OSR: Annulments, Divorces, and Secrets

Annulments seem to be a hot topic right now. He's a very rough summary of how to use annulments in your medieval-ish games. The notes are based on 10th-14th century France, England, Germany, and Italy, with some notes cribbed from Henry VIII (because he holds the all-time record for annulment chicanery, I believe. Post rivals in the comments.)
Also, just in case, this article has nothing to do with my personal beliefs on any of the topics listed. I hope that's obvious. I'm trying to present a gameable medieval worldview, not lecture people.

You Cannot Have A Square Circle

Divorce, as we know it now, was not an option in the medieval European worldview. To the church, marriage was a sacrament, even if the biblical realities of divorce said otherwise. They understood that it might be better for some married couples to live apart, but actually breaking a marriage would be an impossibility in terms, like un-baptizing a child.

However, the church recognized that marriages could be annulled. If I sell you a bridge I don't own, then the sale is void. If I purchase a horse that turns out to be a goat on stilts, I can claim my money back. An annulment says "We, the church, made a mistake in the paperwork. It turns out, for X reason, your marriage was illegal to start with. Since it couldn't have happened, we can rewind the clock and start over."

The married couple reverted to their previous legal status. Women did not become widows, and retained any property (from jewelry to provinces) that they owned before the marriage. 

Any children from an annulled marriage were still legitimate in every sense. Generally, the father retained legal custody over them, and they could not inherit their mother's property. 

Terms and Conditions

Some of the more interesting reasons a marriage could be annulled.
HENRY: You know what a mesnie is? It's a train, an entourage. It's made of soldiers, cooks and clerics, wagons, barrows, linen, treasure, chickens, butts of wine and spices. I've been all night making one.
ALAIS: What for?
HENRY: We're off to Rome to see the Pope.
ALAIS: He's excommunicated you again.
HENRY: He's going to set me free. I'm having Elanor annulled. The nation will be shocked to learn our marriage wasn't consummated. 
-The Lion in Winter, James Goldman. Elanor, by this point, had borne Henry many fractious children.


One of the most famous and useful reasons for annulment was consanguinity. Marriage within the fourth degree of consanguinity (or seventh in some periods) was forbidden. If a peasant unknowingly married their second cousin or something and lived happily ever after, nobody really cared. For noble families, whose bloodlines were publicized and scrutinized carefully, a Papal Dispensation was required. The Pope did not personally approve every single dispensation (he had people for that), but they were issued in his name, and he could very easily stall or expedite the process for political purposes.

Marrying near relatives who were not related to you by blood (affinity) was also forbidden. For example, a man could not marry his late brother's wife without dispensation.

Example: Elanor of Aquitaine's first marriage to Louis VII, King of France, was annulled on the grounds of consanguinity. The annulment was one of the greatest diplomatic blunders in an age of blunders. Elanor, her valuable province intact, immediately remarried Henry II, then Duke of Normandy, and later King of England and a great deal else besides. Incidentally, Elanor was even more closely related to Henry than she had been to Louis.
Side note: Wikipedia states that the marriage was annulled because Elanor failed to provide Louis with sons after fifteen years of marriage. Most historians I trust take a different view, and point out that Elanor's willful, spirited, even playful nature was frankly incompatible with Louis' dour, self-tormented, and monkish outlook on life... and the joys of the flesh. He had to be tricked into bed with her more than once (thought he Wikipedia article states the reverse. Oh well.)

And the quote given above probably didn't happen. Henry never did annul his marriage to Elanor; the result would have been a colossal disaster.


A formal ceremony and recognition by the church were not all that a marriage required. Consummation - the physical act - was mandatory. If it could not be performed for one reason or another (illness, impotence, unwillingness, shocking ugliness, a long crusade away from home, or merely a hasty decision later reversed), the marriage could be annulled. The old laws of the Lombards gives the newlyweds a 2-year window to consummate the marriage, after which it is automatically annulled.

Generally, the church refused to annul marriages for this reason if the couple had children. Children imply that someone was getting busy, and if it wasn't the married couple, it was probably grounds for adultery.

Simulation of Consent

A medieval "shotgun wedding" could be annulled on the grounds that one or both parties were compelled into accepting the arrangement, provided evidence of threats or coercion could be presented. Not liking your partner, or fearing them, wasn't enough - there had to be actual threats, and you had to be willing to accept the consequences of telling the world about them.

