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A Weir(d) Myth-take: The Legend of Joan of York

After the time of long barrenness,

God first send Anne, which signifyth grace,

In token that at her heart’s heaviness,

He as for barrenness would from them chase.

Harry, Edward, Edmund, each in his place

Succeeded; and after twain daughter came

Elizabeth and Margaret, and afterwards William.

John after William next born was,

Which both be passed to God’s grace:

George was next, and after Thomas.

Born was, which son after did pace.

By the path of death into the heavenly place

Richard liveth yet; but the last of all

Was Ursula, to Him who God’s list call.

Above is the section of the famous Clare Roll where the children of Richard Duke of York and his wife Cecily Neville are all, quite clearly, listed.

 However, you could be forgiven in thinking that there was another York child who mysteriously got left off the list—a daughter called Joan. The eldest daughter of the Duke and his wife, no less.

A number of sites on the internet, both informational and genealogical,  firmly state Joan of York was Richard and Cecily’s firstborn child, a short-lived daughter named after her maternal grandmother, Joan Beaufort. Several books have appeared that mention Joan, mostly notably one by Alison Weir and a later one by Amy Licence. A birthdate of 1438 has appeared for the mysterious Joan, and York was posited as her birthplace.

 So what is the truth about this putative daughter? The truth is, it would seem—Joan of York never existed, and not only that, her ‘birth’ only took  place in the later 20th c!

The first mention of her was in Weir’s book Britain’s Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy. Now Alison Weir is a hugely well-known popular ‘historian’ and many of her acolytes believe her research is impeccable, and henceforth the misinformation about Joan passed, without being questioned,  into general ‘knowledge’ and remained undisputed for a considerable amount of time.

 Apparently, the unfortunate error occurred when erroneous information was gleaned from a 1960’s geneaology chart. I am quite stunned the author used the reference without any additional verification, since it is well-known that some compilers of family trees frequently hove in ‘ancestors’ such as King Arthur , Ivar the Boneless, Jabba the Hutt and any other number of unlikely figures. (In fairness to Alison Weir, she has now admitted that Joan’s existence is doubtful and will be removing her from future editions of the book. Whether Ms Licence will also remove references to Joan from her works is at present unknown.)

 It is quite mystifying why anyone would doubt the veracity of the  Clare Rolls (or the other medieval documents that published a similar list) especially when it was specifically stated that Anne was the first child, born after ‘long barrenness’, and all the other  short-lived York children such as Henry  and Thomas were accounted for.

 What is striking and of interest to me in particular is how such errors can be quickly accepted as canon without question. At least the odd myth that Richard III had seven, yes, seven, bastards, (also, I believe, included in an edition of Alison Weir’s Complete Genealogy book) including Tudor poet Stephen Hawes, whose only connection with Richard seems to be in a vintage novel, never seemed to gain much if any credence. (Richard surely has enough myth and rumour surrounding him without adding additional dubious stories.)

 So hopefully Joan of York, the girl who never existed, will finally be laid to rest, alongside many of the other myths  that have attached themselves to Richard and his family over the years…







A digital reconstruction of Richard’s tomb in Greyfriars with the epitaph.  De Montfort University.


A digital reconstruction of what Richard’s Tomb may have looked like with the epitaph De Montfort University



The tomb for which Henry Tudor paid the sum of 10 pounds 1 shilling in 1495

IMG_4403.jpgA digital view of Greyfriars with Leicester Cathedral shown in the background and now the site of King Richard’s reburial.  De Montfort University.

It is very well known that the winner gets to write the history.  That’s bad enough but they also, unfortunately, get to write the epitaph too.  According to Buck, Richard had an epitaph which is now lost but the text of which he published in his History of the Life and Reigne of Richard the Third, published in 1647.  The full details of Buck’s claim etc., can be found in John Ashdown-Hill’s article The Epitaph of King Richard III (Ricardian 2008, vol.18).  According to Buck the said epitaph, which was in Latin, translated as:

I, here whom the earth encloses under various coloured marble,

Was justly called Richard III.

I was Protector of my country, an uncle ruling on behalf of his nephew.

I held the British kingdoms by broken faith,

Then for just sixty days less two

And for two summers, I held my sceptres

Fighting Bravely in war, deserted by the English

I succumbed to you, King Henry VII,

But you yourself, piously, at your expense, thus honour my bones

And you cause a former king to be revered with the honour of a king

When in twice five years less four

Three hundred five-year periods of our salvation have passed

And eleven days before the Kalends of September

I surrendered to the red rose the power it desired

Whoever you are, pray for my offences

That my punishment may be lessened by your prayers.

I leave it to you dear reader, to decide whether this is true and honest translation of such an epitaph if there ever one existed.   It seems, as John Ashdown-Hill concludes in his article ‘less hostile’ than would have expected from Henry Tudor  – had he merely ‘mellowed as time passed’ or did he have another motive?   Its  a mystery as is so much from that period.  For anyone interested in reading Ashdown-Hill’s article in full, here is a link:




‘This is indeed a mystery’ I remarked.’ What do you think it means?’‘I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suite theories, instead of theories to suite facts.’


In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story A Scandal in Bohemia,[1] Holmes and Watson are puzzled by an anonymous and undated note, which they have received. It was the only case in which Holmes was worsted by a cleverer adversary: the beautiful Irené Adler. Holmes seldom referred to her as anything other than the Woman because in his opinion ‘she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex’. Since this story first appeared in 1888, Holmes’ dictum has become the cornerstone of forensic investigation methodology. Criminologists, detectives, judges, lawyers, doctors, scientists, and many other professionals rely on factual data to support their judgement or opinion.


Facts are important to historians also; they are the building blocks of history and historians must not get them wrong; as AE Houseman famously remarked, ‘accuracy is a duty not a virtue’. The difficulty for English medieval historians is that the facts they rely on are often found in old manuscripts, which are hand written in ancient Latin or French by men who were not witnesses to the events they record, and whose narrative may reflect their particular political or geographic point of view. These difficulties increase where contemporary records are incomplete or not available. The historiography of King Richard III suffers from most if not all of these problems. Almost all the accounts we have of his life and reign were written by a small number of people in southern England after his death. We know quite a bit about how the people in London and the south viewed his reign and character, but little of what the rest of the country thought. Our opinion of Richard has been pre-determined for us by people who, for whatever reason, took a particular a view and preserved those ‘facts’ that supported their view. The generally poor opinion of King Richard III stems from this incomplete material: the Tudor narrative. Horace Walpole, writing during the age of reason was not impressed; he declared that while Richard might well be as execrable as they say he was, there is no reason to believe so on the available evidence.[2]


Charles Ross in his biography of King Richard identified the ‘extraordinary problems of the evidence’ as the key issue for those seeking answers to the vital questions of when and why Richard claimed the throne.[3] They have to deal with the paradox of his good reputation prior to April 1483 and the crimes he is supposed to have committed thereafter. Ross’ modern solution to this problem was to ignore the Tudor narrative in favour of inferring Richard’s ‘character and motives from a close scrutiny of the events themselves without preconceptions’; it has, he says, resulted in a more critical appraisal of the Tudor narrative and a better understanding of its value. Such objectivity is to be applauded; though, it does come at a cost. Ross also considers that because historians now have a better understanding of the Tudor tradition and of fifteenth century English politics, they are unwilling to throw the ‘whole bodily out of the window, especially when it can be confirmed by contemporary evidence.[4] What worries me about that proposition is that it presupposes that the contemporary sources and the Tudor writers are independent of each other: they are not. Of the major chronicles for this period, only Mancini’s narrative was written in King Richard’s lifetime. The other major source is the Second Continuation of Crowland, written about eight months after Bosworth. The English vernacular chronicles were not written until a decade or more afterwards and are so confused and contradictory that they have little or no probative value. Furthermore, the source of these accounts and also of some contemporary foreign chronicles was a member of a cabal of Tudor malcontents who wanted to seize Richard’s throne. It is illogical to think that two separate accounts emanating from the same witness can corroborate each other. The essence of corroboration is that two different witnesses give the same evidence independently.


Though modern authors may claim to be objective, the reality is that it is almost impossible to avoid taking sides. The contradiction in Richard’s reputation is such as raise ‘unhelpful issues of guilt and innocence’ within a hostile, adversarial situation in which every scrap of information is heavily scrutinized in case it sheds light on the mysteries of Richard’s protectorship and reign.[5] Consequently much of Ricardian historiography evinces a preconception of his guilt or innocence that biases judgment. In his defence, Richard’s apologists tend to excuse even his most doubtful actions; whereas his critics’ interpret everything he does negatively and in terms of his perceived vices: violence, greed, deceit, ruthless ambition and murderous intent. His good acts are regarded as self-serving; if he is kind it is because he wants something, if he is generous he is ‘buying’ support, if his justice is firm he is a ruthless tyrant and if his sleep is disturbed by grief for his dead son and wife it is because he has a bad conscience. This preconception stems, I believe, from historical hindsight; the outcome of events in the summer and autumn of 1483 is now a matter of historical record and some historians assume that because they resulted in Richard’s accession, he always intended that outcome. That conclusion is, of course, a non sequitur and, perhaps, an example of the ‘insensible twisting of facts to suit theories’ that Holmes’ deprecates. It is also an illustration what happens when historians’ copy from each rather than analysing the prime source material de novo and critically.


I see this tendency in two post 2012 biographies by David Horspool and Chris Skidmore respectively.[6] They are well written and researched, and make good of use local records, contemporary private documents and correspondence, and obscure manuscripts, identified only by their National Archives reference number, to highlight the minutiae of Richard’s life and reign. Unfortunately, on the ‘key questions of when and why Richard aimed for the throne, neither book tells us anything we didn’t already know or mounts an argument we haven’t heard before, or even contains an original thought. That is not a personal attack on the authors since I believe they genuinely aspired to do more; it is, however, a disappointment. David Horspool sought neutrality; he said he wanted to write an account of Richard’s life ‘without keeping a foot in either the anti or pro Ricardian camps’. Similarly, Chris Skidmore wanted to bring balance and ‘more accurate’ scholarship to his assessment of Richard. What I find particularly upsetting is the possibility that these authors, however sincere they are, may actually believe that the habitual, one might almost say ritualistic, recycling of the conventional Tudor narrative could pass for balanced and accurate scholarship. That said, I do think there is some force in the proposition explored by both writers (and others) that the pre-contract — whether true of false — was a device for deposing Edward V to pave the way for Richard’s accession. What I do not accept, however, is that he was motivated by personal ambition or that it was pre-planned. That explanation of his behaviour is superficial and smacks of lazy history. It gives too little weight to the wider impact of complex factional divisions in 1483, or the fear of civil war that was undoubtedly on the minds of Richard and the members of parliament. It also pays too little heed to the constitutional view that parliament as the national assembly had unfettered authority to pass legislation affirming the royal title and obviating the need for litigation, which was in any case impracticable.


Consequently, this seems an appropriate subject for me to write about; especially since it is five hundred and thirty-four years ago this month that parliament passed Titulus Regius onto the statute book. It is also an opportunity for me to revisit my previous articles on this subject and to renovate them with new research and fresh thinking. I make no apology for that. However, in view of the complex arguments raised by both sides in this controversy, I think it best to first summarise the relevant facts insofar as we know them.


The summer of discontent

The untimely death of Edward IV in the spring of 1483 exposed the deep division and animosity between the queen’s kindred, the old Yorkist nobility and dissident Lancastrians, which hitherto had been checked by the force of Edward’s personality and his political acumen. The king was barely laid in his coffin before Queen Elizabeth, her sons Thomas Marquis of Dorset and Sir Richard Grey, and her brother Anthony Earl Rivers attempted to seize the reins of power by crowning the boy King Edward V before suitable arrangements could be made for his minority rule. They were particularly keen to marginalise Richard Duke of Gloucester, Edward’s paternal uncle and the senior royal duke, and the man whom the late king had nominated as Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm. Gloucester was on the Scottish border when he heard of his brother’s death. After a respectful but brief period of mourning, he came south to a pre-arranged rendezvous with the king, who was also travelling to his capital accompanied by his maternal uncle Rivers, his half-brother Sir Richard Grey and two thousand Woodville soldiers.


The story of Gloucester’s bloodless coup at Stony Stratford on the 30 April and 1 May 1483 is too well known to need repeating. The upshot was that Rivers and Grey were arrested with their servants, for plotting to kill the dukes of Gloucester and Buckingham (who had rendezvoused with Gloucester at Northampton). The Woodville soldiers were dispersed peacefully and the king continued to London in the company of his uncle Gloucester and his cousin Buckingham. The Queen panicked on hearing of the arrests and fled into the comfortable sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, taking her youngest son and heir presumptive, and her daughters with her. On the 10 May 1483, the King’s Council unanimously appointed Richard duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm pending the king’s coronation, which was fixed for the 22 June.


We do not know much about events during May and early June. The impression we have is that as late as the 5 June 1483 preparations for the coronation were proceeding normally. On that day Gloucester arranged for those who were to be knighted by King Edward, to come to London at least four days before the coronation. On the same say he wrote to the citizens of York apologising for the fact he that was too busy with the coronation preparations to deal with their recent request for financial relief. I mention these matters because of their ordinariness, which is in stark contrast to Gloucester’s second letter to the York citizens five days later. In that letter, he requested troops to help against the queen and her blood adherents who were planning to murder him and Buckingham. The inference that he was suddenly alarmed by a murderous conspiracy is doubtful, as he had known about that risk since Stony Stratford or earlier. If he was responding to that threat, he had left it too late. The troops from York could not reach London much before the end of June. I believe that something else happened between the 5 and 10 June 1483 to alarm Gloucester.


The ‘wicked bishop’

Philippé De Commynes a Flemish knight in the service of Louis XI provides a possible explanation for his change of attitude.


 ‘The Bishop of Bath and Wells (Robert Stillington) revealed to the duke of Gloucester that            King Edward, being enamoured of a certain English lady promised to marry her provided he could sleep with her first and she consented. The bishop said that he had married them             and only he and they were present. He was a courtier so did not disclose this fact and           helped to keep the lady quiet, and things remained like this for a while. Later King Edward       fell in love again and married the daughter of an English knight, Lord Rivers.’ [7]


If true, it made Edward’s subsequent marriage to Elizabeth Grey bigamous and their offspring illegitimate, and unable to succeed to the throne.[8]   I believe it was Stillington’s news that so shocked Gloucester. Sir Clement Markham suggests that Stillington told him and the council about the pre-contract on Sunday the 8 June 1483.[9] All we know about this meeting is what we can glean from a letter written by Simon Stallworth to Sir William Stonor dated the 9 June, in which he writes:


 ‘…My Lord Protector, my Lord of Buckingham and all other Lords, as well temporal as      spiritual [sic] were at Westminster in the council chamber from 10 until 2 but there was          none that spoke to the queen. There is great business against the coronation, which shall         be this day fortnight as we say…’[10]


The meeting lasted for four hours and was evidently not routine. The fact that nobody spoke to the queen suggests that negotiations with her had broken down and that something significant was afoot. Stallworth’s phrase”…great business against the coronation…” is ambiguous: perhaps deliberately so. Most historians think he meant ‘in preparation for or in anticipation of the coronation’ but such an interpretation is not supported by Stallworth’s use of the phrase ‘great business’, which hardly suggests routine administrative affairs. Moreover, the word ‘against’ has eighteen different meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary, five of which use it in the sense of ‘resistance to or opposition to…’ It is possible that Stallworth is referring obliquely to a discussion about Stillington’s revelation, including the propriety of proceeding with the coronation. This possibility is not entirely speculative, since within a week of the letter the coronation was postponed and soon after it was cancelled.

If we take as a working hypothesis that Gloucester was convinced it was true by the 10 June, it puts a different complexion on his second letter to York. It raises the possibility that far from, responding to a threat to his person, Gloucester was preparing for what may happen once Stillington’s allegation was made public. I doubt not that the fear of civil war weighed heavily on his mind; nor do I doubt that he was also conscious of the personal consequences for him and the opportunities it presented. The letter to York provides a convenient cover story, important enough for them to treat it urgently but that gives nothing new away if it falls into the wrong hands. Things came to a head on the morning of Friday 13 June 1483 at the Tower. There, Gloucester met Lord Hastings, Lord Stanley, the Archbishop of York (Rotherham), the Bishop if Ely (Morton) and others, whom he believed were conspiring against him. By lunchtime on the 13th the whole nature of the protectorship had changed irrevocably. Hastings was summarily executed on a convenient log. The Archbishop of York, the Bishop Ely and sundry others were arrested, and there was panic on the streets of London. Three days later Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded the Queen to allow the duke of York to leave sanctuary to attend his brother’s coronation. By lunchtime Gloucester had the king and the heir presumptive in his care and control. By teatime, in council, Edward’s coronation was postponed from June to November. Despite the turmoil, which these events inspired, Londoners in general blamed Woodville inspired conspirators for the unrest.[11] It was about this time that Gloucester made the decisive decision to issue warrants for the execution of the king’s uncle Rivers, his brother Sir Richard Grey and others. It is confirmation of Gloucester’s intention to claim the throne; he would not otherwise have ordered the execution of the king’s blood relatives.


Bastard slips shall not take root

Bastard slips shall not take root: that was the uncompromising theme of Dr Ralph Shaa’s sermon on the 22 June 1483 at St Paul’s Cross. Taking his text from the Old Testament[12], Dr Shaa preached to the dukes’ of Gloucester and Buckingham, and a ‘huge audience of lords spiritual and temporal[13] on the illegitimacy of King Edward IV’s children. Exactly what he said, however, is a source of great controversy. The crux of the problem is the paucity of reliable accounts of what was said between 22 and 26 June 1483. The extant chronicles are, to use Paul Kendall’s colourful phrase, a ‘mosaic of conflicting detail’ about Gloucester’s title to the throne.[14] This confusion is in sharp contrast to the certainty of the Parliamentary Roll, which set out the chain of events and royal title with admirable clarity. Nevertheless, many historians are convinced that the allegations against the King’s legitimacy were invented by Gloucester to justify his usurpation. The best way to get to the bottom of that conundrum is to follow the chronologically of events.


Dr Shaa’s sermon was not a spontaneous outpouring of public indignation at the illegitimacy of Edwards’s offspring. It was pre-arranged by Gloucester or by others on his behalf to bring to public notice the illegitimacy of the dead king’s children and to put forward his royal title. Though, he was keen to distance himself from the question of deposition, Gloucester’s presence at the sermon is another indication of his intention to replace his nephew as king. Mancini describes how it was said that ‘the progeny of King Edward should be instantly eradicated, for neither had he been legitimate king, nor could his issue be so. Edward was, they said, conceived in adultery.’ This narrative is the only surviving account of the meeting written during Gloucester’s lifetime. [15] However, we must treat it with caution since it is hearsay and not eyewitness testimony; it may or may not be correct.   It is noteworthy that Mancini does not mention the pre-contract at this point in his narrative, though he does later on. Similarly, the reliability of the vernacular chronicles is questionable given that they were written a decade or more after Gloucester’s death and after King Henry VII’s deliberate attempt to expunge all knowledge and memory of Titulus Regius and the invalidity of Edward IV’s marriage. The Great Chronicle follows Mancini in alleging that Shaa preached the illegitimacy of king Edward; whereas, Fabyan says that Shaa also declared the bastardy of Edward’s children. It is this confusion over what was or was not said by Dr Shaa that lies at the heart of the controversy. The importance of Shaa’s sermon, however, lay in the fact that it set in motion a train of events that were to put Gloucester on the throne with astonishing speed, even by modern standards. Within three days of this sermon, he was offered the crown. The next day he was king of England.


With the exception of Mancini, the sources refer to a meeting that took place on Tuesday the 24 June at the Guildhall, with the Duke of Buckingham in the chair. Present were the Mayor of London, his brethren ‘and a good many’ London citizens. Buckingham is supposed to have spoken wonderfully well for “a good half hour” on behalf of the duke of Gloucester, extorting the audience to admit the Lord Protector as their liege lord. Fabyan writes that Buckingham was so eloquent that he never even stopped to spit. The audience ‘to satisfy his mind more in fear than for love, had cried in small number yea! Yea!’.[16] Mancini records a speech made by Buckingham to the lords on the 24 June. This may be the same meeting referred to above, though this is not absolutely clear. According to Mancini, Buckingham argued at this meeting that ‘it would be unjust to crown this lad, who was illegitimate, because his father King Edward [IV] on marrying Elizabeth, was legally contracted to another wife to whom the [earl] of Warwick had joined him. Indeed on Edward’s authority the [earl] of Warwick had espoused the lady by proxy — as it is called — on the continent.’ [17] This is an undoubted reference to a pre-contract, although Mancini has managed to get the details of Edward’s amour wrong. Our other primary source, the Second Continuation of the Crowland Chronicle, simply records Richard’s title precisely as it is put in Titulus Regius.


The following day, that is the 25 June 1483, the three estates of the realm (the lords spiritual, the lords temporal and the commons of England) met at Westminster. Gloucester’s decision to stop the writs of supersedeas cancelling Edward V’s planned parliament was probably deliberate. He doubtless saw the value of having the members of parliament in London to consider his claim to the throne. Although this was not a properly constituted parliament, pretty much all its members were present. Neither was this a tame Ricardian quorum; the lords spiritual, temporal and the commons who attended were those who would have constituted Edward V’s first parliament.   On any view this was a gathering of national authority.[18] Gloucester’s claim was put forward precisely; some parts were good, others not so good. The evil done to the realm by the Woodvilles, the falseness of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Grey were put forward and discussed by the three estates. The meeting approved a petition to Gloucester that he should assume the seat royal. On the 26 June 1483 at Baynard’s Castle the petition was presented to the duke who was pleased to accept it. He dated his reign from that day.


‘Doubts, questions and ambiguities’

King Richard III was crowned on the 6 July 1483. If he hoped it would unite the various noble factions behind a Yorkist king his hope was dashed. The power struggle that bought him to the throne was not decided; it had merely changed its nature. What we now call ‘Buckingham’s rebellion’ of October and November 1483 was not a national uprising against King Richard. It was a deliberate and carefully prepared dynastic challenge to his crown by the supporters of Henry Tudor assisted by the Woodvilles and disaffected Yorkists. Although, Richard crushed the rebellion and executed Buckingham, neither its cause nor the rebels were exterminated. Henry Tudor continued to make mischief from the sanctuary of France.


King Richard faced another and more urgent problem: Edward V’s deposition and his accession happened so quickly that many of his subjects were bemused by what had occurred. Quite apart from the effect of a rumour that two princes’ were dead, people had qualms about the status of the June petition and Richard’s election to the crown at a non-parliamentary meeting. The author of Titulus Regius recognised this problem and attempted to deal with it in the preface. He acknowledged that because the three estates were not on the 25 June assembled in proper form of parliament, ‘various doubts, questions and ambiguities are said to have been prompted and engendered in the minds of various people’. The preface continues, ‘…in order the truth may be known and perpetually kept in mind’ it is necessary for the petition to be incorporated in an act of settlement validating Richard’s royal title with the authority of parliament and removing ‘…the occasion for all doubts and uncertainties and all other legal consequences that might thereof ensue.’ [19] This is an important point, to which I shall return.


