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Edward IV, Dame Eleanor and the Phantom Web of Impediments


The precontract (i.e. prior marriage) between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, née Talbot, has long been a subject of debate, but what has not previously been claimed is that Edward and Eleanor were so closely related as to have been unable to make a valid marriage without a special dispensation from the Pope.  Recently, however, a writer using the pen name of Latrodecta has claimed (  that they shared a relationship within the prohibited degrees, viz. “3rd degree consanguinity, 3rd degree affinity”.

Latrodecta has identified this impediment as arising from Edward’s mother Cecily Neville being the first cousin of Maude Neville of Furnivall, the first wife of Eleanor’s father, John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, and the mother of Eleanor’s older half-siblings. The claim is apparently that – despite the relationship involving no blood tie between Edward and Eleanor – it counts as an impediment of both consanguinity and affinity because half-siblings are included in the prohibited degrees of kinship. The author further claims that “Corroboration can be found in the dispensation granted for the marriage of his son [i.e. Edward IV’s younger son] and her niece [i.e. Anne Mowbray] – the relationship between her sister [i.e. Elizabeth Talbot Duchess of Norfolk] and Edward would have been the same” (that is to say, the same as between Edward and Eleanor herself).

I shall return to these claims, but first it will be necessary to explain these two types of impediment, what they are and how they were calculated at the period under consideration.

Consanguinity and Affinity

Consanguinity and affinity are the chief types of relationship that, under canon law, can produce a diriment (nullifying) impediment to a marriage. Of these, consanguinity is the easiest to understand as it is a simple blood tie: where there is no common ancestor, there can be no impediment of consanguinity. Impediments of affinity arose in those days from sexual intercourse (now only from marriage).[1] The two sexual partners were deemed to have become, as it were, ‘one flesh’. Latrodecta should therefore not have been the least bit surprised to have ‘seen a case where the bridegroom had to obtain a dispensation because he’d already slept with his future mother-in-law’.

It is a common, indeed almost ubiquitous, misconception amongst ordinary historians that the relationship thus formed barred the couple’s respective blood relatives from marrying each other, but this is not so.[2] Prior to 1215, the impediment of affinity had, it is true, been slightly complicated by the rule that a person’s second partner contracted affinity not only with the consanguines of the spouse but also with his or her closest affines (i.e. their new step-kin); at no time, however, had any couple shared a relationship of affinity without one of them having had a prior sexual relationship to cause it; two virgins could never be each other’s affines. Hence, when St. Augustine asked of Pope Gregory: ‘Is it permissible for two brothers to marry two sisters, provided there be no blood ties between the families?’ the great pontiff had replied: ‘This is quite permissible.’[3] The rules had been further simplified by the Fourth Council of Lateran (1215 AD), which had abolished the impediment between certain blood relatives of a person’s two spouses.[4] The unifying principle of the remaining impediments is encapsulated in the maxim affinitas non parit affinitatem (‘affinity does not beget affinity’).[5]

By the 15th century, therefore, there were no longer any step relationships that created impediments other than those (such as stepfather and stepdaughter) that just happened to involve direct affinity. In fact, it was almost de rigueur at this period for a widow and widower to cement their own union with at least one marriage between the offspring of their former marriages.

In the late Middle Ages, both consanguinity and affinity created an impediment to marriage up to the level of third cousins (another rule brought in by the Fourth Lateran Council).[6] The method of calculation in use at the time – the so-called Germanic method – is extremely simple to use.

Edward and Eleanor: Consanguinity

To check for an impediment of consanguinity, one simply draws up two direct-ancestry trees, one for each party to the proposed marriage, with the prospective bride/ groom at one end, their parents (1st-degree consanguines) in the next row, after them their grandparents (2nd-degree consanguines), then their great-grandparents (3rd-degree consanguines), and lastly their great-great-great-grandparents (4th degree consanguines).[7] Then one stands back, looks for any names common to both trees and counts the generations from each partner up to the closest match in any given line. Most often, the common stock, as it is called, (stirps in Latin) will be a couple, but it can also be a single individual, as would occur if an ancestor had married twice and the bride was descended from one of those marriages and the groom from the other. This is what is meant, and all that is meant, by half-siblings counting in the same way as full siblings: the only relevant half-siblings are those who link the couple via their shared ancestor.

