The proximate cause of the Anglican Church's split from the Roman Catholic Church, which retained more vestiges of Roman Catholicism than other major early Protestant Church denominations, was the desire of the King of England to divorce his wife.

One way that the Roman Catholic Church could have navigated this crisis could have been for the Pope to declare, with ample Biblical precedents, that it was doctrinally permitted for people of great wealth who could afford to support more than one wife without a doubt economically, to be married to more than one woman at the same time. Allowing this practice would also have discouraged the rather common practice of British monarchs murdering or executing their spouses.

Martin Luther, in Germany, as leader of the new Lutheran Church wrote a little known epistle to a minor German aristocrat at around the same time which stated that Lutheran Christianity did not have any scriptural basis for a prohibition on polygyny, and that therefore it was allowed.

If the Pope had followed the lead of Martin Luther and created a narrow exception to monogamy for very wealthy aristocrats, could Roman Catholicism have remained the religion of England, or was schism inevitable for other deeper causes of which the divorce question was merely a symptom? Why would this have been possible or not possible?

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    $\begingroup$ You are not asking just for freedom of divorce, nor Pilegesh - you want a full-blown polygamy, right? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    May 30, 2018 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ Nobody really asked Roman Church for poligamy at the time. Pope might have declared that legal, but that would have cut his reign short, and the next pope would have definitely rolled it back. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    May 30, 2018 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ this decision was sure to create a schism, and (in my personal opinion) polygamy supporters would be a minority. Even for Lutherans, polygamy was not something that was widely accepted. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    May 30, 2018 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure I understand the close votes. Not liking a question = a down vote, don't use close votes as super down votes. $\endgroup$
    – James
    May 31, 2018 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke I believe that the minor German noble you mentioned was the Landgrave of Hesse, one of the MAJOR German nobles who were princes (fursten) of the empire and had votes as princes in the diet. $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2018 at 20:40

4 Answers 4


Would sanctioned polygyny have stopped Henry VIII from forming the Anglican Church?

This is what you're really asking, isn't it? The answer might have been yes, but Henry's famous desire for an heir was by no means the beginning of the schism between English government and Rome.

The conflict of authority in England between church and state certainly dates back to the arrival of Augustine, and has simmered for many centuries. The murder of Thomas a Becket was one of the more famous episodes of this conflict. The Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, contains 63 points; the very first point is a declaration that the English church is independent of its government.

The beginning of the sixteenth century showed significant discontent with the Roman church. Martin Luther's famous 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the church in Wittenburg in 1517, and news of this challenge had certainly reached England when, 20 years later, the Anglican branch of the church formally challenged the authority of Rome. Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and abbeys in 1536.

There is a public perception, especially in the United States, that Henry VIII created the Anglican church in anger over the Pope's refusal to grant his divorce, but the historical record indicates that Henry spent most of his reign challenging the authority of Rome, and that the divorce issue was just one of a series of acts that collectively split the English church from the Roman church in much the same way that the Orthodox church had split off five hundred years before. (source)

So the honest answer is more likely, "no." Polygyny would simply have delayed the inevitable.

Even if polygyny stayed the formation of the Anglican church, it would have had some serious reprecusions

If I remember correctly, there were regular problems with non-inheriting sons in medieval Europe (not just England). This problem would have exploded the proverbial ten-fold had polygyny been legitimized. Indeed, it might have brought about the shift from feudal Europe to democratic Europe much more quickly. There are few things worse in the world than an entitled son who is entitled to nothing.

I'm therefore compelled to answer "no." Polygyny would not have preserved the preeminence of Catholocism in England.

  • $\begingroup$ RE: "Serious Repercussions" Indeed. It probably would have resulted in immediate protests and riots. And long-term it probably would have prompted a new underground revolutionary movement. $\endgroup$ May 30, 2018 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ @RBarryYoung Why didn't this happen in Ireland at roughly the same time when polygyny giving rise to legitimate heirs was tolerated with Irish clan leaders? dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com/2018/05/… $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    May 31, 2018 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke Because Ireland and England (and the rest of western Europe) were vastly different places. Specifically, Ireland had a continuous tradition of polygamy going back long before Christianity was established in Ireland. More, the Celtic Christian church tolerated it and never seriously tried to eradicate it. So when the Celtic church was superseded by Catholicism, polygamy was still around and not seen as a problem (by the natives). In short, the populace did not see it as a threat to the social order. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2018 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ Also it is commonly believed that the dissolution of the monasteries and taking control of their lands and wealth was one of the main reasons for the split, so I doubt being allowed multiple wives would have stopped Henry from forming the Anglican church. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2018 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ @adaliabooks Yes, absolutely. As with the Templars in France, royalty would often cook-up any pretext they could for seizing someone else's power, money and property. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2018 at 16:53

First things first

I would like very much to read an alternate history book where, in an attempt to preserve England for the self-titled Universal Church, Pope Clement VII steers an Oecumenical Council towards pronouncing that polygamy is permissible.