It is necessary to preface my following analysis with some general observations. First, when considering Titulus Regius from a historical point of view, it must always be borne in mind that it is, a legal document in which the draftsman (almost certainly a canon lawyer: possibly Robert Stillington Bishop of Bath and Wells) has been careful to cover all the key elements of the case. Charles Ross was wrong to dismiss it as ‘pure propaganda’; though, it is by its nature a partisan document intended to assert Richard’s royal title. Moreover, the attack on the validity of Edward IV’s marriage and the legitimacy of his children was a deliberate attempt to re-define a political problem as a legal one and therefore not entirely convincing in establishing its proponents good faith. Although there was neither a law of succession in medieval England nor hardly any strict rules governing the process, it was — with some notable exceptions — customary for the throne to pass from the king to his eldest surviving son. Prince Edward was the dead king’s eldest son and everyone naturally expected him to succeed to the throne; to deprive him of this inheritance on a point of law was incomprehensible to some people and seemed unjustified to others. In particular, parliament’s bastardization of Edward V without recourse to the judgement of a church court has attracted much historical criticism. It is important to understand in that context that Titular Regius is also an important constitutional document in which the author has been equally careful to define parliaments authority to validate King Richard’s title in legislation without recourse to litigation. It is important to distinguish between these legal and constitutional points.


Second, it is essential not to over simplify the circumstances leading to Titulus Regius in 1484. The common tendency to interpret them solely in the context of King Richard’s personal ambition ignores the wider influence and dynamics of factional interests. None of the legal impediments to Edward V’s accession were insuperable. His bastardy could have been ignored. Parliament could, had it so wished, have passed an Act of Succession for Edward V validating his title forever. After all, Edward IV and Elizabeth had lived openly as man and wife for many years and their son Edward Prince of Wales was acknowledged on oath by the entire English nobility as the heir apparent. Parliament could just as easily have revoked Clarence’s attainder to allow his son Edward Earl of Warwick to succeed to the throne ahead of Richard. And yet they did nothing to stop Titulus Regius: why? That is the key question in this debate


Third, too much emphasis is placed on the pre-contract allegation at the expense of considering Titulus Regius as a whole. The marriage of Edward and Elizabeth’s was attacked on four separate grounds, only one of which needed to be proved for the marriage to be invalidated. In this regard, the charge of witchcraft is significant. It was not a supplementary charge, and the assertion that it was notorious posed a serious problem (which I will come to) for those attempting to defend the marriage on legal grounds.


Titulus Regius

The main body of Titulus Regius is taken verbatim from the petition and is organised in three parts. The first part is an attack on Edward IV’s reign. Much has been made of this but it is a convention common to this type of document. The second part sets out the grounds for the disqualification of Edward’s children’ from the royal succession. The third part is a recapitulation of Richard’s title as the rightful king of England according to God’s law, natural law and the ancient customs of the realm by right of succession and election. It is, essentially, an attack on Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Grey on four grounds.

’The ‘feigned marriage between Edward and Elizabeth Grey was ‘presumptuously made without the knowledge or the assent of the lords of the land.’


And also by sorcery and witchcraft committed by the said Elizabeth and her mother Jaquetta duchess of Bedford as is the common opinion of the people and the public voice   and fame throughout the land, and as can be adequately proved hereafter at a convenient time and place if thought necessary.


The said feigned marriage was made privately and secretly without publishing of bands, in a private chamber and a profane place and not openly in the face of the church according to the law of God’s church but contrary to it and the law and custom of the Church of England.


And also how, when he contracted the feigned marriage and previously for a long time after the said King Edward was and stood married and troth plighted to one dame Eleanor Butler, daughter of the earl of Shrewsbury with whom the said King Edward had made a contract of matrimony long before he made the feigned marriage with the said Elizabeth Grey.’

The document concludes that if all this is true ‘as in very truth it is’, then Edward and Elizabeth had lived together in adultery and that their children were bastards ‘unable to inherit and claim anything by inheritance by the law and custom of England.‘ Clarence’s son was also barred from the succession, as his father was a convicted traitor.[20]


It is necessary first to first dispose of a claim that the Titulus Regius did not reflect Gloucester’s royal title put forward in June. Charles Wood raised this issue over half a century ago.[21] His sole point was that the text of the petition as set down in the Parliamentary Roll does not agree with the various chronicle versions of the royal title claimed in June. He overlooks the fact that the chronicles also differ from each other and deduces that the original petition was altered later, possibly more than once. He further deduces that Mancini’s account is the correct one and dismisses the second Continuation of Crowland’s version because it is based on Richard’s Act of Settlement rather than actual events. He therefore argues that it cannot be relied upon as corroboration of the Parliamentary Roll. His conclusion is that Richard was clearly ‘making it up as he went along’ to justify his usurpation, by, for example, introducing Eleanor Butler who was conveniently dead. Others have since followed Wood’s line of argument uncritically.


The answer to this point is straightforward and contained in one of Richard’s signet letters. On the 28 June 1483 (that is two days after his accession), he wrote to the Captain of Calais and the townspeople in response to their concerns about the events in England and their effect on the garrison’s oaths of allegiance to the king etc. In his reply, Richard mentioned his accession and his royal title. After referring to the June petition, the letter goes on ‘…the copie of the whiche bille [petition] the king wille (i.e. desired/instructed/ordered) to be sent unto Calais and there to be redd and understanded togeder with these presentes’ Wood is not alone in construing this to mean that the petition will follow after the letter. He has, however, misread the letter, since it says no such thing. From their ordinary, everyday meaning, Richard’s words indicate that the petition was enclosed with the letter.[22]


David Horspool follows Wood’s line; he alludes to the difficulty of understanding the precise nature of Richard’s claim to the throne, ‘let alone what Richard actually believed’. [23] His argument on this point is best put in his own words: ‘The argument that the text of the petition was enclosed with the letter to Calais does not seem convincing as the letter clearly states that the petition “will be sent unto Calais and ther (sic) to be redd & understanded, togeder with these presentes’.’ I.e. it is not an enclosure but will come on later…’ Unfortunately, any misunderstanding’ is entirely David Horspool’s and of his own making. It results from a mistake, which were it not so serious might be dismissed as a schoolboy howler. Horspool has misread and misquoted, and thus completely changed the meaning of Richard’s letter by omitting the word ‘to’ after the word ‘wille’ in his extract quoted above. The fact that this misquotation supports his theory about the vagueness of Richard’s royal title may be the coincidental outcome of a careless mistake. It may equally be that his preconceived theory of Richard’s character has ‘insensibly’ led him to twist the facts to fit his theory.


Personally, I cannot think of a sensible reason why King Richard would refer in the letter to a petition setting out his title, which said petition was to be read in conjunction with the letter (‘these presents’), and not send the petition. It defies the facts and common sense. I must also question the rationale of Woods reasoning. The idea that the details of Richard’s royal title were changed after the June meeting is not a valid inference to draw from the differences between the various chronicle versions and the Parliamentary Roll text. There are many other reasons why they may differ, not the least of which is that the chroniclers misunderstood what was said. Neither does it follow logically that because Crowland quotes directly from the act of succession he is not reporting what actually happened. I must now turn to the substantive legal arguments for and against Titular Regius; in doing so, I will use headings adapted from the main body of Titular Regius.[24]


The ‘feigned’ marriage was made without the knowledge or assent of parliament.

Edward’s failure to get parliamentary approval did not invalidate his marriage to Elizabeth Grey; it was, however, a monumental political mistake since it alienated his most powerful subject, Richard Earl of Warwick (the Kingmaker), and his most ambitious subject and heir presumptive, George Duke of Clarence. Royal marriages were matters of national policy, about which the whole realm had an opinion. A good match with foreign princess bought with it the benefits of alliances, power, prestige and (not to be sniffed at) trade. A king might love where he could; but he married for reasons of state. Edward’s clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Grey was by definition outwith the consent of his subjects. It might not be invalid but it was divisive.


The said ‘feigned’ marriage was achieved by sorcery and witchcraft

Everybody knows that the existence of sorcery and witchcraft was taken more seriously in the fifteenth century than it is today: much more seriously in fact. Fifteenth century English society believed implicitly in God and the Devil; in, the goodness of the Holy Spirit and the badness of evil spirits. The ancient arts of magic were widely acknowledged and took many forms. There were some whose activities were innocent, such as those who used herbal lore for healing the sick, or studied astronomy or astrology; however, there were others who practiced black magic. Significantly, cases of Devil worship, while common on the continent, are unusual in accounts of English witchcraft. On the continent, sorcery and witchcraft were held to be heresy, punishable by the most excruciatingly painful death; whereas in England, it was considered to be a felony and therefore not automatically a capital offence.


If you were high born, however, an allegation of sorcery and witchcraft could have devastating consequences. For example, in 1419, Henry V’s stepmother the Queen Dowager Joan of Navarre was convicted of witchcraft and imprisoned. In 1441, Eleanor Cobham Duchess of Gloucester was convicted of witchcraft and treason; she was imprisoned for life and forcibly divorced from Duke Humphrey. The draftsman of Titulus Regius knew this when he accused Elizabeth Grey and her mother Jaquetta of bewitching Edward IV into a clandestine marriage. It is not, as some historians seem to think, merely an add-on in the case against Edward’s marriage. The use of witchcraft could invalidate a marriage on its own, either because it caused impotence or the bewitched person could not give an informed consent to the marriage. I doubt that impotence was a problem for Edward IV, so this issue turns on consent, which in the canons falls under the heading of ‘force and fear’. ‘The decretal Cum locum begins “since consent does not take place where there is fear or coercion, it is necessary for all coercion to be eliminated when someone’s assent is required. Now marriage is contracted by consent alone, and, when it is sought the person whose intentions are in question should enjoy full security, lest he say out of fear that he is pleased with something he hates, with the result that usually follows from unwilling nuptials.” ‘ [25]


The trial in 1441 of Eleanor Cobham Duchess of Gloucester on charges of sorcery, witchcraft and treason was a precedent and a model for the accusation against Elizabeth and her mother. It is possible that some of the charges against Eleanor Cobham were fabricated in order to discredit her husband Humphrey Duke of Gloucester; but they were not entirely fanciful, since she had in her service priests of doubtful repute and she was politically ambitious. It was ambition that bought her down and destroyed her husband’s influence at court. In 1440, Humphrey was heir presumptive; if the king should die childless before him, Humphrey would succeed the throne. He was, in the general opinion, a man of power at court and influence over the king, much to the chagrin of his political opponents. Unfortunately, rather than wait for nature to take its course Duchess Eleanor tried to peer into the future to see when Henry would die ‘so that she would be queen.’[26] It was a foolish mistake since it played into the hands of her husband’s enemies, who were bent on destroying him. Eleanor Cobham was, herself, hated and mistrusted for her vaulting ambition, her self-importance and her voracity. In June 1441, her associates Roger Bolingbroke, Thomas Southwell, John Home and Marjery Jurdane (or Jourdemain, also known as the witch of Eye [-in-Westminster]) were arrested and charged with conspiring to bring about the king’s death: Bolingbroke through necromancy, Southwell by celebrating Mass unlawfully with strange heretical accoutrements and Home for taking part with both. Jurdane confessed that she had been long employed by the duchess as a sorceress to concoct potions and medicines to ‘make Duke Humphrey love and marry her.’ Thus incriminated, Eleanor was questioned by an ecclesiastical court on the accusations of sorcery and witchcraft, and by the King’s Council in connection with an alleged conspiracy to murder the king. At first, she strenuously denied all the allegations, but following the admissions by Bolingbroke and Jurdane, she confessed to five of the twenty-eight charges on the indictment, including the fact that she used witchcraft to make duke Humphrey marry her. After further enquiries, Bolingbroke, Southwell, Home and Jurdane were indicted on counts of treason, felony and sorcery in that ‘on various occasions after April 1440…they had used magic figures, vestments and instruments, and invoked evil spirits to anticipate when the [king] would die.’[27] It was also alleged that Eleanor Cobham as wife to the heir presumptive wanted to be queen and wanted to know when it would happen. The outcome was, of course, inevitable. Bolingbroke suffered the full horror of a traitor’s death; Jurdane, of a witch’s death. Southwell died in custody before he could be brought to the scaffold (suicide?). Home was pardoned.


For her spiritual offences, Eleanor Cobham was condemned by an ecclesiastical court of bishops to do public penance and divorced from her husband. She was never tried on the charge of treason. Instead, the King’s Council made administrative arrangements for her to be imprisoned for the remainder of her life. Duke Humphrey was by this time powerless to protect her. Nonetheless, her imprisonment without trial raised certain ‘doubts and ambiguities’ in the minds of some, about whether her case had been resolved by due process of law. It was clear that English peers were entitled to be tried by the judges and peers of the realm; however, there was no provision for the trial of a peeress. Consequently, in 1442 a petition was presented in parliament ‘that all doubt and ambiguity about the trial and judgement of (Eleanor Cobham’s) conviction for treason and felony be removed’. The trial for peeresses was put on the statutory basis that the ‘judges and peers of the realm’ must try them. Eleanor Cobham died still a prisoner in 1457.[28]


The allegation that Elizabeth and her mother had bewitched Edward into marriage is not the only allegation of witchcraft made against members of the Yorkist royal family: nor is it even the first. During Warwick’s rebellion of 1469/70, while the king was a prisoner in Warwick castle, Thomas Wake, one of Warwick’s men, accused Jaquetta of witchcraft. The details of her offence are obscure but it seems that Wake brought to the castle a small lead figure fashioned like a man. The figure was broken in the middle but had been repaired with wire. Wake said that Jaquetta made the figure for use in witchcraft. He also produced John Daunger a witness who said that Jaquetta had two more figures: one for the king, the other for the queen. As there is no accusation that she actually used the figure for supernatural purposes and unless it was held that the mere possession of a lead figures amounted to witchcraft, it is difficult to see on these facts what evidence there was to justify a prosecution. But that is hardly the point, since this accusation was, in all probability, an early attempt to impugn the validity of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth; and it had Warwick’s bungling footprints all over it. Fortunately, for Jaquetta, the outcome was as predictable as the allegation. Edward recovered control of the kingdom and, unsurprisingly, the case against Jaquetta collapsed. Wake, who had a personal grudge against Jaquetta’s husband, Lord Rivers, was accused of being malicious and Daunger retracted his evidence. In February 1470 the King’s Council (Warwick being present) formally exonerated Edward’s mother-in-law.


Accusations of witchcraft continued to hound the royal family. The duke of Clarence’s conviction and execution for treason has its genesis in the earlier trial and convictions of Thomas Burdet, John Stacy and Thomas Blake for imagining the king and his heir’s deaths by necromancy. Burdet was a servant and close personal friend of Clarence. His involvement in a treasonous plot that could only benefit Clarence, threw suspicion on the duke who made things worse by challenging, what seems to have been, a just conviction and by accusing the king of practicing necromancy.[29] In 1483, Gloucester accused Elizabeth Woodville and her supporters of forecasting his death. I think we can disregard the assertion of the later Tudor historians that he also accused Elizabeth of bewitching his body. King Richard has, himself, disproved that possibility from the grave. I do not offer these examples as proof of the allegation in Titulus Regius but as an indication of the notoriety and significance of witchcraft/sorcery within Yorkist royal circles. The draftsman of Titulus Regius obviously appreciated this point since he inserted a clause at this point stating that the invalidity of Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Grey was a matter of public notoriety; thus reversing the burden of proof.[30] In law, if something was so well known as to be notorious ‘neither witness nor accuser is necessary’.[31] Henry Kelly’s assertion that notoriety only applied to the witchcraft charge and not to the pre contract is irrelevant, since Titulus Regius raised a presumption that the marriage was invalid and everybody knew it was; therefore the burden of proving it was valid fell on Edward and Elizabeth’s children or Elizabeth. Furthermore, Edward’s marriage to Eleanor Butler was secret; it could not by definition be notorious.


That is an important point since the circumstances of the wedding are inconclusive. The best account comes from the pen of Robert Fabyan and was written thirty years or more after the event he describes.

    ‘In most secret manner, upon the first day of May, King Edward spoused Elizabeth, which        spousals were solemnised early in the morning at a town called Grafton, near Stony Stratford; at which marriage were no persons present but the spouse, the spousess, the Duchess of Bedford her mother, the priest, two gentlewomen and a young man to help the priest sing. After which   spousals ended, he went to bed, and so tarried there three or fours hours, and after departed  and rode again to Stony Stratford, and came as though he had been hunting, and there went to  bed again’


It is a plausible story of a secret marriage; the date and the location of the king are corroborated from contemporary records of his known movements. There is nothing substantive in this narrative to support the proposition that Edward was bewitched into a marriage he did not want other than Fabyan’s insinuation about ‘What obloquy ran after this marriage, how the king was enchanted by the Duchess of Bedford and how after he would have refused her‘, which, infuriatingly, he passed over, along with ‘many other things concerning this matter’. This and perhaps the fact that the 30 April was St Walpurgisnacht (otherwise known as the ‘night of the witches’), has encouraged speculation that Edward might have attended a Black Mass at Grafton at which potions, and aphrodisiacs were used to enhance sexual pleasure and to deprive Edward of his senses, so that he could not say no to the marriage.[32] It is not impossible that that is indeed what happened but this material does not prove it. The contrary argument is that Fabyan got the date wrong; the wedding actually took place much later, possibly in August.[33] This argument is based on the premise that Edward is unlikely to have been able to keep his marriage a secret for five months, and that some grants made by the king would seem to be unnecessary if he had just married Elizabeth ‘who could be expected to give him an heir of his own body.‘ It is an explanation for Edward’s delay in revealing the marriage but not necessarily the explanation. The problem with this speculation is, however, that it flies in the face of the facts. Edward plainly did escape his attendants to marry Elizabeth in secret. It’s hard to believe that a man of his resourcefulness and sexual appetites could not successfully repeat the exercise. On the second point, there was no guarantee that the queen would or could bear him a son; indeed, she did not actually do so for six years. Besides, there are many other reasons why Edward might have made the grants. It might, for example, have been patronage expected of him by people who knew nothing of his marriage to Elizabeth and he did not wish to encourage their speculation by not making these grants, which on the face of it were reasonable.


Ultimately, I believe that the actual circumstances of the wedding are beside the point. The invalidation of Edward’s marriage on the ground that he was bewitched did not (in 1483) turn on proof that he was actually bewitched. Titulus Regius was expertly worded so that it was sufficient for the accusation of witchcraft to be plausible not only because of the notoriety surrounding previous allegations of witchcraft within the royal family but also because for many of the King’s subjects it was the only possible explanation for his otherwise inexplicable marriage to a commoner with no dowry or assets, and a large and voracious family to support.


The said feigned marriage was made privately and secretly

The historian Mortimer Levine dismisses the clandestinity of this marriage as a matter of no consequence[34]. He argues that clandestine marriages are valid, binding on the parties and enforceable in law. He is right in principle, but he has over simplified the law in 1483 and jumped to the wrong conclusion. In the fifteenth century, questions of legitimacy were not determined solely on the basis of whether the parents were validly married. There were many subsidiary principles used to determine legitimacy, the most famous being ‘legitimisation by subsequent marriage’. This principle also relied on the parents’ good faith. The reasoning was that parents and children should not be penalised for their ignorance of an impediment. If one of the parents was unaware of the impediment, the children of that union were presumed to be legitimate in law. However, it is unnecessary to consider this issue as the clandestinity of Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage raises the presumption of bad faith, which puts them outside this rule. If their marriage had been open, with banns declared, people would have had an opportunity to object and Edward’s previous marriage to Lady Eleanor Butler might have come to light. Contrary to what Levine says, the secrecy of their wedding is far from irrelevant; it goes to the heart of the problem of their children’s illegitimacy.


Edward had made a contract of matrimony long before he made the feigned marriage

The pre-contract raises two objections; first, that the pre-contract is an invention and second that in any case it would not, on these facts, bastardise Edward’s children. The first objection is a question of fact and turns on the supposed absence of written proof of Stillington’s allegation. It this perceived gap in the paper trail, which sceptics use to challenge the existence of the pre-contract. However, to suggest that there is no written evidence of Edward’s prior marriage is plainly nonsense in the face of the documents we do have: the Parliamentary Roll’s, which confirms the prior marriage, Commynes’ memoirs naming Stillington as the ‘whistle blower’, officiate and only witness apart from the bride and groom, and the Crowland Chronicle. What we do lack, however, is Stillington’s written testimony; we also lack the type of circumstantial detail that adds colour to the bishop’s revelation: the who, what, when, where, how and why questions.[35] Common sense suggests that the mere fact that it was a secret ceremony precludes the possibility of any written contract or promise and it is difficult to know what else would satisfy the sceptics if they doubt even parliament’s integrity in accepting the petition verbatim. Anyhow, it does not necessarily follow from the absence of written proof that Stillington was lying, or that he and Gloucester conspired to tell lies. Moreover, the absence of such written testimony or other proofs is hardly surprising due to the fact that in 1485, King Henry VII was intent in suppressing all knowledge of King Richard’s royal title.


He ordered Titulus Regius, to be repealed without being read (itself unusual in the annals of parliament). The repeal of Titulus Regius was necessary to bolster King Henry’s own weak title, which depended on the legitimacy of his wife Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. However, his order that all copies should be annulled and utterly destroyed’ on pain of punishment suggests there was more to it than that. Titulus Regius was, he said, ‘to be cancelled, burned and put into oblivion’. Henry’s intention was by his own admission to ensure ‘…that all things said and remembered in the said bill may be forever put out of remembrance and forgot.’ His explanation that he could not bear to have this infamy of his wife and her family remembered is doubtless true but it is not the whole truth. It was a blatant attempt to rewrite the history of King Richard’s royal title. I take Horspool’s point that it doesn’t necessarily follow that Henry thought the pre-contract story was true. However, when coupled with the arrest and subsequent pardoning of Stillington and Henry’s refusal to allow the bishop to be examined by his judges on the facts of the pre-contract, then the inference that he may have had something to hide is almost irresistible. At a time when King Henry would have welcomed proof positive that the pre-contract was a slanderous lie, he chose to suppress it rather than disprove it.


Neither are there any grounds for doubting Stillington’s credibility as a truthful witness to the marriage. Nobody has produced evidence that he invented the pre-contract story either on his own or as part of a conspiracy with Gloucester (as he then was), or that he allowed Gloucester to put him up to it. He did not receive any discernable reward for his revelation there is little force in the assertion that the pre-contract story was known to be false at the time. The only doubts that were expressed came from sources in southern England after his death, at a time when Henry VII was actively suppressing the true history of Titulus Regius.