I have carried out this very exercise for Edward and Eleanor, highlighting any common ancestors in red. As can be seen, there are none.

Note that Maud Furnivall, identified in the above article as the route to the alleged 3rd-degree impediment, appears on neither Edward’s nor Eleanor’s table; this is because she was only a collateral relation of Edward and no blood relation of Eleanor at all.

Let us now turn to the assertion that the dispensation for Anne Mowbray and Richard of Shrewsbury corroborates this alleged 3rd-degree consanguinity. There are, I fear to say, two problems with this, one of them terminal. First (to be picky) the Anne Mowbray dispensation is for consanguinity in the 3rd and 4th degrees (i.e. one of them was 3 degrees removed from the common stock, and the other, 4 degrees),[8] whereas an even 3rd-degree consanguinity between Edward and the Talbot sisters would have resulted in an even 4th-degree consanguinity between little Richard and Anne. But rather more seriously, Latrodecta has overlooked the salient fact that all children have two parents. As the following consanguinity chart for Richard Duke of York and Anne Mowbray clearly shows, they were indeed related in the 3rd and 4th degrees but Anne’s relationship to Edward’s family lay on her father’s side and in no way involved her Talbot ancestry.

Edward and Eleanor: Affinity

Now let us turn to affinity. By sexual union, the consanguines of the one partner become the affines of the other. So, for instance, if Harry’s previous partner was Sally’s second cousin, then Harry and Sally would be related by affinity in the 3rd degrees. The check for affinity therefore works on the same principle as for consanguinity,[9] except that the bride/groom needs to compare her/his consanguinity tree with that of the prospective spouse’s previous partner(s). This exercise I have carried out for Edward and Eleanor by drawing up this chart showing Sir Thomas Butler’s ancestry. Unfortunately Thomas’s chart is not complete in all areas, and not 100% verified in others, because much of his ancestry is relatively humble and not recorded, but it is highly unlikely that any of these obscure Cheshire ancestors would feature on the table of Edward of March. In short, there was no affinity between them either.


There was no relationship preventing Edward Plantagenet and Eleanor Butler from marrying each other.  Readers do not need to take my word for this: there are plenty of sources available online that set out the different prohibitions and methods of calculating degrees of relationship in use by the Catholic Church at different periods. To be sure one has the correct understanding, all that is needed is to perform a few test calculations on couples whose ancestry and marriage dispensations are both known. Or some may wish to begin, as Edward IV’s councillors must have done in 1464, by checking for (non-existent) common ancestors on the trees of Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville and Sir John Grey.  

[1] The impediment of affinity arising from extramarital relationships was also to be gradually abolished.  The first step was taken in the 16th century by the Council of Trent, which limited its effect to the 2nd degree (first cousins), but it was not until 1917 that this impediment was wholly confined to the consanguines of previous spouses. 

[2] The most notable recent intrusion of this error into late-fifteenth-century English history is Michael Hicks’ claim that Clarence’s marriage to Isabel Neville prohibited Richard’s marriage to Isabel’s sister.

[3] Mary O’Regan, ‘Marriage Dispensations According to St Augustine’, Ricardian Bulletin, Autumn 2008, pp. 34-35.

[4], canon 50.

[5] Thomas de Charmes, Theologica Universa ad Usum Sacræ Theologiæ Canditatorum, vol. 7 (1765), p. 357.

[6], canon 50.

[7] A particularly clear explanation is given in the 1917 Catholic Encyclopaedia under ‘Consanguinity (in Canon Law)’: ‘Mode of Calculation’ (

[8] ‘Dispensation . . .  notwithstanding that they are related in the third and fourth degrees of kindred’ (Calendar of Papal Register Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, ed. J. A. Twemlow, vol. 13 [London, 1955], p. 236).

