The four seas law of cuckoldry

Cultural and legal circumstances affect the extent of cuckoldry. The four seas doctrine of English common law provided for legally recognized cuckoldry. Francis Osborne’s Advice to a Son, a serious 17th-century English work that circulated widely among the English elite, addressed the four seas doctrine. Since then, deliberative democracy has evolved to largely suppress serious discussion of important legal and policy issues associated with cuckoldry.

Men commonly have deep affection and loving care for their children. According to evolutionary-biological understanding, men have good reason to be interested in who their biological children are. Moreover, men have huge financial obligations under law to children legally declared to be theirs.

The four seas doctrine legally declares a man to be the father of a child in cases in which he was obviously cuckolded. Specifically, the four seas doctrine states that if a husband was anywhere under the jurisdiction of the King of England, evidence that the husband could not and did not have sex with his wife is irrelevant to determining paternity. So, for example, a man imprisoned in early twentieth-century British South Africa would be legally declared to be the father of any children his wife in London might have during his absence.

The four seas doctrine is as reasonable as much of current law on reproductive rights, child support, and child custody. Deprived of any reproductive rights whatsoever, men today are subject to forced financial fatherhood for children who are their biological children. Under state-institutionalized practices of legal cuckolding, men are also subject to forced financial fatherhood for children who aren’t their biological children. Moreover, men seeking custody of children legally declared to be theirs face acute anti-men bias in child custody and child support decisions.


Unlike much of family law today, the four seas doctrine wasn’t publicly obscure. Men of broad learning knew and discussed the four seas doctrine in seventeenth-century England. For example, in Oxford in 1656, Francis Osborne had printed his 150-page book, Advice to a Son. Regarding English law concerning love and marriage, Osborne declared:

The English Laws are composed so far in favor of Wives, as if our Ancestors had sent Women to their Parliaments, whilst their Heads were a wool-gathering at home; allowing no abusing of husbands Capital, nor marriage dissolvable, but in case of Adultery, not subject to proof but under the attests of two witnesses at one and the same time [1]

In other words, husband weren’t legally permitted to divorce wives for squandering their husband’s assets. Husbands also faced a high burden in proving adultery. Modern no-fault divorce now allows either spouse to trigger law on division and re-assignment of assets and income among ex-spouses. That change in law probably favors women even more, because women tend to be more oriented to valuing economic status in men than men do in women. Osborne immediately continued with observations on the four seas doctrine:

Nor is non-cohabitation a sufficient discharge from his keeping all such children, as her lust shall produce during his abode between the four English Seas; so as if his wife be a Strumpet, he must banish himself, or deal his bread and clothes to the Spurious issue of a stranger; a thraldom no wise man would sell himself to for the fairest inheritance, much less for trouble, vexation and want during life.

In other words, Osborne protested law making men legally into cuckolds. Law and policies continue to impose legal fatherhood on men in defiance of clear facts.

Osborne’s Advice to a Son circulated widely among the English elite. A historian present in Oxford at the time of Osborne’s publication reported that it was “greedily bought up, and admired in Oxon {Oxford}, especially by young scholars.”[2] Within two years of its first publication, five printings of it were issued. Samuel Pepys was reading Osborne’s work in London on January 23, 1661. Pepys was then a member of the Naval Board and Justice of the Peace. He went on to become a Member of Parliament. Pepys greatly admired Osborne’s Advice to a Son and referred to Osborne as “my father.” Three years after Pepys read Osborne’s Advice, it was still a subject of discussion:

Up and to the office, and at noon to the Coffeehouse, where I sat with Sir G. Ascue and Sir William Petty, who in discourse is, methinks, one of the most rational men that ever I heard speak with a tongue, having all his notions the most distinct and clear, and, among other things (saying, that in all his life these three books were the most esteemed and generally cried up for wit in the world “Religio Medici,”Osborne’s Advice to a Son,” and “Hudibras”), did say that in these — in the two first principally — the wit lies, and confirming some pretty sayings [3]