The pre-contract story was also credible to King Edward IV’s subjects. His promiscuity was notorious. Crowland describes him in general terms as ‘a gross man so addicted to conviviality, vanity, drunkenness, extravagance and passion.’[36] Mancini is more descriptive:


‘He was licentious in the extreme: moreover it was said that had been most insolent to    numerous women after he had seduced them, for, as soon as he grew weary of the         dalliance, he gave up the ladies much against their will to the other courtiers [Hastings,   Rivers and Dorset?]. He pursued with no discrimination the married and unmarried the    noble and the lowly: however he took none by force. He overcame all by money and         promises, and having conquered them, he dismissed them.’[37]


Finally, it is important to bear in mind that the draftsman of Titulus Regius had no need to allege bigamy. As I have already argued, the charge of witchcraft and the claim on notoriety were sufficient to invalidate Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth without the need of a court judgement. If the pre-contract story was not true it’s inclusion in Titulus Regius was a dangerous embellishment, a mistake of the first magnitude, which I do not see such a careful draftsman making.

The second objection raises two questions of law, which I shall deal with individually.[38]

  • The first point relies on the current principle of English law that that bigamy ceases once one of the spouse’s dies. Richard’s detractors argue that no objection could be raised against the validity of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Grey or against the legitimacy of their children born after Eleanor Butler’s death on the 30 June 1468. However, in the fifteenth century the law was different; in those days under canon law, adultery when coupled with a present contract of marriage was an impediment to the subsequent marriage of the adulterous couple. Based on the facts of this case, the law in 1483 presumed that Edward had ‘polluted’ Elizabeth by adultery; consequently, they were forbidden from marrying at any time in the future, even after the death of Eleanor Butler. Medieval canonists considered this harsh, even unjust. Consequently, to mitigate its effect on an innocent party in a bigamous marriage, exceptions to the rule were allowed. For example, if Elizabeth Grey did not know of Edward’s previous marriage to Eleanor Butler, she would not be committing adultery knowingly and there would be no impediment to her marrying Edward after Eleanor’s death. Of course, whether this exception applied depends on facts we cannot now prove: did Elizabeth know about the pre-contract when she ‘married’ Edward? Unhappily for Edward and Elizabeth no investigation of the facts was or is necessary since the application of this exception rested on the legal presumption that Elizabeth acted in good faith. Owing to the fact that her marriage to Edward was clandestine, the law presumed bad faith on her part. Thus, she could not avail herself of its protection.[39]


  • The second point of law turns on the argument that as Edward and Elizabeth ‘had lived together openly and were accepted by the Church and the nation as man and wife’, King Richard’s claim was too late. Edward and Elizabeth lived openly together for nineteen years. Furthermore, fifteenth century matrimonial law recognised the validity of what we would call a ‘common law marriage’. It was also possible in certain circumstances to presume the legitimacy of any resulting children. However, the problem for Edward’s children continues to be the secrecy of their parents’ wedding. The presumption of validity only extended to marriages conducted in facie ecclesia. Furthermore, canon law specifically allowed questions of bastardy to be raised after the parents’ deaths, in order to settle issues of inheritance. Finally, it was and is a precept of English law that an illegal or improper act cannot be by its continuation over a long time. Far from making things better, Edward’s nineteen-year cohabitation with Elizabeth made them worse.


The Constitutional question

The constitutional question is simply whether Parliament had authority to determine the validity of Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth and the legitimacy of their children. The gist of the argument against parliament is that as a ‘secular court’ it had no such authority, which lay exclusively with the church courts. It is a superficially strong objection against Titulus Regius and no less so for being the first, and the only remotely contemporary one. The Second Continuation of the Crowland Chronicle contains this passage.


 ‘At this sitting [1484] parliament confirmed the title by which the king in the previous        summer ascended the throne and although that lay court found itself (at first) unable to give    a definition of his rights, when the question of the marriage was discussed, still, in          consequence of the fears entertained of the most persevering (of his adversaries), it             presumed to do so, and did so.”[40]


I have used Henry Riley’s nineteenth century translation because in my personal opinion, modern translations that simplify the text in the interests of clarity or ‘good English’ lose too much detail in the process. They are also symptomatic of a general dumbing down of discussion about Titulus Regius by historians. I believe Riley’s text is more accurate and better captures the events and the atmosphere in parliament: the difficulty in defining the king’s rights, the fact that it was only enacted after a debate and the great fear that afflicted even the most resolute. I feel sure that these emotions were present and expressed. We get an idea of the issues that troubled parliamentarians from John Russell’s draft sermon, which he prepared for the opening of parliament. Russell clearly opposed the enactment of Titulus Regius in the form of the petition. He went so far as to describe it as ‘a document conceived in malice and ending in corruption’. It is impossible to believe that after hearing the Lord Chancellor’s explosive sermon criticising the petition and the petitioners, the matter was not debated with keen interest on all sides. It is true that the debate is not recorded in the Parliamentary Roll but we know from an MP’s extant diary of the 1485 parliament that such debates took place, especially on important issues such as the royal title.[41]


Russell was not of course advocating that parliament should refuse to validate Richard’s succession: far from it. His objection was to process and not outcome. He argued that to ratify Richard’s title by inheritance was fraudulent because it was based on ‘false’ information and because it involved a determination on the validity of Edward’s marriage, which he believed parliament should not do. Russell feared above all things division and sedition. He had in mind the October rebellion, which was indicative of the continuing divisions in the English polity. He believed that Titulus Regius in this form was more likely to result in a disputed succession and civil war. He saw the need for an exclusively political solution, which he believed would avoid stepping on the Church’s toes and being more honest and open was something the realm could come to accept. Although he doesn’t say exactly what he had in mind it was probably a simple declaration by parliament that the crown was vested in King Richard and his heirs forever.[42] Russell’s sermon also contained the following statement on the nature and authority of parliament


 ‘In this great body of England we have many diverse members under one head. How be it            they may all be reduced to (iij) chief and principal, which make this high and great court at    this time, that is to say the lords spiritual, the lords temporal and the commons.’ [43]


That is a reference to parliaments political role; significantly, Russell does not imply that parliament is in this instance acting in its judicial capacity. Even so, there was a problem with the notion that parliament could simply declare Richard as king; it, would have been unacceptable to Richard. He was weaned on the Yorkist doctrine of ‘strict legitimacy’ (succession by inheritance). No medieval English king could willingly accept a ‘constitutional’ title granted by parliament since a) it undermined the divinity of kingship and b) what parliament gave it could take back.


Richard harshest biographers suggest that it was fear of his reprisal that encouraged parliament to pass the Act of Settlement;[44] but I disagree for three reasons. First, the sources for these statements are questionable since they are based on hearsay and they only emanate from Richard’s political opponents. Second, no reprisals were taken against Russell despite his public opposition to the petition, he was not discriminated against or ‘punished’ in any way and continued to serve King Richard throughout his reign. The whole theme of Russell’s sermon was unity, which brings peace and stability. I do not think it was the fear of Richard or his henchmen that afflicted the MPs, but fear that a disputed succession would result in a resumption of the Wars of the Roses.[45] Third, the Parliamentary Roll for the 1484 sets out Titulus Regius in full, adding simply that the bill was read, heard and fully understood by everybody present, and that the lords and commons agreed to it. As Rosemary Horrox points out “The enrolled text becomes a statement of the king’s right (and a very detailed one), but there is no suggestion that it was the king’s statement of that right. As presented here (in the Parliamentary Roll), Richard is entirely passive: his only input to receive the bill and send it to the commons for approval.   The lords then gave their assent, and the king, with that assent declared the contents of the bill (and therefore the Roll) to be true.” It would seem that king Richard was deliberately distancing himself from the bill. This may have been in part due to his realisation that the decision the decision to challenge the validity of Edward IV’s marriage was contentious.[46] It is also worth noting Horrox’s later opinion that although parliament seems to be acquiescent “… the impression from the Roll is that this was something to be earned. There is no suggestion, as the hostile Crowland Chronicler insisted, Richard was browbeating parliament from a position of strength.”


The depositions of Edward II and Richard II are testament to the need for parliamentary assent to the dethroning of a crowned and anointed monarch. The Duke of York’s disputed claim to the throne in 1460 is further evidence that a disputed royal succession was a matter of state, which could only be resolved by the king and parliament.[47] The precedents therefore support the necessity for parliamentary assent to a royal succession where the title is controversial.   Naturally, those involved in the fourteenth century depositions had to conform to the legal niceties; nevertheless, the decision in each case was political as was the outcome. The situation in 1483 was completely different; it was, to use legal jargon, sui generis (unique). Both Edward II and Richard II were demonstrably unfit to rule. Whereas, Edward V was a minor; he had not been crowned and was too young to be guilty of misrule. The attack on the validity of his parent’s marriage was therefore a device to give sufficient cause for Edward’s deposition and the barring of his siblings from the line of succession. The overriding raison d’état was the fear that Edward V’s minority would result in Woodville hegemony and a resumption of civil war. On that basis alone, the proposition that only the church courts had jurisdiction, is a doubtful one. To explain that argument I must delve briefly into the evolution of parliament into the king’s court of justice and a national assembly made up of the ‘three estates of the realm’.


In the beginning, the feudal parliament was the king’s court; it was the highest court he had. From the thirteenth century, it began to develop a dual role as a court of law and a political body involved in affairs of state. It became not just the king’s highest court but also his most solemn council. By the fifteenth century, the concept of parliament as a nationally representative body was prominent. Henry V famously told the Pope that he couldn’t change English law without the assent of Parliament. In 1420, the Treaty of Troyes had to be ratified by the English Parliament. By 1467 the Lord Chancellor, Robert Stillington was able to declare that justice depended on the ‘three estates’ of the realm that sat in parliament. It is in that context that Dr AR Myers considers that Parliament’s declaration of Richard III’s legitimacy and Edward V’s bastardy, and their recognition of Richard’s hereditary right, ‘justly grounded on the laws of God, nature and the realm’, was the most important step in the evolution of parliament at that time. ‘This is’, he writes, ‘a specially striking example of the way that the older notion of parliament had had grafted onto it the idea of a national assembly acting on behalf of the three estates, combining with the king to provide an authority of parliament, which would otherwise have been lacking.’ [48] The importance of this declaration cannot be overestimated since it sets out clearly parliament’s own definition of its authority and why it acted as it did on the question of the royal title. After acknowledging that the people at large may not have understood the royal title expressed in the petition, the declaration continues.


 ‘And moreover, the court of parliament is of such authority, and experience teaches that the  people of this land are of such nature and disposition that the manifestation and declaration  of any truth or right made by the three estates of this realm assembled in parliament, and   by authority of the same, before all other things commands the most faith and certainty,  and in quieting men’s minds, removes the occasion of all doubt and seditious language.  Therefore at the request and by the assent of the three estates of the realm, that is to say  the lords spiritual and temporal and the commons of this land assembled in this present   parliament by authority of the same, be it pronounced, decreed and announced that our   said sovereign lord the king was and is the true and undoubted king of this realm of  England … by right of consanguinity and inheritance, as well as by lawful election,     consecration and coronation.’[49]


So there we have it: parliament did not regard itself as a judicial body giving judgement in a court case. Indeed, it could not do so in the name of the three estates since the commons lacked judicial authority. Only the lords in parliament had the power to try court cases bought before them. The bill was passed as an Act of Settlement to which the king and the three estates assented.[50]


It is right to say, as Chrimes does, that whatever the prevailing relationship was between state and church, ‘ecclesiastical courts were neither expected nor required to enforce statutes in cases within their jurisdiction’.[51] Furthermore, fifteenth century civil judges were usually careful not to encroach on the English Church’s rights or authority where spiritual matters were concerned. Even so, the exclusivity of canon law in the ecclesiastical courts did not stop Parliament from passing statutes prescribing their jurisdiction and, on occasion, supplanting canon law.[52] Legislation was also enacted to prevent canon law overriding substantive ecclesiastical law; even matters that fell well within the Church’s purview did not escape statutory definition. For example, issues related to temporalities, sanctuary, benefit of clergy, legitimacy by subsequent marriage and heresy were not left entirely to Church judgement.[53] This was especially so, on cases (like this) that touched the boundary between church and state. By the last quarter of the fifteenth century statute law had surpassed common law and some canon law in importance. The view that parliamentary statutes bound judges was prevalent even then.


Even if we accept for the purposes of argument that a church court ought first to have determined the question of legitimacy, it was simply impracticable. First there is the problem of the ‘law’s delay. Following the sovereign’s death, time is of the essence. His successor has to assume the reins of government speedily to ensure the continuous peace, prosperity and defence of the realm. Litigation in those circumstances would have been unduly time-consuming. And it would also have raised the possibility of an appeal to the Pope, which were to happen would have had political repercussions rendering any legal judgement nugatory. It is unlikely that the English Parliament would accept the notion that a foreign power could determine the next king of England in a courtroom. Third, there is the factional dimension; a purely legal judgement was unlikely to resolve the factional dispute underlying this whole episode, or reduce the risk of civil war. The royal succession could not be decided by a lawyer or a foreigner or in any way that ignored the realpolitik in which the whole question of Edward V’s legitimacy arose. A legal solution was impossible to achieve in 1483.


The claim of Edward of Warwick

Finally, I must address the claim that even if Edward IV’s children were illegitimate, Edward of Warwick was the rightful heir to the throne ahead of Gloucester. Mortimer Levine challenges the view that Edward of Warwick was barred from succeeding because his father was an attainted traitor. There are two limbs to Levine’s argument. First that Clarence’s Act of Attainder only specifically barred Edward of Warwick from inheriting his father’s ducal title and second, the common-law principle against attainted people from inheriting, does not apply to the royal succession. By way of example, he cites Henry VI and Edward IV, both of whom succeeded to the throne after being attainted. Levine regards Clarence’s attainder as unimportant and an excuse to bar Warwick from the crown, and a legal pretext for Gloucester’s usurpation. He may be right about Warwick’s exclusion being a pretext but he has, nonetheless, underestimated the importance of the attainder and the difficulties posed for young Warwick. Professor Lander has described the attainders passed on the Yorkists in 1459, which gives us a feel for the nature of attainment “ They were to suffer the most solemn penalty known to the common law. Treason was the most heinous of all offences. Its penalties ruined the traitor’s descendants as well as the traitor himself. The offender was held worthy of death inflicted with extremities of bodily pain…his children, their blood corrupted, could succeed to neither the paternal nor the maternal inheritance. The traitor died in the flesh, his children before the law.” The children of an attainted traitor lost all their civil rights. They had no status.  Some even questioned their right to live after attainder.[54] It’s true, that that Henry VI and Edward IV succeeded to the throne after they were attainted, but they both had powerful armies at their back to enforce their right. In 1483, nobody was interested in supporting the child of traitor, who was incapable of ruling England anyway. It is quite possible that if a strong faction of nobles had supported him, his attainder might have been reversed. However, that never happened.[55]



There is something Dickensianly repellent about a ‘wicked uncle’ who, to benefit himself, deprives his nephews and nieces of their just inheritance through legal trickery and sharp practice; that is the opinion of King Richard III that persists. The reason for this, is found in the historical treatment of the king beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing to the twenty-first century. The early histories were influenced by the Tudor narrative, which described King Richard as irredeemably wicked. Later historians have, with a few exceptions, followed suite. The historiography is marked by a tendency to simplify the issues to overcome gaps in the evidence and to judge King Richard through the prism of modern attitudes and culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than the historical treatment of Titular Regius. It is natural that some people will think there is something unjust and dishonest about depriving children of their rights without them being heard. We don’t need the Tudor histories to realise that King Richard’s contemporaries had doubts and uncertainties about the manner by which he came to the throne, or that his title was ambiguous to some; we know that this was so from contemporary documents. Moreover, we also know that those doubts uncertainties and ambiguities were expressed at the time and they were resolved by the national Parliament. The problem. I have tried to highlight in this article is that the intellectual debate about the events of 1483 has become personalized and is prejudiced. Insufficient attention is paid to the realpolitik of the time. The underlying fear was of a resumption of the Wars of the Roses and was the driving force behind Edward V’s deposition. There was no appetite for a boy-king in such highly charged circumstances, especially one controlled by the Woodvilles


Although I have little doubt that Parliament was empowered to enact Richard’s Act of Settlement, I sympathize with Chancellor Russell’s view that to enact the petition verbatim was not the best way to resolve the doubts, uncertainties and ambiguities of doubters. it was possibly even disingenuous, in that it used the law to mask a crude political act. Having said that, I cannot escape the fact that the bill seemed to have been passed through the three estates without a mention of dissent in the Parliamentary Roll. I believe that those who argue that this was through fear of Richard and his henchmen do parliamentarians a disservice by suggesting they were so craven. Ultimately, the importance of Parliament as the national law–making institution under the King’s estate transcended the canon and the common law in resolving state issues of this weight and importance


I have written elsewhere of my belief that Richard III was an exceptionally brave man in the fullest sense: on the battlefield and in the council chamber. I also believe he liked to do the right thing. Evidence of these qualities and his potential for good are seen in the significant judicial reforms he made in what was his only parliament. However, I believe he relied overmuch on his courage to overcome all obstacles: consequently, he did not always do the right thing for himself. The thorny question of his royal title is arguably one of those issues wherein he might have done better to temper his strong sense of right and wrong with a more realistic stance. A simple parliamentary declaration that he was king would not have softened the blow for Edward IV’s children or have met the Yorkist ideal and it was not in his nature be less than the man he was; nevertheless, it may have had a better chance of acceptance, thus enabling him to consolidate his reign.[56]


[1] A Conan-Doyle – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin 1981) p.1

[2]. Horace Walpole -The Historic Doubts and Refutation of the Traditional Account of Richard III’s life and reign (1768) published in Paul Murray Kendall (editor) – Richard III: the Great Debate   (Folio Society 1965)

[3]. Charles Ross – Richard III (Yale 1999) at p.64. This is still considered to be the standard biography of Richard III

[4]. Ross at p. LXVI

[5]. John Gillingham (editor) – Richard111: a medieval kingship (Collins & Brown 1993) passim

[6] David Horspool – Richard III: a ruler and his reputation (Bloomsbury 2017); Chris Skidmore – Richard III: brother, protector, king (Weidenfield & Nicolson 2017)

[7] . Phillipé De Commynes – Memoirs: the reign of Louis XI 1461-1483 (Penguin 1972) pp.353-354.

[8]. Sir James Gairdner – History of the Life and Reign of Richard III (Longman Green 1878) pp.113-115.

[9]  Sir Clement Markham –Richard III: his life and character (Alex Struick 2013 paperback edition) at p.101.

[10] Alison Hanham – The Cely Letters (EETS Oxford 1975) pp. 159-160. Stallworth’s correspondence is helpfully reproduced in full in Peter A Hancock- Richard III and the murder in the Tower – (The History Press 2011) Appendix 1, pp.158-59

[11] Hanham (Cely Letters) pp.184-85; see also Michael Hicks – Richard III (Tempus 2000 edition) p.45, for a different translation of this letter.

[12] The Book of Wisdom, Chapter 4, Verse 3 ‘Bastard slips shall not take deep root, nor take firm hold.’ Scholars generally agree that the book of Wisdom deprecates any compromise with false idolatry. Richard’s strong sense of right and wrong was probably in tune with such views.

[13] AH Thomas et al [eds] – The Great Chronicle of London (London 1938) pp.231-233

[14] Paul Murray Kendall – Richard the Third (Geo Allen & Unwin, 1955) p.477, note 21

[15] AJ Armstrong (ed) – Dominic Mancini: the Usurpation of King Richard III (Oxford, 1969) at p. 95

[16] The Great Chronicle; ibid

[17] Mancini p. 97

[18] SB Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge 1936) pp.123-125

[19] Chris Givern-Wilson [Ed] – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England 1275-1504 (Boydell 2005), Vol XV. Rosemary Horrox [Ed] – Richard III 1484 p.14 [PROME]

[20] PROME pp.14-18

[21] Charles T Wood – The deposition of Edward V (Traditio Vol.30, 1935) p.236

[22] Anne Sutton-Richard III’s ‘Tytylle & Right’; a new discovery (Ricardian, Vol IV, No 57, June 1977) pp. 2-8, together with subsequent correspondence with Charles T Wood in J Petre (ed)-Richard III: crown and people (Richard III Society 1985) pp.51-56.

[23] David Horspool-Richard III: a ruler and his reputation (Bloomsbury 2017 edition) pp.164-165 and 290, note

[24] I am summarising three articles about this matter. Mary O’Regan – The Pre-Contract and its Effect on the Succession in 1483 (Ricardian) Vol IV, No 54 (Sept 1976) pp. 2-7; this is reproduced in Richard III: crown and people pp. 51-56; also, Anne Sutton (Tytylle & Right) ibid; also R H Helmholz – The Sons of Edward IV, a Canonical Assessment of the Claim they were Illegitimate, published in PW Hammond (ed) – Richard III: loyalty, lordship and law (Richard III and Yorkist Historical Trust 1986) pp. 91-103.

[25] HA Kelly – The Case Against Edward IV’s Marriage and Offspring: secrecy, witchcraft: secrecy: pre-contract (Ricardian Vol. XI No.142 September 1999) pp. 329-330.

[26] Ralph Griffiths – The Trial of Eleanor Cobham: an episode in the fall of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester (Bulletin of John Ryland’s Diary 1969) 51(2) pp. 381-399

[27] Griffiths ibid

[28] Griffiths ibid

[29] Michael Hicks – False, Fleeting, Perju’d Clarence (Alan Sutton 1980) chapter IV passim; see also, John Ashdown-Hill – The Third Plantagenet: George Duke of Clarence (History Press 2014) chapters 11 and 12 passim. Both these biographies deal with the issues of the Burdet trial comprehensively and each contains a nuanced interpretation of events. David MacGibbon’s claim that Clarence accused Elizabeth of witchcraft did not form part of the accusation against him at his trial (See David MacGibbon – Elizabeth Woodville (Amberley 2013) pp.104 and 216, notes 18 and 21.

[30] PROME ibid

[31] PROME ibid; see also Helmholz p.98

[32] Annette Carson – Richard III: the maligned king (History Press 2014) pp. 138-140 citing WE Hampton- Witchcraft and the Sons of York (Ricardian March 1980)

[33] David Baldwin -Elizabeth Woodville (History Press 2010) pp.10-11, pp150-154 passim; Susan Higginbottom – The Woodvilles (History Press 2015) pp.31-32

[34] Mortimer Levine – Tudor Dynastic Problems 1460-1571 (George Allen and Unwin 1973), esp pp.28-31; Professor Levine is a historian and not, in the legal sense, an expert witness on 15th century canon law.

