-uncle Henry the Impotent got his first marriage dissolved on these grounds, with some witchcraft charges thrown in as well.

Colleen said...

Brynhild has answered the question better than I could have, but that's exactly it. I can only speak for myself, but I've been working on this story for over a year because it came to me in a flash of inspiration and I haven't been able to let it go. I suppose it could have been set in any period of history, but something told me it belonged in Tudor-era England - specifically, late Mary/early Elizabeth. And I don't see my plot as being completely inconceivable for Tudor times but you'll have to take my word for it, since it's far too much to put here!

Of course I can't speak for Philippa Gregory or the man who writes the scripts for "The Tudors" episodes or anyone else, but I actually enjoy doing the research and seeing that those details go into my work. And I also find that readers who pick up a story set in Tudor England usually have an interest in it and know some information already, but also crave the drama and story that comes from a slight tweaking of details and characters that go completely against the grain.

Anonymous said...

Running with the idea of consanguinity -- What if the husband's mother was the servant to the Earl? Then He might say that there is some chance that he is in fact the illigitimate son of the Earl, making his wife his half sister. That would constitute an annulment and a scandal. Or maybe his supposed father could be an uncle to the wife for something a little less sticky.

PhD Historian said...

I appreciate your response, Colleen, as well as that of Brynhild.

I suppose it is all a matter of perspective and philosophy. From my point of view, the invention of utterly impossible plot devices is totally unnecessary, since history is already so rich with bizarre but factual twists and turns. I can appreciate fictionalized dialogue and minor alterations of fact that simplify an otherwise too complex situation, but when the story line violates the basic history of the period, I begin to get anxious. Commoners raised to think they are nobles is but one example of a plot line that it so inconsistent with everything we know about Tudor social history that it sets my teeth on edge.

And from a philosophical perspective, it is both difficult and exceedingly frustrating to attempt to teach undergraduate classes on Tudor history when students rely so heavily on fictional works for their "facts." You simply cannot imagine the number of students who think that because a TV show or novel is "based on historical fact or real events" that it must necessarily be 100% factual. The novels of Phillipa Gregory, Showtime's "The Tudors," and many, many others become the nemesis that educators must battle daily in an effort to correct the "based on real events" errors that have entered into students' heads.

The fault may well lie with professional historians. I have long held that, as a group, historians have a knack for turning the most bizarre and entertaining historical events into dry, uninspiring reading. There are exceptions, of course: anything written by Jonathan Spence, past president of the American Historical Association; Cynthia Herrup's A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven; Gary Kates' Monsieur D'Eon Is A Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade are works that come to mind immediately. But on the whole, I suspect my profession fails to make history accessible to the general public, leaving that public to rely by default on fiction as a source for "fact." Indeed, one critic of my own book manuscript derided it as "better suited to the local bookshop and celebrity book signings than to an academic press" largely because my writing style was "too informal" and not "serious" enough. As if being readable were a bad thing!

Apologies for soap-boxing, but the issue is so close to home for me, both because my own work has been criticized as noted, and because my own specific research subject, Jane Grey, happens to be one of those historical figures for whom a legitimate historical account has been supplanted by a wholly the fictionalized "character" virtually unsupported by primary source documentation.

Colleen said...

PhD, I completely respect that. In fact, on the occasion that I do post a question here, you are one of the people that I hope will help me out. I totally see where you're coming from and I can understand why it would be so frustrating to you standing in front of a classroom of students who think "The Other Boleyn Girl" was an autobiography. I personally have never been one of those people. I will admit that my interest in English history started when I read a novel set in the Elizabethan era, but I didn't take it for fact then and I don't now. When I hear somebody trying to pass that information off as fact it's like nails down a chalkboard - not nearly as loud for me as I can imagine it is for you, but I do understand!

For the record, though - my character in fact ISN'T a commoner raised to believe he's nobility - he was raised the second son of an earl who became heir after the heir died. After he becomes earl, he finds letters that imply he's NOT his father's legitimate son; rather, he's the son of the housekeeper and was adopted by the old earl he believes was his father. But in the end he finds out he's legitimate and really an earl and all that good stuff and they live happily ever after. I'm sorry if that's confusing or no less incredulous than him being an actual commoner, but I'm lucky enough to have a Tudor historian in my writing critique group. I don't write anything without her approval! I just felt like I've been bombarding her with questions lately, and it's good to get different input, so that's why I came here.