[9] Again, The Catholic Encyclopaedia gives a useful summary under ‘Affinity (in Canon Law)’ (

The O’Donnells, the Four Masters and the Personnel of the Wars of the Roses

In the context of the current search for the remains of the Red Hugh O’Donnell who died in Spain in 1602, I thought that readers Murrey and Blue might be interested in a few vaguely Wars-of-the-Roses-related snippets from the O’Donnell history of the fifteenth century. In 1434 Red Hugh’s predecessor Niall Garbh O’Donnell was captured by Sir Thomas Stanley when the latter was Justiciar of Ireland for Henry VI, and he died five years later a prisoner in the Stanley castle on the Isle of Man. He was then succeeded by his son, the first Red Hugh O’Donnell (above, d. 1505).

The O’Donnell annals (the Annals of the Four Masters) make occasional reference to members of the House of York, although the O’Donnells themselves lived too far to the north and west to have been likely to have been personally involved. For instance, they record that in 1449:

The Duke of York arrived in Ireland, and was received with great honour; and the Earls of Ireland went into his house, as did also the Irish adjacent to Meath, and gave him as many beeves for the use of his kitchen as it pleased him to demand.

Moving forward to 1472, we are told that King Edward IV sent a strange exotic beastie to Ireland:
She resembled a mare, and was of a yellow colour, with the hoofs of a cow, a
long neck, a very large head, a large tail, which was ugly and scant of hair. She had a saddle of her own. Wheat and salt were her usual food. She used to draw the largest sled-burden by her tail. She used to kneel when passing under any doorway, however high, and also to let her rider mount.

Camel and the pyramids in Giza : Stock Photo
The beastie from Edward IV

In those far-off days, the O’Neills and the O’Donnells were bitter rivals for the overlordship of the North. Though Henry O’Neill could count on the support of the Lord Deputy Kildare whose sister was married to his eldest son and heir, Red Hugh O’Donnell I was at this time at the height of his powers and his interests happened to align with those of Richard III, who was anxious to push O’Neill from the other side in order to reclaim his de Burgho ancestors’ earldom of Ulster in the east of the province. In pursuance of this ambition, Richard instructed his ambassador, the Bishop of Annaghdown, to impress on Kildare that:

“. . . if O’Donnell, by the means that the King’s Grace hath committed and
showed unto the said bishop, will come in, and either to be his liege man or true peace man, that his said cousin of Kildare shall be content so to receive and enter him, as the bishop shall show him more at large by mouth . . . by whose means, strength and coming in the said earldom may soonest be had and reduced to the king’s hands and possession.

The most exciting O’Donnell link to the House of York that has been alleged, however – that Red Hugh I was a strong supporter of “Perkin Warbeck” – is built on rather shaky ground. O’Donnell was not a friend of King Henry, but what placed him at odds with the authorities at Dublin and Westminster were the expansionary wars he was fighting on his own borders; and it was probably to ask for Scottish aid for himself rather than to arrange ‘for Perkin’s regal reception in Scotland’, as has been suggested, that he visited King James in 1495. The Annals of the Four Masters, sadly, do not even allude to the Yorkist pretender.

Red Hugh I left a son Hugh, who left a son Manus, who left a son Hugh who was the father of the Red Hugh O’Donnell who is buried in Valladolid.

R. Horrox and P. Hammond (ed.), British Library Harleian Manuscript 433, vol 3, p. 110
The Annals of the Four Masters, CELT edition, Part 4 (

Archbishop Octavian and the Simnel Plot

A couple of months ago, this post attracted a reply from an individual who has commented before. He was responding to the suggestion that the boy crowned in at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin (see illustration opposite) may actually have been Edward V rather than an earl of Warwick (false or otherwise). Whilst he is correct in stating that there is evidence that the boy was crowned as Edward VI, unfortunately the evidence he has chosen, whilst it sounds impressive, is actually not what it seems.

The article to which this post linked is Dr. Mario Sughi’s biography of Octavian de Palatio or Palagio, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland at the time of the Simnel Rebellion . Dr. Sughi is the acknowledged expert on Octavian, being the editor of the published version of his archiepiscopal register and other scholarly articles regarding his clerical career. Dr. Sughi’s edition of Octavian’s register is a remarkable work, comprising a transcript of the complete contents of the register and an introduction that shows the depth of Dr. Sughi’s understanding of his subject.[1] The Lambert Simnel Rebellion, however, is a different area of study, and a veritable minefield because of the rewriting of its history which very quickly occurred.

Not this Octavian …

Just for convenience, I will quote directly the passage of Dr. Sughi’s online article to which “David” drew our attention:-

This principal adviser of the king, with whom Octavian corresponded throughout this period, informed Octavian that the new Tudor king, Henry VII, had entirely discredited Lambert Simnel’s credentials by parading the real Earl of Warwick, then a prisoner at the Tower of London, through the streets of London. We know of the existence of that letter, the “Addition in Antiquities”, because we are informed by Octavian himself that at this point of the crisis he took the initiative of briefing Pope Innocent VIII about developments:

The clergy and secular are all distracted at this present with a king and no king, some saying he is the son of Edward, Earl of Warwick, others saying he is an impostor; but our brother of Canterbury hath satisfied me of the truth, how his majesty the king of England hath showed the right son of the said earl to the publick view of all the City of London, which convinceth me that it is an error willingly to breed dissension.

The careful reader will notice that this quotation is neither in Latin – the language in which Octavian would have corresponded with the Pope – nor in modern English, which one would expect if this were Dr. Sughi’s own translation. There is a reason for this: the only known source for this alleged letter is a work published in the early 18th century.  The background, in brief, is as follows:

There was an Irish antiquarian by the name of Sir James Ware (1594-1666), a collector of manuscripts who authored several scholarly works during his lifetime, all in Latin.[2] Late in his life he published a history of Ireland in two volumes; the first edition, which went out under the none-too-snappy title De Hibernia et Antiquitatibus ejus Disquisitiona, was published in London in 1654 (vol. 1) and 1658 (vol. 2); a revised edition was  published in Dublin in 1664 as Annales Hibernicarum Rerum. Both editions include a section on Henry VII’s dealings with Ireland, with considerable focus on the Simnel Rebellion. Ware’s account of the rebellion is based largely on Polydore Vergil,[3] although he does include brief references to some original documents, such as a papal Bull, and a letter written by Octavian to an English prelate after Sir Richard Eggecombe’s visit in 1488, in which the Archbishop insists that he alone had opposed the boy’s coronation and asks his correspondent (generally assumed to be Morton) to use his influence with King Henry to have him appointed Chancellor of Ireland. Dr. Sughi includes in his online article his translation of a small part of this letter, which still exists in Octavian’s Register.[4] This letter, however, nowhere refers to the name or title claimed by the defeated pretender and provides only Octavian’s retrospective assertions of loyalty.

Four decades after Ware’s death, the Dublin printing house that had published the Annales put out an English translation of it entitled The Antiquities and History of Ireland by the Right Honourable Sir James Ware, Knt; the translators have been identified as Sir William Domvile and Sir James’ son Robert Ware.[5] Unfortunately, it is not sufficiently often realised that they appended some extra material to the end of each chapter (each of these sections is marked with the word ‘Addition’ in the right-hand margin). The alleged letter written by Octavian to the Pope during the Rebellion forms the Addition to the chapter covering the events of 1486, and it serves the purpose of proving that Octavian was already hostile to the pretender’s cause in the weeks leading up to his coronation.[6]

The lead-in insinuates (but does not absolutely state) that this is one of the letters from Octavian to Pope Innocent that are to be found in his register. Actually, it is not there. There are eleven letters to Pope Innocent in Octavian’s register, and none of them refers to political events. Were this letter in the Archbishop’s register, Dr. Sughi would have been able to identify it and provide his own translation. It should be acknowledged at this point that some material had gone missing from Octavian’s register before it was bound, but since the binding took place during the 1600s this item, if it ever had been in the register, cannot have been there in 1705. Nor does it appear in any catalogue of Sir James Ware’s manuscripts.

