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YORK OR LANCASTER: WHO WAS THE TRUE KING OF ENGLAND IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY?

Part 1-– Necessitas non habet leger – The Lancastrian title 1399

Introduction

I am not arguing that Henry IV usurped the crown in 1399. That judgment has already been made and hardly challenged since the fifteenth century[1]. Neither will I rehearse the reasons for king Richard II’s downfall in 1399; they are already well enough known. My sole purpose in this essay is to make a few observations about an emerging historical debate concerning the true basis of Henry of Lancaster’s title to the throne.

The issue turns primarily on the meaning of Henry’s declaration to the quasi parliament that assembled on the 30 September 1399. According to contemporary sources, once bishop Asaph had declared the throne vacant, Henry rose from his seat, blessed himself and stepped towards the empty throne, which he claimed by right of inheritance (de jure), by conquest (de facto) and by the will of God. His claim is recorded in the Parliamentary Roll for the October 1399 parliament. This is what is written (modern spellings): “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I, Henry of Lancaster challenge this realm of England and the crown with all the members and the appurtenances, as I that am descended by right line of the blood coming of the good lord Henry the third, and through that right that God of his grace has sent me with help of my kin and of my friends to recover it, the which realm was in point to be undone for default of governance and undoing of the good laws. ” These words form part of the ‘Record and Process’, which is a Lancastrian memorandum describing their version of Richard II’s dethronement. It was incorporated into the Parliamentary Roll (PR) as a matter of official record[2]. Any examination of this aspect of PR has to deal with two important preliminary questions. First, how far is the official account to be trusted? Second, was it Henry’s intention to seek parliamentary approval of his title?

Can the official account be trusted?

Professor E F Jacob describes the Lancastrian  account as “…tendentious and in certain material respects erroneous”.[3] And it is certainly contradicted by independent chronicle accounts. One eyewitness to the September gathering quotes Henry as actually claiming the throne, as the “nearest male heir and worthiest blood descendant of the good king Henry the third…”[4] Such a significant difference between the PR and the Chronicles requires explanation. The Record and Process part of the PR was almost certainly drafted by lawyers in the Lancastrian interest. Their intention was to justify Henry’s claim and disguise the profanity of deposing an anointed king and usurping the rights of Richard’s heir. The draftsman undoubtedly took great care over the wording of Henry’s claim and title to the crown, since the issue was a complex one and his title was doubtful. However, the fact that this is probably not what Henry actually said in September is immaterial; the PR represents the official, mature and considered Lancastrian position and even historians cannot go behind it in order it to absolve Henry from having usurped the crown.

We can be reasonably sure that If Henry of Lancaster had possessed an unequivocal title as heir male to Henry III it would have been recorded explicitly in the Roll. The fact that it isn’t suggests that in the interval between the September assembly and Henry’s first parliament wise counsel had prevailed on him to tone the claim down. The legitimacy of Henry’s title was still doubted by some lords, who were perhaps uncomfortable with such a bold and controversial proclamation of his hereditary right. These doubters needed to be pacified. Even Henry’s principal northern supporters, the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland, had misgivings about dethroning Richard and were certainly (at first) thinking of Mortimer as his legitimate heir should the circumstances arises. It was in Henry’s best interest to keep the precise nature of his hereditary title ambiguous. It affected not only his right to the English throne but also the English claim to the French throne.[5] In the lawyers’ opinion there was virtue in obfuscating this claim. And that, according to Chris Given-Wilson,[6] is exactly what the draftsman of the Record and Process achieved.

