The Audley Case of 1431 Redux

We originally posted on this issue here.

In summary, in 1431 or thereabouts, Alianore, Lady Audley, and her husband James were trying to demonstrate in the Church court that Alianore was legitimate and thus the heiress of her father, Edmund, Earl of Kent by Constance of York. Kent’s surviving sisters and the heirs of the deceased ones went to Parliament (note, not the Church court) and had the matter quashed, at least insofar as inheritance was concerned. It is not clear what conclusion, if any, the Church court reached. Either the documentation is lost or it remains somewhere among those medieval bishops’ registers that have never been translated.

A key claim in the Parliamentary petition was that Constance of York was personally present at the wedding of Kent and Lucia and did not protest. If true this would have killed the Audley case stone dead, on the assumption that the Kent/Constance marriage was a clandestine one. However, it could have killed it in the Church court – there really was no need to use the sledgehammer of a Parliamentary petition to crack so feeble a nut. It is odd, therefore, that the “other side” did not simply present their evidence to the Church court. (It should be noted in passing that if Edward IV had had the wit to marry Elizabeth Woodville publicly in a church, the tale of his previous marriage to Lady Eleanor Talbot would have fallen at this hurdle, unless Eleanor had made a protest at the wedding. Would she have dared?)

Was Constance in fact present at the wedding? Frankly, we have no way of knowing. Margaret, Duchess of Clarence and Joanne, Duchess of York, may have known the truth or otherwise of their petition, but the younger petitioners, for example, Richard, Duke of York, who was not even conceived at the time in question, would have had no first-hand knowledge. It has always seemed unlikely to me that Constance would be hanging around the fringes of the court at this time – surely, after her involvement in the Mortimer plot and subsequent imprisonment she would not have wanted to be there, and nor would Henry IV or Queen Joanna have desired her presence.

However, in her recent book on the Despensers, The Rise and Fall of a Medieval Family, Kathryn Warner points out that Constance’s lands were not restored to her until June 1407 (p182). This is about six months after Kent’s marriage to Lucia in January of that year.

In other words, in January 1407, Constance was a supplicant, living on what she could sell or pawn from her belongings (restored to her in January 1406) and whatever she could borrow on the basis of her expectations of having her lands granted back to her. Neither source of income was sustainable. In short, she was in no position to defy the King, and if Henry had required her presence at the wedding she would have had to comply.

As for Kent, as Warner points out, his lands were encumbered by no fewer than three living dowagers. To put it in the plainest words, he needed a rich wife. Constance, in 1404 or early 1405, would have amply fulfilled that requirement, despite the damage caused to her Welsh lands by the Glyndwr rising. She had many rich English manors and in the Parliament of 1404 she had successfully petitioned to be restored to her right to dower. Her landholdings, in other words, were no longer held at the King’s pleasure as they had been up to that point. Of course, securing full possession of her dower was another matter, but it was a project to be worked on, and she eventually died a very wealthy woman indeed, despite her setbacks.

But in early 1407, she was about as rich a a goosegirl, and no use to Kent at all, even if he loved her to the stars and back – and there is no particular evidence that he did. In reality, he had no realistic choice but to fall in with the King’s project – note, the King’s project – that he should marry Lucia of Milan instead. Lucia was supposed to come with one of the largest, if not the largest, dowry in medieval English history. No wonder Kent, deep in debt and with very limited resources by the standards of medieval earls, was tempted. Indeed, with Henry IV breathing down his neck, it was an offer he could not refuse. Henry went to some considerable trouble to arrange the marriage. It was not something that happened by random chance.

As for Lucia, it should be noted that she was not the daughter or sister of the ruling Duke of Milan, Gian Maria Visconti. Nor was she the daughter or sister of his father, Henry’s friend and ally, Gian Galeazzo Visconti. She was in fact the daughter of Bernabo, Gian Galeazzo’s uncle, whom Gian Galeazzo had overthrown in 1385 and subsequently murdered by poison.

Lucia (born 1380) was almost as old and Constance, and, by medieval standards if not ours, very old to be making her first marriage. Milan was having serious political difficulties in 1407. Gian Maria was eventually assassinated by his enemies in 1412. Why anyone should imagine that he would provide his cousin with a gigantic dowry is unclear. If Henry IV believed in the dowry, he must have beeen singularly naive, and ‘naive’ is not a word one associates with Bolingbroke. He was a ruthless exerciser of brute power, and in that respect makes his ‘tyrant’ cousin, Richard II, look like Gandhi.

