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Archaeologia Cantiana -  Vol. 134  2014  page 277

A History of the Ecclesiastical Courts of the Diocese of Canterbury, 1566-86, based on the
   Cause papers bound within the Volume MS.F.4.12. By Karen Rushton

or adultery. The reason behind the high number of cases disputing the validity of or seeking to enforce marriage contracts lies in the nature of marriage contracts in this period. A marriage contract was legally binding not after a formal ceremony in a church as we might expect but following a verbal agreement or contract made between a couple using words in the present tense, per verba de presenti, for which no church official was required to be present.48 This is evident in entry 102 in which William Asten of Tenterden is using the ecclesiastical courts to prove and enforce the existence of a verbal contract made between him and Marion Roger of Faversham. The private and verbal nature of marriage contracts meant that it often came down to the church courts to establish whether or not a valid marriage contract existed based on witness testimonies.
   There is one entry in MS.F.4.12, entry 74, relating to divorce in which William Wood is suing his wife Elizabeth on the grounds of adultery. Such suits were relatively rare and whilst separation or annulment was possible on certain grounds, divorce as we know it today did not exist.49 Annulments could be made on the grounds that the marriage was never valid in the first place, and the parties would be able to remarry but was problematic for women who were deprived of any dower rights and whose children would be considered as bastards.50 Citing adultery as the basis for an unsatisfactory marriage, as William Wood does, could bring about a judicial separation ‘from bed and board’ but ultimately the marriage contract would still exist, so whilst they may no longer be living together, they would not be allowed to remarry so long as the other one lived.51

In conclusion, there is clearly much to be gleaned from the records of the old ecclesiastical courts whether it is for the purposes of historical research or simply to feed a general curiosity in the lives of the people they depict. Nevertheless there are still many questions posed about the period and by the existence of the records themselves for which the answers remain frustratingly elusive. Not least the question of how a record such as MS.F.4.12 came to be and how and why it left the diocese of Canterbury in the first place. The fact that so little of the original series of records survives makes the investigation into their history and the ability to offer concrete answers all the more difficult. No doubt further and more in-depth research linking in with other collections would help to depict a more detailed picture and maybe even answer questions surrounding the provenance of MS.F.4.12 but in the meantime we can only speculate on its current condition and location.

[Note. Readers are referred to an article in Archaeologia Cantiana, lxxxix, 1974 – Peter Clark, ‘The Ecclesiastical Commission at Canterbury: 1572-1603’ – which describes the generally close working relationship between the Commission and the diocesan Church courts. Ed.]

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