Widow Conservation

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Widow Conservation is a term referring to a practice in Protestant Europe in the early modern age, when the widow of a parish vicar was remarried to her husband's successor to ensure her economical support. This practice was common in particularly Scandinavia (Änkekonservering) and the Protestant parts of Germany (Konservierung von Pfarrwitwen).


At the introduction of the Protestant Reformation, the priests were allowed to marry. However, as the priests did not own the vicarage and property attached to his profession, his spouse and issue were left without means to support themselves after his death. The future support of the widows and children of vicars thereby became a concern for the various churches. The most common solution was that the successor of a vicar married the widow (or perhaps the daughter) of his predecessor, thereby "conserving" her.

Widow Conservation by country[edit]


In Mark Brandenburg, Widow Conservation was common practice in the 17th-century.

In 1698, Frederick III of Brandenburg banned Widow conservation by the Juramentum simoniae as being a form of purchase of the vicarage office.

East Prussia[edit]

Widow Conservation was common practice in East Prussia. The practice is here the center of the legend of Ännchen von Tharau, which was inspired by the widow conservated vicars wife Anna Neander (1615-1689).


The first widow conservation of the kind is documented from 1551, and by 1580, it had became a common practice, which was recommended by the church order of 1602. By 1704, one third of all vicars' wives were the widow of the predecessor of her spouse.

From 1623 onward, however, there was also an increasing number of widow funds, which made widow conservation more unnecessary while the widow funds grew. The last widow conservation took place in the mid 19th-century.


In Pomerania, the church synod of 1545 saw no other choice but to tolerate the practice, and in 1572, the conservation of the widow or daughter of a vicar was officially declared the duty of his successor. An attempt to replace it with a dowry provided by the congregations in 1575 failed.

During the 18th-century, the practice started to decrease because of more alternatives, such as the foundation of a fund for vicars widows in Swedish Pomerania in 1775.


In the Duchy of Saxony, a strong policy to prevent widow conservation was enforced already when it occurred in the 16th-century, and attempts of having a successor of a vicar marry the widow or daughter of his predecessor were actually prevented and contested when it did occur.

Sweden and Finland[edit]

In Sweden and Finland (then a Swedish province), the parish vicars was given permission to marry after the protestant reformation of 1527. The support of vicar's widows quickly became a concern. After the death of a vicar, his widow was entitled to a Nådeår (Year of Grace) and live on the vicarage while preparing support for her and her children. During that year, the parish were to select the next vicar. As the parish and church considered it their duty to support the widow of their former vicar, they normally chose a priest who expressed himself willing to marry the widow of his predecessor. The vicar's widow herself also seem to have played a part in electing the next vicar by using the influence she had in the parish by her position as vicar's wife. Another way to arrange the support of the widow was for the next vicar to marry her adult daughter, if she had one, or indeed that the son of a vicar succeeded him.

In the church order of 1571, the rules stated that the son or the son-in-law of the former vicar were to be considered first when a new parish vicar were chosen. During the 17th-century, the widow conservation were common practice and the majority of the vicar's wives were the widow or daughter of her husband's predecessor. Between 1686 and 1739, the church law clearly stated that when a new parish vicar were to be employed, the candidates who expressed themselves willing to marry the widow or daughter of his predecessor should be given the place before other candidates. This statue was abolished in 1739, when the authorities started to place the education of the vicars the main qualification, but the practice continued the entire 18th-century, as the parishes continued to regard it their responsibility to support the vicar's wives, who were often locals and had a strong position in their parishes.

By the end of the 18th-century and the beginning of the 19th-century, however, the Widow Conservation quickly came of use. The reasons were several: a different view upon marriage as more of a love union than a practical arrangement; that the education of the candidates, who were less often the son's of vicars, had became more important; and because the recently established retirement funds for vicar's widows which were founded made the solution less needed. During the 19th-century, widow conservation was hardly longer existent.

There were also parishes which were formally inherited this way. In 1591, King John III of Sweden granted the Annerstad parish in Småland to vicar Georgius Marci, to be inherited on both the male and female line by his descendants: either by a son, or by a successor married to a daughter or a widow of his predecessor. Upon the death of Marci in 1613, his parish was inherited by his son-in-law by marriage to his daughter, Kerstin Marca (1585-1653), who has been referred to as the first Swedish female to have formally inherited the right to a vicar's parish: the Annerstad parish was on several occasions inherited by females in the same fashion, such as for example by Gunilla Osængius in 1685, until the year of 1780, when king Gustav III of Sweden refused the request of a vicars candidate to marry the twelve year old daughter of the recently deceased vicar Anders Osængius.