The Precontract that Gave Us King Richard III

https://www.johnashdownhill.com/johns-blog/tag/Facial+Reconstruction

One of the main reasons we now have an amazing King in the list of British monarchs is without doubt the precontract between Lady Eleanor Talbot and King Edward IV.

The turning point in the election of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as king of England was the discovery of a precontract between the former king and the representative of the noble and powerful family of the Shrewsburys.

Everything started in the early summer of 1460 when Eleanor and Edward met for the first time. She was 24, he was just 18. Edward fell in love with her and she was captivated by the charming new King. It seems that he had promised to marry her after bedding her and the wedding took place in secret, possibly in the spring of 1461 in the presence of Canon Robert Stillington who, on 1st November of the same year, was awarded by Edward an annual salary of £365 (around £235,000 today!). That was a regular contract of marriage so why do we refer to it as a precontract? The answer is that the term precontract has to be accepted with all the implications it had in medieval times: that is neither more nor less than an actual marriage. Precontract does not mean a “betrothal” but it is a legal term to indicate a marriage contract and it becomes a precontract only when a second marriage is arranged for one member of the couple while still married to the previous spouse. So the term precontract does not mean a contract arranged before a marriage but a contract arranged before a subsequent marriage. It is important to clarify this key point to fully understand the reason Richard, Duke of Gloucester, could become King Richard III.

If we consider the succession of events in the life of Edward IV, it is easier to understand why his brother, Richard, was the true and legitimate heir to the throne of England.

Edward IV married Eleanor Talbot with a regular contract of marriage. The nature of this marriage was a secret one, so the sources we have cannot be contemporary but date to about twenty years later. When Edward married Elizabeth Woodville (possibly on 1st May 1464), Eleanor was still alive even though retired as a tertiary of the Carmelite Priory in Norwich. This implies that the second marriage of Edward was adulterous. It also means that the second contract was invalid and Edward was a bigamist. This invalidity could not be changed by the death of the first wife before any children of the second marriage had been born, so there is no justification for Edward’s behaviour and it is undeniable that the consequence of the precontract was the immediate bastardisation of all the issue of the marriage between him and Elizabeth Woodville. The validity of a marriage depended on the existence of a contract, not on the birth of children so it didn’t matter that Edward and Elizabeth had ten children, both boys and girls. The fact that Edward V and Richard of York were born after the death of Eleanor Talbot (she died on 30th June 1468) is not relevant because they were offsprings of an invalid marriage, ergo the king’s bastard sons.

The precontract was known to the Council thanks to the witnessing of Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells. He claimed he had celebrated the wedding of Edward and Eleanor and this declaration could be a factor in his arrest in 1478 as, apparently, the bishop had previously revealed the secret marriage to George, Duke of Clarence, who afterwards claimed to be the true heir to the throne. On 8th June 1483, Stillington unveiled the precontract’s existence to the Council during a meeting at which Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was not present. The possible reason for his absence could be that Stillington had already informed Richard about the precontract.

Many wonder if there was written proof of the precontract’s existence but so far nothing has been found and it is very unlikely anything will come to light. The first reason for this is that it is possible every proof in favour of Richard’s legitimacy to the crown was destroyed by the Tudors to strengthen their very weak claim to the English throne, and second because no proof of evidence was normally produced to invalidate a marriage. The authority of a bishop’s word was enough both for the Council and Church to accept the precontract as a fact. A false declaration for a man of God in medieval times was a warrant of eternal damnation in Hell. From then on, the Council started to consider Richard of Gloucester as the successor to his brother and the approval of the three Estates of Parliament to declare Richard king is proof of this. Edward V signed his last official document on 9th June 1483.

For centuries, historians have investigated the person of Robert Stillington and his role in the events of that crucial year, looking for a possible proof of bribery from Gloucester and Stillington’s corruption. This has been in vain. Nothing that could prove either or both has been found and Richard III never rewarded Stillington for his key role in his accession to the throne. Stillington was eventually handed over to Henry VII and died in prison after having being involved in the plot to place Lambert Simnel on the throne.

Other additional elements that could indicate the existence of the precontract were the fact that Edward IV declared public his marriage with Elizabeth Woodville only in September 1464, a couple of months after the death of Joan, Eleanor’s sister-in-law (possibly a witness of the first marriage?). Other elements are the sources. Over the centuries, historians have tried to give their personal opinions on the matter and many convey that the precontract was indeed a fact.

The Crowland Chronicle and the Titulus Regius state that Eleanor Talbot was indeed Edward’s wife and the Crowland writer uses the word matrimonium referring to the two of them. No source refers to Eleanor as Edward’s mistress.