S B Chrimes thinks that actually it is a very clever combination of claims since it conceals the weakness of his de jure title by paying lip service to it, “…without committing himself to any definition of what constituted a legally complete title.[7] Although the words ‘right line of blood’ imply a distinction between the ‘right’ line and the wrong line, Henry shrewdly, did not define the ‘right line’. The point being that these words could mean almost anything Henry wanted them to mean. The weakness of Henry’s hereditary title can also be gauged by the necessity to claim the crown on the additional grounds of conquest (cleverly disguised as being in defence of hereditary rights) and God’s will. K B McFarlane’s judgement is that Henry lacked a convincing de jure title; however, whilst his accession could never be regular, with some clever jiggery-pokery, “it could be made to look less illegal.”[8]

What was Henry’s intention?

The problem with this question is that the answer relies less on the facts than on the interpretation of his motives and intentions from the circumstances. The notion of a parliamentary solution would suggest a separation of character between the king and parliament, which is contrary to our understanding of their constitutional relationship in the fourteenth century. Besides, the assembly that gathered on the 30 September 1399 was not a parliament. It was a meeting of those who normally constituted a parliament, gathered in Westminster Hall to witness Richard’s abdication.[9]

Stubbs’ Victorian notion that Henry was a constitutional monarch[10] no longer holds sway with many historians. K B McFarlane is particularly critical of Stubbs’ assessment: “ Yet even in the ‘Record and Process’ there is no basis for supposing that Henry desired a parliamentary title in Stubbs’ sense. Henry neither owed his position to Parliament nor wished it to be thought that he did. He claimed the throne by right; acceptance of that claim was the most he expected of parliament.[11] Neither is there much evidence of ‘election’. Notwithstanding their obvious misgivings, the Lords accepted Henry’s accession, without comment. Henry’s personal challenge (‘I challenge this realm of England’) could not be taken up for obvious reasons. There can be no disguising the fact that it was the use of armed force and deception that had got Henry to Westminster in September, ready, willing and able to seize the crown. Notwithstanding that, he was regarded as the best man to restore good governance to the realm and England’s greatness. The English did not want another child king, or a weak old man to reign over them.

Heir male or heir general?

Seen in that light, the theories concerning the literal meaning of Henry’s declaration take on a different aspect. There are basically two theories; the first is that Henry’s words ‘by right line of blood’ were a reference to his matrilineal line from Edmund earl of Lancaster, called ‘Crouchback’.[12] This is, a Historians argument in the sense that it is based on a particular interpretation of his words and the circumstances. Henry’s words are ambiguous and he did try to exploit the Crouchback legend as a lever to gain the throne[13]. I think this theory is implausible for two reasons. First because it does not necessarily follow logically that the absence of a specific claim as ‘heir male’ automatically means the opposite. Second and more importantly, such a claim would be absurd. Nobody has been able to satisfactorily explain why Henry, despite robust legal advice to the contrary, would make a claim that he and everyone else knew was untrue and anyhow was inferior to Mortimer’s.

Second, we have what I would call a ‘lawyer’s case’. It is the antithesis of the Crouchback theory and is also based on a particular interpretation of Henry’s words. As Ian Mortimer’s points out, Henry of Lancaster was descended from Henry III through both his father and his mother, and: “a statement that [he] was heir to Henry III implies nothing more than that he claimed the throne from one (or both) of these two descents.”[14] Although Dr Mortimer’s understanding as there stated is unarguable, it is, nonetheless, testament to the equivocality of Henry’s title as set out in the PR. Furthermore, in my opinion, Dr Mortimer moves too quickly to the conclusion that Henry was referring to his descent as heir male to Henry III. That is equally improbable because it also is untrue. It could only be made true if Henry successfully overturned the history of the English succession, and conceded that the exercise of royal authority was subject to parliamentary approval.[15]

No king of England if not king of France

Dr Mortimer is, in fact making a hypothetical legal case that Henry never actually made at the time, and for good reason. It turns on two points of law. First, that a woman could not inherit the crown or transmit any title to her children. Second, that all the entails made by previous kings were unlawful because parliament was not consulted.[16] However, the facts are against him.  On the first point: two English kings (including, by the way, the progenitor of the Plantagenet dynasty) inherited the crown through the female line.[17] Furthermore, Edward I’s entail of 1290 made it impossible for Henry to either assert or to demand male domination of the crown.[18]  All these decisions demonstrate the fallacy to treating the succession as a matter of law. It is a political process and the settlements and entails of kings have all been made for political reasons.