Sir William Petty was a leading intellectual and political figure. An economist, scientist, philosopher, and politician, he was a founding member of the Royal Society and served as a Member of Parliament. Osborne also became friends with the prominent English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Osborne’s blunt words for men about love, marriage, and English law were seriously discussed among leading English public intellectuals of the seventeenth century.[4]

As knowledgeable persons would expect, Osborne faced a sharp backlash for his blunt, acerbic counsel. About two years after Osborne published his Advice to a Son, John Heydon in London had printed his opposing publication, Advice to a Daughter in Opposition to the Advice to a Son. Heydon countered Osborne’s advice point by point. For example, Osborne, following the wisdom of Juvenal, suggested adopting children as a single man. Osborne then charitably added:

But if this savors too much of the Stoic, You may qualify it as you please; For I doubt not but the zeal your youth does yet retain towards the Creed and Practise of others (possibly not so well taught) may at present make much of This look like Blasphemy; But when so many winters have snowed on your Head, as on your Father’s, you will think it Canonical, and fit to be read to Posterity. [5]

Heydon countered this with the sort of name-calling and pedestalization that has now become common:

He speaks still but faintly as a man out of breath; I’ll give him a serious reproof, and let him take rest a while: Oh vain man, be advised, approach not the presence of such Angelical Creatures (as women) upon pain of my displeasure, and their frowns, which frowns alone are able to destroy a woman-hater. [6]

With regard to men bragging about having sex with various women, Osborne advised the son:

If it be Levity and Ostentation, to boast when you do well, in what Class of Folly must they be ranked, that brag of the Favours of Women? rendering themselves, by this, no less frail, then they; It being more shame for a man to be leaky & incontinent at the mouth, then for a woman to scatter her favours. [7]

Heydon countered with claims that have now become commonplaces:

I answer; Friend, why may he not be emblem’d {symbolized} by the cozening fig-tree that our Saviour cursed, never to bear fruit after? So I pronounce that it’s worthy his deserts to be hated of Ladies for ever after who boasts of their favours that perhaps never enjoyed any [8]

In modern terms, pick-up artists who share their expertise in having sex with various women are accused of never having sex. That’s just not a credible accusation. Pick-up artist are also accused of wanting to have sex without having children. That accusation might be related to the suppression of birth-control technologies that men can use. With respect to Osborne’s serious criticism of the ridiculous four seas legal doctrine, Heydon countered with irrelevant claims of NAWALT and gibberish:

I answer; Pigwiggin Myrmidon you are severe against the sex, and so uncharitable, as you think all women bad; yet others, I have heard dared affirm they are all good; sure though you speak as you find, there is reason to direct your opinion, without experience of the whole sex, which in a strict examination makes more for their honour then you have acknowledged. At first she was created his equal, only the difference was in the sex: otherwise they both were man. If I must box you to the Text, and there argue, both male and female made man; so the man being put first was worthier. I answer, you (flea-bitten canonic weed) so the evening and the morning was the first day, yet few will think the night the better … [9]

That’s engagement at an intellectual level similar to mainstream engagement with men’s human rights activists today.

In seventeenth-century England, the balance of public deliberation favored Osborne’s wisdom. Heydon’s backlash against Osborne prompted an immediate counter-backlash. Thomas Pecke of London published in 1658 his book Advice to Balaam’s Ass; or, Momus Catechised. In Answer to a certain Scurrilous and Abusive Scribbler, One John Heydon, Author of Advice to a Daughter. Pecke’s Advice to Balaam’s Ass included a dialogue poem “To the Book and Reader.” This poem featured paired couplets such as these:

And this perhaps may sometimes move their Laughter,
That thou art call’d Advice unto a Daughter.
A. {Answer} She that don’t Laugh at Advice to a Daughter,
I shall ne’re count for A Wise Woman after. [10]

Commenting on Heydon’s book offering a conclusion, Pecke declared:

I am glad your Book shall have an end although sorry that you should stagger six miles in such a difficult road, where your despicable wit, and indiscernible learning know scarce one step of the way, yet you are sure of fit company, if the Adage be true, Stultorum omnia plena {the universe is full of fools}. But it matters not when your book ends, for a few lines will make the Reader weary, and unable him to conclude, what both it and the Author are; that is to say none of the wisest. [11]

Those words comment poignantly on the broad, sordid stream of anti-meninist literature that pours forth today.

