I’ve discovered a wonderfully detailed monograph written by a 21st-century professor of history (whose specialty is the social history of early modern England) that illustrates very nicely that the medieval canon laws governing pre-contracted marriages that resulted into the dissolution of Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville survived, intact and without alteration, through the Reformation.
The book is David Cressy’s Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England, published by Oxford University Press in 1997, when Cressy was Professor of History at California State University in Long Beach. An extensive preview is available for viewing at Google Books.[i]
Cressy’s specialty is the social history of early modern England. For those who do not know, “early modern England” roughly corresponds to the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. On his current faculty page at Ohio State University, Cressy shares a few of his credentials:
“I was born and educated in England, and received four degrees from the University of Cambridge. I came to the United States on a two-year teaching contract, before I finished my Ph. D., and have been here ever since. I am a naturalized U.S. citizen. I taught at liberal arts colleges in California, and at California State University, Long Beach, before joining the Ohio State University History Department in 1998. I am currently Humanities Distinguished Professor of History and George III Professor of British History.” [ii]
What Constituted a Legal and/or Church-Approved Marriage in the Middle Ages Through Stuart Times?
The medieval Church’s[iii] “obligations” for persons seeking to be married involved posting marriage banns, obtaining licenses to marry in special situations, and confronting challenges to the legitimacy of marriages due to pre-contracts. These same obligations were inserted into the original 1549 edition of the Anglican church’s Book of Common Prayer, and into subsequent editions as well. This means the same obligations were in force in England from the medieval period to the Tudor period, and on through Stuart England. What this means is that anyone in denial regarding:
- Why Edward IV’s previously contracted marriage to Eleanor Butler (née Talbot) made his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid;
- What contemporary evidence was required by the archbishops on the king’s council to declare Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid;
- What right the archbishops on the king’s council had to declare Edward and Elizabeth’s children were illegitimate;
can consult Cressy’s detailed work (which was written by a Tudor and Stuart historian, and which includes extensive notes for each chapter and cites a multitude of contemporary sources) and come to understand precisely why the Church declared Edward IV’s second marriage invalid and the children of his marriage illegitimate. Illegitimate children were known as bastards, and by law bastards could not inherit anything. This included their parents’ lands, wealth, titles, and thrones.
Readers of Cressy’s monograph will also discern that unless the Constable of England or the Protector of the Realm had been a first-hand witness (meaning, unless he could testify “I was there…I saw…I heard…”) regarding any past events involved in a challenge to a pre-contracted marriage, he was powerless to influence the outcome of that challenge. Medieval Church and the Anglican canon law that echoed it dictated that Richard of Gloucester had no power to declare any marriage invalid, nor could he declare illegitimate the children of any marriage. The medieval Church and the Anglican church both reserved the exclusive right to dissolve marriages, and their decisions were based solely upon eyewitness evidence brought before medieval Church/Anglican church officials.
What Was Necessary for Edward IV to Have Done, to Marry Eleanor Butler?
Cressy devotes an entire chapter to clandestine and irregular marriages[iv], both of which terms apply to Edward IV since he married twice in secret when he was king, without the asking of banns at mass. Cressy’s summary of the “problem of ‘clandestine’ marriages in Tudor and Stuart England” can be applied whole cloth to the problem of Edward IV’s clandestine marriages.
Please read the following carefully – especially the second paragraph quoted – for at first glance it may seem that medieval law and early modern social practice were at odds when they were not. Cressy writes:
“Confusion has set in because some scholars have failed to differentiate late medieval legal principle from early modern social practice, and have mistaken ‘clandestine’ and irregular marriages for informal unions that rested on mere consent. This chapter sets out to review the problem of ‘clandestine’ marriage in Tudor and Stuart England, and to show that despite obvious technical defects they were, for the most part, conformable to social and legal expectations.
“In principle, a marriage existed if the man and the woman committed themselves to each other by words of consent expressed in the present tense. It would be enough to say, ‘I N. do take thee, N, to be my wedded wife/husband.’ A marriage was technically made valid in law by this contract or spousals per verba de presenti [words in the present tense], providing there were no overriding impediments. A contract de future, made in the future tense (such as ‘I will marry you’) became immediately binding if followed by sexual intercourse. Such was the core of medieval law, that was not changed in England until Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753.[v] [Bold mine.]
This means that if while Edward was laying siege to Eleanor, if she whispered, “I, Eleanor, do take thee, Ned, to be my wedded husband,” and Edward said something in reply, something as innocuous as, “Mmm hmm. Sure, whatever my lady” as he wasn’t paying attention, or if she pressed him as to his true intentions, and he offhandedly said, “Of course I will marry you,” and sexual intercourse followed, then voila! The two of them were married.
No priest was needed to make such a marriage legal and binding, though Eleanor may have told her family afterward and wanted to consult a priest and confine herself to a nunnery once she heard King Edward had subsequently married Lady Elizabeth Grey.
What, Exactly, Does “Pre-Contract” Mean?
Many people who haven’t taken the time to research medieval/Tudor/Stuart marriage laws don’t understand what “pre-contract” means, and why it was such a serious accusation with serious consequences in 1483. The uninformed seem to assume that the term means what it might mean in the 21st century – that Edward IV had merely been engaged to Eleanor Talbot and only a broken engagement was revealed in 1483. That’s no big deal in our time, so why were Edward’s children declared bastards and disinherited over such a small thing?