On the second point, it is inconceivable that Henry would have been prepared to compromise his royal authority by submitting his will on the succession to parliament for approval. Henry was a legitimist not a constitutionalist and putting such power in the hands of parliament was against everything he believed in. Henry’s legal rights (such as they were) cannot be applied in a vacuum that ignores the realpolitik of the times. The notion that Henry wanted a ‘legal’ title is too simplistic. He wasn’t after a legal title per se. If he merely wanted a title that was legal then parliament could easily have given him one by constitutional election. The problem with that solution is that it would change the fundamental relationship between the king and his subjects. It was tantamount to recognising parliament’s power to hire and fire kings, which in the fourteenth century was something only God could do. No medieval king would voluntarily put himself at the mercy of parliament in such a way. It cannot be emphasized too much that Henry claimed the throne by divine hereditary right; all he required parliament to do was to accept that fact. As it happens, that is exactly what they did.[19] The strength of Henry’s declaration was in its precise ambiguity. It said neither too much nor too little; it neither inferred too much nor too little. It brilliantly preserved the fiction of parliamentary approval without in any way fettering royal authority or changing the constitutional relationship between the king and his parliament.

In addition, Henry had to maintain his claim to the French throne. If he  overturned previous English precedents enabling  women to pass on a regal title  to their children, it would undermine the credibility  of the English matrilineal claim to the French throne.  It was an issue that didn’t just affect the king. Most , if not all English nobility owned estates in France.The dual kingdom of England and France was not only the best way for them to protect their  estates, it offered the opportunity to increase them. The thought  that owing to their gender  the king’s heir might  inherit the French throne but not the English one,  did not bear thinking about. Basic common sense suggested an equitable settlement was necessary.

Necessitas non habet leger [20]

If Henry IV’s subjects thought he was the man to restore good government and  to restore England’s greatness, they were to be sadly disappointed. His was indeed a ‘reign of two halves’. In the first half there was rebellion; in the second half came debilitating illness. However in 1406,  necessity proved to be the mother of invention. The continuous rebellions, and the underlying threat from Edmund Mortimer drove him to seek a permanent parliamentary solution. The ‘Act for the Inheritance of the Crown’ [21] was meant secure the Lancastrian succession forever. It recognised, but did not create, Henry’s hereditary title and settled the throne exclusively down the male Lancastrian line. Professor Chrimes is uncertain whether this was making new law or simply confirming old law; but it really doesn’t matter, since the existence of a statutory title took the succession out of God’s hands without necessarily putting into parliaments. Ultimately, it all came to nought for Henry since the ‘Act for the Inheritance of the Crown’ was repealed before the end of the parliament in which it had been passed. It was replaced with a similar act, confirming that the throne could be inherited down male and female lines. Even by modern standards of flexible policy making, this was some U-turn[22]. However, as we shall see the tide of legitimism was running strong. Sixty-one years after Henry’s usurpation a statutory Lancastrian title could not stand in the face of a claim by one with an indefeasible right of inheritance. But that, as they say, is another story…

[1] There were three candidates for the crown in 1399. Edmund Mortimer, earl of March was descended through his mother from Lionel of Antwerp the third son of Edward III; whereas Henry of Lancaster’s father was John of Gaunt duke of Lancaster and fourth son to Edward III. The other candidate was Edmund of Langley duke of York and Edward’s fifth son. Mortimer had the best lineal title. Henry of Lancaster was the mob’s choice and Edmund was too old. Henry’s act of usurpation was not in deposing Richard II, but in  seizing the throne ahead of Mortimer.