I would especially love a book where the doctrinal and temporal machinations needed for such a radical pronouncement would be explored in detail.

This being said, there are massive problems with the suggestion.

Why is polygamy not allowed in Christendom?

Seen from a great distance, Christianity is a particularly non-observant Jewish sect. The original founders of the Christian religion, notably Paul and the anonymous author of the Luke-Acts duology, were undoubtedly Hellenized Jews, who were not aware that they were founding a new religion. Is it uncontestable that Christianism began as a movement to reform Judaism and open it to the world.

Now, at the time when Christianism was emerging from the religious debris resulting from the fall of Second Temple Judaism, the Jewish religion had no problem whatsoever with polygamy; it was the Roman authorities who had a big problem with polygamy and insisted on men having at most one wife at any given time. And let's not forget that the original founders of Christianism were Hellenized Jews, and the Hellenistic world had inherited from the Greeks a strong presumption that civilized men did not have more than one wife at any given time. Sure, they could have more than one wife, but only serially, not simultaneously.

In short, when it all began the equation was simple: civilized men are married with at most one woman; being married with two or more women at the same time is for barbarians.

Christianism was trying to take over the people of the Empire; and the people of the Empire were civilized; and civilized men did not take more than one wife at the same time. Not only they didn't: they couldn't. The law was very strict. It was unconceivable to preach a religion which did not emphasize monogamy. It would have been perceived not only as utterly alien, but as fundamentaly barbarian; and one thing the inhabitants of the Empire agreed on was that they were not barbarians.

By the time of Henry VIII the Church had accumulated a millennium and a half of dedication to monogamy. Reversing its stance would have required a massive dose of radical thought, something for which Pope Clement was not known.

And then there are the practicalities.

The practicalities

First of all, in the times of Henry VIII, the Popes did not have unquestioned papal infallibility; this doctrine was promulgated at the First Vatican Council in the second half of the 19th century. Sure, there were some medieval theologians who argued that Popes were infallible under certain conditions, but papal infallibility was not a black-and-white doctrine of the Church. Any Pope who would even contemplate the idea of allowing polygamy would have been certain that the Church would splinter and lose both people and territories to the Protestants and the Orthodox. The only non-insane way to declare polygamy permissible in the eyes of God would have been to summon an Oecumenical Council, and work to get a consensus.

Second, we must dismiss out of hand the idea that the Church would even attempt to "doctrinally permitted for people of great wealth [...] to be married to more than one woman at the same time". It is a basic doctrine that all men and women are equal in the face of God; stating that rich men are more equal than poor men would have been anathema in the 16th century as it would be today. This cannot possibly work. Either all men can marry more than one wife, or none can.

Third, there is the problem that all men and women are equal in face of God. Having one rule for men and another for women would have been quite iffy; borderline possible, but practically guranteed to raise a lot of opposition at the Council.

Fourth, such a decree would have placed canon law in stark opposition with the secular law of all Christian countries. For that millennium and half during which the Church had placed itself firmly on the side of monogamy had had the effect that the secular laws of all countries banned polygamy, had strict punishments for polygamous perverts, and did not even consider the possibility of people having more than one spouse. After all, king Henry was not concerned much with the sinfulness of having more than one sexual partner: what he wanted was a legal heir.

Fifth, the Church would have had to innovate and emplace a new form of marriage ceremony. As inherited from the Romans, Christian marriage ceremonies emphasize the equality of the groom and the bride and require freely given consent. The new form would have had to insert one or more third parties, namely the pre-existing wives, and devise a form for all the parties involved to express their approval and to take the respective vows. (The pre-existing wives need must be part of the ceremony because they are to accept the new wife as a sister and take vows to live in peace; a vow is not valid unless freely taken.) Having the Catholic Church devise a radically new form of marriage ceremony is not a task for the faint-hearted.

The tactical situation

Pontifex Maximus is a great and ancient title, and it confers great power. Except when it doesn't.

The tactical situation was that at the specific time in question Pope Clement was not a free man. In 1527, the soldiers of the combined empires of Charles V had sacked Rome; the Pope himself had escaped disguised as a humble peddler. When the petition of king Henry VIII for the annulment of his marriage with Catherine of Aragon reached the Pope, Clement was for all practical purpose a prisoner of the emperor. And Emperor Charles V was the nephew of Catherine.

Emperor Charles V reigning resplendent over his vanquished foes

Emperor Charles V reigning resplendent over his vanquished foes; pope Clement is second from the left, standing next to sultan Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire. 16th century allegory. Reproduction available on Wikimedia, in the public domain.

Both the Most Catholic Emperor and the Catholic Church were also much preoccupied with the issues resulting from the Protestant schism which was making inroads in the Germanies. By allowing polygamous marriages they would have given the Protestants direct proof that the Church of Rome was truly the Whore of Babylon, possibly with the immediate consequence of pushing more German princes into the welcoming arms of the Schmalkaldic League.

To sum it up

  • The Pope was not able by himself to make polygamy permissible. He would have needed the consent of an Oecumenical Council.

  • The Pope was under the thumb of Emperor Charles V, the nephew of the spurned wife Catherine of Aragon.

  • Both the Emperor and the Pope had much more pressing issues on their mind than the matrimonial situation of king Henry.

  • Even if they had considered it, it was not a simple thing to do. Lots and lots of changes would have to be effected both in canon law and in the rituals, entailing a massive risk of splintering the Church.

  • And even if the Church would have been willing, English law was not ready for it.

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    $\begingroup$ While I agree with the overall argument here, there a some problems. The second point ("All men are created equal") was already extensively ignored as evidenced by that poster child for Causes of the Reformation, Indulgences. Though theoretically available to everyone, in practice they were a whole lot more available if you had wealth and power. And the third point ("Men and Women are equal") was most definitely not the practice nor the preaching of the RC church then (or now, to be honest). The church abounded with sexist rules and male privilege, starting with who could become a priest. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2018 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ ... I think that the second point should be adjusted/refined. The third point seems unsalvageable to me and should be dropped as it just weakens the overall argument. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2018 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ @RBarryYoung: We are not speaking about practice. In practice, the Church did not care one jot how many concubines the Pope had. The question is about doctrine; it seeks doctrinal reform. Doctrinally all people are equal. Indulgences, since you mention them, were available to all; in practice, the sad realities of life meant that they were more affordable to some; but that's secular reality, not spiritual doctrine. And I really don't see what you mean by "sexist rules". Yes, only males can become priests, that's why I said it was borderline possible. But besides this? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 31, 2018 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ No doctrinally, women could not become priests. Doctrinally, men had authority over their wives. It doesn't matter what high-level lip service noises the Church made about gender equality, they never lived up to it, neither in practice nor in material doctrine, and it is very clear that the immaterial doctrine of equality would not have been (and never was) a bar to sexually discriminating practices nor pronouncements. Further, regardless of how much you may believe in your third point, argumentatively it is weak/damaging because it will just keep leading to challenges and dismissals. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2018 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ Matthew 19:3-8 doesn't allow even serial marriages. $\endgroup$
    – user58697
    Jun 1, 2018 at 4:44

There's a fundamental flaw in this question: the assumption that the Anglican Church was Protestant. It was not. It was the Catholic Church with Henry VIII in charge rather than the Pope. Protestant churches were based on more basic doctrinal differences, e.g. Martin Luther's 95 Theses. See the related question on the History site: https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/46240/how-did-the-general-population-of-england-convert-so-smoothly-to-protestantism?s=8%7C35.1949

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for voicing the obvious -- when the Church of England separated it started from the Catholic doctrine; the protestant elements came later. That the CoE had a different head than the Catholic Church is enough to be considered a separate church. During the days of Henry VIII, the differences between the Orthodox and the Catholic churches were also only of administrative and ritual nature. (And one century later the Catholic church would go on and admit that there was nothing wrong with Orthodox rituals..., so until the mid 19th century there precious little official doctrinal difference.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 2, 2018 at 19:19

It did survive. There are Catholics in the UK. The protestant/catholic fighting was regional and cultural as much as it was religious.

Polygamous societies cannot compete with monogamous ones. Poly societies under-utilize their male workforce, since so many of them fight/exploit each other for a chance to reproduce. They always end up with a horde of angry, virgin men, and you can't always dump them onto the EU, if you know what I mean.

There were a great many criticisms of Catholicism. At its core, the mysticism - conducting religion in a language that your flock cannot understand, was the big complaint. The Church of England is very similar to Catholicism in terms of ideas. They broke away so that they could stop taking orders from the Vatican, and so that they could study the bible in their native tongue.

If the European aristocracy had gone poly, it would have hastened the revolutions that killed off so many of them, and no way would it have delayed the enlightenment.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – James
    May 31, 2018 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ There are alot of ideas here that are borderline offensive, not the content necessarily but if we are going to discuss these things we need to be clinical about it. Don't generalize, use real examples and studies, not generalizations about entire cultures. $\endgroup$
    – James
    May 31, 2018 at 15:36

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