It is sometimes asserted that Richard III ‘ought to have referred the legitimacy of the princes to a Church court’ or even ‘to the Pope’. Quite apart from the rather obvious fact that a late 15th Century Parliament was never going to allow the succession to be determined by a bishop or two, and still less by a foreign potentate, there was at least one precedent for Parliament effectively determining the legitimacy of an individual, at least as far as inheritance was concerned. The source, if anyone is interested, is the Parliament Roll of 1431.
However, to tell the story, we need to go a little further back in time. Coincidentally, it involves a member of the House of York who was an ancestress of (among many others) Anne and Isabel Neville.
Round about 1404, Constance of York, Lady Despenser, daughter of Edmund of Langley and widow of Thomas Despenser, Lord Despenser and Earl of Gloucester, involved herself in a relationship with Edmund Holland, Earl of Kent, who was at that time about a year under age and the ward of King Henry IV. They may – or may not – have contracted an irregular marriage. A daughter, Alianore, was born (although we do not know when) and early in 1405 Kent received a licence allowing him to marry any woman he chose ‘of the King’s allegiance.’
Unfortunately, matters then took an unexpected turn. Constance managed to sneak the Mortimer heirs out of Windsor Castle – where the boys were being kept as state prisoners. She fled with them towards Wales (and Owain Glyndwr) but the whole party was overtaken and captured near Cirencester. Constance temporarily forfeited her lands and goods and was thrown into jail.
Despite the licence he had granted, Henry IV now went to some trouble to obtain an alternative bride for Kent, importing the Lady Lucia of Milan from Italy. Lucia was supposed to bring a huge dowry – unfortunately for Kent (and his many creditors) it was never paid, and Kent himself was killed in 1408.
Fast forward to circa 1430. Kent, Constance and Lucia are all long dead. Alianore Holland, having lived for some time under the protection of her half-sister, Isabelle, Countess of Warwick, has married James, Lord Audley as his second wife. This pair go to the Church court with evidence – of what quality or honesty we simply do not know – in an attempt to have Alianore declared legitimate and therefore heiress to her father.
Kent had several sisters – indeed six of them – and those that were still alive, led by Margaret, Duchess of Clarence, and the heirs of the deceased sisters had long enjoyed possession of the Holland lands. You might think that they would have gone straight to the Church court to contest the Audleys especially since (this is known) Kent and Lucia had been married in regular fashion, in an actual church before witnesses that (according to them) included Constance herself! This latter fact – if true – should have killed the Audleys’ case stone dead.
Instead they petitioned Parliament about the horrid injustice being done to them, and their petition was granted. In effect Parliament decided that – whatever the Bishop’s court might or might not determine – Lady Audley was not eligible to inherit her father’s lands. Moreover, there is no indication that Parliament gave any hearing to the Audleys’ case.
Now I am the first to admit that this case does not precisely mirror the circumstances of the Edward IV-Elizabeth Woodville case. Obviously it doesn’t. And, sadly, we do not know whether the Church court decided that Lady Audley was technically legitimate or not.
This however, is not the point. The Audley case of 1431 demonstrates that the Parliament of England was quite willing to rule on the legitimacy of an individual – insofar as it impacted on inheritance. And it would do as much for a private person, on the basis of a petition. So there is little doubt that it would have felt itself amply competent to rule on a matter which touched on the inheritance of the throne itself.