Cuckoldry, and its institutional correlate in “child support” policies, should be subject to vigorous public deliberation in a well-functioning deliberative democracy. The amount of money that a mother receives for child support is directly proportional to the income of the man with whom she had sex. That’s a highly unequal welfare system. It’s also grossly oppressive in circumstances in which men lack an appealing range of birth-control options and men have no reproductive rights whatsoever.

Today, scientists serving gynocentric interests and journalists functioning as tools of the propaganda apparatus seek to inculcate public belief that cuckoldry is “surprisingly rare” and “fear of cuckoldry is seriously overblown.” The reality is that millions of men are cuckolded despite most men’s intense private concern to avoid being put in that position. The damage to men from being cuckolded can be enormous. Cuckoldry is deeply institutionalized in current state laws and policies. Current “scientific” claims about cuckoldry mainly display the Soviet quality of public intellectual life in today’s Western societies.[12]

Deliberative democracy must be invigorated. For those interested in culture, much world literature throughout history addresses cuckoldry. For those interested in law and policy, the four seas doctrine and its modern parallels concern vitally important aspects of public governance. If public discussion of these issues continues to be held hostage by name-calling and hate-mongering, deliberative democracy in actual current practice will remain a farce.

* * * * *


[1] Osborne (1656) II.9 (pp. 46-8). The subsequent quote is from id. I have modernized spellings in all the quotations above. The pages in parenthesis refer to page numbering in the 1896 reprint.

While Osborne strongly protests against oppression of men and vigorously opposes marriage, his work has neither the lively, extraordinarily heightened barbs of Juvenal nor the keen ethical sense of Jerome. While writing in a highly mannered style, Osborne lacks the elegant pathos of Valerius and the deeply felt engagement of Matheolus. Osborne instead offers a straight-forward micro-political critique of marriage. He describes marriage as subjecting husbands to slavery under their wives’ command:

rendering Him subject to slavery, that was borne free, & Her to comand, who ought in righter reason to serve and obey. … Marriage is a Clog fastened to the neck of Liberty, by the juggling hand of Policy … Nothing being more certain, then that Married man changes the shape of a natural freedom, and enrolls himself among such as are rendered beasts of burden under Reason of State: whereas those unclog’d with this Yoke, if they like not the service and discipline of their own, may the easier exchange it for that of any other Commonwealth.

Osborne (1656) II.1 (p. 42); II.13 (II.11, p. 48); II.17 (II.16, p. 51). With sound economic insight, Osborne urges men to marry wives earning a high income:

The best of Husbands are Servants, but he that takes a Wife wanting
Money, is a Slave to his affection, doing the basest of Drudgeries without wages.

Id. II. 21 (II.19, p. 53). For discussion of seventeenth-century marriage advice, Hausknecht (2001). Following the dominant ideological line, Hausknecht describes Osborne’s book as “deeply misogynistic” and “notoriously misogynistic.” Id. pp. 85, 95.

[2] Wood (1691) p. 706. Antony á Wood was an antiquarian born in Oxford in 1632. He died there in 1695.

[3] Samuel Pepys, Diary, 17 January 1664. All the quotes from Pepys are from his diary. The previous quote is from 19 October 1661.