[2] Chris Given-Wilson – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England: Chris Given-Wilson (ed) (The Boydell Press 2005) Vol 8, pp. 11-62. The ‘Record and Process’ occupies about one-third of the Roll record for this parliament. [PROME]

[3] E F Jacob –The Fifteenth Century (Oxford 1987 edition) at page 13. See also PROME Vol 8, pp. 11-62. For example, the Lancastrian account that Richard abdicated voluntarily is not supported by all independent contemporary accounts. The alternative version is that the king was taken prisoner and forced to abdicate. See Chris Given-Wilson – Chronicles of the Revolution (Manchester 1993).

[4] Chris Given-Wilson considers it doubtful that the Roll version contained Henry’s actual words. See Chronicles of the Revolution at page 45 citing the ‘ The Manner of King Richard’s Renunciation’ [Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 59 ff 230v-231]. The relevant portion of MS 59 can be found in ‘Chronicles’ at document 16 pp.162-167. See also Ian Mortimer – Medieval Intrigues: decoding royal conspiracies (Continuum 2010) p 298. Mortimer cites two other sources (the continuation of the Eulogium [p383] and an English Chronicle [Davies ed, English Chronicle p18]). In general terms these sources also suggest that Henry claimed the throne as ‘heir male’ to Henry III.

[5] The English kings’ title to the French throne was matrilineal. There was an awkward inconsistency in arguing a male hegemony for the English throne whilst claiming title to the French throne through the female line.

[6] PROME Vol 8 at page p3. Given-Wilson describes Henry’s claim as ambiguous and obsfucatory; “an uneasy compound of inexactly defined hereditary right, de facto conquest and alleged inadequacy…”

[7] S B Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge 1936), pages 24 and 25.

[8] K B McFarlane – Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (Oxford1998 SE) at p57

[9] Jacob – Fifteenth Century pp.16 and 17; Jacob quotes from ‘B Wilkinson – The deposition of Richard II and the accession of Henry IV (Eng Hist Rev liv p220) and discusses the constitutional relationship between the king and parliament, especially parliaments advisory role in matters of state and law at this time.

[10] W. Stubbs- Constitutional History of England (Oxford 1890). Stubbs placed his faith in the integrity of the Record and Process memorandum when assessing Henry’s title.

[11] See McFarlane – Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights pp. 56 and 57.

[12] There was a myth that Edmund earl of Lancaster was the first-born son of Henry III and therefore the heir apparent (He was called Crouchback because he wore the symbolic cross of a crusader on the back of his surcoat. He did not have a crooked back as some suppose). However, due to an (unspecified) infirmity, Edmund was passed over in the order of succession in favour of his brother Edward (later Edward I). The legend was complete nonsense. Edward was born in 1339, his sister Margaret was born in 1340 and Edmund did not arrive until 1345. We know from Adam of Usk’s eyewitness chronicle that Henry tried to exploit the Crouchback myth as a lever to gain the throne [See the Chronicles of the Revolution at pp. 157-161]. The emergence of the Crouchback mythology can be traced at least as far back as 1394 when John of Gaunt petitioned Parliament to have his son Henry Bolingbroke nominated as Richard’s heir, apparently on the grounds of his matrilineal descent from Edmund Crouchback. However, the evidence is inconclusive. We can, however, be sure that in 1399 Henry commissioned an inquiry into the claim that Edmund Crouchback was Henry III’s first-born son (See Chronicles of the revolution at page 196 and Michael Bennett – Richard II and the revolution of 1399 (Sutton 2006) at p61). The Inquiry’s conclusion was unequivocal; the Crouchback story was untrue.

[13] See L J F Ashdown-Hill – The Lancastrian claim to the throne (Ricardian, Vol 13, 2005) at page 27. Dr Ashdown-Hill’s article is intended to show that Henry VII’s claim to be the last Lancastrian heir is untrue (which it is). However, his suggestion that Henry IV claimed the throne from his ancestor Edmund Crouchback is merely an assumption. It is not a fact.

[14] See Ian Mortimer – Fears of Henry IV (Vintage 2008), pp. 183-86; York or Lancaster: who was the rightful heir to the throne in 1460? (Ricardian Bulletin autumn 2008) pp. 20-24, with subsequent correspondence. See also ‘Medieval Intrigues’, chapters 8 and 9, and ‘York or Lancaster’ a rejoinder (Ricardian Bulletin, spring 2009) pp. 44 and 45.

[15] Henry could not agree to this without weakening the whole concept of Royal authority.

[16] See ’Fears’ p 369. Dr Mortimer asserts that that on the 30 September 1399, the assembled Lords Spiritual and Temporal, removed the right of kings to choose their successor by voting for Henry as their king from the three candidates proffered: Mortimer, York and Henry, and because Henry’s title was ratified in 1406, in parliament. His conclusion that “ This then was the basis of the Lancastrian claim in 1399: that only males could inherit the throne and all attempts by previous kings to settle the inheritance without consulting parliament were without any basis in law and thus void.” does no more than beg the question.

[17] The civil war of 1135-1154 arose principally because king Henry I died in 1135, leaving only his daughter Matilda as heir. Henry obviously had no objection in principle to a woman succeeding to the throne and reigning in her own right, since he nominated Matilda as his successor.   In 1127 he forced the Anglo-Norman nobility to swear an oath supporting her succession. However, Matilda was wholly unacceptable to the barons. Their objection seems to have been less  to women in general succeeding to the throne than a specific objection to this woman succeeding. Matilda was unpopular due to her ‘Germanic’ ways and haughty demeanour. The Norman barons also hated her for her anti-Norman activities and her marriage to their archenemy Geoffrey count of Anjou. They feared French influence at the English court. Stephen, whose title came through his mother Adela, was able with the consent of the barons to seize the throne ‘in the twinkling of an eye’. There is a remarkable similarity between the Treaty of Winchester in 1153, and the Act of Accord agreed in 1460 between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. In 1153, the Norman king Stephen remained de facto king during his lifetime, whilst the Frenchman Henry of Anjou (Henry II) was his de jure heir, having inherited Matilda’s title to the English throne. In 1460, Henry VI remained de facto king during his lifetime, whilst York was recognized as his de jure heir. On both occasions the de facto king’s own heir was bypassed in the succession, and on both occasions the de jure heir’s title was matrilineal. The treaty of 1153 bought peace; the Act of Accord of 1460 bought civil war.

[18] Ian Mortimer – Medieval Intrigues at p286. Edward planned to marry his daughters Joan, Margaret and Eleanor to foreign royalty in 1290. Making them all eligible to inherit and rule in their own right, and to pass on the throne to their children, was a powerful inducement for their foreign royal suitors  to make the match. In the end, it didn’t matter; Edward of Caernarvon succeeded his father as Edward II. Whilst he was demonstrably imperfect, Edward II still managed to sire the perfect king — Edward III.

[19] Henry was able to get away with such a obviously dubious claim because it was not the issue uppermost in the lords’ minds. They were much too concerned about the legality of deposing a crowned and anointed monarch and the consequences of doing that to pay much attention to the legitimacy of Henry’s title.

[20] Necessitas non habet leger. It means ‘necessity has no law’ and Henry wrote those words on a signet letter in 1403. It is a saying that encapsulates his ruthless ambition to legitimize the Lancastrian dynasty. His desire for a hereditary title was all consuming.

[21] See Statutes 7, Henry IV, c 2; and PROME, Vol 8 pp. 341-348 and 354-357, articles 38 and 60.

[22] PROME Vol 8 p324. Given-Wilson suggests that the change was probably made because at the time Henry IV was negotiating with the French for the Prince of Wales to marry one of Charles VI’s daughters. The French clearly did not like the idea that any daughter borne to the union would be barred from the English succession.

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