A Tale of Three Mistresses – Mangled by More
Our primary source of gossip about Edward IV’s mistresses is attributable to the pen of Thomas More (1478–1535), knight and latterly saint. While writing about Richard III, More found space for a lengthy diversion into the career of ‘Mistress Shore’, perhaps Edward’s most notorious extra-marital concubine, about whose present and past conditions the writer claimed much knowledge. Unfortunately it appears he never thought to consult the lady on the accuracy of what he wrote, strewn as it is with avoidable errors of fact.1 This article will refer to her by her proper name, Elizabeth Lambert. Her brief marriage to the London mercer William Shore was annulled in 1476 on grounds of non-consummation. And although she is almost always referred to as ‘Jane’, this forename was given her arbitrarily in the two-part True Tragedy of Edward IV (written around 1600 by Thomas Heywood), the writer being clearly ignorant of her proper Christian name and being concerned, like More, only with her notoriety. The prominence of his ‘Jane’ character may have led to the play afterwards being referred to as Jane Shore.2
Despite the high esteem in which More is held by historians, he was clearly too young to have had personal knowledge of reigns earlier than the Tudor period, and his family’s history reveals no intimacy with fifteenth-century royalty; whatever he wrote about them can only have been hearsay. Moreover, in the opinions of leading literary scholars Thomas More’s dissertation on Richard III was conceived and executed as a bravura exercise in satirical drama to which the facts of history had no particular relevance. Nevertheless, More’s reference to Edward and his ‘three mistresses’ is continually retold as if he had a direct line to the full facts. The relevant passage occurs after he has devoted several pages to Elizabeth Lambert:
“The king would say that he had three concubines, which in three diverse properties diversely excelled: one the merriest, another the wiliest, the third the holiest harlot in his realm, as one whom no man could get out of church lightly to any place but it were to his bed. The other two were somewhat greater personages, and nevertheless of their humility content to be nameless and to forbear the praise of those properties. But the merriest was this Shore’s wife, in whom the king therefore took special pleasure. For many he had, but her he loved …” (etc.).
That the king had three concubines is almost certainly an understatement, but More helpfully gives the name of one other as ‘Dame Lucy’. She appears in More’s questionable version of an incident from as far back as 1464 which seems to have become an urban myth. The original surviving record of this incident was related by the Italian Dominic Mancini in 1483 after visiting England for a few months: even so, nearly twenty years after the event itself.
Mancini’s story tells of how Edward IV’s mother Cecily, Duchess of York, was so scandalized by the king’s secret marriage to the widowed commoner Elizabeth Woodville, who became his queen, that she vowed the Duke of York was not the father of this disgraceful son. As the story ran in Mancini’s day, the duchess insisted she would voluntarily testify that Edward IV was no son of York.3 Mancini had been asked to write down, for the benefit of the French royal court, all that he had discovered about Richard III’s dramatic accession to the throne – which he admitted was little enough – so he was given to embellishing his narrative with extraneous details which we now know contained inaccuracies. Although we can accept it was probably based on a kernel of truth, we need to bear two things in mind: first, he may have been given a highly coloured account of some considerably less dramatic reality; and second, it suited him to disparage English royalty for his French readers and hence, like many writers of history before and since, he tended to exaggerate for effect. We have no idea how many tongues had embroidered the story between 1464 and 1483, so the wisest course is to reduce it to its essence: the duchess flew into a fury and went so far as to threaten some kind of legal challenge.
Edward IV’s affairs with women subsequently embroiled all England in a crisis, when it was discovered after his death and later confirmed by Parliament that his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was not his first such secret wedding. Some years earlier he had secretly married Lady Eleanor Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Briefly summarized, under the laws of the Church this meant that Lady Eleanor was still his wife when he secretly and bigamously married Elizabeth, and this combination of illicit actions rendered the children of his Woodville marriage illegitimate. The government of the day elected to offer the crown to Richard III as the senior qualified heir.4
Such high matters of state, of Parliament and of canon law were scarcely understood by the majority of Englishmen, and moreover they impugned the honour and dignity of the late king and his abandoned first wife; doubtless they were spoken of in hushed tones by those in the know. Thus the name of the long-deceased Lady Eleanor became consigned to obscurity. England soon had greater concerns when the pretender Henry Tudor revealed his designs on the English crown, eventually mounting a successful invasion under the patronage of France in 1485 when against all probability King Richard was killed. Since the new king had to devise some believable grounds for his invasion and some legitimate reason for aspiring to the throne, he declared Richard’s accession unlawful. He repealed the Act of Parliament which had set out Richard’s right to succeed, insisting it be repealed unread and every copy destroyed. His aim was to remove from history what was probably the only official government document that articulated Richard’s legitimacy as king, together with the grounds for setting aside Edward IV’s offspring owing to their father’s prior marriage (in legal terminology ‘precontract’) to Eleanor Talbot.5 Since Henry planned to appease Yorkist partisans by marrying Edward IV’s eldest daughter, this process was vital to removing public knowledge of her illegitimacy.