[4] On Osborne’s friendship with Hobbes, see Parry’s introduction, p. iii, to his 1896 reprint of Osborne (1656). Having read Osborne’s Advice to a Son, James Boswell described him as “a favourite author” of his:

I have found much shrewd and lively sense {in Advice to a Son}, expressed indeed in a style somewhat quaint, which, however, I do not dislike. His book has an air of originality. We figure to ourselves an ancient gentleman talking to us.

When Boswell asked Samuel Johnson what he thought of Osborne’s works, Johnson responded:

A conceited fellow. Were a man to write so now, the boys would throw stones at him.

Boswell (1791) p. 416 (diary year 1772). Johnson’s comment suggests the intensification of gynocentrism.

[5] Osborne (1656) II.29 (II.26, p. 56).

[6] Heydon (1658) Answer to II.26, p. 90. Osborne apparently added to his book a response to Heydon or similar criticism. To Section II (“Love & Marriage”), he prepended an exculpatory note:

To the Reader, concerning the following Discourse of Love, and Marriage
This had not appeared, being a result of more juvenile years, but that I feared, if let alone, it might hereafter creep abroad from under a false Impression, & one more scandalous to that sex, then becomes my complexion or Obligation. Therefore to vindicate me from the no less inhumane then unnatural imputation of a Woman-hater, I do here protest, with a reference to their charity and my own most serious affections, That if the Party advised had been a Daughter, my ink must have cast blacker than the rich grain of their Angelical Beauty is capable to be aspersed by.

Osborne (1658) (p. 39). In short, Osborne would have more viciously disparaged men in advice to a daughter. In the revised 1658 edition, Osborne appended to Section II other note:

To the women readers, concerning the foregoing discourse of love and marriage
Tho’ the multitude, that Crowd of Error and Mistakes, like Corn, hang their Ears, and situate their Judgments, not according to the constant Aspect of Reason, but the mutable and senseless Inspiration of Fools and Critics, commonly their Nurses, and according to whose Dialect this childish Monster is taught to prate; yet I did not apprehend it so deaf to its own interest, and the pitiful Voice of woeful Experience, as to imagine any thing, looking like a Mote in the Felicity of a Married man, which becomes not a Beam in the more tender Eye of a Wife; to whom the Cruelty of a Tyrannical Custom hath allotted the heaviest, and most uneasy end of the Chain.

Osborne (1658) (p. 57). Osborne’s concern for the the even greater disadvantage of marriage for women is similar to Jerome’s solicitousness for women in his letter against Jovinian.

[7] Osborne (1656) I.65 (I.54, p. 38).

[8] Heydon (1658) response to I.54, p. 65. Cf. Mark 11:12-4, 20-5; Matthew 21:18-22.

[9] Heydon (1658) response to II.9, p. 75.

[10] Pecke (1658) p. 11.

[11] Pecke (1658) pp. 3-4. The Latin phrase Stultorum omnia plena comes from Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares 22. Samuel Pepys also disparaged Heydon for his attack on Osborne:

by the fireside read a good part of “The Advice to a Daughter,” which a simple coxcomb has wrote against Osborne, but in all my life I never did nor can expect to see so much nonsense in print.

Diary, 22 December 1662.

Osborne’s book indicates his deep love for his wife. He extols to his son “the virtues of your Mother, which I confess are inferior to none.” Osborne urged respect and care for her:

Bear always a filial reverence to your dear Mother; and let not her old age, if she attain it, seem tedious unto you; Since that little, she may keep from you, will be abundantly recompensed, not only by her prayers, but by the tender care, she has, & ever will have of you: Therefore in case of my death (which, weariness of the world will not suffer me to adjourn so much as by a wish) do not proportion your respect by the mode of other Sons, but to the greatness of her desert, beyond requital in relation to us both.

Osborne (1656) II.16 (p. 50), VI (p. 131). For a sympathetic review of Osborne’s life and works, Osborne (1901). Osborne condemned witchcraft persecutions and the violence against men of dueling.

