Why did she not speak out?
I have come across a few conversations on the net in which the question is asked: If Eleanor Talbot was married to Edward IV, why did she not speak out when he ‘married’ Elizabeth Woodville?
It’s a fair enough question, although in my view a tad on the naive side. 15th Century England was not a liberal democracy under a rule of law, with the right of appeal to the Supreme Court and ultimately to the European Court of Human Rights. It was something very close to a dictatorship. Yes, there were certain restraints on the sovereign’s power, but these restraints were pretty limited. Parliament and Peers generally only cut up rough when their collective interests were threatened – for example if the King wanted to impose heavy taxation. They tended not to worry too much about what we would call ‘human rights’.
Even in our enlightened times, a private individual who had something to say about the sovereign which threatened the security of the state would not exactly have an easy ride. If they were not dismissed as a nutcase, they would certainly attract the attention of the security services, and at the minimum be given ‘advice’. They would also run a good chance of having their lives dissected in the Daily Mail and – who knows? – they might just find themselves conveniently committing ‘suicide’.
Let us consider a couple of people who gave Edward IV a little hassle. Bishop Stillington, for speaking words prejudicial to the King, was chucked in the Tower. It should be noted that this was a former Chancellor of England, not a nobody, a man who in addition enjoyed the virtual immunity of prelates from the death sentence, a convention only ever broken by kings called ‘Henry’. He also had the benefit of an ‘old boys’ network, including the University of Oxford that protected him – to an extent – under Henry VII. Stillington took note. Whatever ‘prejudicial’ words he wanted to give out, he kept them to himself for the rest of Edward IV’s reign.
Then there was Clarence, who was actually Edward IV’s full-blood brother. It’s not exactly clear what he did that justified his execution – although we can be sure it was something, as Edward was such a good chap who never did an unjust deed in his whole life. But part of it was certainly protesting to the King’s council about Edward’s actions.
Eleanor Talbot was not a prelate, she was not the king’s brother – she was just a little woman.
Some of you may not like that term, so let me go on to say at one that I am aware of a number of formidable women (mostly ladies actually) who were a force in fifteenth century England. Indeed, I’ve made quite a study of more than one of them. They usually had at least two of the following: very high-placed male relatives; considerable lands of their own; and last, but by no means least, a forceful personality. Most had all three. It’s quite possible that Eleanor Talbot did not have one. She certainly had no significant lands, and her nearest male relative, Sir Humphrey Talbot, was not a man with a great deal of political ‘kick’. Indeed, he was in need of royal patronage, which he eventually received.
Of course, the occasion when Eleanor should have spoken out was the formal, public wedding of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. But as no such public ceremony ever took place, she couldn’t, could she?
After that, I suspect any protest on her part would have been laughed at – if not, she might simply have been thrown into prison. She may also have been restrained by feelings of delicacy – opening the matter would have damaged her reputation and made her look a fool. Perhaps she simply preferred to ‘lie low and say nuffin’ rather than face such humiliation.
So I have no difficulty in understanding why Eleanor did not speak out. I think she was very wise not to do so.