In 1527, marital and sexual activity in England was largely regulated by the ecclesiastical courts. At least since the ninth century, medieval popes had insisted that such matters "directly affect the salvation and faith of the Christian people" ( Ullmann205) and should thus be ultimately subject to papal adjudication. For practical purposes, it was therefore nominally up to the church courts to decide what comprised a sexual offense or an unsound marriage, and those same courts were responsible for stipulating the penalties for sexual and marital misconduct. Indeed, morals cases took up the majority of the church courts' time, and incest was only one of many sex-related offenses within their purview. Relative to such matters as rape, sodomy, adultery, and fornication, moreover, it does not seem to have occasioned much attention or distress, but it did become particularly prominent in cases involving royal and/or noble title. In this one respect, incest became a recurring theme in England and on the Continent during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It seems to have gained special significance from its appearance within the bedrooms of the great.
The legal importance of incest derived from three fundamental points endemic to medieval and Renaissance church administration. First, the Catholic church was committed to what is usually called the "indissolubility" of marriage ( Gies and Gies56); as a sacrament, marriage was not to be set aside -- that is, there was to be no divorce -- except under the most extreme and often, from the standpoint of the husband, humiliating of circumstances.1 Second, in the absence of anything like twentieth-century divorce, an unsatisfactory marriage could at best be dissolved a vinculo, declared null and void, and such declaration could be based only upon a series of diriment (i.e., nullifying) impediments, or irregularities in the manner in which the marriage was originally contracted. Incest was one.