Previous Marriages or Betrothals

Canon law on the subject changed regularly, but previous (non-annulled) marriages, or betrothals (seriously promising to marry someone) could be grounds for an annulment. Betrothals were a sort of holy contract, almost as serious as the marriage itself, with their own rituals, and in theory could not be broken easily.

Religious Objections

Both parties needed to be in good standing with the church (not excommunicated, unbaptized, or actively practicing heathen sorcery). They could not have taken holy orders. The priest performing the ceremony needed to be valid and properly appointed. All these issues could be made into grounds for annulment. If a bishop's appointment was disputed, it could be argued that a marriage he presided over was also invalid, although the chaos this caused made it more of a threat than an actual practice.

Adultery and Other Crimes

Annulment is a recognition that a marriage was never valid. Crimes within a valid marriage do not dissolve the marriage (including attempted murder, adultery, etc.), but may end with the death of one of the parties.

This could be politically inconvenient. A king could divorce his wife by accusing her of adultery (and fabricating evidence, if required), but adultery often carried the death penalty. Her vassals and family might rebel, he might be made to look like a cuckold and a fool, and the paternity of his children would instantly and forever be in doubt. Their legitimacy could remain, or they could become illegitimate, depending on the results of the court case.

The reverse case, where a wife accused a husband of being unfaithful, rarely occurred, although it could lead to honor-based disputes as the wife's family might consider it an insult.

Gameable Content

Because this is theoretically a gaming blog.

1. A local baron wants to annul his marriage on the grounds of consanguinity. A wealthy widow has recently come under his protection, and he needs to marry her as soon as possible. The PCs are hired to take his letter to the holy city by the fastest (and most dangerous) route and ensure the church grants the annulment, by any means necessary. Plot twist: the baron's wife's family objects, of course, and will probably be in hot pursuit with a letter of their own... and some good sharp swords.

2. While drunkenly carousing in a city, one of the PCs wakes up in a compromising position. They have been framed for adultery in a royal bedchamber. The PC will be tried the next morning and executed, along with the queen, in one week. The king's men thought they'd found the perfect stooge. However:

1. The PC is part of a noble family who will furiously object to the hasty trial. The king has created a diplomatic fracas without intending to, and unraveling it may plunge his kingdom into war.
2. The PC escapes (of course) and a massive conspiracy is implicated. Dozens of nobles will die, or enact plots of their own. Every faction claims the PC for a martyr, an agent, or a leader.
3. The king's men messed up; the PC is of an incompatible gender or position in society for the case to be plausible. The king will be a laughingstock unless a switch is performed.
4. The entire case is so blatantly unjust, and the king so utterly repugnant, that rebellion and treason are morally justified. The PCs will take care of the rest. Chaos ensues. The queen takes the throne as regent for her infant son and promptly loses half the kingdom.
5. The queen falls in love with the PC while in prison and writes long romantic songs about the two of them dying together. If the PC is executed, their legend of betrayal, imprisonment, and love will become immortal.
6. Turns out, it was all a bizarre test of loyalty or something. The king wanted to see what would happen. The trial is called off. The PC is released or given a special mission, having "proved themselves" in an unspecified way. Or the queen is revealed to be a serpent-man infiltrator in disguise, and the PC is lauded as a hero. Or the queen is revealed to be the king in disguise, and the PC is paid a truly enormous bribe to never speak of their deeply confusing experience.
3. The PCs are asked by a noble lady to break into a monastery and plant a sealed scroll in the archives. The seal is easy to open. The scroll reveals that the king's brother, the noble lady's husband, took holy orders at the monastery (from a now-deceased abbot). Since he never renounced his vows, the marriage is void. One week after they complete their mission, all hell breaks loose in the kingdom. Plot twist: the scroll isn't a forgery. The noble lady stole it back from her husband.

4. The PCs are asked to intimidate a newly appointed bishop into admitting to a long list of past crimes, from sodomy to trading horses without a license. The bishop just married two people against the consent of their families (allowable, but foolish), and needs to be deposed in a way that also annuls the marriage. If he admits he was never ordained, the marriage will be annulled. Plot twist: the newlyweds have also paid the PCs to protect the bishop or smuggle him to safety.

5. While raiding an ancient tomb, the PCs find a holy book from the very dawn of the church that clearly states conditions for divorce. It is signed by irrefutable authorities. It is an invaluable relic, a priceless artifact, and it will probably split the church in half. Sensible people will want to burn it. Plot twist: demons put it there for fun.

