Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Marriage and Divorce in Thomas More's Utopia

When Henry VIII approached Thomas More for advice about his Great Matter, he was perhaps aware that More had already explored the subject of marriage and divorce in his book,  Utopia.
Here, we find that the inhabitants of this island republic are ‘contente everye man with one wife a piece.’ Marriage is broken only by the death of one of the partners, adultery or the ‘intollerable wayward maners of eyther partie.’ In either of the last two circumstances the injured party can obtain a licence to divorce their spouse and remarry. This is in contrast to the practice in More’s England, as in every other Catholic country, where couples could separate but were forbidden to marry elsewhere. This is because marriage is one of the seven sacraments and, as such, the marriage bond is indissoluble.

Under no circumstances would a Utopian man be allowed to divorce his wife merely because ‘some myshappe is fallen to her bodye,’ that is, she is no longer able to bear children. For old age, according to Utopian philosophy, ‘both bryngeth sycknes with it, and is a sycknes it selfe’, and therefore is a time when everyone is in most need of help and comfort.

On the other hand, should a man and his wife find that they cannot live together in harmony and happiness, and both parties have found another with whom they hope to live ‘more quyetlye and meryly’, they may apply to the council for authority to divorce. The council, however, will not agree to divorce unless the couple have thoroughly examined their situation. Even then, the council would be ‘loth to consent to it bicause they knowe thys to be the nexte waye to breke love betwene a man and wyfe, to be in easye hope of a newe marriage.’

The punishment for adultery is bondage and divorce. If, on the other hand, the injured party still loves the offending spouse, he or she may remain married to them, but will be required to follow their partner into bondage. Such bondage need not last forever if the offender is truly repentant. However, ‘if the same partie be taken eftsones in that faulte, there is no other way but death.’ In other words, one might commit adultery once and pay for the offence by becoming a slave for a time, but to commit adultery more than once attracts the death penalty.
In applying Utopian philosophy to Henry VIII’s case, it becomes obvious that the king would not be allowed to put away Katherine simply because she was beyond childbearing age. Rather, it would be Henry’s duty to care for, and comfort, her. Had both Henry and Katherine found new loves with whom they wished to live, they would technically be allowed to do so with the permission of the Council. In practice, though, the Council would probably not grant permission for them to break their existing marriage. On Utopia, therefore, Henry would almost certainly not be allowed to take a new wife: be it Anne Boleyn or anyone else, unless Katherine had also found someone she would preferred over Henry. Finally, Henry had committed adultery more than once, most famously with Elizabeth Blount and Mary Boleyn. As such, he would have been sent into bondage for the first offence and executed after the second. Henry VIII would not have lasted very long on the island of Utopia.

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