[35] See John Ashdown-Hill – The Secret Queen: Eleanor Talbot (History Press 2016) pp.120-139 for an intriguing discussion of the circumstances of Edward’s alleged marriage to Eleanor: how they met, became lovers and were secretly married. See also Peter A Hancock – Richard III and the murder in the Tower – (History Press 2011) pp.33-43 for an alternative theory. Like all conjecture these theories are based on inferences drawn from circumstantial evidence. Though both theories are credible, differences in detail suggests that at least one of them is wrong.

[36]. Nicholas Pronay and John Cox (editors) – The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486 (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986) p.153.

[37]. Mancini p.67

[38] Levine ibid

[39] Helmholz ibid

[40] Henry Riley (Trans) – Ingulph’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Croyland with continuations by Peter Blois and anonymous authors (London 1854); see also Pronay and Cox, pp.169-170, which is an honest attempt to provide scholars with a serviceable edition of the second continuation. However, the authors’ simplification and modernization of complex Medieval Latin has changed the sense significantly, as can be seen by the following extract, which is provided for comparison. “…I come to the parliament which began about the 22 January (1484). In that assembly indeed the title by which the king, in the previous summer, had ascended to the height of the crown was corroborated even though that lay court was not empowered to determine on it since there was a dispute concerning the validity of a marriage, nevertheless, it presumed to do so and did so on account of the great fear affecting the most steadfast.” It is also worth considering Alison Hanham’s pithy translation, which is due, in part to her desire to translate Medieval Latin into ‘good English’. ‘Over and beyond confirmation of the title by which the king had ascended to the dignity of the crown the previous summer, that lay court took it upon itself to give a ruling on the validity of a marriage. It could not do so, but it did because of the great fear that afflicted the most staunch.’ (Alison Hanham – Remedying Mischief; Bishop John Russell and the royal title. [Ricardian Vol.12, No.151, December 2000 p.146])

[41] Nicholas Pronay et al – Parliamentary Texts of the Late Middle Ages (Clarendon, Oxford 1980) at p.186 (“A Colchester Account of Proceedings in Parliament 1485, by representatives of the Borough of Colchester Thomas Christmas and John Vertue’)

[42] Russell’s drafts are reproduced by JD Nichols [Ed] – Grants etc. from the Crown during the reign of Edward V (Camden Soc 1854) pp.xxxv-Lxiii; and also by Chrimes pp. 167-191; the draft sermons are also discussed extensively by professor Alison Hanham (Remedying Mischief) passim; see also PROME pp.2-4, 8. []

[43] Chrimes ibid

[44] Horspool pp. 161-165 passim; Horspool prefers innuendo to outright statement but it is clear the he damns Richard’s motives and his methods. Its a pity therefore that he undermines the credibility of his argument by cherry picking his examples and, even then, getting some of the facts wrong. For example, he states that Richard’s use of the pre-contract to bastardize Edward broke with ‘established precedent principally in not giving the children in question or their mother a chance to reply’. It is an erroneous point, since there was no ‘established precedent’ for this situation; it, was unique. What precedent does show, is that no king could be deposed without the assent of ‘three estates of parliament’ and it is in that context, and not a court case that the deposition should be seen. See also Skidmore pp.184-195.

[45] Pronay and John pp.169-171

[46] See PROME Vol XV pp. 5 and 7

[47] Anne Curry and R.E. Horrox – 1460 PROME, Vol XII, Henry VI Parliament, October at pages 510 and 518. Even though the situations in 1460 and 1483 were different, the principle that the royal accession was not justiciable was well established

[48] A R Myers – Parliament 1422 -1509 [published in RG Davies & J H Denton (eds) – The English Parliament in the Middle Ages (Manchester UP 1999 edition) pp.153-154].

[49] PROME Vol XV ibid; see also Myers p.153

[50] For the text of Titulus Regius see Rolls of Parliament (Rotuli Parliamentorum), 6 volumes (London 1776-77) vol. 6, at pp.240-42.  A photographic facsimile of the original (with the seal shown) is available online at . There are two versions: the first in Middle English and the second with modern spelling. Despite some suggestion that Titulus Regius is not an ‘Act of Parliament’, it clearly is. It states the ‘law’ of the land insofar as king Richard’s royal title is concerned. It is also is described in the Statute Book as an ‘Act of Settlement’. An ‘Act of Parliament ‘ is defined at:

[51] Chrimes p.285

[52] Chrimes pp.285-288; see also Myers pp. 146,149 and 153

[53] Chrimes ibid

[54] J R Lander – Government and Community 1450-1509 (Edward Arnold 1980) p.203; see also J G Bellamy – The Law of Treason in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge UP 1970) pp. 8-9, 13 and 21. Although the punishment of traitor depended on royal clemency, it usually involved a particularly gruesome, humiliating and painful death and forfeiture of everything the traitor owned. The children of an attainted man could inherit nothing from their father; as professor Bellamy points out, if he succeeded to anything after the attainder, it would happen by grace rather than right. One commentator even questioned why a traitor’s children should be suffered to live at all.

[55] See Charles Ross – Edward IV (BCA 1975) p.155, in which professor Ross discusses Clarence’s exemplification as Henry VI’s heir. See also Levine pp. 26-27 for his opinion. It is interesting to ponder Edward of Warwick’s wider significance as a Yorkist heir once Titulus Regius was repealed.   Henry VII’s response was to keep the hapless boy imprisoned in the Tower until he was old enough to be decently executed.

[56] PROME Vol XV p. 97; this was the solution to the conundrum of Henry VII’s lack of a royal title. In stark contrast to elaborate the justification of Richard’s title in Titulus Regius, Henry VII, in his first parliament, simply declared that the crown and all its possessions was vested in Henry and the heirs of his body forever and had been so since the 21 August 1485: justification was deemed unnecessary.


“History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days”

(Winston Churchill)


“I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.”

(Catherine Morland on ‘history’ – Northanger Abbey)



In the summer of 1066 William the Bastard, seventh duke of Normandy, prepared to launch and king Harold II to repel an invasion of England. William was coming, or so he said, to take the English throne that was promised to him by the late King Edward and to punish Harold for his perjury for breaking his oath of fealty to the duke. At the same time, the Norwegian king Harald Sigurdsson (Hadradi–‘the ruthless’) was also planning to invade England with the same intention of seizing the English crown, which he claimed was his by right of a promise made by king Harthacnut to the king of Norway. Meanwhile, King Harold assembled the largest army England had ever known to defend the south coast opposite Normandy against the invasion he expected to come from across the English Channel. As summer gave way to autumn and William had still not come, the concentration of English land and naval forces became problematic since they could no longer be victualed and their temper was uncertain. The fleet, which was stationed off the Isle of Wight, was therefore ordered to sail for London and the army stood down. It was undoubtedly a setback for King Harold, which was made worse by the surprise news of an invasion in the north: not by Normans but by Northmen.


In early September, the contrary wind that had kept William’s ships in port, swept Harald Hadradi’s fleet across the North Sea to land on the northeast coast of England. Hadradi came with between six and eight thousand Viking warriors in three hundred ships. Reinforced from Scotland by Harold’s estranged younger brother Tostig, the Vikings met and defeated a Northumbrian army at Fulford, and captured York.[1] Harold, having hastily reassembled his army, forced-marched them north as soon as possible; on the 25 September at Stamford Bridge near York he surprised and defeated the Norse invaders. At the end of a vicious no-quarter battle the gigantic frame of Harald Hadradi, the most fearsome warrior in Christendom, lay dead in the field together with Tostig and ninety per cent of the Viking force. The survivors were so few they were allowed to sail back to Norway in twenty-four ships.[2] The battle of Stamford Bridge marked the end of Viking power in the North Sea and two centuries of conflict with the English. It also bought honour and disaster in equal measure to the last of the old English kings. Four days later, the Norman army landed unopposed at Pevensey Bay, Sussex.


Harold was probably at York on the 1 October when he heard the news of William’s landing. In what was by any standard an impressive military achievement, he had resettled the north, re-organised his army and force-marched them 200 miles to London by the 6 October; once there he ordered the Fyrd to assemble for a battle against William. Two days after leaving London, Harold was approaching the battlefield near Hastings. Next day the 14 October 1066 the two sides met in perhaps the most decisive battle fought on British soil. The battle of Hastings is generally depicted as a classic English infantry battle. The men standing stoically behind their shield wall repelling repeated assaults by Breton infantry and Norman cavalry. It was a bitter fight, which lasted all day; but eventually, the English were undone by indirect fire. A chance arrow fired over the shield wall found its mark in king Harold. Whether it killed the king instantly or disabled him is immaterial since he was very quickly hacked to pieces where he lay. Soon after, the English shield wall, being much reduced, was overwhelmed[3]. Within two months, William was crowned King William I of England. The Norman Conquest was a defining moment in history. It bought an end to the old Anglo-Danish kingdom of England and changed the history of Christendom. Henceforth, English attention was focused south towards the Latin world and not north to the Nordic one.


The period between 1042 and 1066 is veiled in a mist of legend and half-truths in which fact has become almost indistinguishable from fiction. Penetrating this mist to learn the truth about the years leading up to the Conquest is no easy matter for three good reasons: first, the passage of time, second the nature and relative scarcity of contemporary chronicles, and third because I am conscious of Miss Morland’s stricture that much of what we call history is invention. Nor should I ignore Winston Churchill’s memorable description of the historians’ burden, from a speech given in 1940 when Britain faced a greater existential threat from across the Channel. Later scholars have echoed Churchill’s meaning, albeit with less eloquence. Professor Frank Barlow makes the point rather better than most: “To write a history of Edward (the Confessor) and his reign (1042-66), we have to scrape the barrel with care; every scrap of information is precious… Any historical reconstruction must be a personal creation, and the scarcer and more untrustworthy the evidence the greater the artifice. The facts simply do not speak for themselves. Nor can facts and the historian’s contribution be separated. A history is not made of bricks and mortar. The historian does his best and writes in good faith. He meets uncertainty at every turn and offers his solution. Sometimes, the only course that he can honestly follow is to offer several equally plausible possibilities between which he cannot decide. He has to steer between bland assurances for which he has no warrant, and complete scepticism, which denies his craft.”[4]


More recently, Dr Michael Lawson has focused on the practicability of extracting the truth from the available material, which he likens to a jigsaw with pieces missing and without a picture as a guide. The problem is further aggravated by the fact that (to continue Lawson’s metaphor) we are dealing with puzzle pieces from different jigsaws. What students of the Norman Conquest have to work with are two incompatible versions of history: the Norman narrative and the English narrative, neither of which prove anything.[5]


According to the Norman narrative, William never did a bad thing or fought an unjust war. He was promised the English throne by a grateful King Edward and denied it by the treacherous Harold. However virtuous the Normans may have thought William was and regardless of whether they actually believed he was promised the English crown, the reality is that the duke of Normandy made no impression on the English chroniclers. His activities obviously did not affect them and there is absolutely no suggestion in the contemporary English sources that Edward ever considered duke William, or any foreigner, as heir to his throne. Insofar as king Edward nominated a successor, he only ever considered Englishmen.


Historians have been trying since the early twelfth century to interpret the Norman Conquest in the context of these contrasting historical narratives. Their general opinion is that the Norman sources can be accepted despite their faults for want of anything to disprove them. The passage of time has seen the emergence of a number of different theories, which for the most part are little more than variations of the traditional narratives. William may be presented as a little less virtuous and Harold as a little more so, but the pro-Norman opinion is broadly intact. Lately, however, a school of thought has emerged that challenges the traditional Norman narrative. Modern historians seem more disposed to criticise Norman sources for being partial, and spreading propaganda intended to justify the Norman Conquest and to placate a critical Pope. There is even a modern insinuation that the whole thing was a monumental misunderstanding, which was caused by a renegade Norman cleric called Robert Champart former abbot of Jumiéges, who misled William into thinking that King Edward had bequeathed the English crown to him. It was untrue, of course, but the duke believed it implicitly.


To an objective observer, none of these theories is convincing or complete, since none explain the inter-relationships between England’s three kings in 1066: Edward the Confessor, Harold II and William I. Their inter-personal relations are the ‘hidden history’ that traverses this period; that, between Edward and William being of singular importance: “With both Edward and William, so much was taking place within their minds and the minds of others that the roots of the drama are ultimately unknowable. The thread that runs through everything is Edward and William’s personal relationship, a story during which nothing discernable happened for years on end, yet, which was constantly ongoing. That they met only once between 1041 and 1066 should give pause for thought.”[6]


It is regrettable that efforts to resolve this evidential conundrum have divided historical opinion and unwittingly diverted the historiography of the Conquest from its proper course. Instead of enlightening us, it has become in professor Bates words a ‘barrier to the truth’.[7] It seems, therefore, that to understand the Norman Conquest one first has to understand the history of its historiography. Since it is ridiculous to think that I can solve mysteries that have puzzled scholars for centuries, I will not try to do so. In this article, I am focused on what I believe are the important issues: the relationship between the three kings, Edward’s ‘promise’ and Harold’s ‘oath’. These are the elements that I believe form the basis of William’s claim to the English crown and his justification for the Conquest. But first things first: I need to start with a brief explanation of the sources I have used.


The Anglo Saxon Chronicle et al

The main contemporary English source is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC).[8] Written in English, the ASC is a series of seven separate manuscript annals of English history from the late ninth to the mid twelfth centuries. They were probably copied from a common source (now lost) and completed at different monasteries each with its local interest, priorities and political bias. Historians have always treated the seven manuscripts as one chronicle; though for convenience, each is designated by a letter: Ã, A, B, C, D, E and F. My interest is in manuscripts C, D and E, which cover this period of the eleventh century. In view of the number of manuscripts and the regional variations, the ASC contains errors of fact and chronology.[9] Nevertheless, these faults notwithstanding, it has great historical value as the relevant parts were written contemporaneously, without the benefit of hindsight or the necessity to explain the Norman Conquest.


My other primary English source is the Vita Edwardi Regis (the ‘Vita’), which was written in about 1066 by an anonymous Flemish monk for king Edward’s queen Edith. Its express purpose is to glorify her father earl Godwin of Wessex, and her siblings Harold and Tostig. Consequently, the Vita is prone to exaggerate their role and importance during the period concerned. Broadly, the Vita’s message is that king Edward and his kingdom prospered whilst he was being advised and mentored by earl Godwin and his sons.. The Vita makes use of a lost original of manuscript E and provides a few facts not in the ASC. However, its bias and the author’s relative ignorance of English history, reduces its evidential value. It should be used cautiously, even though it is a useful balance to hostile Norman accounts.[10] There are also references to twelfth century historians in my text. I have used these selectively where I believe they add value to this piece. Anglo-Norman chroniclers such as Florence of Worcester (also called John of Worcester), William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, Orderic Vitalis and the Saxon monk Eadmer, wrote their histories within a hundred years of the conquest. They relied principally on the remnants of an oral tradition and the written sources, some of which are no longer extant. Naturally, they should be used cautiously since they are not contemporaneous and authors were writing under Norman hegemony. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to disregard them altogether since, as Professor Frank Barlow points out, ‘they may help’.


The Normans writers – William of Poitiers and William of Jumiéges

The Norman written narrative is contained in the works of William of Poitiers and William of Jumiéges. Poitiers (1020-1080) was a Norman knight turned cleric who served as duke William’s chaplain and accompanied him on campaign. He wrote ‘The Life of William Duke of Normandy and King of England’ (Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum). It is by his own admission a long and detailed panegyrical account of the duke’s achievements. Poitiers missed no opportunity to exaggerate William’s virtues and Harold’s vices. Jumiéges (b 1000) was a Norman monk who wrote ‘The Life of the Duke of Normandy’ (Gesta Normannorum Ducum). It is a plain tale of the Norman victory over the ‘perfidious’ English. It lacks Poitiers’ embellishments and is generally regarded as the more reliable of the two sources. The fundamental weakness in the Norman narrative is that it did not emerge in written form until after the Conquest. Inevitably therefore, it has drawn criticism from suspicious scholars who regard it is as propaganda, concocted with the benefit of hindsight after the event to justify the Norman Conquest.


The Bayeux Tapestry

In his monumental six-volume history of the Norman Conquest, Edward Freeman held the Bayeux Tapestry to be the highest of the Norman authorities. His belief was founded on the way the Tapestry’s narrative unfolds. It is told from the Norman perspective but ” …with hardly any of the invention, exaggeration, or insinuation of the other Norman authorities.” [11] The Tapestry is without doubt a masterpiece of medieval narrative art and an important historical document. It records in pictorial form a course of events in England and Normandy between 1064 and 1066, and it has moulded our perception of the Norman Conquest in much the same way as a Shakespearean melodrama has for the life and reign of Richard III. So much has been written about the Tapestry since it was rediscovered in the early eighteenth century that it is impossible for me to do it justice in a paragraph or two. I will, therefore, confine myself to a couple of general but important observations. First, notwithstanding its artistic merit, the Tapestry is not art for art’s sake. Although its antecedents are uncertain, the bulk of modern scholarly opinion is that William’s half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, commissioned it between 1077 and 1082 as a public testament to William’s conquest of England but more particularly to glorify bishop Odo’s part therein. Traditionally it is regarded as a pro-Norman story of English oath breaking.[12]


My second point is that the storyline is not as simple as first thought; modern re-interpretations of the Tapestry bear witness to its complexity. One of the main problems is that observers can only interpret the tapestry from what they see. The images are not accompanied by adequate textual explanation or dialogue; furthermore, the text is confusing and possibly even misleading. There is, therefor, a natural tendency to interpret the Tapestry’s story by reference to the written works of Poitiers and Jumiéges, which results in its pro-Norman treatment. In the last fifty years, however, a different interpretation has emerged, as Professor Bates explains: “ Over recent decades, its allusive captions, often ambiguous imagery, and likely audience, its treatment less often as a source that tells the story of William’s triumph and more frequently as one that in significant respects echoes Eadmer and the Vita Edwardi Regis, together mean it is taken as a moral tale relevant to all the participants in the story.[13]


Dramatis personae

Edward Æthelredesson, the eldest son of the Saxon king Æthelrede and his second wife Emma of Normandy, was born at a time of great tribulation for the king his father and the Saxon people. The golden age of Anglo-Saxon England had long waned. The last decade of the tenth century and the first, of the eleventh saw a new wave of Viking raids from across the North Sea. King Æthelrede, who was not called the ‘unraede’ (ill-advised) for nothing, adopted a policy of appeasement. He paid the Norsemen to go away. It was a futile policy, which imposed an unpopular tax on the Saxon population without stopping the raids. Sensing Æthelrede’s weakness, Viking ambition turned from plunder to conquest. The Danish king Cnut invaded England in early 1016 bent on seizing the English throne; before the year’s end he had destroyed the royal Saxon house and was acknowledged king of all England by the Saxon thegns. Æthelrede was dead and his widow Emma fled to her native Normandy with their two sons Edward and Alfred. Although we know little of Edward’s life in Normandy the experience affected him profoundly in later life. He left England as a child and returned in his middle age. It will be necessary to deal with his treatment in the duchy in more detail later; for now, however, I wish only to draw attention to two contextual points.


First: even though England’s and Normandy had a close alliance at the turn of the eleventh century, it was not a love match but an alliance driven by force of circumstance and ballasted by Æthelrede’s marriage to Emma of Normandy in 1002.[14] Both sides were adversely affected by the resumption of Viking raiding and fearful of Scandinavian territorial ambition. From duke Richard’s perspective, Emma’s marriage secured a useful alliance that gave the duke some influence at the English court. Æthelrede’s death and Cnut’s succession did not affect this arrangement since almost immediately the duke offered Emma as a bride for her late husband’s antagonist. Emma married Cnut in 1017. She bore him one son, Harthacnut, who displaced Edward and Alfred from the English succession. The secure possession of the two English Æthelings (princes of the royal blood) was of great political and diplomatic importance to successive Norman dukes as pawns in their relations with England’s de facto Danish king. The alacrity, with which uncle Richard and their mother discarded the Æthelings’ cause in order to secure an alliance with Cnut, indicates that their value as political levers outweighed family sentiment. [15]


Second: there is no evidence other than what the Normans tell us that Edward felt any filial connection with his maternal relatives. It is true that he was treated honourably as a member of the ducal household; yet, he was kept in the background and his cause as the senior English Ætheling was not taken seriously until the Anglo-Norman alliance began to break down in the 1030’s; at which time, it suited the duke to use the threat posed by Edward’s Ætheling status as another control mechanism against Cnut


William the seventh duke of Normandy was the bastard son of duke Robert and his concubine Herleve. He inherited his ducal title at the age of seven in 1035 together with his birthright: “relations with England were…conditioned by an interconnection between the Duchy and the Kingdom, which had been formed before his birth.”[16] Of course, by 1035 that relationship had changed dramatically. The alliance with Cnut was worthless and duke Robert became increasingly involved in English affairs on the side of Edward and his younger brother Alfred. Theoretically, that policy continued after William became duke; in practice, however, there was very little that he could do to support his English cousins. As a bastard son, his minority was a tumultuous time for Normandy. The ducal court was a shambles, William’s guardians were nearly all murdered and he himself was frequently moved from place to place at night to escape his enemies. Elsewhere, the Norman nobles pursued their own private wars and vendettas. It was a time of lawlessness, which William survived only because of the inherited authority invested in his ducal office. Despite the unrest and the violence, ducal revenues continued to be collected and the church remained supportive of him.


David Douglas described William’s character as paradoxical. There is little doubt that the general impression of William that emerges from the pages of history is repellent (to use Douglas’ words): though not, of course, to everyone. A Norman monk, writing after William’s death, described him as the wisest prince in Christendom of his generation; he possessed ‘the largest soul’, was brave, intelligent, determined, articulate and temperate, and a good Christian. Others thought differently: an Englishman who met William and lived at his court agreed that he was a wise and powerful king, possibly the most powerful yet known to English history. He was, however, also a ‘harsh oppressor’, brutal, avaricious and above all cruel. Whilst these characteristics were not uncommon among secular leaders of the time, William was considered to have been exceptionally wanton in his disregard for human suffering. Examples of his tyranny abound in Norman and English history; suffice to say that William had an unattractive personality. Despite that, Douglas tries hard to defend him from the accusation that he was nothing more than a ruffian, a brute. He was a clever and able man, and an effective war leader. Despite his rough justice and harshness William restored the rule of law to Normandy. As king, he enforced English laws strictly; so much so, that It was said that any innocent man could wander the realm without fear of bandits or cut purses. He was also abstentious and pious. No doubt his childhood experiences had much to do with his savagery in war; but as Douglas points out it was not mindless savagery. For example, his sack of Romney in 1066 allowed for the bloodless occupation of Dover. The devastation of London and its surrounds in 1066 was a strategic necessity, which crushed defiance in the south. And his brutality in the north was successful in finally quelling resistance to his rule.[17]


Poitiers writes that Edward loved duke William ‘like a brother or son’; if so, such a close relationship can only have developed while Edward was in Normandy, since if they ever met afterwards (and that’s a big ‘if’), it was not more than once. It is not impossible that William, who lost his own father in 1034, regarded Edward as a father figure or perhaps as an elder brother, but it is unlikely to have occurred before duke Robert’s death. It is possible that as the Æthelings’ stock rose, Edward was admitted into the duke’s inner circle as a confidante to the boy duke; he may even have bonded with William on an emotional level. The fact remains however, that as the duke got older he became increasingly adept at separating his emotions from his political sense. Neither was Edward so foolish nor so saintly that he did not understand the political imperative of not allowing emotion to govern state policy, especially when was a king.


Harold Godwinson was the second son of Godwin earl of Wessex and his Danish wife Gytha. He was born sometime between the years 1020 and 1023. His father, even then, was the most famous and the most influential of king Cnut’s English earls, and the king’s principal enforcer. Earl Godwin was the son of Wulfnoth a minor Saxon thegn and a pirate; his rise under a Danish monarch is remarkable, since he was a staunch supporter of king Æthelrede during the Danish invasion. Indeed, his efforts on behalf of the doomed king so impressed Cnut that Godwin was quickly recruited as one of the ‘new men’ with whom the Danish king intended to rule his new kingdom. Godwin’s subsequent rise to the summit of the Anglo-Danish nobility was due to his achievements in royal service at a time when the king was struggling to control his dual kingdoms of England and Denmark. We cannot be certain whether Godwin led an elite force of English soldiers on Cnut’s Danish campaign or whether, more importantly, he held England as Regent for the king during his frequent absences on campaign. What is certain, however, is that by the time young Harold reached puberty his father was the established power behind the throne. Moreover, his prestige and influence continued after Cnut’s death. Earl Godwin survived the uncertain and dangerous reigns of Harold I and Harthacnut, and prospered during the reign of king Edward. It was during these years that Harold established himself as his father’s most loyal and effective lieutenant: his ‘eldest and wisest son’ and earl of East Anglia in his own right.


Earl Godwin’s unexpected death bought Harold to the fore in 1053.[18] He succeeded to the earldom of Wessex and to his father’s place at King Edward’s side. His role as the chief administrator of the king’s household and government (‘Mayor of the Palace’) is acknowledged by modern historians; though, there is no consensus on the nature of his influence over Edward: was it benign or malign? The ASC for all its faults has a singular advantage over other sources; it was compiled from annals written before Edward’s death. Its matter-of-fact reporting of historic events between 1053 and 1066, including war with the Scots and with the Welsh, and the steps taken to ensure an English succession does not suggest any cause for concern about the king’s relationship with Harold. Manuscripts C and D capture the prevailing contemporary English opinion of Harold as “The noble earl who ever faithfully obeyed his noble lord an words and deeds, neglecting nothing whereof the national king stood in need.[19] Predictably, the Vita Edwardi gives an even more impressive report of Harold’s service: “He wielded his father’s power even more actively and walked his ways, that is in patience and mercy, and with kindness to men of good will. But disturbers of the peace, thieves and robbers this champion of the law threatened with the face of a lion.”[20] The Vita also describes Harold as being (I paraphrase): ‘distinctly handsome, graceful, and brave. He possessed great stamina and strength, being able to go without sleep of food, which was coupled with a mildness of temper and a ready understanding. He took contradiction in good part without retaliating even once where Englishmen of compatriots were concerned. He was not rash or flippant. He was also good at concealing or disguising his intentions, so that someone who did not know him was in doubt what to think. Alas, he was also rather too generous with oaths’.[21]


This assessment of Harold is born out by entries in the Waltham Chronicle, which Harold’s twenty-first century biographer summarises: “The [Waltham] Chronicle too saw Harold as a fine soldier, tall in stature and incredibly strong’ more handsome than all the leading men of the land’. He was skilled in the military arts, knowledgeable, astute, vigorous, prudent, with all knightly prowess and wisdom, and well conversant with the laws of the land. Yet he could be headstrong and prone to trust too much to his own courage.” [22] We also have what is said to be a copy of Harold’s epitaph written on his tomb at Waltham (now destroyed): ” [he was the]…blessed father of our country…brave…renowned among men, a man of character and authority.[23] If these English sources are agreed on Harold’s virtues, the Norman’s are equally agreed on his vices. Though they accept he was wise and brave (thus, making William’s victory all the greater), the Normans regarded Harold as a treacherous perjurer who usurper the English throne and met a just end.


His contemporary reputation notwithstanding, it is difficult to make an objective judgement of Harold’s life and reign without taking account of his ambition. Due to the efforts of earl Godwin, his family were already immensely rich and powerful before his death. They were, however, politically isolated and unable to overcome opposition to their own foreign policy proposals or to resist the machinations of Robert Champart who seems to have been pushing the king towards a pro-Norman policy. Harold was every bit as ambitious as his father and even cleverer. He quickly built on the late earl’s legacy by building a pro-Godwin consensus among the English nobility. He achieved this by the force of his personality and , more importantly, by ensuring that as far as possible the key government offices and titles were filled by members of his family or their proxies. Consequently, on important issues, such as the succession he carried the weight of opinion in the Witan. Furthermore, he assiduously increased Godwin wealth, power and prestige by the acquisition of significant land holdings in the south. The Doomsday Book provides ample evidence of the massive increase in the House of Godwin’s estates during Harold’s tenure as earl. It has even been said that he was richer than the king. Such ambition raises the inference that Harold might well have considered himself to be the next king of England in the absence of a suitable English prince of royal blood. It is also a reasonable inference in these circumstances that King Edward might have felt threatened by Harold’s power. In which case, he might well look to his second cousin William as an ally against the over-mighty Godwins.


The English succession in 1042

Medieval English monarchs reigned with the consent of their subjects; that much is implicit in the coronation oath, which has been sworn by every English (later British) monarch since 973. By their oath English kings swore to uphold the law of the land, to protect the English church, and to be merciful and just in their governance. In return, they were crowned and anointed, which is a process that transformed their status from human to divine. As God’s representative on earth, kings could not be judged or chastised by mortal man. Indeed, the history of the British Isles gives many examples of how difficult it is to remove a bad king once he is crowned and anointed. Nevertheless, there were no hard and fast rules governing the royal succession in pre-conquest England; the guiding principle was political pragmatism, rather than hereditary right or precedent. The Anglo-Saxon Witan considered the royal succession to be far too important to be decided by the lottery of birth and they introduced a strong (occasionally decisive) element of election into the process. It is axiomatic, therefore, that nobody no matter how high born they were, nobody could expect to succeed to the throne unless they possessed the necessary qualities to rule according to their oath. It was important but not critical that any contender was of royal blood, though not necessarily the late king’s heir. A good example of this constitutional flexibility can be seen in the accession of Harold Harefoot in 1035. He was Cnut’s eldest son but not his appointed heir. Yet, he seized the throne, disinherited his half-brother Harthacnut and reigned for five years until his death in 1040. His success was due principally to the support he received from the English nobility who preferred the ‘English’ Harold to the ‘Danish’ Harthacnut.


In the absence of a suitable royal candidate, the throne might pass to an acceptable commoner, which is precisely what happened in 1066. The Ætheling Edgar was passed over because he was considered too young to reign; instead, Harold, a commoner was nominated by the late king and recognised by the Witan as king. It was always useful to have the late king’s nomination, which raised a presumption of competence. However, the deceased king’s wishes were not paramount, they could be, and sometimes were, ignored. For example, Cnut’s nomination of Harthacnut was ignored by the bulk of the English nobles in 1035.


Edward’s returned to England only twice between 1016 and 1042. His first visit, in 1035, was a foolish attempt to assert his title as Ætheling. However, he lacked English support and his mission was unsuccessful. Alfred’s later visit in the same year was equally foolish since it resulted in his capture and death in circumstances that were to blight Edward’s later relationship with earl Godwin.[24] Edward’s second visit in 1041 was presumably at the king Harthacnut’s invitation, since he still lacked support in England. Harthacnut’s reason for inviting his half brother to England is obscure; it is, nevertheless, evident that Edward was ‘associated’ with the crown from the beginning and was nominated by Harthacnut as his successor. This was doubly significant since it put Edward in a strong position to compete for the crown ahead of other claimants and it bought Edward and Godwin earl of Wessex into an association that was to prove important in the future. For the present, however, Harthacnut’s sudden and unexpected death in 1042 placed the sovereignty of England in jeopardy.


Edward was well qualified to wear the crown. He was the son of a king, he was Harthacnut’s nominated successor and he was born in England of mixed Saxon and Nordic blood; yet his succession was uncertain. The Scandinavians Swein Estrithson and Magnus the Good (king of Norway) also had claims to the English throne. Swein Estrithson was the grandson of Swein Forkbeard and the best Danish bloodline candidate. Magnus’ title was based on the terms of his peace settlement between with Harthacnut, in which — he claimed — Harthacnut had promised him the English throne should he (Harthacnut) die first. There was by now a well of support for Edward among the English laity but it was not limitless. Some key players maintained cautious neutrality in the beginning. Edward had to make a positive case for his succession. Ultimately, Edward’s descent from the West Saxon line of Cerdic ensured his succession in preference to the Scandinavian claimants. Swein Estrithson accepted f Edward’s succession but Magnus continued to assert his prior claim until he died. Although, Norman knights accompanied Edward on his return to England, they were an honour guard rather than a fighting force with which he could enforce his claim. If Edward owed his throne to anyone other than his parents then according to English sources that man was earl Godwin. In the English narrative, there is no doubt that it was Godwin’s status and influence that persuaded the doubtful Witan to acknowledge Edward as their liege lord.[25]


It is tempting to look back on Edward’s life as the story of his path to sainthood and his reign as merely the prelude to the battle of Hastings, during which time the Norman threat was ever present. However, we must resist that temptation, since that was not how it was, or even how it seemed to people at the time. Edward canonization in 1161 had more to do with twelfth century politics than with events prior to 1066. His enrolment into the ranks of the ‘Holy Confessors’ (hence his title) has influenced some modern interpretations of his kingship; however, its connection with the Conquest is so tenuous that I need say no more about it.


It is true that the question of the succession occupied English minds for much of Edward’s reign; however, it only became a problem once it was realised the he was not going to sire an Ætheling. The lack of a royal birth left the way open for Magnus to press his claim. Indeed, he was only prevented from doing so in 1045 by the distraction of his continuing war with Swein Estrithson. In the event, Magnus’ sudden death in 1047 probably saved Edward from disaster; it did not, however, end the Norse threat, since Harald Hadradi inherited Magnus’ claim and posed a formidable threat to Edward’s crown. Consequently, it was the risk of invasion from Scandinavia that continued to drive English foreign policy.


The Promise

William’s justification for the conquest of England and the validity of his title to the throne is devastatingly simple. Poitiers conveniently summarises it in the form of a message from the duke to Harold before the battle of Hastings: “The duke instructed a monk from Fecamp to carry a message to Harold. ‘It is neither boldness not injustice but mature reflection and the quest for justice, which have led me to cross to this land, of which King Edward, my lord and relative, made me the heir, as Harold himself admits, because of the high honours and benefices which I and my ancestors conferred on him and his brother, as well as their men, and because all the men of his race, he believed me to be the most worthy and capable of supporting him in his lifetime, and of governing the kingdom after his death. He would not have done this without the agreement of his magnates, by the advice of archbishop Stiggard, earl Godwin, earl Leofric and earl Siward: all of them subscribed under oath that they would receive me as lord after the death of Edward and would never in his lifetime attempt to seize the kingdom by plotting against me. He gave as hostages Godwin’s son and grandson. Finally, he sent Harold himself to Normandy, so that he and I, both being present, he would swear what his father and other men already named had sworn in my absence. But in this voyage towards me, he was in danger of being taken prisoner and I rescued him by strength and wisdom. Harold made himself my vassal by doing homage and gave me surety in writing for my claim for the kingdom of England.[26]


Jumiéges’ version of events is simpler: “Edward, king of the English, being according to the dispensation of God, without an heir, sent Robert [Champart], archbishop of Canterbury to the duke with a message appointing the duke as heir to the kingdom which God had entrusted to him. He also at a later time sent to the duke, Harold the greatest of all the counts in his kingdom alike in riches and honour and power. This he did in order that Harold might guarantee the crown to the duke by his fealty and confirm the same with an oath according to Christian usage…Harold thereupon…performed fealty to him in respect of the kingdom with many oaths.”[27]


These two sources lie at the heart of our understanding of the Norman Conquest. For centuries, historians have disregarded their deficiencies because they believed that the authors were honest reporters and duke William’s claim was essentially just. Take, for example, the following comment by Sir Frank Stenton: “William of Normandy had a direct claim to Edward’s interest as the son of the man who protected him in exile. That he carried his interest to the point of recognizing William as his heir is placed beyond reasonable doubt by the reiterated assertions of the Norman writers that there was on occasion when he promised the kingdom to William. They do not agree about the date of the promise…but there is much to suggest that some recognition of the kind was an incident … in the English revolution of 1051.[28] Sir Frank Stenton is such a distinguished historian that it is difficult to accept that he believed its repetition was sufficient to prove the Norman claim ‘beyond serious doubt’. Proof to that high standard requires independent corroboration or unimpeachable documentary evidence, neither of which is present for this claim. It is an example of the tendency of some historians to accept the Norman account without any genuine critical analysis. Dr Michael Lawson makes an even stranger assertion about the credibility of the Norman narrative as evidence: “Even though they (Poitiers and Jumiéges) had every reason to be biased on the issue, and say some things that are difficult to believe, much of what followed becomes intelligible if this an other statements by William of Jumiéges and his fellow Norman writer William of Poitiers…are accepted.[29]


Inevitably, some historians dismiss the Norman narrative as propaganda on the several grounds that it is biased, unsubstantiated and incredible.[30] Professor Frank Barlow baulked at describing it as ‘wholly fictitious’ but he did think it was ‘ex parte’ (one-sided) and ‘ex post facto’ (after the fact).[31] The accusation of bias, though undoubtedly true, goes only to its evidential value; it is not proof of its falseness. Similarly, the lack of corroboration by an independent source goes to the weight to be attributed to the Norman texts as evidence; it does not disprove them. Indeed, in the context of eleventh century diplomacy and international politics, it is questionable whether an independent witness actually existed: they all had an axe to grind. The force of the sceptics’ argument lies in the cumulative effect of all three grounds advanced, especially the last. The assertion that the Norman tradition is far-fetched provides disbelieving scholars with the means to probe for and to exploit the flaws of commission and omission contained in it.


The contention that Edward bequeathed his throne to William out of gratitude does not bear close examination.[32] Whilst in exile, Edward never abandoned his Ætheling status or allowed people to forget his noble lineage. His actions after he left Normandy in 1041 certainly support the view that his thoughts about exile were not particularly kindly or forgiving. Indeed, such was his bitterness towards Emma, the mother who abandoned him, that in 1043 he reduced her to penury and kept her in close, though not uncomfortable, confinement. William of Malmesbury also relates how earl Godwin convinced Edward that the ‘miseries and poverty’ he endured in exile would discipline him to be a just king.[33] Neither is there any evidence that the Normans did much to promote his succession. Malmesbury wrote this about Edward and Alfred’s situation in 1017: “I find that their uncle Richard took no steps to restore them to their country: on the contrary, he married his sister Emma to the enemy and invader; it may be difficult to say whether, to the greater ignominy of him who bestowed her, or of the woman who consented to share the nuptial couch of that man who had cruelly molested her husband and driven her children into exile”[34] It’s true, as Malmesbury states, that duke Robert considered restoring Edward to his inheritance in the 1030’s after he and Cnut became alienated, but that came to nothing. When Harthacnut died in 1042, William was still struggling to establish his own hegemony in Normandy and anyhow Norman help was unnecessary since “ …the whole nation then received Edward as king, as was his right by birth”. [35]   In fact, he seems to have been ‘elected’ even before Harthacnut’s funeral


Neither is it true that Edward deliberately packed his court and the Church with influential Normans, in preparation for an eventual Norman succession. Of the five nobles he created, none were Norman; of his twenty-nine ecclesiastical appointments, seven were foreigners and three of those were Norman.[36] Most of the men who accompanied Edward to England were friends and acquaintances from his time in exile; few, were men of substance in their homeland. They came to England to make their fortune. Edward actually promoted more Lotharingians than Normans. Robert Champart the former Norman abbot of Jumiéges, was the only Norman chosen for high ecclesiastical office and that was a disastrous appointment.


Sceptical historians also assert that regardless of what Edward may or may not have wanted, William was barred from the English succession because he was a bastard. The ancient Synod of Chelsea (787) proclaimed that only legitimate kings were to be chosen ‘none resulting from adulterous or incestuous relationships.’ The weakness of this argument is that although it represented the considered policy of the English church and English custom, it was not representative of Scandinavian or Norman culture at the time.[37] Bastardy was not the stigma on the continent that it was in England. That said, it is inconceivable that the English nobility would have considered it an honour to have a foreign bastard on the throne. This is an important point because it highlights the cultural and constitutional difference between England and Normandy, where inheritance was by primogeniture (the inheritance of the first born son). I think this point further militates against the view that Edward’s promise, if he made it, was valid or even that he meant it to be taken seriously.


It is a curious feature of the English narrative that it is not based on what is written in the ASC or the Vita Edwardi, but on what is omitted therefrom. Neither text contains any reference to Edward’s bequest. There are two references to the English succession in the ASC. The D and the E manuscripts each refer to the fact that in 1057, king Edward recalled his nephew Edward the Exile from banishment in Hungary. William of Malmesbury adds that the king specified that Edward the Exile was to be accompanied by all his family, since it was the king’s intention “ as he declared that either he or his sons should succeed to the hereditary kingdom of England ”, Florence of Worcester concurring. [38] Unfortunately nothing came of this, as Edward the Exile died en route to England, leaving his infant son Edgar as the remaining English Ætheling. The other reference to the succession is for the year 1066, when king Edward was on his deathbed: “ yet did the wise king entrust his kingdom to a man of high rank, to Harold himself, the noble earl who ever faithfully obeyed his noble lord in words and deeds neglecting nothing, whereof the national king stood in need.” [39] This leads me to an argument raised by the late Peter Rex; he argues that whatever Edward may or may not have promised to William, he changed his mind twice; first in 1057 and again in 1066. According to Rex Edward was entitled to do this under English civil inheritance law, which held that each new bequest superseded the previous one. Consequently, any bequest he might have made to William was cancelled in any event. While this is an attractive argument, it fails because it is based on the premise that English ‘kingship’ (i.e. the ‘Crown’ as a concept) is the heritable property of the royal family, which is wrong. The office of king (the crown) is not royal property to be bequeathed as though it was land or jewellery or money. The analogy with civil law is inappropriate because, as I have already said elsewhere, the succession is a political process and not a legal one. The reality is that Edward could not promise, bequeath or grant the throne to anybody, since that person would only ascend the throne if he had the support of the Witan. King’s could and often did make their preference known, which may or may not be accepted by the English nobility.[40]


The only reference to duke William in the ASC, is the following entry in manuscript D for the year 1051/52: “Then soon came duke William from beyond the sea with a great retinue of Frenchmen, and the king received him and as many of his companions as it pleased him, and let him go again.”[41] It is odd that this entry is unsupported by other contemporary English sources, especially in view of the tense political and diplomatic situation at the time. It raises two possibilities: i) that there was no contact or diplomatic arrangement between England and Normandy, or ii) it was of no consequence to the English chroniclers. Though this silence cannot be ignored or dismissed, it doesn’t actually prove anything. There are many reasons why Edward’s bequest was not recorded by the English; for example: it never happened, it was not newsworthy or perhaps they did not realise they needed to refute a hypothetical future claim of Norman legitimacy.


The combination of Norman ambiguity and English reticence has forced historians to speculate about if, when and how Edward might have bequeathed the throne to William. The general opinion is that, if it happened at all, it probably happened during or soon after a conflict between the King and Earl Godwin that erupted in 1051. Edward had not forgiven earl Godwin for his part in the death of Alfred the Ætheling and, stirred-up by Robert Champart the archbishop of Canterbury, wanted to bring Godwin down a peg or two. Godwin, for his part, resented his loss of influence at court caused by Champart’s machinations. The tension between king and earl came to a head in the summer of 1051. A violent clash in Dover between the townsfolk and the retinue of Count Eustace of Boulogne proved to be the catalyst for rebellion. Many people were killed in the affray and Eustace complained to Edward about the violence done to his men. The king therefore commanded Godwin to sack Dover as punishment for the brawl. The earl refused to do so on the grounds that the town lay within his estates and he did not wish to impose such a crushing punishment on his own vassals; especially if, as he believed, the king had acted hastily without knowing all the facts. Thus, it was that Godwin and his sons assembled a ‘great army’ and marched to within fifteen miles of where the king held court at Gloucester.[42]


The ASC (D) reports that the rebels were resolved to fight the king, unless count Eustace was handed over to them. However, the more sympathetic (to Godwin) E manuscript reports that they merely wanted to get the king’s and his council’s advice on how they might redress the wrongs done to them. It doesn’t really matter which of these two versions we believe since despite his wealth and power, Godwin was in this instance politically isolated. Loyalists’ flocked to Edward’s cause with their retinues and Godwin was soon outmuscled. Both sides withdrew from armed conflict to consider their positions. The king, now further reinforced, demanded that Godwin and his sons should appear before the Witan to explain their conduct. Unfortunately, the breach of trust was too serious for Godwin and his sons to place themselves at the king’s mercy. They refused to appear and were forced to flee the country. Earl Godwin went to Flanders with three of his sons; Harold went to Ireland with his youngest brother.


One of the significant features of the rebellion was the king’s repudiation of his wife Edith, which may have been at the behest of Robert Champart. In David Douglas’ opinion, the importance of this whole episode is that it bought the king’s childlessness and the problem of the succession to the fore at a time when earl Godwin’s influence at court had been removed. It is about this time, ‘before the end of 1051’ as Douglas writes, that Edward nominated William of Normandy as his heir.[43]The rebellion of the earl of Wessex may even have been caused by knowledge of this transaction and the affair at Dover would in that case have been regarded as a secondary cause of the upheaval that followed.”[44] In any event, and this is the point, Edward was now free to establish closer ties with Normandy. it has been suggested that William came to England personally to receive Edward’s promise. The authority for this proposition is the single entry in manuscript D of the ASC to which I have already referred. Florence of Worcester’s repetition of this entry may have led some historians to link William’s visit to Edward’s royal promise. Others doubt the visit ever took place.[45] Fortunately, we do not need to decide between the different opinions, since even if the visit did take place, there is nothing in manuscript D or in Florence of Worcester’s account or even in the Norman texts to suggest it was concerned with the English succession. Neither William of Poitiers nor William of Jumiéges ever assert that William received his promise directly from Edward, which they surely would have done had they known about it; it would have strengthened William’s claim immeasurably.[46] In fact, they do not mention the visit at all.


If we accept that William’s visit did take place, it is inconceivable that he would have come uninvited. So, why would he come? It was not for his aunt Emma’s funeral, which he never attended. If William came to see Edward at all, it is probable he came as a petitioner to seal a treaty of friendship between Normandy and England. Pete Rex thinks that is a possibility based on his interpretation of the single entry in the ASC (D): “ When king Edward accepted William and some (not all of) his men, he accepted them as vassals…William had done homage and fealty to Edward, probably to seal a treaty of friendship or alliance between them.” [47] On this interpretation, William’s visit had ‘no connotations’ of making him king of England. If William came as a petitioner, it might explain why the Norman writers do not mention the visit. They could never bring themselves to represent William as a petitioner seeking a favour of Edward. Equally, William may have come to support his cousin against the English rebels, or even to size-up his chances of claiming the English throne. In view of this last possibility, Sir Frank Stenton’s speculation that William might have had ‘designs’ on the English crown from as early as 1047 has implications he might not have intended. It implies that William’s aspiration for the English crown may have stemmed from imperial ambition rather than the recovery of his inheritance.[48]


The Norman sources are, however, explicit. It was Robert of Jumiéges who conveyed Edward’s promise to duke William. Unfortunately, they do not date Robert’s visit, which has given rise to some intense speculation about when it might have taken place. If, as some scholars suggest, it was in 1051, during Robert’s visit to Rome for his pallium as archbishop of Canterbury, one wonders why no mention of it is made in the ASC or in the Vita in the context of earl Godwin’s rebellion, which they report in great detail. The difficulty is that Poitiers asserts that the three great English earls and archbishop Stigand agreed with Edward’s promise. If that is true, it dates the promise to 1052, after Godwin had recovered his authority with the king. In which case, Robert of Jumiéges could hardly have been the messenger since he had fled the country by then.[49] There is no right answer to this conundrum; the ‘evidence ‘ is just not there to do other than theorise.


The Oath

Harold’s visit to Normandy provides different challenges. It is possibly the most important episode in the pre-conquest story since it goes to the core of the William’s claim. Harold’s perjury was his raison d’etre for invading England. The whole episode as it is described stems from the pens of the Norman writers. They assert king Edward sent his greatest lord, Harold Godwinson, to Normandy to guarantee Williams succession on oath. On his way to Normandy, Harold was captured and imprisoned at Ponthieu by Count Guy of Abbeville. Harold was released following the duke’s personal intervention and taken to Normandy where he ‘sojourned’ as the duke’s ‘guest’ for a while. Whilst in Normandy, he swore an oath of allegiance to the duke ‘according to Christian usage’ and as he had been commanded to do by king Edward.


The challenge for those writing about this affair now is that the truth cannot be established. The evidence is too unreliable. For instance, there is obvious confusion about the venue for Harold’s oath swearing: Poitiers puts it at Bonneville, the Bayeux Tapestry shows Bayeux, Orderic Vitalis suggests Rouen and William of Jumiéges says nothing. What are we supposed to think? We also have to take into account Poitiers’ tendency to exaggerate, which is apparent in the passage where he suggests that Harold’s embassage was meant to increase Edward’s honour; presumably, by the acquisition of such a distinguished heir. That is nonsense, since it is patently obvious that it was the king who honoured the duke if he named him as heir.[50] Despite his position in the duke’s household and despite his glorification of William’s character and achievements, Poitiers is evidently not an eyewitness to the events he describes.  It is most likely that he was using information contained from a complex and sophisticated legal case, which William had submitted to his fellow Christian Princes and to the Pope, in support of his title to the English crown and to reassure them about his intentions.[51]


Finally, on the issue of Norman credibility, I refer to Poitier’s statement that Harold gave his oath willingly as a quid pro quo for retaining his titles and estates after William’s accession. This version of events is too improbable to accept. Harold was the king’s wealthiest, most powerful and most important subject. He was England’s most redoubtable warrior, an excellent diplomat and a wise administrator. As head of the king’s household and his principal advisor, Harold took on the burden of the governance and administration of the realm while the king concentrated on his own priorities: religious devotion and hunting. The political reality is that Harold was easily the best person to succeed Edward after his death.[52] The idea that Harold would willingly give this up merely to maintain his status quo as an earl in William’s court is absurd. Paul Hill regards this whole thing as akin to a negotiation in which Harold was bargaining for his own demands.[53] Even if we accept Hill’s analogy, it is impossible to think that Harold would accept so little in exchange for so much unless, of course, he had no choice.


Even though the truth of Harold’s visit can never be known, there are some agreed facts that need not trouble us. First, it is indisputable that Harold visited the Continent probably in 1064. Second, it is accepted that, whether by design or misadventure, Harold fell into the hands of duke William and spent time in Normandy as the duke’s guest. Third, we can be sure that whether under duress or voluntarily Harold swore an oath to William of some sort. What remain in dispute are: (i) the purpose of Harold’s visit, (ii) the type and meaning of his oath and (iii) whether the oath was given as a result of deception and/or under duress.


The Tapestry’s treatment of this episode is revealing. As Freeman recognised and others have argued, it owes more to Eadmer’s Saxon tradition than Poitiers’ or Jumiéges’ Norman one.[54] According to Eadmer, Harold persuaded a reluctant king to allow him to travel to Normandy to bring back his brother and his nephew who were hostages there. The king did not trust William; he believed he would seek to gain ” some great advantage to himself. ” Despite his fear that the trip would end badly for Harold and for the kingdom, the king did not veto it. Harold sailed for Normandy but was shipwrecked in a great storm, captured by the Lord of Ponthieu and imprisoned. He managed to bribe a guard with the promise of reward and the duke of Normandy was told what had happened. The duke secured Harold’s release and took him to Normandy ‘for a few days’. William agreed to release the hostages on condition that Harold supported his claim to the English crown, which, he said, was promised to him by Edward when he was in Normandy and “when they were both young.”   Perceiving the danger, Harold agreed to William’s condition; whereupon, he was made to swear an oath on holy relics. Harold returned to England with his nephew (his brother remaining as surety for Harold’s help). “When, on being questioned by the king he told him what had happened and what he had done, the king exclaimed: ‘Did I not tell you that I knew William and that your going might bring untold calamity on this kingdom!’ Shortly after this Edward died.” [55]


The Tapestry gives no hint as to the purpose of Harold’s visit and to understand the Saxon interpretation we must begin at the end, with the scene showing Harold’s return and his meeting with the king: “It captures the scene of Harold’s return to Edward brilliantly. Harold is shown in an astonishingly but deliberately contorted stance; his head is bent low, his neck stretched out, his shoulders remarkably hunched, his hands raised in a vain attempt at explanation.”[56] It is plain to see that Harold is no longer considered to be a knight above reproach; indeed, “he is an outcast devoid of honour, his hunched and twisted figure announces his moral depravity much as does Shakespeare’s that of Richard III.” [57]


  1. The Bayeux Tapestry: Harold reporting the outcome of his journey to Edward Bayeux Tapestry 02.jpg


The artist’s skill is in the fact that a Norman audience (for whom this was intended) would see exactly what they expected to see: perfidious Harold. Whereas, on a more thoughtful appreciation, we can see that this scene does not depict Harold returning from a successful mission upon which the king had sent him (and as the Norman case requires). Edward’s admonishing finger pointed at the earl only makes sense in the context of Eadmer’s account that the king disapproved of the trip and even more of the outcome. This interpretation might explain the ambiguity of the opening scene of the Tapestry; wherein, the king and the earl are portrayed in a master-servant relationship.


  1. Edward and Harold ‘discuss’ the earls planned journey to NormandyBayeux Tapestry 01.jpg

The Norman lord who commissioned the tapestry and Norman the audiences would have little difficulty in perceiving this as Edward commanding Harold to go to Normandy to confirm William’s designation as heir to the throne; though, significantly that is not at all obvious from the accompanying textual inscription. The reason for the visit is not made clear from the text, as it very easily could have been. This ambiguity may have been deliberate so as to make a dual interpretation possible without it being obvious to the Normans. Furthermore, in the context of the final scene, Edward’s finger pointed at Harold’s chest coupled with the king’s facial expression and the manner in which he leans towards Harold suggests that he could very easily having been making the point forcefully that Harold’s proposed journey was a bad idea.

If Harold was not sent by Edward to guarantee Williams succession, then why did he go to Normandy? It could have been, as Eadmer states, to recover hostages. We know that William held two English hostages, one of whom returned to England with Harold.[58] That said, the question of hostages is a matter of some controversy among scholars. Poitiers declared that in order to confirm his grant of the succession Edward surrendered Godwin’s unnamed son and nephew as hostages to the duke. Eadmer not only names the hostages as Godwin’s son Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon but he also links their presence in Normandy to the reconciliation of the king and earl Godwin in 1052. According to Eadmer, Edward demanded hostages as sureties for Goodwin’s loyalty. Eadmer implies that Robert Champart, archbishop of Canterbury, conveyed the hostages to Normandy at the same time as he fled there to avoid Godwin’s vengeance.[59] The ASC (E) supports Eadmer’s account. According to it, bishop Stigand and the ‘wise men both inside and outside the city’ intervened with God’s help in what was a standoff between the king and the earl “…and advised that hostages should be given as surety on either side, and so it was done.” Barlow is inclined to regard this as ‘unconvincing’ support for Eadmer; he quibbles about whether hostages were actually exchanged. The fact the ASC says explicitly ‘this was done’ is convincing enough for me.


Harold may have been trying to arrange a dynastic marriage between the duke’s family and his own. The author of ‘King Harald’s Saga’ certainly thinks that the problem between the two men was caused by a broken marriage promise; it seems, that much of Christendom thought the same.[60] According to Peter Rex: ” Most accounts of the matter, outside Normandy, state that Harold had agreed to marry a daughter of the duke and that the quarrel between was because he broke his word to do so. It was that and not an oath about the English succession that was widely known throughout Western Europe.”[61] William of Malmesbury is not sure what to believe. He half-heartedly rejects the claim that Edward sent Harold to Normandy to confirm William’s succession, on grounds that “he imagined (that) device to extricate himself…(from the clutches of Guy of Abbeville).”[62] In Malmesbury’s view, it is ‘nearest the truth’ to say that Harold went sea fishing and was blown onto the shore at Ponthieu by a tempest, and seized by Guy’s men, who imprisoned him. Subsequently, he was liberated at William’s command and taken personally to Normandy by Guy. There he ingratiated himself to the Normans by his courage and ability: “Of his own accord (he) confirmed to (William) by oath the castle of Dover, which was under his jurisdiction and the kingdom of England, after the death of Edward.[63] It is at this point that Harold is supposed to have been betrothed to William’s daughter.


Peter Rex offers what he considers to be the natural explanation for Harold’s journey; namely, that he was scrutinizing the possible opposition.[64] The Vita Edwardi describes Harold’s fondness for using foreign trips to spy out the land, and to familiarise himself with the character, policy and strength of the princes of Gaul. This is espionage, which Harold carried out “…personally and adroitly…and by God’s grace, he came home passing with watchful mockery through all ambushes as was his way.[65] The simplest explanation of a mystery is often the correct one and it may be so here: who knows? Rex is surely right, though, to conclude that none of these conflicting accounts are watertight or compelling. What they do tell us, however, is that the Norman narrative was not universally accepted outside the duchy.


I turn now to the third question. The belief that Harold was an oath breaker was widespread Europe after of the Conquest. The Norman sources are partial and they have embellished the circumstances of the oath; nevertheless, they are unlikely to have fabricated it. Given what we are told of his character, the idea that Harold was tricked is preposterous. The relevant question is whether he swore an oath readily rather than willingly to escape the danger he perceived. It would be the rational thing to do and in keeping with his apparent fondness for oath taking. By all accounts, Harold was a savvy politician, diplomat and soldier. He was well able to conceal his feelings and his intentions, and to dissemble if necessary. It is inconceivable that he was not aware of the posturing taking place in Normandy. He surely realised that, in the absence of a suitable prince of the royal blood, he was the best English candidate to succeed Edward. And he must also have realised, if not before then certainly during his sojourn in Normandy, that William was a rival for the throne. There were other rivals, he knew, but William was the most dangerous. I don’t think Harold had any intention of curtailing his own regal ambition by supporting William’s claim, or of marrying the duke’s daughter. Yet, discretion being the better part of valour, he probably thought there was less risk in pretending he might.


Eadmer’s ‘History’ supports the above interpretation. Even though he is not an eyewitness and his account is unique, Eadmer is probably reporting a Saxon tradition current in England after the Conquest. Indeed, we can infer as much from the Bayeux Tapestry, to which I have already referred. The importance of this is that it confirms that even the Saxons believed Harold swore an oath of some sort about the English succession. Eadmer describes how William wrote to the newly crowned Harold, demanding that he send his sister to Normandy as he promised and reproaching Harold for violating his other promises, given on oath. Harold’s reply as described by Eadmer is a potent mixture of sarcasm and contempt, which indicates that Harold was not inclined to appease the duke: ” My sister, whom according to our pact you ask for, is dead. If the duke wishes her body, such as it now is, I will send it, that I may not be held to have violated my oath. As to the stronghold at Dover and the well of water in it, I have completed that according to our agreement, although for whose use I cannot say. As for the kingdom, which was not then mine, by what right could I give or promise it? If it is about his daughter he is concerned, whom I ought, as he asserts, take to be my wife, he must know that I have no right to set any foreign woman upon the throne of England without having first consulted the princes. Indeed, I could not do so without committing a great wrong.”[66] Harold’s scornful attitude is even clearer as the continuing ‘correspondence’. William, now incensed, replies that unless Harold keeps his promise to marry his daughter, he will enforce his right to the English succession by force of arms; to which, Harold replies: “I will not do the one and I do not fear the other.” [67]


The point that Harold had no authority to promise the throne to William is certainly true, as both men well knew. It is, however, beside the point since that is not accusation made against Harold. He is alleged to have pledged his support for the duke’s succession. The reply that Eadmer attributes to Harold avoids the issue, possibly because the accusation cannot be denied. The possibility remains that Harold was confident he could wriggle out of an oath obtained under duress and, furthermore he didn’t fancy the duke’s chances of enforcing it. This is pure speculation of course, since we cannot know the absolute objective truth after the passage of nine hundred and fifty years.

We covered a sequel to Hastings here

[1] Tostig Godwinsson was the former earl of Northumberland. In 1065, the Northumbrians rebelled against him and rejected him as their ldeao Stephen Morillo (Ed) – The battle of Hastings (Boydell 1996) rd. He fled to Flanders where his wife’s kin were. He was resentful of Harold for not coming to his aid and threw in his lot with the Norwegians in 1066. Harald Sigurdsson said he had inherited King Magnus of Norway’s title, which was derived from a treaty with the late king Harthacnut of England. Tostig had attempted his own invasion in May but was driven northwards where he harried the English coast until he sailed for Norway. Harold perceived Tostig’s raiding as a precursor to William’s planned invasion. The actual number of warriors involved on both sides is unknown but best estimates suggest between 5-6000 men on each side at Fulford and probably similar numbers at Stamford Bridge. However, the English losses at Fulford were heavy in their best troops, who could not be replaced in time to face the Normans in the south. These northern troops were sorely missed at Hastings. It is probable that Harold would have defeated the Norman invaders, were it not for the distraction of the Norwegian invasion. This is all I propose to say about the Norwegian invasion and the role of Tostig in English politics since they are not strictly germane to my main article.

[2] Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson (Trans) – King Harald’s Saga from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (Penguin Classics 1966) pp.140-155; this is the most detailed Scandinavian source for the Norwegian invasion of 1066. It cannot, however, be taken literally since it was not written contemporaneously with events and Snorri was an inveterate storyteller with a tendency to embellish the facts.

[3] The battle of Hastings is itself the subject of a controversy that raises issue I cannot deal with in this article. The traditional depiction of the fighting and the course of the battle have been contradicted by military experts, as has its location. See, for example, Stephen Morillo (Ed) – The battle of Hastings (Boydell 1996); MK Lawson   – The Battle of Hastings 1066 (The History Press 2016 edition); John Grehan and Martin Mace – The Battle of Hastings 1066: the uncomfortable truth (Pen & Sword Books 2012).

[4] Frank Barlow – Edward the Confessor (Yale 1997 edition) p.xxix

[5] Lawson, p.17

[6] David Bates – William the Conqueror (Yale 2016) p.7

[7] Bates, ibid

[8] GN Garmonsway (ed and trans) – The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (JM Dent, Everyman edition 1972)

[9] Ian Walker – Harold: the last Anglo-Saxon king (Sutton 1997) p.xx

[10] Frank Barlow (ed and trans) – Vita Edwardi Regis (The Life of King Edward) (Nelson Medieval Texts 1962) pp.9-10; Thomas Forester (trans) – The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester with two continuations (London 1854) passim; see also Barlow (Edward) passim: esp Appendix A, pp.291-300.

[11] E A Freeman – The Authority of the Bayeux Tapestry [published in ‘The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry’ [Richard Gameson (Ed)] (Boydell 1997) pp.7-15]; this essay was reproduced from Freeman’s ‘The Norman Conquest of England: its causes and results (Oxford 1875) pp.563-575

[12] Lawson pp.77-85 for example; Dr Lawson’s interpretation of Tapestry is a typical example of the general opinion that its storyline has a theme of English oath breaking.

[13] Bates p.194; Peter Rex – Harold II: the doomed Saxon king (Tempus 2005) passim, but esp pp.157-178; NP Brooks and HE Walker – The authority and interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry: published in Richard Gameson (Ed) – The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry (Boydell Press 1997) pp. 63-92; this is a seminal article on modern thinking about the Tapestry; see also Andrew Bridgeford -1066: the hidden history of the Bayeux Tapestry (Walker & Co 2006) et passim; see also Carola Hicks – The Bayeux Tapestry: the story of a modern masterpiece (Vintage 2008) Chp 1 passim.

[14] Emma was the half-Viking sister to Richard I duke of Normandy (942-996). Her nephew, Richard II (996-1027) was Edward’s first cousin. As the (illegitimate) son of duke Richard’s younger brother Robert (1027-1035), William the Bastard was Edward’s second cousin

[15] Mk Lawson – Cnut: England’s Viking king (The History Press 2011 edition) pp.104-107. Dr Lawson raises the possibility that Cnut offered to share the of England kingdom with Æthelrede’s sons; however, duke Robert death in 1034 and Cnut’s death soon after prevented this proposal being taken forward.

[16] David Douglas – William the Conqueror (Yale1999 edition) pp.160-67 (esp161)

[17] Douglas pp.364-376. I make no apology for extrapolating this paragraph from Douglas’ biography; Bates pp.513-528 offers a different approach. He rejects Douglas’ straightforward ‘paradoxical’ interpretation of William’s character in favour of a more subtle judgement, which frankly was too elusive for my taste.

[18] Vita p.30; Swein Godwinsson was the eldest of Godwin’s sons; however, he died in 1052.

[19] Garmonsway pp.194-195

[20] Vita; ibid

[21] Rex (Harold) pp.86 and 87; Vita p.30

[22] Rex (Harold) ibid, citing L Watkins and M Chibnal (Eds) – The Waltham Chronicle (Oxford Medieval Texts 1994). the author of the Waltham Chronicle claimed that his information came from Turkill the Sacristan, an old man who was a contemporary of Harold.

[23] Rex (Harold) p.87 citing: Harleian MS3776. Fol. 62n & 62v.

[24] Alfred was captured on his way to London by earl Godwin and his men, and handed over to king Harold I’s men who killed him in particularly gruesome circumstances; whether this was through negligence or by design is not known. Edward never forgave Godwin for his part in the death of his brother.

[25] Frank Stenton – Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1971 3rd edition) p.560

[26] Morillo, p.11; this is a useful text book because it contains extracts from the Norman and English sources, from which my quote is taken

[27] Morillo p.18

[28] Stenton p.561;

[29] Lawson pp.23 and 97; even though Dr Lawson acknowledges the difficulties of the Norman accounts (see also my note 3 above) he chooses to either reject or ignore his own concerns.

[30] Barlow (Edward) passim; Rex (Edward) chapter 13 et passim; Peter Rex – Harold II; the doomed Saxon king (Tempus 2005) Chapter 8 et passim. All these authors challenge the Norman tradition in detail that is impossible to repeat in this article.

[31] Barlow (Edward) p.107

[32] Barlow (Edward) ibid: citing Poitiers pp. 30-32,158,168 and 174-176, and Jumiéges p.132.

[33] William of Malmesbury p. 217

[34] William of Malmesbury p 198

[35] Garmonsway pp.162-163 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record of Edward’s succession with its accustomed brevity

[36] Rex (Harold) p.35; Walker p.25

[37] Rex (Edward) p.173; of course, bastardy was treated differently in Norman culture, which was Scandinavian in origin. See also Bates pp. 513-528

[38] William of Malmesbury p.253 and Florence of Worcester p.159; Malmesbury and Florence were writing in the twelfth century, by which time England was a hereditary kingdom. It was the Normans who introduced the continental practice of succession by strict inheritance and primo geniture. Although that was not the case in England during the Saxon dynasty, the Anglo-Norman chroniclers may have simply reflected 12th century pro-Norman opinion as they were given to understand it.

[39] Garmonsway p.195

[40] Rex (Edward) pp.176-179; this sets out Rex’s argument and his reasoning

[41] Garmonsway p.176; see also Florence of Worcester p.152. Florence mentions the duke’s visit with a retinue, adding that “on their return (Edward) made them many valuable presents”

[42] Stenton p.563

[43] Douglas p.169

[44] Douglas ibid

[45] Lawson p.24, believes that William visited England “presumably to thank king Edward for the offer of the throne and to accept it ”; see also Paul Hill – The Road to Hastings: the politics of power in Anglo-Saxon England (Tempus 2005) pp.108-110. Hill treats the visit and Edward’s promise as established facts. For a different opinion see Douglas at P.169; he thinks the visit is unlikely to have taken place, as William was too busy campaigning against his enemies in Normandy.

[46] Rex (Edward) pp.113-114 contains a helpful discussion on this topic

[47] Rex (Edward) ibid; Rex’s point is legalistic since it depends on the construction and context of the language used in the text to describe the visit. Put simply, Rex argues that the words used imply that Edward was the ‘lord’ and William was the ‘vassal’ in their relationship, and that William did fealty to Edward. Given the obvious disparity in their status, it is reasonable to consider the king superior to the duke.

[48] Frank Stenton – Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1971 3rd edition) p.560

[49] Rex (Harold) pp.148-149; Rex is merely exploring the possibilities

[50] Barlow (Edward) p.225

[51] Barlow (Edward) pp.223; Bates p.193; Poitiers account is described as ‘the exposition of a legal case”

[52] Rex (Harold) pp.150-151

[53] Hill p.135

[54] Geoffrey Bosanquet (Trans) – Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England [Historia Novorum in Anglia] (London 1964) pp.6-8; Eadmer (1060-1127) was a Saxon monk from Canterbury who was born before the battle of Hastings. His Historia Novorum in Anglia is primarily a history of the public life of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury and Eadmer’s hero. Eadmer has a good reputation among scholars for his prose and his objectivity. He had what Malmesbury called ‘a chastened elegance of style’. He anticipated modern historians by concentrating his history on a specific subject and provides useful insight into the reigns of the Norman kings. His account of events before he was born probably reflects an Anglo-Saxon oral tradition.

[55] Eadmer ibid

[56] Brooks and Walker p.73

[57] MEJ Cowdrey – Towards an interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry: published in Richard Gameson (Ed) – The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry (Boydell Press 1997) p.101

[58] Barlow (Edward) pp. 124 and 301 citing Poitiers at pp100 & 114

[59] There is a school of thought that argues the possibility that it was at this point that Robert Champart misled the duke into believing he (William) was Edward’s nominated heir. Robert may even have suggested that the ‘hostages’ were Edward’s surety for that bequest. This is pure speculation, which only makes sense if we accept the fact that Robert abducted Wulfnoth and Hakon, and forcibly and illegally removed them from Edward’s power. Otherwise, it is inconceivable that Edward, a crowned and anointed monarch would offer surety to mere a duke for a promise that he had no need to make and could not be enforced after his death.

[60] Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson (Trans) – King Harald’s Saga from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (Penguin Classics 1966) pp.131-133: of all the accounts of this visit, this Scandinavian one is the most entertaining. Intriguingly Snorri records William’s jealousy and his suspicion that his wife Matilda was flirting with Harold.

[61] Rex (Edward) p.175 citing a number of obscure references, including ‘an anonymous writer of Cambrai’ and De Inviventione S Crucis: see also Rex (Harold) pp.157-178 for a useful discussion with references, concerning Christendom’s perception of Harold’s visit and his agreement with William. However, Rex is mistaken to write that Harold was supposed to have agreed to be William’s vicar, from the word ‘vicarius’. A ‘vicar’ is specifically God’s representative on earth (SOED). Vicarious in this context means no more than representative or proxy.

[62] Malmesbury pp.254-255

[63] Malmesbury ibid

[64] Rex (Edward) p.174; Vita Edwardi p.33

[65] Vita Edwardi ibid

[66] Eadmer p.8

[67] Eadmer p.9

More than one target for the Cairo dwellers?

21 September 1327 is the traditional date of death for Edward II at Berkeley Castle and various myths about it and his life have passed through these 690 years almost unquestioned. They are repeated by quite a few notable people without real evidence as well. If this sounds familiar, it is because certain individuals have made statements about Richard III over the years that either wasn’t based on any reliable source or contradicts the evidence that has gradually come to light thanks to the likes of Barrie Williams and John Ashdown-Hill. For some years, they have been referred to as “Cairo (or even Alexandria) dwellers”, because they are so far up the Nile.

Edward II has evidently attracted similar such posthumous adversaries – of which Channel Four’s series “Monarchy” referred to the most grisly myth of all. That this was presented by David Starkey demonstrates that both kings, and possibly several others, attract the same drastically over-simplifying detractors, whose followers appear to have closed

their minds at the age of about seven.

Here Kathryn Warner, who has gone some way towards showing Edward may well have survived his visit to Berkeley and died later elsewhere, demonstrates that a forty year-old footnote referred to a fictional part of a mis-dated document and was cited to fuel a new myth by someone either monumentally stupid OR … worse.

Similarly, here, Jacqueline Reiter shows that a book supposedly owned by John 2nd Earl of Chatham could not have been written until after his death.

The Ludlow Castle Heraldic Roll….

The Ludlow Castle Heraldic Roll....

“It was a couple of years ago that I first heard about the existence of an old roll of parchment containing the coats of arms of people connected with Ludlow Castle. It was owned by a dealer in the Portobello Road in London who had had it for several years. Heraldic rolls like this are highly collectable, but this one had not sold, probably because it is not in perfect condition. At some point in its history it has been attacked by rodents, though it has subsequently been expertly repaired. As a trustee of the Mortimer History Society and a Ludlow resident, I was much more interested in the historical significance of the roll than its condition. Happily, when I had the chance to inspect it, I found that, though damaged and faded in places, much of it was still in remarkably good condition. It was immediately clear that this important document must be purchased for Ludlow.”

Thus Hugh Wood of the Mortimer History Society introduces his article about the above roll, which is of enormous importance to both the Mortimer History Society and those of us who follow events of the 15th century. Ludlow figures greatly in theatre of the Wars of the Roses and the early Tudors; Richard III resided there for a while as a boy.

I sincerely hope the roll goes home to Ludlow. You can read more about it here.


The puzzle of George of Clarence’s Calais wedding….

could be clarence wedding

The only certain thing that can be said of the marriage of George, Duke of Clarence, and Isabel Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick, is that it took place in Calais. Oh, and that Isabel’s uncle, the Archbishop of York, performed the ceremony. After that, the picture is a little blurred. Which day? Which church? Who was there? How long did the celebrations last? Was it public…or kept under wraps. Search for definitive information, and you will find differing answers to all these questions.


Those who read this blog will know the circumstances that led to the marriage. Briefly, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick fell out with Edward IV, whom he had helped to the throne, thus earning the nickname of Kingmaker. George, Duke of Clarence, Edward’s brother, also fell out with Edward and deserted him to side with Warwick in Calais. This alliance was cemented by George’s marriage to Warwick’s elder daughter, Isabel. (The younger daughter, Anne, was to eventually marry the youngest of the three royal brothers, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who would, of course, become Richard III.) The object was to invade England, get rid of Edward, and replace him with George, who believed his own claim was better because of a story that Edward was illegitimate.

An account of the wedding by George Amelius Crawshay Sandeman appears in his Calais Under English Rule:-

“In 1469 another magnificent marriage thrilled Calais society, when George, Duke of Clarence, wedded Isabella, the King-maker’s daughter, thus sealing the revolt against Edward IV. This marriage was celebrated by the Archbishop of York in Notre Dame.” (I do not know how much faith to place in this author, because he also states that “…in 1487 Richard III made a grant, dated from Kenilworth, July I, ‘in the way of charity’…” 1487? Neat trick, Richard!)

Notre Dame, Calais

So, now we have the bare bones of the situation in July 1469, when George and Isabel took their vows in the parish church of Calais, Notre Dame/Our Lady (above). Or was it St Nicholas church? St Mary’s? St Peter’s? All four were in Calais, but there generally seems to be a tussle between Notre Dame and St Mary’s when it comes to this wedding. Some even say it wasn’t celebrated in a church at all, but at the castle. There is also disagreement about whether it all took place on 11th or 12th July, but all agree that 1469 was the year.

arms of george neville, archbishop of york

The Archbishop of York was, of course, Warwick’s brother. But who else was present? Warwick himself? His other daughter, Anne? His countess? Certainly the groom’s family would not have been represented. Edward IV strongly opposed the union, which was most certainly proceeding without his consent. But Edward knew about it. So how could it be secret? Maybe the secrecy only involved the time and place, not the fact of the marriage? After all, according to Susan Higginbotham “A papal dispensation was obtained in March 1469, despite Edward IV’s objection to the match”. So I guess everyone knew well beforehand that the marriage was on.

In The World of Richard III by Kristie Dean, she writes “…the ceremony was a well-attended affair with five Knights of the Garter and other lords and ladies present…” Who were these KGs, lord and ladies? She also writes that it was “most likely in St Mary’s Church, because the men [George and Warwick?] wanted it to be as public as possible.” It can’t be secret and public at the same time. places the wedding day on 12th July, but the majority go for the 11th. For instance, the chronicler Wavrin says it all took place on Tuesday, 11th July, but he had left Calais almost a week earlier. Nevertheless he says ‘there were not many people, so the festivities only lasted two days’. Hindsight? Or did he know this beforehand? Oh, and George Amelius Crawshay Sandeman  describes the wedding as “magnificent”! He and Wavrin can’t both be right.

George and Isabel - 1

So, the puzzle remains, as does the statement that all we can really be sure of is that the wedding took place.

Clarence's signature



Miles Metcalf, or how the city of York defied Henry VII…

Medieval York

In a book called The Fifteenth Century – 3: Authority and Subversion, edited by Linda Clark, there is an interesting essay by James Lee entitled Urban Recorders and the Crown in Late Medieval England. I have taken from the article to illustrate the situation of the city of York with regard to the vital position of recorder. Specifically, an incumbent by the name of Miles Metcalf (of whom, regretfully, I have been unable to find a portrait).

York Minster

The rise of the recorder (a large number of whom were professional lawyers) came about because of provincial towns’ need to ensure their lines of communication with the central authorities were both adequate and secure. This was in order to push for their own demands and to respond to those of central government. Such matters were especially important at times of a change in dynasty, when recorders were, essentially, go-betweens or intermediaries between urban and central government. They were also sources of news. For instance, after the Battle of Stoke in 1487, the York council received notification of Henry VII’s victory from ‘the mouthe of a servaunt of master recorder coming strught from the said field’.

medieval messenger

Some recorders found themselves with unenviable tasks, such as the one in York in 1471 who had to meet Edward IV at the gates of the city to tell him he was not welcome. After the Battle of Tewkesbury a few months later, Edward was, of course, very welcome.

EIV landing Ravenspur - 1471

The recorders’ offices provided consistent and detailed corporation records, especially from the towns of Coventry, York and Norwich, and to a lesser extent from Exeter and Bristol. Recorders had considerable social status, not only in urban politics, but often on the national scene as well, and the rise of their individual careers took many of them to high places. Perhaps the most famous example is Thomas Cromwell, who was recorder at Bristol from 1553-40. Some became attorney-generals and privy councillors, so for a privileged few, becoming a recorder was most certainly a useful rung on a lofty ladder.

Richard III - my composite

York enjoyed special relations with Richard III, who for many years, as Duke of Gloucester, lived in Yorkshire, where he was held in very high regard. The city of York was embroiled in an attempt to reduce its fee-farm (details of the dispute are to be found in L.C. Attreed, York’s Fee Farm and the Central Government). Richard III promised a reduction, but the civic authorities struggled through two more reigns before the matter was settled. Throughout this time, York’s recorders and representatives were involved in the very heart of government.

Good king Richard

The York recorder from 1477-86 was Miles Metcalf, who loaned Richard III £20 on one of the latter’s visits to the city, an act that is thought indicative of his particularly close relations with the king. The man’s later resistance to Tudor rule revealed him to be remained staunch for Richard. Metcalf’s career as recorder is of particular interest. His predecessor, Guy Fairfax, had let it be known that he intended to quit in 1477, and Richard III (Duke of Gloucester at the time) wanted Metcalf to take his place. There was no objection, and on 1st September 1477, Metcalf was ‘unanimously chosen in his [Fairfax’s] place’. Richard, Duke of Gloucester was popular and known to be a fair lord, so presumably this was why his wishes were accepted. And presumably Metcalf was the best man for the job.

Barley Hall, York

Then came 1485, Bosworth, and the usurper Henry VII’s attempts to be rid of Metcalf by nominating a man of his own, Richard Green, who was a counsellor of the Earl of Northumberland. Henry wished Green to be in office “‘unto such tyme as it shall pleas the kings highnesse to call Miles Metcalfe, late occupying the said office unto his grace and favour’.

In the Days of Our Forefathers: Britain Becomes a Maritime Power

Metcalf family loyalty could not be reconciled with the Tudor regime and Henry was particularly scathing in his condemnation, proclaiming that he ‘hath done moch ayenst us which dishableth hyme to exercise things of auctoritie concernyng an hool commonaltie, which by his sedicious means might…and falle to diverse inconvenients’. A proclamation of 24th September 1485 excluded Metcalf and his brother Thomas from a general pardon, although both did receive pardons on 29th November following. Thomas was saved from execution by producing his pardon from the king.”


[Henry’s man, Green] “was duly appointed by the city authorities but only on a temporary basis, until Metcalf was restored to favour. However, Green, Northumberland and Henry seem to have assumed that his office was now secured permanently. The city’s authorities procrastinated in clarifying the issue, buying time for the return of senior members of their council and also for the chance to discuss the matter with the Archbishop of York.

“When they reached their decision, it was a rebuff for Henry. The corporation promised to consider the king’s will in the matter and, as a gesture of reconciliation, elected Green as a counsellor. This, they claimed, would give them an opportunity to assess Green’s ‘demeanaunce and lernyng’ until Metcalf died and the vacancy arose.

“After the death of Metcalf on 19th February 1486, both Northumberland and Henry again made their nominations for the vacant position clear. In early March the earl again proposed Green, and the York council again delayed their decision. Even Northumberland’s wife became embroiled in the negotiations, calling before her members of the York hierarchy and urging them to leave the matter of the recorder in abeyance until she came unto York or wrote to the contrary. [She died 27th July 1485, so did not go anywhere. In fact, I do not see how she could have become involved after Metcalf’s death. If at all, it had to be before. Unless her date of death is incorrect.]

4th Northumberland

“By the end of the month the king had put forward the name of Thomas Middleton for the recordership. Perhaps this left the York authorities in an even more delicate position than before, as it would surely have been wholly inappropriate for them to favour one patron’s choice over another’s. This might explain the decision of the York council eventually to appoint John Vavasour, a relatively small political figure. Taken as a whole, such consistent royal interest in the position of recorder reminds us of the importance of the role in communications between the crown and the towns.

“[That this episode] occurred early in Henry VII’s reign may also be instructive with regard to Henry’s rather precarious position as a usurper with little in the way of local support. Henry was clearly very keen to impose his authority in a number of major towns, and regarded the appointment of recorders as an opportune means of achieving this.”


The struggles between York authorities and the crown continued, with the city making plain its determination to act independently, but I will end with Metcalf’s demise.

As Bacon’s oft-quoted assessment of Henry VII goes: ‘…as he governed his subjects by his laws, so he governed his laws by his lawyers’. Tudor oppression increased relentlessly. The entire realm must have regretted the loss of Richard III. York citizens certainly did, because in 1489, in protest against Henry VII’s punitive taxes, they murdered the Earl of Northumberland, who had failed Richard III at Bosworth and become a Tudor toady.


More evidence from Bertram Fields

You may recall that, about two years ago, we published the footnotes to Bertram Fields’ Royal Blood. Now it seems that, on page 152 of the paperback edition, he has something to say about Catherine de Valois’ apparent relationship with Owain Tudor. Just like G.L.Harriss (1988) and John Ashdown-Hill (2013), he holds that they are unlikely to have been married at all.

As cited on Catherine’s Wikipedia page, despite its relevant editors being Alexandria dwellers, he wrote: “There was no proof of [the marriage] beyond Owen’s word”.[8]




This essay was prompted by a sentence in John Ashdown-Hill’s latest book ‘The Private Life of Edward IV’: “ According to English custom, as the senior living adult prince of the blood royal, the duke of Gloucester should have acted as Regent — or Lord Protector as the role was then known in England — for the young Edward V, eldest son of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, who had been proclaimed king in London.” Not only is this casual generalization about the status of Gloucester’s protectorship at odds with Dr Ashdown-Hill’s otherwise careful attention to detail, it is misleading. It exposes a misconception about the constitutional position in May 1483, which is unfortunately shared by many historians and helps to perpetuate a pejorative myth about the vires of Gloucester’s actions during the late spring and summer of 1483.


It is a misunderstanding that is all the more trying since it is so needless. As long ago as 1953, Professor JS Roskell explained the origin of the office of Lord Protector[i]. More recently, Annette Carson (one of Dr Ashdown-Hill’s colleague on the Looking For Richard Project and co-author of their written account of the project) incorporated some of Roskell’s thinking along with contemporary fifteenth century evidence in her detailed study of Gloucester’s constitutional role as ‘Lord Protector’, which explains the position perfectly well.[ii] What these authors establish is that the office of Lord Protector, to which the king’s council appointed Gloucester on the 10 May 1483, was a limited one. The ‘Protector and Defender of the Realm and the Church in England and Chief Councilor to the King’ (to give its full title) was an office created by parliament in 1422 as part of the constitutional settlement that followed the death of Henry V. As the title implies, it is not synonymous with the position of Regent, which was a title and position that reflected authoritarian French practices, which Ralph Griffiths tells us were ‘repugnant to the English mind‘.[iii] However, as we shall see later, change was afoot due to the unique political circumstances of 1483.


In the four centuries that separated the Normans from the Tudors, only four English kings succeeded to the throne as children: Henry III, Richard II, Henry VI and, of course, Edward V. I will not dwell on Edward V’s minority for the reason I have already given; however, it is useful to consider the other three minorities since they provide the contextual background for what happened in 1483.


Henry III (1216-1272)

Henry III ascended the throne on the 18 October 1216 by right of ‘perpetual hereditary succession’; he was just of nine years old and his future looked decidedly bleak. Three-quarters of the English barons had rebelled against his father, king John, and ‘elected’ Prince Louis of France to replace him. In 1216, Louis came to England with an army of Frenchmen and English rebels to take the crown. By October, he controlled half the kingdom including London and the southern ports with the exception of Dover. In addition, John’s tyranny had damaged royal authority and the infrastructure of government to such an extent that anarchy was endemic. Henry did not have an organised executive or an exchequer with which he could re-establish governance and royal authority; he did not even possess a royal seal. But worse than that he lacked the forces with which to fight the pretender Louis. His situation was desperate but not yet hopeless.


In May 1213 king John had signed a charter yielding his kingdoms of England and Ireland to the Roman Church as a vassal.[iv] Although as far as John was concerned this was only a means of gaining papal support for a war against his own subjects, it had beneficial repercussions for Henry and for England since it placed them under papal protection, and unified the English church and crown in what was to become a holy war against Louis and the rebel barons. It also had the immediate practical effect of ensuring that no English bishop was prepared to crown Louis, which was .a considerable handicap for him since he was unable to transform his status as a royal claimant into the divine status of a crowned and anointed king.[v] Henry’s own coronation on the 28 October in the Abbey Church, Gloucester gave him a distinct advantage in establishing his superior claim to the throne. It was, however, a condition of the service that he paid homage to Pope Honorius II for his throne; it was a small price to pay to acquire the divinity that protected him from death or deposition by his human enemies, unless it was God’s will. He still had to avoid being conquered by Louis, since that might be regarded as a sign of God’s will. Following the coronation, loyalists minds turned to the formation of a minority council, the nature and form of which was dictated by the circumstances and not custom.


Although it was necessary to organise resistance against Louis’ invasion, the most pressing need was to restore the English barons’ faith in royal authority. Only thus would they be willing to pledge their loyalty to Henry instead of Louis. The Henricians knew the dead king’s wishes as they had his will, in which he entrusted his posterity to the Pope and appointed a council of thirteen men, ‘those whom he most relied upon’, “to render assistance to his sons for the recovery of their inheritance”.[vi] In particular, he commended the guardianship of Henry to William Marshall, earl of Pembroke; for he feared that his heir would ‘never hold the land save through him’.[vii] Although William Marshal was the most famous of Henry’s chosen councilors, he was not the first. Lord Guala Bicchieri Legate of the Apostolic See bore the prime responsibility for consolidating Henry’s succession and restoring royal authority. As Henry’s feudal overlord and head of the Roman Church, Pope Honorius III ‘recognized no bounds on the authority he could exercise in England’.[viii] He sanctioned Guala’s to do whatever was expedient to help young Henry and his kingdom ‘without appeal’. Loyalist councilors were urged to submit to the Legate ‘humbly and devotedly’. Consequently, this minority council is unique in our history.


Despite Guala’s authority, it was obvious that he was unsuited to fight the king’s war or to conduct the day-to-day affairs of state. So, those present at the coronation prevailed ‘by their ‘common counsel’ upon William Marshall to assume the mantle of Henry’s guardian as envisaged by the late king. William Marshall had remained faithful to king John from personal loyalty and not from conviction. It was well known that he quarreled with John about policy and he was not tainted with his tyranny. [ix] Marshall’s participation in the minority council was necessary because he was the man most able to unite the English barons against the French invader and despite his old age he was still a redoubtable warrior. He planned and led the successful war against Louis and carried out the day-to day administration of state business. He was particularly adept at using royal patronage to ‘buy’ the rebel barons’ support for Henry. Marshall’s appointment was not a nominal appointment, but neither was Guala a titular leader of the council. He was heavily involved in the council’s major decisions and issued orders to Marshal on purely secular matters, requiring him ‘to do as he was bound to do for the honour of king and kingdom.’[x] The third member of a triumvirate at the head of the council was Peter de Roche, bishop of Winchester. He was appointed as Henry’s tutor. It was a sensible arrangement since neither Guala nor Marshall would be able to take personal care of the king. Later, an argument developed about whether de Roche derived his authority from the council or from Marshall.


Henry III’s minority lasted for eleven years. Even after Guala’s resignation in 1218 (He was replaced by Pandulf as Legate.) and Marshall’s death in 1219 (He was succeeded by Hubert de Burgh.) it proved to be the most remarkable minority rule in English history. During it, the Plantagenets rather than the Capetian kings of France were confirmed as the ruling dynasty; England was recued from anarchy and Magna Carta was enshrined into English law.[xi] It also had significant constitutional ramifications. The ‘Great Council’ that met regularly to advise the king during his minority and later during his personal rule was the first conception a national Parliament, which became an institution that existed regardless of whether the king was young or old, weak or strong. [xii] I mention these events because they inform our understanding of the respective roles of William Marshall and Legate Guala, and their successors in the minority government.


