Doubts about Edward IV’s marriage – in the age of Henry VIII!

While browsing Royal Blood by Bertram Fields I noticed the following remarkable passage, (pages 116-117):

“…during the reign of Henry VIII, Charles V’s ambassador to England reported that people ‘say’ that Charles had a better claim to the English throne than did Henry VIII, since Henry could only claim through his mother and she ‘was declared by sentence of the Bishop of Bath [Stillington] a bastard, because Edward had espoused another wife before he married the mother of Elizabeth of York.”

This demonstrates that despite the suppression of Titulus Regius at least some people of England were still aware of the true basis of Richard III’s claim. Moreover, far from thinking it spurious, they were sufficiently impressed by its truth to pass the story to the Spanish Ambassador, despite the obvious risks associated with doing so. I think we can also assume that the informants were persons of some weight – not mere gossips in the London street – or the ambassador would scarcely have wasted his master’s time with such a report.

Royal Blood is an interesting and useful book, although not without its occasional faults of misunderstanding. I recently read a criticism of it that stated that the author spent too much time ‘attacking’ Alison Weir. In a sense, this is actually praise of Weir, as it demonstrates how influential her book has been in forming opinion, in that points made in it need to be addressed by those who take a contrary view. However, it is scarcely an ‘attack’ to rebut errors, as Royal Blood does on several occasions. It is indeed the very nature of historical debate.

21 comments

  1. I believe Royal Blood (one of my favorite pro-r3 books) was written as a rebuttal to Weir’s highly popular book. Fields is a lawyer, after all.

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  2. Catherine of Aragon had a better claim to the throne than Henry, and was more beloved of the people too.

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  3. Do you ever wonder why Edward never did anything about his children’s possible illegitimacy though? Once Eleanor Talbot had died, he could have easily married Elizabeth Woodville properly and had his children made legitimate by decree or papal bull (as John of Gaunt did for his Beaufort children). To leave it all to chance seems a very odd/large risk for a king to take, all things considered.

    Makes me wonder if Richard III (or more correctly, Catesby) didn’t just make the whole thing up, knowing that Edward IV’s reputation as a womanizer would make the fiction credible enough to be fact.

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  4. He would have had to own up in public as a bigamist – far better to try to forget it after Lady Eleanor died.

    The only other evidence we have is the similarity to the Woodville “marriage” with another older Lancastrian widow, Edward and Lady Eleanor’s movements in 1461, Lady Eleanor’s parcel of land and leaving a will, Clarence’s execution, Stillington’s testimony to the Three Estates confirmed by Richard’s letter to Lord Mountjoy in Calais, the 1484 Parliament’s knowledge of Edward’s reputation when they passed Titulus Regius and the fervour with which the first “Tudor” and his paid liars sought to suppress this legislation, including Stillington’s arrest.

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  5. It’s my understanding of Medieval Canon Law that where a person knowingly enters into an invalid marriage, that error cannot be corrected by a later marriage, If the pre-contract is true, then Edward IV knowingly entered into an invalid marriage with Elizabeth Woodville thus he could not rectify that by a later ‘marriage’ once Eleanor Butler was dead.

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  6. One problem Edward himself created was that he married Elizabeth Woodville in secret – it was an irregular marriage. Had he married her publicly, then, unless Eleanor Talbot had actually stepped forward to object, his children by Elizabeth would almost certainly have been regarded as legitimate. (By the way, as you cannot repeat the sacrament of marriage, he would also have needed a Dispensation to marry Elizabeth a second time, even privately.)

    He ought to have obtained a Papal Dispensation to regularise his marriage, as his grandfather, Richard of Conisbrough, did in similar circumstances – this would apply even if Eleanor Talbot was merely a figment of our imagination. We can only guess why he did not bother. One possibility is that he knew that as he was already married no such dispensation would be valid, and that to obtain it he would have to lie to the Pope. In any event, it was a careless and frankly stupid failure; he had the resources of the Crown available, poor old Richard of Conisbrough was practically penniless – but obviously more concerned about his pedigree.

    Edward could also have put a Bill through Parliament, entailing the crown on his issue through Elizabeth. He didn’t bother.

    Given that he was actually the King of England, Edward’s general conduct in this matter was at best irresponsible and ill-advised.

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    1. Edward probably counted on living for a good while by which time his son would have been of age and any challenge to his legitimacy unlikely. It was the fact that Edward died so young that caused all the problems.

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  7. I’m sure that is correct. But being a medieval king was a hazardous occupation, and few of them made old bones. If Edward himself could not see the risk, then it should have been within the pay grade of one of his senior advisers – say the Chancellor – to have brought the matter up. I find it odd, even surprising, that the matter was allowed to hang.

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    1. It depends on exactly who knew what. I would think that Hastings probably knew, but certainly Warwick didn’t otherwise he would have made use of it. George probably found out about it just before he began his final round of trouble which eventually led to his death. As to anyone else? I think the information was strictly limited.

      As to Edward doing something about it, so much time had gone by, it would have been very awkward to suddenly have to explain to his Court that the woman he had insisted be recognised as his queen was no such thing and that he would have to take steps to ensure his children were legitimate. That might have had a very detrimental effect on his standing – reason, perhaps, for further rebellion.

      Personally, I think Edward backed himself into a corner and then took the line of least resistance, leaving well enough alone and hoping to live until his son was of age and beyond,

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  8. Catherine of Aragon was aware that her claim was better than Henry’s at the time of her marriage. I don’t have access to my library at the moment, but I believe it is in a book by CAJ Armstrong. But this was because of her descent from John of Gaunt, and thus the Lancastrian claim .

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  9. Henry Tudor had more rights to the throne than just through his wife! I suppose you’re trying to make Richard III look good by trying to bring Henry T down. If Richard III can’t look good on his own merits, then obviously there’s a problem. *sigh*

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  10. Henry “Tudor” had few such rights. His (illegitimate Beaufort) royal descent, if he really had it, was specifically excluded from the throne (“excepta dignitate regali”). His “rights by conquest”, until ratified by Parliament, were no more than a stooge of Napoleon or Hitler would have had.

    PS Richard does look good to people with open minds – try reading about his legislation.

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  11. Yes *in the age of King Henry VIII* long before the Richard III Society existed, people were trying to make Richard III ‘look good’. Because they evidently knew the truth about his accession, and also knew that Henry VII had no hereditary claim that was worth spit. If you want to argue with people who lived in the 16th Century, you will need a time machine.

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  12. Has Mr. Fields attributed any of his highly entertaining presumptions in later editions of the book “Royal Blood?” My old copy has no footnotes, rather surprising for an attorney venturing into the realm of history.

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    1. For some reason which I can’t quite remember, the footnotes are available separately. I obtained a copy of them from an American source.

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  13. Henry VII didn’t hold the “English Lancastrian” claim to the throne; his mother did … and she was alive after Bosworth. So, Henry VII had no claim to the throne in his own right … unless Richard was a legitimate king, which gives Henry a claim of conquest. (Interesting that Henry’s suppression of Richard’s claim is one strong piece of evidence that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was in fact invalid).

    Seriously, though, the reference to the pre-contract is made when Chapuys is trying to persuade Charles to go to war on behalf of Catherine; it was politically advantageous for him to make the argument. What is more interesting, though, is the fact that Catherine of Aragon did have a claim to the throne that may well have been passed down to Mary even if Mary was bastardized (there is some debate as to whether illegitimate children could inherit from their mothers at this time) — Henry VIII’s actions could well show his fear that Catherine (or Mary) would make use of the fact that they had as good a claim as he did — if not better.

    Esther

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