By Maria

Hi, my name is Maria, I am Italian but my soul is British.

9 comments

  1. I don’t think Stillington told Clarence of the precontract. In the recitations of Clarence’s misconduct, his aspersions on the Edward/Elizabeth marriage don’t mention precontract. Edward probably did worry that Stillington may have spilled the beans; then was reassured he hadn’t.

    There is no evidence that Stillington was involved in the Simnel revolt. But the assertion that the Yorkist claim was not in the person of Edward IV’s offspring could only have rested on the precontract. Stillington was the only source of the precontract story. So, to avoid his telling, he was imprisoned.

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    1. I generally can’t bring myself to believe in the existence of the precontract, as much as I’d like to, and I feel entirely sure saying that, if the precontract existed, then there is no way Clarence knew of it. Clarence made every possible attack on his kingly brother’s name — including calling Edward IV’s own legitimacy into question — but kept this particular secret? Fat chance.

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      1. Surely we need to take the view of the Three Estates – an independent body of men who knew that Edward had admitted marrying one older Lancastrian widow in secret and clearly believed that he had done so earlier – unless we have evidence to the contrary?

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      2. No, I don’t think we need to — and I don’t think we can. Parliament in this era was often browbeat into submission by great magnates or paralyzed by indecision during times of crisis. Considering the view of Parliament with regard to Titulus Regius carries as much weight as Parliament’s repeal of it a year later.

        I am a fan of history for the brilliant stories it tells. For this reason, I deeply want to believe in the precontract — it just makes for such a wonderful twist! I love it so much. But when I stop looking at it as a good story and try to find the truth of the matter, the facts here are _very_ thin. Further, the many things that would need be true for the precontract to exist — starting firstly with the fact that Eleanor was the rightful queen of England and said nothing for seven years (even as her husband wed and produced heirs with another woman), and secondly that Edward IV would feel compelled to reveal one secret marriage but not the other (and that he’d reveal the bigamous one of the two!) when Warwick proposes the French match — are genuinely incredible.

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      3. We aren’t really thinking about the January 1484 Parliament but the Three Estates in June 1483 that underpinned it. Several magnates had their supporters present but most of Gloucester’s were in the North. Lady Eleanor would have had reason to fear for her life and the timing of her death, followed by the execution of her sister’s servants, is suspicious. She mysteriously gained some land after the bigamy and yet Lord Sudeley, her first father-in-law, was harshly treated after her death. Her name was omitted from More’s account in favour of a fictional lady and yet Chapuys maintained that Catherine of Aragon had a better claim to the English throne than her husband. Stillington was promoted to a bishopric at the first opportunity after the bigamy and then imprisoned twice. Henry VII could have persuaded him to confess to falsity but didn’t even try, repealing TR1484 unread and destroying almost every copy, only for one to survive.

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      4. I say again, this is a _very_ thin case!

        Suspicious timing can be equally (honestly, much more than equally) applied to the sudden appearance of the precontract at the moment of maximum advantage for Richard, and there are shady promotions and land acquisitions for the Tyrrells, yet these are not damning evidence of Richard’s murder of the princes. Catherine of Aragon’s claim would of course be stronger from a certain Lancastrian perspective, depending on whether one would consider a legitimate female line as of greater or lesser standing than a legitimized male line, regardless of any of this. And again, Stillington’s promotion and later imprisonment is a very half-assed sort of cover-up for a man like Edward IV, who murdered an anointed king and also executed _his own brother_ at different points in his reign. Why the half-measure for some obscure archdeacon who held such a powerful secret?

        I just can’t believe it, I’m sorry to say. But I’m more than happy to simply agree to disagree on the precontract generally. My original comment was more about my confidence that, even if the precontract were real, Clarence could simply not have known. The man had no ability to keep him mouth shut, and had already made accusations against his own mother’s honor with regard to Edward IV’s legitimacy with nothing to back his claims. If he had knowledge of a scandal the size of this and evidence to back it up, I think it is impossible that he’d have been able to keep it to himself before his death. No way.

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  2. Just wondering why Stillington would be involved in a plot to place Lambert Simnel on the throne if – as now believed, Lambert was Edward V? Wasn’t the whole point of him confessing to knowledge of Edward lV’s first marriage the fact that Edward V was illegitimate?
    George’s behaviour (and Warwick’s to a point) could be explained by them having knowledge of this disastrous marriage.

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  3. But if ‘Lambert’ was a stand-in for Edward, Earl of Warwick, Clarence’s son? Who was quite legitimate…
    Too many Edwards here. Couldn’t they have named one of them ‘Kevin’ or something??

    Liked by 1 person

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