[12] Larmuseau, Matthijs & Wenseleers (2016) provides a good example of bad science. This scholarly work provides no systematic data. Its title claim, “Cuckolded fathers rare in human populations” apparently takes as a baseline information in “gossip magazines, talk shows, and TV series,” as well as other sources without good data and documentation. Id. asserts:

EPP {extra-pair paternity} rate in contemporary {human} populations is in the range of just 1-2%. If true, this would be reassuring news for many fathers.

Among all fathers, or all men interested in being fathers, 1-2% is a huge number. Moreover, the familial, personal, and financial costs of cuckoldry can be enormous. The assumption that 1-2% is a small, reassuring number (“just 1-2%,” “reassuring news”) indicates lack of objectivity and lack of concern for reality. Id. further reports:

The surprising result of these new studies is that human EPP rates have stayed near-constant at around 1% across several human societies over the past several hundred years.

Is it 1% or 2%? The difference is a doubling. That’s not common sense of “near-constant.” Moreover, it’s not clear from the article how exactly it defines the EPP percentage. Is it a share of fathers, or a share of children? That difference could be important. Not clearly addressing that difference suggests a lack of statistical seriousness. A recent study of Dogon paternity shows fundamental anti-men bias. A recent study of bone marrow recipients at a German university hospital from 1993 to 2008 found that the putative biological father was not the actual biological father for 9 focal persons (0.93% of the sample). Weaknesses of that study weren’t in my view fairly reported. In particular, the study was probably subject to a large, downward non-sampling bias. See details in the update at the bottom of my paternity uncertainty post. The share of children holding false beliefs about who is their biological father has a best current estimate of 5%, in my view. That’s based on my systematic review data on paternity uncertainty. That review provides ready access to a large amount of relevant data that you can study and evaluate for yourself. The scientific failures in recent scholarly work on paternity uncertainty reflect broader communicative problems.

[image] Men engaging in serious, informal discussion. Literary party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s home. D. George Thompson, 1851. Held at the narrow-minded National Portrait Gallery, London. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Boswell, James. 1791. The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D: comprehending an account of his studies and numerous works, … In two volumes. London: printed by Henry Baldwin, for Charles Dilly.

Hausknecht, Gina. 2001. “‘So Many Shipwracke for Want of Better Knowledge’: The Imaginary Husband in Stuart Marriage Advice.” Huntington Library Quarterly. 64 (1/2): 81-106.

Heydon, John. 1658. Advice to a daughter in opposition to the Advice to a sonne, or, Directions for your better conduct through the various and most important encounters of this life. London: Printed by J. Moxon for Francis Cossinet.

Larmuseau, Maarten, Koenraad Matthijs, and Tom Wenseleers. 2016. “Cuckolded fathers rare in human populations.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution. TREE-D-16-00022R1 (2086, Article in Press).

Osborne, Charles C. 1901. “Francis Osborne, Author.” Gentleman’s Magazine 290: 351-362.

Osborne, Francis. 1656. Advice to a son, or, Directions for your better conduct through the various and most important encounters of this life. Oxford: Printed by H.H. for Tho. Robinson.(Judge Edward Abbott Parry’s edition, London, 1896)

Pecke, Thomas. 1658. Advice to Balam’s ass, or, Momus catechised in answer to a certaine scurrilous and abusive scribler, one John Heydon, author of Advice to a daughter. London: Printed by E.B. for Henry Marsh.

Wood, Anthony á. 1691. Athenæ Oxonienses: an exact history of all the writers and bishops who have had their education in the most ancient and famous University of Oxford, from the fifteenth year of King Henry the Seventh, Dom. 1500, to the end of the year 1690 representing the birth, fortune, preferment, and death of all those authors and prelates, the great accidents of their lives, and the fate and character of their writings: to which are added, the Fasti, or, Annals, of the said university, for the same time. London: Printed for Tho. Bennet.

Article licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Recommended Content

%d bloggers like this: