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Usurpers? ALL of them…?

Well, all of them except Richard II. The following are extracts from the Introduction to Anthony Steel’s 1941 biography of Richard II. I think it is a very succinct and interesting description of the right to the throne of all the kings of England from Richard II to Henry VII. However… (see my comments at the end of this article)

“…The reign of Richard II marks in many respects the culminating point in English medieval history. If Henry VII was, as has been claimed for him, the last of the medieval kings of England, Richard II was the last of the old order, the last king ruling by hereditary right, direct and undisputed, from the Conqueror…” 

“…After his [Richard II’s] violent deposition in 1399 nothing could ever be quite the same again: it was the end of an epoch. Medieval divine right lay dead, smothered in Pontefract castle, and the kings of the next hundred and ten years, medieval as they were in many respects and desperately as they tried to drag together the shredded rags of legitimacy, were essentially kings de facto, not de jure, successful usurpers recognized after the event, upon conditions, by their fellow-magnates or by parliament. Even Henry V, perhaps the strongest and the most medieval of the series, depended for five-sixths of his revenue on the goodwill of his subjects, and could never quite live down the dubiety of his father’s title and the precedent of unfortunate concessions exacted from his father’s weakness…” 

“…It is true that the effective precedent afforded by the events of 1399 was for at least a century or two no more than a precedent of usurpation and that the Lancastrian parliamentary title was in the main imposed on those reluctant sovereigns after the event. Even Henry IV (and how much more Edward IV and Henry VII) owed the throne not to the sovereign will of the English people, expressing itself through a representative assembly, but effectively to conquest, to some dim pretence of hereditary right and above all to the support of a few wealthy and powerful individuals and the vague fears of the propertied classes in general. All were saviours of society, in the limited medieval sense, against a threatened spoliation or, worse, disintegration. But with the gradual perfecting of the bureaucratic and remorseless Tudor machine of government [it all changed]…” 

Maybe Richard II was indeed the last of the old order, but in my opinion the king guilty of meddling with the true hereditary descent was Edward III, who shortly before his death apparently gave in to Lancastrian pressure and signed a document that declared the crown could not descend through the female line. This meant that the junior House of Lancaster took precedence over the senior House of Clarence/Mortimer. Why? Because although the latter descended through Edward’s second son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, it was through the female line.  Lancaster was through the third son, but through the male line.

So, although Henry IV usurped Richard’s II’s throne, he did it with what would, apparently, have been his grandfather’s blessing. Well, perhaps not entirely, for I doubt the old king would have gone along with the ‘let’s kill Richard II’ aspect.

Herein lay the origin of the Wars of the Roses, the House of York tracing its descent through the line of Son Number Two, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and Lancaster through the line of Son Number Three, John of Gaunt.

It is only within the last year or so that it has been decided that from now on the Crown can pass through the female line with equal right as the male. How many centuries?

But anyway, the above extracts are interesting and very clearly put. After Richard II, they were ALL usurpers. Correct?

Hmm. To my mind, the accession of Edward IV righted the great wrongs done by Edward III and then Henry IV. The kings of the House of York were indeed the true hereditary heirs to the throne of England. Opinions please…?

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5 thoughts on “Usurpers? ALL of them…?

  1. sighthound6 on said:

    It appears Edward III’s concession to the Lancasters were only for the ‘here and now’ as Richard II certainly did not recognise it. By the 1390s, according to the Westminster Chronicler, who was in a position to know, the Earl of March was established as heir. Later, for reasons that are far from clear, Richard seems to have fallen out with March, and recalled him from Ireland to an uncertain fate – however, the Irish killed March before he even had the note. Circa 1398 it appears (from the work of Ian Mortimer) that Edmund of Langley was the recognised heir, and there is even evidence (given to Parliament) that Richard wanted Langley’s son Edward (later the second duke) to succeed him.

    Who was the ‘legal’ heir to Richard II is massively open to debate. After 14th February 1400, Henry’s opponents appeared to be split between bringing Richard back from the dead and giving the job to the late March’s young son. Then, after the failure to rescue young March, there was the pragmatic solution of splitting the realm between Northumberland, Owain Glyndwr and Edmund Mortimer. But then Henry IV managed to cling to his throne, Hery V began to look like a credible successor, and the whole thing quietened down for a bit, apart from the little matter of the Southampton Plot. Which looks like a botched attempt to put March on the throne again.

    What might be called the York-Mortimer alliance had three goes at the job in all but didn’t succeed until the families had merged as one, and until Henry VI had proved himself thoroughly hopeless.

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  2. halfwit36 on said:

    Technically, Henry V was not a usurper, as he inherited the crown directly from his father. Henry VI became one when he(or Warwick) took the crown from Edward IV, who took it from Henry VI, who……
    And if you want to go back a little further, how about John? How about the Conqueror himself? etc, etc.

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  3. sighthound6 on said:

    I would say that 1399 marked the change from the monarchy as a purely hereditary thing – like a peerage – to one that was actually a creature of Parliament. Of course, it was not quite so simple, nor did it seem like that at the time.

    Nevertheless, every monarch (of England, because Scotland is another argument) since 1399, bar Edward IV and Edward V, have ultimately based their title on a Parliamentary statute. One or two of them (notably Charles I) haven’t quite grasped this, but that is how it is, legally. Thomas More agrees with me – he was quite clear that Parliament could make Richard Rich king if it so chose.

    The Jacobites were essentially people who believed that inheritance trumped statute, but they misdirected themselves (at least as far as England is concerned) because they failed to grasp that the Stuart claim was just as much based on statute as the Hanoverian one.

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  4. McArthur, Richard P. on said:

    I’ve never read that Edward III signed any exclusions of descent through the female line. If I may point out, the Yorkists made no secret that their claim was through the female line; and I know of no rebuttal to the effect that female descent was invalid.
    As far as I recall, the recent change was not empowering female descent, please note that Mary I, Elizabeth I, Mary II, Anne, Victoria, and Elizabeth, reigned and reigns. It is that from now on the descent will be in chronological order, that is, the eldest child living will take.

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    • viscountessw on said:

      Edward III’s entail seems to have existed, and if you wish to read a very good account of it, you will find it in Ian Mortimer’s ‘Medieval Intrigue’. The entail turns up in various books on the period, not just this one. Richard II had no intention of permitting Lancaster’s son, Bolingbroke, to inherit the throne – the cousins loathed each other. So the entail of Edward III was ignored by Richard II, who kept Bolingbroke and the Mortimer Earl of March dangling.

      I do know the Yorkists made their claim through the female line, and why not if the entail was suppressed during Richard II’s reign? It was never used, because the Holuse of Lancaster usurped the throne. Yes, Bolingbroke eventually became king, but by right of conquest, not the entail, which had ceased to matter the moment Richard II handed over the crown.

      Edward III was a great king, but also a hypocrite. His own claim to the throne of France was through his mother, yet he caved in under pressure from Gaunt and Bolingbroke, and thus denied the rights of his own granddaughter’s heir. Richard II’s successor should have been the Earl of March. So the Yorkists were in the right.

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