Professor David Carpenter’s describes William Marshall as “the (sole) Regent” because he granted royal patronage, restored royal authority and dispensed justice.[xiii] It is a reasonable description of Marshall’s position; especially, as Henry’s own appellation for Marshall was ‘our ruler and the ruler of our kingdom‘, which is compatible with the notion of a regent. However, as we shall see, the relationship between Marshall and Guala was not straightforward. Its complexity is best illustrated in the revised version of Magna Carta that was issued in November 1216; wherein, the king declares: “But because we have not as yet any seal, we have caused the present Charter to be sealed with the seals of our venerable father the Lord Gualo (sic), Cardinal Priest by the title of Saint Martin, Legate of the Apostolic See; and of William Marshal Earl of Pembroke, the guardians (my emphasis) of us and of our kingdom, at Bristol the twelfth day of November, in the first year of our reign.” [xiv] The description of Guala and Marshall as ‘our guardians’ necessarily casts doubt on the suggestion that Marshall governed alone as regent. More significant though, is the fact that both of the guardians’ seals were used to authenticate the charter. All of which is inconsistent with the notion of Marshall as regent; a position, which by definition involves the personal rule by an individual exercising royal authority (my emphasis) where the monarch is a minor, absent or incapacitated.[xv]


Even more serious, is the possibility that Marshall did not actually exercise the authority of a regent. For example, it was Guala who proposed and sanctioned the re-issuing of Magna Carta as a peace offering to the English rebels.[xvi] Naturally, he acted in unison with the council, including Marshall, but it seems unlikely that the charter could have been issued without Guala’s agreement. It is a hypothesis that does not rely on the fact that the Pope had previously opposed Magna Carta, but on the premise that as the late king’s feudal overlord, he held wardship of his heir until he came of age. Thus, Guala was acting with papal authority as the leader of the minority council. Conversely, William Marshall’s authority was political and limited since it relied on his election by the great council. He acted only with and by the consent of the English polity.[xvii] Marshall was the public face of the council because he was best suited to that role; however, the implication that he was unable to initiate high-policy without deference to Guala is inescapable. The fact that Guala and Marshall worked harmoniously together in the common interest does not render this anomaly irrelevant since a regent is defined by his authority and not by his workload.


Richard II (1377-99)

When Richard II inherited his grandfather’s throne in 1377 his subjects hoped he would reverse England’s failing fortunes. The chancellor, bishop Houghton caught the public mood in his opening address to Richard’s first parliament. “Richard, he said, had been sent by God in the same way that God had sent his only son into the world for the redemption of his people.”[xviii] The expectation that he was England’s new messiah was a burden Richard found hard to bear.


Insofar as Henry III’s minority may have been a model, it was disregarded in 1377. Then as in 1216 the nature and form of Richard’s minority was determined by circumstances. Edward III’s senility and the illness of the Black Prince had left a power vacuum at court that was filled by Alice Ferrers the king’s unscrupulous mistress and her shifty associates. The Good Parliament (1376) had restored some order and probity by taking conciliar control of the government. However, John duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt) in his capacity as Steward of the Realm restored the primacy of the royal authority by overturning the parliament’s conciliar approach, much to the chagrin of the three estates. Unfortunately, there was nobody of the stature of William Marshall to unite the Lancastrian faction with their opponents, or anyone of the sagacity of Guala to lead them with moderation and wisdom. The king’s paternal uncles who might ordinarily be expected to fulfill that function were considered to be either untrustworthy or incapable, or both. John of Gaunt was the senior royal adult and the most powerful man in England: he was also the most unpopular. Ambitious to a fault, ‘time honoured Lancaster’ had his own regal ambitions, if not in England and France then in the Iberian Peninsular. However, as a failed soldier and diplomat in the French wars, and a disastrous Steward of the Realm, Gaunt was simply unacceptable to the three estates. Richard’s other royal uncles, Edmund Earl of Cambridge and Thomas Earl of Buckingham were considered dilettantes in affairs of state, lacking the prestige or gravitas to lead a minority government. If the idea of a regent was ever mooted in council, it was quickly dropped


If the councilors who met shortly after Richard’s coronation had a plan, it seems to have been to prevent Lancaster or any other powerful individual from seizing the reigns of government. Their presumption that the pre-pubescent Richard was fully competent to rule personally was probably based on the notion that the royal estate was inseparable from the king’s person. It might have been naïve to presume so, but it was not mindless. The legal doctrine of capacities was known to parliament but its scope was limited. For example, a legal distinction could be made between the spiritual and temporal capacities of a prelate, or between the private and public capacities of the king’s Chancellor; however, the office of king and the person of the king were considered to be indivisible. Doubts about this were expressed during the troubled reign of Edward II but they were condemned by the barons and were not raised again during the fourteenth century. According to the English constitutional view, the royal estate (i.e. sovereignty) could not be alienated or delegated save in certain specific circumstances, which were not relevant in 1377. Therefore, even if the king was a minor or infirm his royal authority was held to be unimpaired. In practical terms this meant that anyone wanting to control policy had to control the king. That is why there was an increasing preponderance of the late Black Prince’s household servants on the continual councils at the expense of Lancastrians.[xix] It was by those means that the continual council excluded Gaunt from active government. Nonetheless, the presumption of the king’s competence was a subterfuge. He was little more than the public face of monarchy, the visual representation of order and justice. The continual council, though ostensibly the king’s advisors, was in reality the controlling force of government.


The composition of the council varied considerably over the three years of its existence. It was meant to be representative of the different strata of the landed classes: two prelates, two earls, two barons, two bannerettes and four knights. As I have already said, the actual membership reflected political affiliations that exposed the diminution of Lancastrian power. Neither Gaunt nor his brothers sat on the council; even if we allow for the possibility that parliament allocated them some general oversight of the government, the absence of the king’s uncles from the council suggests a remarkable change in the balance of power. Between 1377 and 1380, there were three different continual councils, the last two being slimmer and included an even greater preponderance of the Black Prince’s men.[xx] They achieved some success in restoring stability to the government and prudence to public finances, and they did not succumb to the corruption of previous administrations. Nonetheless, their domestic and foreign policies were generally regarded as failures at the time and since: “ A conciliar regime by its very nature was unlikely to excel in either clarity of vision and efficiency of policy making. It’s strength lay in the opportunity it afforded to achieve harmony through consensus.”[xxi] The tragedy of the time was that harmony was probably never achievable among such a dysfunctional polity. In the parliament of 1380, the Speaker, John Gisburgh accused the continual council of financial mismanagement and demanded their dismissal, adding: “…the king was now of great discretion and handsome stature, and bearing in mind his age, which is very near that of his noble grandfather, whom God absolve, at the time of his coronation (not so!); and at the beginning of his reign had no other councilors than the customary five principal officers of his kingdom.” What Gisburgh was advocating was an end to Richard’s minority and a return to normal government.[xxii] It marked the end of this type on conciliar minority but not the end of the need for continual councils to control Richard’s later excesses.


Henry VI (1422-1461 and 1470)

King Henry VI succeeded to the English throne following the death of his father on the 31 August 1422; he was barely nine months old. On his deathbed Henry V disposed of his two kingdoms in a codicil to his will. France he entrusted to the regency of his brother John Duke of Bedford. To his youngest brother Humphrey Duke of Gloucester he committed England, signifying that the duke should have ‘the principal safekeeping and defence’ of his beloved son’ (tutela et defensionem nostril carissimi filii principales).[xxiii] These words are important; especially ‘tutela’, since it implied that duke Humphrey was to have the powers of a regent. When parliament met in November to settle the constitutional arrangements for Henry VI’s minority, they had two alternatives. They could grant the late king’s wishes and allow Humphrey to govern the realm as he claimed or they could heed the lessons of the past to devise a tailored settlement. The settlements of 1216 and were of little or no practical value as a precedent, since their circumstances were irrelevant to the situation in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Initially, the force of Henry’s will and codicil attracted the support of some lords towards Gloucester’s claim (according to the duke anyway). That changed, however, when they realized the implication of his construction of the codicil. The principal objector was Bedford whose position as the senior royal duke and heir presumptive would be prejudiced if Gloucester obtained the regency of England. The other English lords were also anxious; they were not unnaturally keen to preserve English sovereignty in the dual Anglo-French monarchy that subsisted.[xxiv] Therefore, they could not ignore Bedford’s interests by giving away powers that might belong to him, particularly as he was necessarily detained in France.[xxv]


The constitutional debate that began on the 5 December 1422 was parliament’s most important business. The lords were determining the governance and defence of the realm and the importance of the occasion cannot have been lost on them. Not only was Henry VI a babe in arms and therefore, unlikely to be crowned for many years but also there were two thrones to consider.[xxvi] At least one historian considers the untimely death of Henry V to have been the ‘most consequential event in the history of Lancastrian monarchy between 1399 and 1461’. Doubtless it was also a significant factor in ‘moulding’ English constitutional ideas for many years to come.[xxvii] It is all the more disappointing, therefore, that neither the debate nor the arguments are recorded in the Parliamentary Roll. It contains only the details of the outcome. Eventually the lords, with the assent of the commons, devised a compromise.[xxviii] John duke of Bedford was appointed ‘Protector and Defender of the Realm and of the English Church, and Chief Councilor of the king’. In Bedford’s absence, that title and its accompanying powers would fall to the duke of Gloucester. It was a pragmatic solution that recognized existing constitutional doctrine and also probably reflected parliament’s fear that either or both the royal uncles might try to impose a regency government on England. The creation of a protectorate scotched that idea. Bedford accepted the decision gracefully; Humphrey, through gritted teeth. He was clearly unhappy at not being given the authority he wanted.


Though we do not have an official record of the debate, we do have an unenrolled ex post facto note of Gloucester’s claim, which has been incorporated as an Appendix to the modern translation of the Parliamentary Roll. It is almost certainly a self-serving document as suggested by Anne Curry. Nevertheless, it gives us the gist of Gloucester’s protest and an inkling of his ambition. He claimed the principal tutelage and protection of the king by right of his brother’s codicil, “which codicil was read, declared and assented to by all the lords” who ‘beseeched’ him to take the principal tutelage and protection of the king and promised to help his cause. He alluded to a commons petition that he should to possess the governance of the realm; which petition, he argued, was not satisfied by the proposal that he should be merely ‘defender of the realm and chief councilor’. He also claimed tutelage of the kingdom by right of law: “Whereupon, my lord, wishing that neither his brother of Bedford nor himself should be harmed by his negligence or default, has had old records searched, and has found that, in the time of Henry the third, William Marshall, earl of Pembroke, who was not so close to the king as my lord is to our liege lord, was called ruler of the king and kingdom of England [rector regis et regni Angliae]. So in conclusion, he thinks it reasonable that either he should, in accordance with the desire of the commons, be called a governor or else, according to this record, ruler of the kingdom [rector regni] but not of the king [regis][xxix] as he does not wish to claim as much authority as William Marshall did. So he desires to take upon himself this charge by the assent of the council with the addition of the word defender according to the desire and appointment of the lords.[xxx] The note concludes with Gloucester’s assurances that (being ‘ruler’) he would do nothing of substance or flout the common law, save by the advice of council. He also acknowledged that nothing agreed could be to the prejudice of his brother Bedford’s rights.


Given Gloucester’s conviction that the governance of the realm belonged to him personally as of right and by virtue of his late brother’s will, it is hardly surprising that the next few years were marked by his resentment and consequently by disharmony within the conciliar regime. On the 3 March 1428 (during the 1427 parliament), while Bedford was away, Gloucester made another attempt to redefine authority in his favour[xxxi]. ‘Having had’, he said, ‘diverse’ opinions from several persons concerning his authority, he desired the lords to deliberate and carefully reconsider his power and authority for the avoidance of doubt’. He declared himself willing to leave the chamber whilst his request was debated. Indeed, so strong was his attitude that he refused to return to the chamber unless the lords reached a decision. The lords, without the commons (Presumably the lords were acting in a judicial capacity.) gave judgement through Henry Chichele archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop reminded Gloucester that in 1422 the lords had given mature consideration to his claim, during which they discussed the law and precedent And they had adjudged his claim to be illegitimate since it was not based on the law of England; which law, the late king had no power to alter or change in his lifetime or by his will, without the assent of parliament. However, to keep the peace they had determined that ”… you (Gloucester), in the absence of my Lord Bedford, your brother, should be chief of the king’s council, and have therefore devised for you a different name from the other councilors, not the name of ‘tutor’, lieutenant, governor or of regent, nor any name that might imply governance of the realm, but the name of protector and defender, which implies a personal duty of attention to the actual defence of the realm both against enemies overseas, if necessary, and against rebels within.[xxxii] If the lords had wished Gloucester to have more power, said the archbishop, they would have granted it to him. Furthermore they were amazed that he should now ask for more, especially as he and his brother had accepted this compromise when it was made; since when, of course, the king ‘had advanced in years and intelligence’. Finally, Gloucester was required to be satisfied with his current position and to remember that he had no power in parliament in the presence of the king, save as a duke and that his office was held at the king’s pleasure. It was an unequivocal rejection of the notion that Gloucester (or indeed Bedford for that matter) was regent or had the authority of a regent, during the king’s minority. The lords explicitly reserved to themselves the right to govern during the minority or incapacity of the king, whether in council or in parliament. Although the lords’ anger is palpable and Gloucester received a stern rebuke for his cheek such as no royal duke usually experienced, their decision was not made in pique but only after careful consideration. By rejecting the king’s codicil and by their words, parliament was making a distinction between the civil inheritance of an estate by a will and the constitutional disposal of the kingdom by royal prerogative.[xxxiii] It is a clear that they did not consider the crown to be normal heritable property or subject to the civil laws of inheritance.


Gloucester’s claim for tutelage also raised a grave constitutional issue since it included the power to exercise the delegated royal authority, implying a separation of the king’s estate between his person and his office. This was contrary to English law since it was generally held that whatever the disability of the king (‘nonage or infirmity’ to use Chrimes’ quaint phrase), his royal authority was unimpaired; furthermore, this authority resided in the king’s person alone and could not be exercised by any other individual. We see this principle enunciated in a council meeting that took place in 1427, whilst Bedford was in England; wherein it was pronounced that (and I am paraphrasing) ‘even though the king is now of tender age, the same authority rests in his person this day as shall rest in the future when he comes of age.’ Moreover, the council concluded that if, due to ‘the possibility of nature’, the king could not indeed rule in person then ‘neither God nor reason would that this land should stand without governance’; in such a case royal authority rested with the lords spiritual and temporal.[xxxiv] Nobody can doubt that in 1422 Henry’s royal estate was incomplete by virtue of his infancy, ‘since it lacks will or reason, which must be supplied by the council or parliament’. The impossibility of alienating or delegating royal authority is further illustrated by the care with which both parliament and the protector avoided any imputation that their settlement established a partition of the source of authority. Gloucester claimed to be rector regni (governor of the kingdom); he did not claim to be rector regis (governor [tutor?] of the king).



The historiographies of these three reigns chart the evolution of English minority governments from the ambiguity of William Marshall’s ‘regency’ in 1216 until parliament’s rejection of duke Humphrey’s claim for tutelage in 1428. During that period the guiding   principle was to preserve the integrity of royal authority through consensus rather than autocracy. Although there was undoubtedly an ideological element to this thinking, the real driving force was political pragmatism. It was believed necessary in each reign, though for different reasons, to protect the integrity of royal authority from the possibility of abuse by an unscrupulous or overly ambitious regent. Consequently, each settlement was driven by the realpolitik of the day rather than by precedent or custom. This is also true of Edward V’s minority.


Edward IV’s death was unexpected and unexplained; consequently, its dramatic consequences could not be foreseen by Richard duke of Gloucester or the Council. Edward V’s maternal family led by his mother Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville)[xxxv] mounted a coup d’état against the lawful government and the late king’s wishes. Their aims were to crown young Edward before the Privy Council could arrange a protectorship and to rule the kingdom through a compliant king. Their attempt to persuade the council to their cause in the absence of the king’s senior uncle and their disregard for Edward’s deathbed codicil, whilst not illegal, were not benevolent acts. They raised the spectre of civil war and a return to the social unrest and injustice that had blighted the 1440’s and 1450’s, and triggered the Wars of the Roses. Ultimately, the coup was unsuccessful due to Gloucester’s timely intervention and, more significantly, because the Woodvilles lacked support among the lords. In May 1483 the council’s appointed Richard duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector. This was consistent with the 1422 settlement and with Edward IV’s deathbed codicil, and it consolidated Gloucester’s position as leader of the minority government. However, as we shall see, the council did not exclude the possibility that his powers might be enlarged later, as a bulwark against Woodville ambition.


The sermon drafted by the Chancellor (bishop John Russell) for Edward V’s first parliament provides an insight into the councils thinking and their intention. They proposed to enlarge the Lord Protectors powers to include tutelage and oversight of the king and the kingdom.[xxxvi] It is neither necessary nor desirable for me to repeat or to summarize Annette Carson’s analysis of the chancellor’s draft sermon, or to comment on her conclusions about the form of post-coronation government envisaged by the council. My only interest is in emphasizing the radicalism of this proposal, which was completely outwith the conciliar principles of past minorities and challenged the traditional English view of kingship. Quite why the council thought it was necessary to abandon the safeguards afforded by the 1422 model is not certain. However, there are sufficient clues in the draft sermon for us to draw the reasonable inference that political pragmatism was their primary motivation. It was considered necessary for Gloucester had to have full ‘tutelage and oversight’ of the king’ because the Woodvilles were manifestly unfit to do so and/or they had abandoned their responsibility for the king’s person. [xxxvii]. Nobody doubted that they would continue their attempt to control the king, which if successful would be to the detriment of the peace and stability of the kingdom. This speaks well of the trust they espoused in Gloucester and the profundity of their mistrust of the king’s maternal relatives . Although I take note of the fact that Edward V’s coronation never took place and his first parliament never met, it is beyond my scope to examine the reasons for that

[i] JS Roskell – The Office and Dignity of Protector of England with special reference to its origins (English Historical Review Volume 68 April 1953) pp. 193-233

[ii] Annette Carson – Richard duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector and High Constable of England (Imprimus/Imprimatur 2015). See also for a useful and freely available summary of Carson’s analysis.

[iii] Ralph Griffiths – The Reign of King Henry VI (Sutton Publishing 1998 edition) p.19

[iv] W L Warren – King John (Eyre Methuen 1978, 2nd edition) p. 208.

[v] Sir Maurice Powicke – The Thirteenth Century 1216-1307 (Oxford 1988 2nd edition) pp.1-8; the acts of anointing and crowning a king transformed the nature of monarchy. Not only was the office of king divine but now the person of the king was also divine. Humankind could not remove a crowned and anointed king, unless it was the will of God. Any resistance to him was treason and a sin against God’s law.

[vi] Warren p. 255; John’s executors were: the lord Guala, Legate of the Apostolic See, Peter lord bishop of Winchester, Richard lord bishop of Chichester, Silvester lord bishop of Worcester, Brother Amery of Saint Maurie, William Marshall earl of Pembroke, Ranulph earl of Chester, William earl Ferrers, William Brewer, Walter Lacy, John of Monmouth, Savary de Mauléon, and Fawkes de Breauté. John’s last will and testament is the earliest surviving example of a royal will. Considering its importance, it is a remarkably short document, which is more concerned with ensuring John’s acceptance into Heaven than the detailed disposition of his estate

[vii] D A Carpenter – The Minority of Henry III (Methuen 1990), p 52; William Marshall (1146-1219) was not of royal stock; he was the younger son of a minor Anglo-Norman noble and expected to earn his way in the world. As an errant knight, Marshall earned a fearsome reputation as a jouster and an equally impressive reputation of faithful service to five English kings in peace and in war. Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, eulogized him as ‘the best knight who ever lived’ and he was dubbed by his first (anonymous) biographer as ‘the greatest knight in the world.’ Marshall inherited his earldom through marriage and by 1216 he was a man of considerable wealth and power. Despite his age (he was now seventy), Marshall promised to be a stabilizing influence for the king and his government.

[viii] Carpenter, p. 13

[ix] Carpenter, p. 18

[x]  Carpenter, p. 52, note7

[xi] Carpenter, p.6

[xii] Sir Maurice Powicke – The Thirteenth Century (Oxford 1988 2nd edition) pp. 1-8

[xiii] Carpenter, pp.13-54


[xv] The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 5th edition (2005); ‘Regent: 1) that which rules, governs or has sovereignty; a ruling power or principle, 2) a person invested with royal authority by or on behalf of another; esp a person appointed to administer a kingdom or state during the minority, absence or incapacity of a monarch or hereditary ruler’. See also Chambers Dictionary 13th edition (2014); ‘Regent: a ruler or person invested with interim or vicarious authority on behalf of another.’

[xvi] Carpenter, p.23

[xvii] Carpenter, p. 55

[xviii] Nigel Saul – Richard II (Yale 1997) p.18

[xix] SB Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge 1936) pp. 35-37; by the fifteenth century the courts had declared that the royal prerogative ‘ must be intact in the king’s person alone’ (p.35, citing VYB. SEIV, 118-23 [App No 48]).

[xx] Saul pp.31-55, provides an analysis of the membership and a narrative of their downfall.

[xxi] Saul p.45

[xxii] C. Given-Wilson (ed) – The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, Volume 6 (Geoffrey Martin and Chris Given-Wilson eds) (The Boydell Press 2005) p.149 [PROME].

[xxiii] PROME Vol 10 (Anne Curry ed) p.6; citing P Strong and F Strong ‘ The last will and codicils of Henry V, EHR, 96 (1981) 99 et al.

[xxiv] PROME Vol 10 p.7; Curry suggests that fears were first expressed about the dual monarchy following the Treaty of Troyes (1420). See also Bertram Wolffe – Henry VI (Yale 1981) pp. 28-35, & 44; and Griffiths pp.19-24.

[xxv] Griffiths p.21; Bedford’s friends were in the House and they knew of his ‘position’. Furthermore his letter to the Mayor and Corporation of London setting out his objections was before the lords. The respective appointments of Bedford and Gloucester under Henry’s will were determined largely by circumstances. Ordinarily, Bedford remained in England as Keeper of the Realm in the king’s absence abroad, whilst Gloucester generally accompanied the king. However, in 1422 Bedford went to France with reinforcements for the army and Humphrey returned to England as Keeper of the Realm. The weakness of Gloucester’ position became clear at a council meeting on the 5 November 1422 when the council determined that his tenure as Keeper of the Realm expired with Henry’s death and that he could only open parliament with their consent. It was a body blow to the ambitious Gloucester.

[xxvi] PROME Vol 10 pp. 3

[xxvii] Griffiths p.20

[xxviii] PROME Vol 10 pp. 3 and 23-24

[xxix] PROME Vol 10, p.6; Anne Curry suggests that the Latin word rector could be translated as Regent.

[xxx] PROME Vol 10, Appendix, item 1. ‘The issue of the title of the duke of Gloucester’, p.61; citing as a source PRO C 47/53/12 (in Middle English), printed in SB Chrimes, ‘The pretensions of the duke of Gloucester in 1422 EHR 45 (1930). 102-3

[xxxi] PROME Vol 10, pp. 347-348, items 24-27

[xxxii] PROME Vol 10, ibid

[xxxiii] PROME; ibid

[xxxiv] Chrimes pp. 36-37; citing Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council (Sir Harris Nicolas – ed) iii, pp. 231-36

[xxxv] I write on the basis that the ‘marriage’ of Edward IV and Elizabeth was bigamous.

[xxxvi] Chrimes pp. 167-190 with notes; see also Carson pp. 57-60 and 168-78

[xxxvii] This is a reference to Elizabeth Grey’s flight to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey

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