6. The PCs are contacted by a wealthy noble. He is having trouble consummating his marriage. By local custom, he has two years to do his duty, and his wife (and her family) are growing impatient. If the PCs can help, they will be well rewarded, both financially and politically. The PCs are sent to find:
1. A rare herb that only grows in an implausibly dangerous forest.
2. The horn of a mythical animal.
3. Fermented meat from a rare species of crab.
4. A mind-wizard capable of forcing the body into compliance with the mind's desires.
5. An extra-strength love potion, transported in a lead-lined cask and stored on ice. Beware the fumes.
6. A very wise old woman who is legendary for treating such cases with soothing words and therapy. 

And the real reason he can't fulfill his vows:

1. Young, inexperienced, neurotic. Medieval Woody Allen on a bad day. It's not hopeless, but he's likely to botch any plan in hilarious ways.
2. Bats for the other team. He makes actual Richard the Lionheart look like legendary Richard the Lionheart. In short, it's hopeless. The PCs may need to get inventive.
3. Hideous. Either he's ugly and knows it, or his wife is, or they both are. It's less of a crisis of looks and more a crisis of self-image. An Elf Wizard might be able to help.
4. Embarrassing Injury. The noble stepped behind a horse in his youth and, as a result, was slightly mangled. He really needs a powerful restoration spell or healing potion. The mission is their cover.
5. Total ignorance. They are both utterly oblivious as to the actions required, and far too pure-minded and embarrassed to ask their families. The PCs, as outsiders and disreputable people, might be safe to ask... but not directly. The mission is just an excuse to talk with them.
6. It's all a clever ploy to marry his true love. All he needs to do is stall for a few more weeks. The PCs will distract his wife's family.

Secret Annulments and Secret Marriages

Didn't exist.*

*Medieval life, especially among the nobility, was public. Everything a powerful noble did or said was part of the public sphere. This could lead to trouble, but it was also vitally important. Events needed to be witnessed. If history is all the things that are memorable, then you want all your vassals and friends to remember things that you did, commanded, and said. If an event wasn't memorable then it didn't happen.

So let's say a king wants to secretly annul his marriage. He could, in theory, write a secret letter to the Pope. If the Pope was sufficiently pliable, a secret annulment could be sent back, although it would take some skill to sneak through the papal bureaucracy.

Then the king wishes to secretly marry another woman. In a hidden chapel, with the minimum number of witnesses (who are sworn to silence), the ceremony is performed.

What's changed? Absolutely nothing, in the eyes of the world. But the moment it's publicized - and it would have to be, to gain any benefit from it - all hell is going to break loose.

First, the moment the king's first marriage was annulled, his former wife's property reverted back to her. In some areas, she regained independent legal status. In others, she passed back into the care of her family. In either case, the king has no claim to anything she owned before the marriage, from jewelry to provinces to levied armies from those provinces. Formerly, the king held them legally, but after the secret annulment, his hold on them was illegal... and a damn good cause for war.

Second, both parties had to consent to an annulment, so the king had to also inform his wife. If she objected, he could force her to agree one way or another, but she could inform her followers and family and start a public dispute, dragging the whole thing into the open. If she agreed to the annulment, and agreed to keep it secret, then she would betray her family and her property (by allowing the king to hold it when he had no right to it) and give up her children into the king's custody.

Third, the annulment doesn't change the order of succession. Any children are still legitimate. Typically, this is a good thing... but it's worth noting.

Fourth, the annulment and marriage are both suspicious and may be declared invalid or forgeries. Doing things secretly in the medieval world is seen as a kind of crime.

Fifth, the king's new wife's family or vassals may object to her marriage. The seriousness of their objections will vary case to case. If the woman was in the legal care of her family, then the marriage is illegal and is instantly annulled - she can't sign in her own right, but has to be given away. If the woman was in the legal care of the king (in some systems, a widow or a woman with no family could appeal directly to the king for protection), or did not have a legal guardian, then there's no issue.

Sixth, the king can't claim his new wife's property, wealth, or vassals without publicizing her marriage.

Seventh, any children he has by his new wife will be considered illegitimate. Even if he publicized the marriage after the fact, the children will be seen as suspicious. Rival claimants - and there are always rival claimants - will have a fantastic excuse to change the order of succession.

The entire point of a medieval wedding is to get everyone to recognize the bond, the alliance, the transfer of title and land, and the legitimacy of any children. Get married in secret, sure, but publicize it ASAP later. If you die from a surfeit of lampreys, palfreys, hammers, etc. before you publicize it, then, for all intents and purposes, it didn't happen, even if someone did write it down in a book.

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