It would seem that no historians, even those writing within a generation of the 1705 translation, have ever been able to lay their hands on the original of this letter. In 1739 Ware’s grandson-in-law and the then owner of his manuscripts, Walter Harris, included a reference to the letter in his entry on Archbishop Octavian in his Whole Works of Sir James Ware, though he was unable to provide any more solid reference for it than the Addition in the 1705 Antiquities and History.[7] James Gairdner accessed Sir James Ware’s manuscript collection for his Letters and Papers; from this, he obtained Ware’s copy of Octavian’s 1488 epistle (which he reproduced in full), but not, apparently, the epistle to the Pope, concerning which he was only able to report: “A letter of this prelate is mentioned in Harris’ Ware, vol 1, p. 88. . . .”[8]

But there is more reason to doubt the authenticity of this letter conjured into print by Robert Ware and his colleague than merely the fact that it is missing: the situation it reports, whilst it fits the Tudor tradition (for which Polydore Vergil is largely responsible), does not actually fit the facts as they can be established from genuinely contemporary documents; this is something about which I mean to write at more length in the future. It is also rather surprising that, in this mysterious letter, Octavian twice mistakenly refers to the boy as claiming to be the son of Edward Earl of Warwick, thereby carelessly amalgamating the two alternative ways in which he was actually described at the time, i.e. as the son of the Duke of Clarence and as Edward Earl of Warwick. If Octavian had really written such a letter to the Pope in the weeks leading up to the boy’s coronation, it is difficult to understand why in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion King Henry believed him to have been heavily complicit in the conspiracy; why Pope Innocent initiated an investigation of his role in the affair as late as January 1488; and why Octavian was forced to swear an oath of allegiance before Sir Richard Edgecombe in the summer of 1488 along with all the other rebel Irish VIPs.[9]

The answer to the riddle is probably to be found in the extra-curricular activities of Robert Ware. He was as unlike his father as a son could possibly have been, both in his religious and political leanings and in his attitude to historical research. Where Sir James Ware was an assiduous collector and rescuer of genuine ancient documents, his son Robert employed forgery to bolster his favoured – Establishment – view of history.[10]Ware’s method of forgery was to insert material in blank pages of the manuscripts of his father, whose high reputation (as well as that of James Ussher) he exploited to give credibility to these inventions when he published them.”[11] The letter from Octavian to the Pope, however, he did not even bother to write it up in his father’s collection.

In a nutshell, the letter is spurious. As an expert said in 2007 of an old letter that had surfaced in Scotland and appeared to corroborate More’s story of Sir James Tyrell’s murder of the Princes on the orders of Richard III:  “It has fake written through it like Brighton through a stick of rock….”[12] There is no evidence that Archbishop Octavian wrote to the Pope, or anyone else, during the period of the rebellion, denouncing the pretender as a fake.

© Marie Barnfield, 2020

[1] M. Sughi, Registrum Octaviani Alias Liber Niger: the Register of Octavian de Palatio, Archbishop of Armagh 1478-1513, 2 vols., Dublin, 1999.

[2] G. Parry, ‘Ware, Sir James (1594-1666)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.

[3] Anglica Historia. An online version can be found here:

[4] M. Sughi (ed.), Registrum Octaviani, vol. 2, p. 429.

[5] Alfred Webb, ’Sir James Ware’, A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878, .

[6] Antiquities and History, 1705: ‘The Annals of Ireland’: ‘The Reign of Henry VII’, p. 5.

[7] W. Harris, The Whole Works of Sir James Ware concerning Ireland, vol 1, 1739, p. 88.

[8] J. Gairdner, Letters and Papers Illustrative of the Reigns of Richard III and Henry VII, vol 1, London, 1861, p. 283.

[9] Gairdner, Letters & Papers, vol 1, pp. 94-96; J. A. Twemlow (ed.), Calendar of Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 14, London, 1960, pp. 305-309,; The Voyage of Sir Richard Edgecomb into Ireland, in the Year 1488, Corpus of Electronic Texts (CELT) edition, .

[10] Mark Williams, “’Lacking Ware,withal’: Finding Sir James Ware among the Many Incarnations of his Histories”, The Perils of Print Culture: Book, Print and Publishing History in Theory and Practice, ed. J. McElligott & E. Patten, Springer, 2014, pp. 70-71: .

[11] John Bergin, ‘Ware, Robert’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, .

[12] Wendy Moorhen, ‘A Death Warrant for the Princes?’ The Ricardian Bulletin, Spring 2007.

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