Medieval Monarchial Divorce

Divorces weren’t that hard to get for Medieval and Early Modern monarchs and nobility. Just throw enough money at the Pope and … voila! You were never married in the first place. Plenty of high born married couples sought this route to get out of a miserable marriage, or to make a more advantageous match. That’s why Henry VIII was caught off guard by the difficulties getting his own annulment, called his Great Matter, from Katherina of Aragon.


If Pope Clement VII hadn’t been effectively the prisoner of Katherina’s nephew, Emperor Charles V, who wanted to tweak Henry’s political nose by preventing the annullment, then Henry would have been a free man by the late 1520s.

In contrast to Henry’s troubles, his former brother-in-law, King Louis XII of France, had pulled off an annulment called “one of the seamiest lawsuits of the age” when he voided his first marriage to Joan of France, the youngest daughter of King Louis XI of France.

Louis-xii king of france

On 8 September 1476, the king forced the 14 year old Louis – then known as Louis of Orléans to marry 12 year old Joan for rather Machiavellian reasons. Firstly, Louis of Orléans was next in line for the throne should Louis XI’s own son, the future Charles VIII, die without a male heir, and if he was ever king at least Louis XI’s child would be queen. Secondly, it was believed that Joan was sterile because of her physical deformities, and “Louis XI hoped to extinguish the Orléans cadet branch of the House of Valois” by reducing Louis of Orléans’s chance of fathering legitimate male heirs.


Louis of Orléans was naturally very bitter that he had been forced to marry against his inclination and against his will to his unappealing cousin. Although he didn’t dare challenge Louis XI, after the king died on 30 August 1483, the Duke of Orléans vented his spleen against the newly-crowned 13 year old King Charles VIII, and more importantly, against Charles’s older sister Anne, who was regent for her brother.

Apparently Louis had a real issue with Anne of France because she once ruled against him in tennis match. Seriously.

Anne_Beaujeu of France

Louis was so angry at the crown for saddling him with Joan that he actually stirred up other nobles against the crown and started the Mad War (1485-1488). Louis and his allies, which included Francis II, Duke of Brittany, were trounced at Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier on 28 July 1488. Louis was captured, but was pardoned three years later so he could join Charles VIII in the Italian War of 1494–1498.

The same year that Louis was pardoned, Charles VIII forcibly married Anne of Brittany, the only surviving child of Francis II, Duke of Brittany. The 13 year old Duchess of Brittany had already wed Maximilian I of Austria at Rennes Cathedral by proxy on 19 December 1490, in an attempt to keep France from gaining control of her duchy, but Charles and the French laid siege to Rennes and captured the duchess. Her husband-by-proxy protested to the Pope that this was an outrage, and “that the marriage was illegal because the bride was unwilling, that she was already legally married to Maximilian, and that Charles VIII was legally betrothed to Margaret of Austria, Maximilian’s daughter.” Nonetheless, Charles dragged Anne to the altar on 6 December 1491 and then dragged his unhappy, unwilling young wife to the bedchamber to consummate the union, which the modern reader recognizes as marital rape.

Anne of Brittany

With the ‘damage’ already done, the Vatican validated the marriage on 15 February 1492 in exchange for a whole lot of lucre and political glad-handing from France.

Charles then proceeded to keep his tormented wife almost constantly pregnant via legalized rape. She bore her husband 7 children in their 8 years of marriage, and perhaps unsurprisingly most of them were premature or stillborn. Two sons arrived into the world full-term and healthy, but died of illness in infancy.

Anne must have rejoiced when Charles died in an accident on 4 April 1498. She was free, and thought she would remain so. Her marriage contract had “stipulated that if Charles VIII died without male heirs, Anne would marry his successor”, but the new king, Louis XII, was already married to Joan of France. As long as Joan lived, Anne would couldn’t be forced to wed him. Anne couldn’t marry anyone else, but at least she was safe from being the wife of the French king for a while!

Anne_of Brittnay as queen of france

Sadly for Anne, Louis was determined to marry her. Finally, on 19 August 1498 she agreed that she would marry the new king – but only if he did the nearly impossible and got his annulment from Joan within a year. Meanwhile, Anne returned to Brittany and restored her rule there.

That’s when Louis pulled off a medieval divorce that would make Henry VIII’s Great Matter look like two kids pulling Christmas crackers in its wholesomeness.

