Genealogy (Sep 2022)

Involuntary Separations: Catholic Wives, Imprisoned Husbands, and State Authority

  • Susan M. Cogan

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 6, no. 4
p. 79


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In the 1580s and 1590s, the English state required that all subjects of the crown attend the Protestant state church. Those who refused (called recusants) faced imprisonment as part of the government’s attempt to bring them into religious conformity. Those imprisonments forced involuntary marital separation onto Catholic couples, the result of which was to disrupt traditional gender roles within Catholic households. Separated wives increasingly fulfilled the work their husbands performed in addition to their own responsibilities as the matriarch of a landed estate. Gentlewomen were practiced at estate business since they worked in partnership with their husbands, but a spouse’s imprisonment often meant that wives wrote more petitions and settled more legal and financial matters than they did when their husbands were at liberty. The state also imprisoned Catholic wives who undermined the religious conformity of their families and communities. Spousal imprisonment deprived couples of conjugal rights and spousal support and emphasized the state’s power to interfere in marital relationships in early modern England.