A century would pass before records began to be found which revealed the truth, but by then Richard III was indelibly cast as a usurper in the national consciousness. It was with this certainty that Thomas More embarked upon his literary polemic for which he chose Richard III as his exemplar of tyranny. This was more than fifty years after the Woodville marriage that caused Cecily so much wrath, and more than thirty years after Mancini wrote his tale of her angry outburst. Incidentally, we need not believe she ever volunteered to swear publicly to her own adultery! It is not difficult to conceive of at least one possible legal challenge she might have considered bringing against the match … but in all probability her real grounds of objection never formed part of the story picked up by Mancini. Nevertheless he would have been aware of a certain malicious calumny Louis XI delighted in putting about, that Edward IV was the bastard son of an archer named Blaybourne, so maybe it was Mancini who supplied this extra flourish knowing it would appeal to his readers.
If we turn to what More says about the same incident, we find that after three decades of Tudor rule the story has vastly changed. It is still recognizably a version of Mancini’s tale of the duchess raging and threatening to resort to law. But what makes this new version interesting is that it conflates some vestige of recollection that a precontract to an earlier wife was involved. Perhaps it had been thought politically advisable to incorporate this persistent memory into the well-known tale of ‘Proud Cis’ and her rage against her son, at the same time using it to repudiate that there ever was anything untoward about his Woodville marriage. It takes up a lot of space in More’s Richard III, with plenty of dialogue to and fro between mother and son debating her objections. At last, and as a ‘pretext’ says More, plainly undermining the integrity of the duchess’s final argument, she protests that Edward ought instead to marry ‘one Dame Elizabeth Lucy, whom the king had also not long before gotten with child’ making him in consequence ‘her husband before God’. So this ‘Elizabeth Lucy’ is duly called and ‘solemnly sworn’, says More. This portion of his tale obviously echoes the ‘public enquiry’ mentioned in the earlier Mancini version, only this time it is Dame Lucy who is subjected to examination and denies the precontract which Cecily is trying to foist on her son.6 With our current knowledge we can see this as a transparent ruse to discredit the existence of Edward’s genuine precontract with Eleanor Talbot. But thanks to More its effect is fully achieved: he declares it proves the falsity of the charges made in 1483 against Edward’s marriage.
There is another feature that also shows this to be a manufactured story: the incident supposedly occurs before Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, with Cecily trying to prevent it. The Mancini version correctly places Cecily’s outburst after their marriage, which famously took place in secret and remained totally unknown for several months. More is so much deceived as to write that the king’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was celebrated ‘with great feast and honourable solemnity’!
It has been important to emphasize how very little Thomas More really knew about the women in Edward IV’s life, because our next step demonstrates how thoroughly his stories have misled historians and commentators.7 Dispensations to marry granted by the Church are extremely helpful in establishing genealogies, and a recent article by Marie Barnfield and Stephen Lark cites one that adds new information to what was previously known, deduced or assumed about some of Edward IV’s mistresses and children.8
One of the king’s most well-known bastards was Arthur, later Viscount Lisle, hitherto almost universally believed to have been fathered on ‘Elizabeth Lucy’. However, references to Dame Lucy place her and her child in Edward’s life prior to his Woodville marriage. Whereas what is known of Arthur Plantagenet’s life and career is scarcely compatible with a birth date before mid-1464.9
If we seek an alternative identity for Dame Lucy’s child we find a much better candidate in a bastard daughter attributed to Edward hitherto known as Elizabeth, later Lady Lumley, thought to have been born in the 1460s. It has now been established that this child’s Christian name was not Elizabeth (as erroneously claimed in a herald’s visitation of 1530) but Margaret (in a grant dated 1479 where she is identified as the wife of Thomas, later Lord Lumley). Further genealogical research supports this identification.
These indications about the daughter have opened up more opportunities to identify her putative mother. The problems in pinning down information about Dame Lucy have always been compounded by assumptions about her. Copious evidence exists that Arthur, Lord Lisle, was certainly connected with the Wayte family, therefore he was known as a Wayte and it was assumed his mother was too. On the general presumption that his mother was Dame Lucy, she was automatically assigned the maiden name of Wayte. For example, this was propounded by Sir George Buck who described her as ‘the daughter of one Wayte of Southampton, a mean gentleman, if he were one. And she was the wife of one Lucy, as mean a man as Wayte. … And she was the mother of the bastard Arturus.’10 Arthur Plantagenet had verifiable links with the Waytes of Segenworth, near Southampton, but genealogical records cannot reconcile Dame Lucy as a member of the Wayte family at all, nor is there any evidence of any Wayte family member having links with a family named Lucy or even mentioning the name Lucy in correspondence. Which again strongly suggests that Arthur was not born to a mother surnamed Lucy.