The dowry was never paid. In my honest opinion, Kent was played. Taken for a mug. As soon as he died (killed in action, September 1408) his numerous creditors promply descended on the unfortunate Lucia. Constance of York, who by this time was probably strolling in the gardens of her moated mansion next to the Thames at Caversham, possibly had a little grin and congratulated herself on missing a bullet.

Back to Alianore Holland-Audley. If we assume that her parents indulged in a clandestine marriage and Constance subsequently attended Kent’s wedding without making a protest, she had no case at all, and any remotely competent proctor would have told her so, before going to trial. It is true that lawyers sometimes have clients who insist of pursuing hopeless cases, but such clients end up with nothing but empty pockets and perhaps a rebuke from the judge.

Church courts were not cheap places to litigate. There were all sorts of fees and charges to pay, quite apart from the cost of employing one’s proctor. Lord Audley was far from being a pauper, but nor was he a man of such substantial wealth that he would be likely to pursue a hopeless case for the fun of it.

Secondly, even if such a clandestine union was proved, it would merely give Lady Audley the satisfaction of knowing she was legitimate – it would not, because of the rules of English Common Law, give her the inheritance of her father’s lands. She would also have needed a private Act of Parliament (rather like the one passed for the benefit of the Beauforts in 1397) and she would have immediately faced the opposition of Margaret, Duchess of Clarence et al. Even with the support of her half-sister, Isabelle Despenser, Countess of Warwick, and Isabelle’s husband, Richard Beauchamp – which might well have been forthcoming – it is hard to see how this could have been brought off.

If there was evidence of some sort of marriage between Kent and Constance – and there must have been some for Alianore to bring her case – that evidence most likely lay within the household of the Countess of Warwick or within the wider Despenser affinity. What we do not know is the nature of that evidence.

On the face of it, the very best that Lady Audley could have achieved was a declaration that she was legitimate in the eyes of the the Church. But why would that spook Margaret, Duchess of Clarence and the other Holland heirs? It could not touch their inheritance without a subsequent Act of Parliament that they were highly likely to be able to defeat. Why go for the pre-emptive strike of a Parliamentary petition, when the outcome of the Church court was unknown, and when, apparently, they had evidence of their own which would have destroyed Alianore’s case in that very court?

In my view, there is only one viable answer, unlikely though it seems, reluctant though I am to suggest it. Alianore, Lady Audley had evidence of a canonical marriage between her parents! Moreover, the other side knew it.

In the words of Sherlock Holmes – When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.








  1. A very interesting article about a case I knew nothing about really.

    But I am a little confused by why Alienore would not have been legitimate under English common law if her case in the Church had succeeded.
    Is this a reference to the attempt (mentioned in the previous article on the subject ) to have parliament declare her a bastard whatever a church court might decide?

    I do know that english common law insisted on the bastardy of any child born out of wedlock even where the Church would rule otherwise (as in the case where the parents had married after the child’s birth, or where a church court had ruled against the legitimacy of a previously recognised marriage to which one party at least had been unaware of the impediment), but I wasn’t aware that common law bastardised the offspring of clandestine marriages that had been proved in a church court (which is presumably why an Act of Parliament would have been needed to keep Alienore out of her inheritance if she succeeded in the church courts).

    Or is there more to this case?


  2. English common law did not accept the validity of clandestine marriages *for the purpose of inheritance*. In this respect, England differed from most European countries. Indeed, in most European countries, a subsequent marriage of parents automatically legitimated their children.

    Parliament effectively said, “The question of the legitimacy of marriage is for the church; the question of inheritance is another matter – that’s ours.” I believe the key statute on the matter was the Statute of Merton.

    Although not directly connected, it is worth mentioning that in the past (not the middle ages but more recently) the eldest son of a couple has been denied a peerage because his parents were not married at the time of conception. For whatever reason, the English were historically rather conservative in this area of life.


    1. Can you give me a source possibly for common law rejection of clandestine marriage?
      Clandestine marriages were valid so the refusal of common law to legitimise people whose parents married after birth is a completely different issue. My understanding is that common law position was simply Born a bastard, always a bastard. But the offspring of clandestine marriages were born legitimate.


  3. I am a little dull today, forgive me. The Audley case is an example in itself. If inheritance depended purely on marriage, then the whole matter could and should have been determined in the Bishop’s court. Here we see *Parliament* determining the issue. Now, if we accept Parliament had no jurisdiction over marriage as such it follows as night follows day that it was exercising its jurisdiction over inheritance. If it had no such authority, it had no business interfering in the matter at all. Clearly Parliament felt it *did* have such jurisdiction.


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