A “pre-contract” is not an engagement. The term means a previous marriage. It means a previous marriage took place, one which invalidates a second marriage or a man or woman’s intent to make a second marriage.
Edward IV stood accused of having previously married Eleanor Talbot. Such an accusation could only be assessed by the archbishops on the king’s council in the spring/summer of 1483. History shows those archbishops found the accusation to be true, which that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had never been valid because by both medieval Church and later Anglican law (and even by modern law), no man can have more than one living wife at one time.
- Edward married Elizabeth Woodville on 1 May 1464.
- Eleanor Talbot did not die until 30 June 1468.
Even if the Archbishops Had to Dissolve Edward and Elizabeth’s Marriage, Why Didn’t They Protect Edward V’s Right to the Throne, or His Siblings and His Mother’s Status?
This is where it gets complicated, unless you think in terms of what Edward IV should have done but did not do, at the very least, to ensure the rights of his heir to inherit his hard-won throne.
It wouldn’t have solved anything if Edward had confessed his bigamy and remarried Elizabeth publicly after his first wife Eleanor’s death in an effort to make all marital things new again. Nothing Edward could have done – except to have clung to life until he had outlived everyone who knew about his earlier marriage, which likely included not only Stillington but members of the Talbot family – would have changed the bastardy of Edward’s children because nothing could change the fact that those children had been conceived and born under an invalid, bigamous marriage.
In medieval/Tudor/Stuart England, [the churches] required that on three separate Sundays or holy-days, during the mass and in the presence of all the people attending mass, the priest had to “ask the banns.” That is, he had to ask the congregation whether anyone could give a reason why a couple could not lawfully be married.
“The banns,” writes Cressy, “were a safety device to prevent those who were ineligible from attempting the passage into matrimony”. Further on, Cressy says, “Church court records capture some of the drama of a challenge to the banns of marriage, though they barely hint at the heartbreak and embarrassment that some irregularities entailed. William Mead and Margaret Rame were ready to be married at Great Waltham, Essex, in 1577 after the banns were asked openly in church on two successive Sundays. But on the third Sunday ‘they were forbidden by Nicholas Satch, who claimed marriage’ to Margaret by virtue of an alleged pre-contract.
“Legally, a pre-contract was a fatal impediment to marriage. If one intending partner was already contracted to another the wedding was not supposed to proceed. And if such a person forgot or concealed a pre-existing contract, the marriage, if solemnized, could be declared invalid.”[vi] [Bold mine.]
Medieval and Anglican canon law both dictated that:
- If banns were asked by a priest three times in public as [the churches] dictated; and,
- If no one came forward at that time with reason(s) why a couple should not be married; or,
- If someone came forward at a later time with valid reason(s) why the marriage was unlawful and should be dissolved; then,
- Regardless [the churches] dissolved the marriage, any children of the marriage were not and could not be declared illegitimate because their parents had followed the dictates of [the churches]. [The churches] could and would then extend [their] protection to the children to ensure their legitimacy and ability to inherit under English law.
- If banns had not been asked, if [the churches] had not been involved in the run-up to the marriage, if [church] procedure had not been followed, then the children of a dissolved marriage could not and would not be protected by [either church]. They would be declared bastards, and bastards could not inherit under English law.
Stillington revealed the pre-contract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler in June 1483. At that time, Elizabeth Woodville, her son Richard of York, and all her daughters were in sanctuary within Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth had easy access to multiple canon-law experts who could have defended her marriage before the king’s council. Experts who knew how to challenge and negate the testimony of witnesses appearing before the council.
Likewise, Elizabeth had access to canon-law experts who could have told her it was impossible to negate the testimony offered, or to correct the grave mistakes Edward IV had made, not only by marrying Elizabeth when he was already married to Eleanor Talbot, but also by marrying Elizabeth in secret and not involving the Church whose law could have saved her children from the wreck of illegitimacy and at the same time upheld Edward V’s right to inherit his father’s throne.
The historical events of June 1483 indicate that Elizabeth Woodville prepared no defense against the dissolution of her marriage. Nor did she offer any protest against the king’s council declaring her children bastards, nor against the council’s removing Edward V’s right to succeed his father. Elizabeth appears to have sat silent in sanctuary while witnesses were called and testified before the council, while the council’s archbishops debated, and while her marriage to Edward IV was dissolved due to his previous marriage to another woman.
There is much more in Cressy’s monograph of interest to anyone interested in digging through medieval laws and traditions that carried over into Tudor and Stuart times. It would serve anyone in denial about the marital errors Edward IV made that resulted in Edward V’s being barred from the throne to consult this book. It does much to explain exactly why Richard of Gloucester had no power to control the ultimate consequences of bigamist Edward IV’s secret marriages to Eleanor Talbot and Elizabeth Woodville.
[iii] Please note that before the Reformation there was but one church in the Western world, with people referring to it only as “the Church.” I’ve followed that tradition here.
[iv] Chapter 11: Clandestine and Irregular Marriages
[v] Statutes of the Realm, 26 Geo. II, c. 33; Outhwaite, Clandestine Marriage in England, 75-97.
[vi] Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 306-307.