It now appears that Dame Lucy may ALSO have been a Margaret misnamed Elizabeth! Her correct maiden name, if so, was Margaret FitzLewis, and she was the young widow of Sir William Lucy of Dallington and Richards Castle (d. 1460). This would fit with the child she bore Edward being not his bastard son Arthur but his bastard daughter Margaret, later Lady Lumley, born in the 1460s some time before Margaret FitzLewis’s own death in 1466. Contrary to Buck, the title ‘Dame’ Lucy suggests her husband was a knight or baronet, not a mean man.11 Other than Sir William Lucy of Dallington there existed one other knighted Lucy at that time, viz. Sir William Lucy of Charlcote (d. 1466). This Sir William Lucy certainly did marry an Elizabeth, but she was Elizabeth Percy who died in 1455; he remarried and was survived by a widow, but her name was Agnes.
It is impossible to be certain, of course, but the result of all this would suggest two distinct ladies who were erroneously conflated:
* Edward IV’s early mistress before his Woodville marriage. Dame Lucy, née Margaret FitzLewis (misnamed Elizabeth), daughter of Sir Lewis John (or John Lewis) of Welsh parentage, and widow of Sir William Lucy. Her probable liaison with Edward would have occurred after her husband’s death in 1460, resulting in a daughter Margaret Plantagenet in the early 1460s (also misnamed Elizabeth) who married Sir Thomas Lumley (c. 1458–1487).
* Edward’s later mistress during his Woodville marriage. She was a Wayte, probably a Wayte of Segenworth, and gave birth to Edward’s bastard son Arthur Plantagenet (who jousted with the young Henry VIII in 1510, married for the first time in 1511, was created Viscount Lisle in 1523, and died in 1542). It has been suggested that her father was a Thomas Wayte of Hampshire (d. 1482), but as far as we know Thomas died without legitimate issue (he left one bastard daughter, Alice); if he had any other children they must have predeceased him without legitimate issue of their own. Several other factors in the research by Barnfield and Lark also militate against Thomas as her father, including the obscurity of his family and its extreme southern location.
This leaves just one more mistress of whose existence we know, namely Elizabeth Lambert, married name Shore, misnamed Jane. She was current at the time of the king’s death but no offspring have been directly attributed to her. It is not impossible that Thomas More, sufficiently taken with this lady to devote several pages to her, may well have superimposed her name of Elizabeth on the ‘Dame Lucy’ of his false precontract story. Misled by his reputation as some kind of authority on fifteenth-century royalty, writers of history duly copied him unthinkingly.
Doubtless other mistresses existed, and indeed other bastards. But the purpose of this essay is not to rehearse the tedious details of Edward IV’s amours – nor yet to claim knowledge of precisely who they were – it is simply to demonstrate how easy it was (and is) for history to be misrepresented by placing uncritical faith in false prophets.
1. He failed even to verify the full name of her later lover William Hastings, whose gifts to her became the subject of a court case reported by The Great Chronicle.
2. Appreciation to Dr A.N. Kincaid for this information.
3. Mancini, ed. C.A.J. Armstrong, De Occupatione Regni Anglie per Riccardum Tercium, Gloucester 1989, pp. 60–62: ‘Even his mother fell into such a frenzy that she offered to submit to a public enquiry, asserting that Edward was not the offspring of her husband the Duke of York but was conceived in adultery and therefore in no wise worthy of the honour of kingship.’
4. This matter is fully covered in Carson, Richard III: The Maligned King, Stroud, 2013, pp. 75–88.
5. Nor (perhaps unsurprisingly) has any official record survived of the deliberations of the King’s Council during that crucial succession crisis of 1483 when Edward IV’s bigamy and the illegitimacy of his children were debated.
6. More pp. 63–67.
7. Clearly More knew nothing of Lady Eleanor Talbot (married name Butler), pace R.S. Sylvester who supposed Eleanor was one of the ‘three mistresses’ More referred to; we now see Sylvester was also probably wrong in stating definitively that Dame Lucy was the mother of Arthur Plantagenet: The History of King Richard III, Yale University Press 1976, p. 57 fn. 3 and p. 65 fn. 2.
8. ‘The Paternity of Lady Lumley: Some New Evidence’, The Ricardian, Vol. XXVI, June 2016, pp. 113–20. Readers are referred to that article and its footnotes for sources of the information summarized here.
9. David Grummitt’ (ODNB) offers a birth date ‘before 1472’ but this is based on a reference in royal household accounts to ‘my Lord the Bastard’, unidentified, which may refer to some other person; a suggested birth date of 1462-1464 is rightly discounted as too early to be compatible with the known events of his life and career. Grummitt states without comment that ‘most authorities’ identify his mother as Elizabeth Lucy, ‘probably the daughter of Thomas Waite of Hampshire’.
10. Buck did know the truth that the lady of the precontract was Eleanor Talbot and realized that the alleged precontract with Dame Lucy was false; but he accepted Thomas More’s claim that Dame Lucy was Arthur’s mother: Sir George Buck, The History of King Richard the Third, ed. A.N. Kincaid, Gloucester, 1979, pp. 181–2. It is not correct that he named her as Lady Lumley’s mother.
11. And More in his Latin text states that she came from a noble family.