Louis (much to the dismay of his wife) claimed that Joan was physically malformed (providing a rich variety of detail precisely how) and that he had therefore been unable to consummate the marriage. Joan, unsurprisingly, fought this uncertain charge fiercely, producing witnesses to Louis’s boast of having “mounted my wife three or four times during the night”. Louis also claimed that his sexual performance had been inhibited by witchcraft. Joan responded by asking how he was able to know what it was like to try to make love to her. Had the Papacy been a neutral party, Joan would likely have won, for Louis’s case was exceedingly weak. Pope Alexander VI, however, had political reasons to grant the annulment, and ruled against Joan accordingly. He granted the annulment on the grounds that Louis did not freely marry, but was forced to marry by Joan’s father Louis XI. Outraged, Joan reluctantly submitted, saying that she would pray for her former husband.

Joan became a nun (and such a holy one that she was canonized in 1950), and Anne was once again forced to marry the king of France, although bitterly unwilling. As before, she was kept nearly constantly pregnant by the husband she loathed. She had at least another nine pregnancies, but only two produced living children – both girls: Claude of France and Renée of France.

In what must have seemed like cosmic retribution against Louis, their daughter Claude was physically deformed from birth and manifested severe scoliosis as a child – just like Joan of France.

With no son, Louis decided to do what his first father-in-law had done to him – he arranged the marriage of his daughter Claude to his cousin and male heir, Francis of Angoulême, the Duke of Valois. Anne of Brittany was incensed, because this would leave Brittany tied to France. While Anne lived, she blocked the marriage, but after her death of tuberculosis exacerbated by constant pregnancy on 9 January 1514, her daughter Claude became Duchess of Brittany and was wed to Francis on 18 May of that same year.


There are varying accounts of Claude’s life as the wife of King Francis I of France. Unattractive, religious, and shy, she allowed her mother-in-law, Louise of Savoy, and her sister-in-law, Margaret of Angoulême, Queen of Navarre, and whomever of Francis’s mistresses who were in ascendance to act as principle ladies of the court in her stead. This meant that some people deemed her bullied and miserable. Others, however, reported her to be content with the respect, if not the romantic love, of her husband.

She and Francis had seemed to have a relatively happy marriage in spite of Francis’s string of beautiful mistresses. He, along with everyone else in Europe, praised her wisdom, grace, learning, and devotion to spiritual matters. They had six children to survive childhood, including sons, and when she died at age 24 on 20 July 1524, Francis was genuinely grieved. He wrote to his mother that he was emotionally afflicted by her loss, and several French courtiers, including Robert Fleuranges III de La Marck, marshal of France, noted that the king was despondent over the death of his wife. He may not have ever been ‘in love’ with Claude, but he clearly loved her.


One of Claude’s ladies in waiting and English translator was Anne Boleyn, who would be evermore influenced by the piety and literacy of Queen Claude and Queen Margaret. After Claude’s death, Anne retuned to England, where she attract the attention of King Henry VIII. After watching Francis take mistresses, Anne was unwilling to become one herself, preferring to emulate Claude’s piety and dignity. Henry, already determined on a divorce from Katherina of Aragon by 1524, would seek an annulment and Anne’s hand in marriage, for which Anne was blamed.

The rest, as they say, is history.

4 thoughts on “Medieval Monarchial Divorce

  1. I actually wonder what might have happened if Clement had not been a captive of Katherine’s nephew. I’m not so sure he would have granted Henry’s divorce — at least not on the grounds Henry wanted — because Martin Luther was already challenging the Pope’s power of dispensation, and Clement would not have wanted to give Luther any support. According to Scarisbrick and Gwyn, Henry rejected the idea (proposed by Wolsey) of seeking an annulment based on a technical defect in the dispensation.


  2. This article is repulsive. Anti-christian bigatry of the highest order. Protestant founder Henry VIII is a lecherous demented charlatan. His Great Matter was his lie to cover his prolonged and prolific adultery. He then proceeded with the help of the vile Oliver Cromwell proceed to pillage and murder Catholics for 200 years and consummate bloody wars for centuries.

    1. How so? I think it’s very neutral on the subject of Henry VIII who, by the way, was only the founder of the Church of England, not all Protestantism.

      1. Theologically, Henry wasn’t a Protestant by any stretch of the imagination. He believed in transubstantiation, for example.

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