Again, thank you everyone for the responses!

Foose said...

Regarding children of commoners being reared as nobles -- there does seem to be at least some prevailing cultural anxiety about such an occurrence, since the rumor crops up regularly in slandering unpopular (and barren) royal ladies. The bishop of Faenza wrote after Anne Boleyn's condemnation, "It is said that the King has been in danger of being poisoned by that lady for a whole year, and that her daughter is supposititious, being the child of a countryman (villano)" -- possibly a reference to Smeaton but the "supposititious" indicates a wholesale substitution.

Bianca Cappello, later in the century, was the unpopular second wife of the Grand Duke of Florence and apparently she did actually try to pass off a peasant's child as her own son; her brother-in-law Ferdinando sent the boy to join a celibate military-religious order so as to ensure his own smooth accession.

About two centuries before, the infant King of France John I died at his baptism and many years later a pretender turned up claiming to be the "real" royal child -- the one who died was actually a peasant, the son of the king's wetnurse.

I agree it's not likely, but such a plot is reasonably acceptable to me if the other 16th-century details of daily life are correct. What ticks me off about a lot of Tudor historical fiction is that the characters are usually shown enjoying a typical American middle-class upbringing and proudly asserting their individualism, with a few extraneous bits of period color tossed in to lend what the author fondly imagines is verisimilitude.

Marilyn R said...

Following on from Fooze - the most notorious rumour surrounding a royal birth has to be the suggestion that a son supposedly born to James II and his second wife was actually smuggled into the bedchamber in a warming-pan. Bearing in mind that a queen had to give birth in public, so to speak, the story is clearly nonsense, but the fact that it is still with us after more than 300 years does demonstrate what a powerful tool rumour can be.

James II, brother of Charles II, was a(very)thinly-disguised Roman Catholic, but the country was not too alarmed, as he was expected to be succeeded by his Protestant daughter, Mary Stuart.

When a son, James Francis Edward, was born to the king's second (Catholic) wife panic broke out, and Mary and her sister Anne, daughters of the first wife, Anne Hyde, went along with the 'warming-pan baby' rumour.

The following year, in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, James II was deposed in favour of Mary(II) and her husband William of Orange. The 'warming-pan baby' was brought up in France and became the focus for the Jacobite movement; he is known as the Old Pretender, the Young Pretender (to the Throne) being his son Charles Edward, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

As for the novel - I think sending the hero off to a monastery for a year or two is a nifty idea!

PhD Historian said...

Colleen, I am flattered that you value my answers on this site so much. And now that you have given more details of your story line, I can give it my stamp of approval ( for whatever that may be worth! LOL). Though very unlikely, it is more plausible than "commoner raised as noble."

As Foose and Marilyn R point out, there WAS "anxiety" about "changelings" and commoners entering into noble and royal family via secret or subversive means. But I suspect most social and cultural historians will agree that specific and isolated expressions of socio-cultural anxiety are seldom really about the scenario at hand. Instead, a given scenario (e.g., changelings) is used to express "anxiety" about a much broader social problem ... in this case, rapid socio-economic change and instability. Marilyn's reference to the "warming pan baby" and James II is another perfect example. Those spreading the rumor were far less concerned with whether James II's late-in-life son was legitimately his offspring than with the extent to which James II might go to re-impose Roman Catholicism on a country that had only recently undergone a destructive civil war in the name of religion and royal power. "Warming pan baby" was a minor symptom of a much larger problem.

And Foose, I agree with you 100% regarding the irritation felt when writers portray 16th century historical cahracters using 21st century American middle-class values, including assertions of individualism.

Kathy said...

The "changeling" theory is still alive today with the British tabloid claims that Prince Harry isn't really Charles' son.

BTW, this isn't an exact replica of your plot situation, but you might enjoy reading Anya Seton's Avalon which has some similar elements. It's an excellent read, really as good as her Katherine.