I know that under modern laws (even within the Catholic Church), children born in a marriage that is later annulled are still considered legitimate, because they were born of a putative marriage. Was that also true in the Middle Ages?

"Bloody" Mary and Elizabeth were both declared illegitimate and then legitimate several times, if I understand correctly, but was that the necessary result of annulment, or just their father's decree so he could choose his successor?

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    I think it is important to note that there is no "medieval European" law code. Laws differed from country to country.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 11:33
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    @MarkC.Wallace And many medieval countries had practically no written law, so whether that child was legitimate or not would completely depend on whoever made the decision.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 12:44
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    @gnasher729 - that is a very perceptive comment. Probably should be somewhere in a library that we could all reference, because that affects many of the questions we deal with here. In an autocracy, "law" depends on who makes the decision.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 12:56
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    @MarkC.Wallace Annulments weren't decided in national courts, but in church courts, all (theoretically, at least) under a single jurisdiction in most of medieval Europe. Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 18:26
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    True - but legitimacy is a civil construct, decided in state/national courts - this question is deceptively complex and interesting. Bounty time.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 18:34

1 Answer 1


An annulment does not "break" a marriage, as does a divorce. It declares that the marriage never happened in the first place.

This meant that the married couple would revert to their previous legal status (the "wife" would revert to being a "spinster" if she hadn't been previously married).

However, any children from an annulled marriage would still be considered legitimate in every sense, unless this had been declared otherwise in law. As Harold J. Berman observed:

Where the parties married in good faith, without knowledge of an impediment, the canonists held that the children of the marriage were legitimate and that the marriage itself was valid up to the day it was declared null.

  • Berman, 2009, p228

Interestingly, in most cases, children would remain in the custody of the father. We have examples of this in the case of the daughters of King Louis VII of France and his wife Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. Louis and Eleanor were eventually granted an annulment of the ground of consanguinity, and their daughters Alix of France and Marie of France were given into the custody of their father. In this particular case, the girls were declared illegitimate in the courts, but not because of the annulment.

The question of the legitimacy of the daughters of Henry VIII was entirely to do with the Royal succession. Of course, there were some - particularly in continental Europe - who did not recognise the legitimacy of the marriage of Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, to Henry VIII. For these people, Elizabeth had never been a legitimate daughter of Henry in the first place.


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    Was there any point in time when children of an annulled marriage were automatically declared illegitimate? In the West, that is?
    – NyaNya
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 10:07
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    @NyaNya Not according to Berman. In fact, it seems that in some places, for example medieval Wales, even children born out of wedlock could be regarded as "legitimate" if they were acknowledged by their father! Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 10:10
  • Berman's wording "the marriage itself was valid up to the day it was declared null" seems incorrect to me, or perhaps it indicates a change in what annulment has been understood to mean. My understanding is that (at least in modern Catholicism) to obtain an annulment, it must be shown that no valid marriage ever existed.
    – sumelic
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 17:34
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    From this point of view, I think the correct way of explaining the legitimacy of the resulting offspring is that they are the result of a marriage that was thought to be/presumed to be valid at the time they were conceived. This seems to agree with the description I found from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/marriage/…
    – sumelic
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 17:36
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    Diocese of Des Moines also seems to gives the same explanation, saying that an annulment means "the marriage existed but was invalid in the eyes of the Church. This has no effect on the civil aspects of marriage, divorce, alimony, or on the status of the children.": dmdiocese.org/divorced-and-catholic-faqs.cfm
    – sumelic
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 18:01

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