In June 1483, as we all know, the Three Estates of England met, declared the throne vacant due to the illegitimacy of Edward IV’s offspring. They also decided that the Duke of Clarence‘s children were barred by his attainder, thereby offering the Crown to the Duke of Gloucester. The usually hostile Gairdner, as we know, described the process as “almost a constitutional election “.
Who exactly were the Three Estates? Quite simply, they were the nobility, the clergy and the gentry who would normally comprise a Parliament, except that a Parliament could only be called in a King’s name and the title of the King was in question. Earlier Parliaments had ratified the forced depositions of Edward II and Richard II, but had met in those names, which is clearly different. The clergy would automatically know the canon law that had to be applied on this occasion.
Other European nations, with or without Parliaments of their own ,had similar institutions to the Three Estates. France, in particular, had their Estates General, formed in 1302 and called on various occasions right up to 1789, before it evolved into their National Assembly, at the outset of the Revolution.
Returning to 1483 in England, Helmholz (i) concluded that there was a technical issue with jurisdiction for Parliament to decide the issue at the time. However, as he continued, whilst jurisdictional issues are interesting from a dry legal perspective, but in the long run, French and other Continental powers had long foregone the exclusive power of the Church to declare someone a bastard. Ultimately, it was for civilian law to decide, with input from church lawyers.
(i) Helmholz R.H. The sons of Edward IV: A canonical assessment of the claim that they were illegitimate in Hammond, P.W. (ed) Richard III: Loyalty, Lordship and Law (London: Yorkist History Trust 1986)
Hmm, we could do with a Three Estates right now to unseat a certain Prime Minister from his so-called “Caretaker” role until a new one is chosen – he’ll be doing the Taking, but not much Caring I reckon!! (Just going to duck down behnd the sofa)