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A further selection of Scropes….

The name “Scrope” was usually pronounced, and sometimes spelled, as “Scroop”.am

To follow yesterday’s post

William, Earl of Wiltshire c1351-1399

William was the second son of Richard Scrope, first Baron Scrope of Bolton. In his younger days he was sometimes associated with John of Gaunt, who made him Seneschal of Aquitaine in 1383.

Subsequently, he secured the favour of Richard II, who made him Vice-Chamberlain of the Household in 1393, and granted him the castle and lordship of Marlborough. In that same year his father purchased the Kingdom of Mann for him, an example of provision was made for a younger son without dividing the main inheritance. He was given the Garter in 1394, and after the fall of Arundel, Gloucester and Warwick in 1397 was made Earl of Wiltshire and given a share of the confiscated lands. In 1398 he was promoted to the important post of Lord Treasurer.

Although Scrope gets little mention in the accounts of Richard II’s reign it is clear that by this time he had become a very influential man. He was given the custody of a number of royal castles, including Wallingford and Beaumaris. He was left in England when Richard II went to Ireland in 1399, and was, in effect, the “active ingredient” in a government under the chairmanship of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York.

When Henry Bolingbroke invaded, Scrope was one of several men who abandoned the Duke of York and took refuge in Bristol. When that city fell to Bolingbroke’s forces, Scrope was captured and summarily beheaded. (He may have had a “trial” of sorts before the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland, but this is by no means certain.)

When one considers the gallons of ink that have been used in bemoaning the execution of the saintly Anthony Rivers in 1483, it is rather surprising to discover that Henry IV has received no similar criticism for the execution of Scrope, which amounted to plain murder, Henry holding no office at the time and thus acting as a lawless, private individual. Historians do not seem to think Scrope worth arguing about, although it is hard to discern what he had done to Henry that merited such savage treatment.

Subsequently, Henry’s first parliament threw a cloak of legality over the murder and confirmed the forfeiture of Scrope’s lands and possessions.

William Scrope had married Isabel Russell, daughter of Sir Maurice Russell of Dorset and Gloucestershire. Although Sir Maurice was far from being a minor member of the gentry, and was particularly active in Gloucestershire, his daughter was not an aristocrat, still less a Plantagenet, and this may help explain why Henry allowed her almost nothing to live on.

Richard, Archbishop of York, 1350-1405

Richard was the third son of Henry, first Lord Scrope of Masham. He received his first rectorship as early as 1368, although he was not actually ordained priest until 1377. The very next year he was no less than Chancellor of the University of Cambridge! He had, of course, achieved considerable academic success, but it seems likely that patronage also played its part. He was a papal chaplain in Rome from 1382-1386, and became Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield in 1386. His diplomatic career included a visit to Rome to further Richard II’s attempt to have his grandfather, Edward II, canonised. He was translated to the see of York in 1398.

Richard was possibly under the influence of the Percy family, with whom his family had connections, and made no attempt to prevent the deposition of Richard II. Indeed, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, he formally led Henry to the throne. On the other hand, when the Percy family rose in rebellion against Henry in 1403, there is no significant evidence that he was involved.

Henry IV remained deeply unpopular, not least in the North and there were a number of conspiracies against him in the years that followed. Unfortunately for them, his enemies never quite managed to coordinate their plans and bring their strength against him at the same time. 1405 was the year of the so-called Tripartite Indenture, the plan to divide England and Wales between Owain Glyndwr, the Earl of Northumberland. and Sir Edmund Mortimer. Owain had at last received armed French assistance, and was poised to invade England. It was in these circumstances that Richard Scrope, no doubt working in collaboration with Northumberland, raised an army of about 8,000 men which assembled on Shipton Moor. With the Archbishop were his nephew, Sir William Plumpton, and the young Thomas Mowbray, Earl Marshal and earl of Nottingham and Norfolk.

They were met by a force headed by Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, which Northumberland had failed to intercept. Instead of engaging, the Archbishop agreed to parley and was tricked by false promises into disbanding his army. After that he, Plumpton and Mowbray were promptly arrested. After a travesty of a trial – a trial in which Chief Justice refused to participate – all three were beheaded.

Scrope was buried in York Minster and his tomb became an unofficial shrine. Lancastrian kings naturally sought to discourage to the cult, while the Yorkist kings, equally naturally, looked upon it with favour. However, Scrope was never officially canonised. It need hardly be said that Scrope was the first Archbishop to be executed in England – Becket, after all, was simply murdered – and with the sovereign’s full authority.  He was also the last prelate to be so dealt with until the Tudor era.

The Pope excommunicated all those involved in Scrope’s death, although the sentence was never published in England. Henry IV eventually secured a pardon by offering to found two religious houses; these were not, in fact, founded in his lifetime, but came to being under Henry V, and were the last such to be created in the medieval period.

It was soon after Scrope’s death that Henry was struck by the mysterious illness which made the rest of his life a misery. Naturally, his enemies ascribed his affliction to the vengeance of Richard Scrope.

Henry Scrope, Lord Scrope of Masham, c1370-1415

Henry Scrope was knighted by Richard II in 1392, and was retained by that king for life in 1396. Nevertheless he rapidly transferred his allegiance to Henry IV in 1399 and served him loyally in various capacities throughout his reign. His first wife, Philippa de Bryan, was a Welsh heiress (or perhaps more correctly a heiress of lands in Wales) and part of his effort was directed towards guarding her lands against the Glyndwr rising. He inherited the Masham barony from his father in 1406, but seems to have been “running the family business” so to speak for some years. He was briefly Lord Treasurer in 1410, possibly because of his connections to Prince Henry (who was running the government at the time because of Henry IV’s illness) and Sir Thomas Beaufort. In this role he was successful, and actually left a surplus in the Treasury at the end of his service.

In his private life, Scrope made a second marriage in 1410, to Joanne (or Joan) Holland, Duchess of York, the widow of Edmund of Langley. Joanne was a wealthy woman – T. B. Pugh estimated that her survival for thirty-two years after Langley’s death cost the York family in excess of £30,000. Quite apart from this, Joanne had a portion of the earldom of Kent (following the death of her brother, Edmund, in 1408) and also a share in the lands of her second husband, Lord Willoughby. The joint income of Scrope and his wife was around £1,800 a year, a vast amount for a mere baron.

Unfortunately Joanne and her husband did not live in wedded bliss, and it appears that around 1413 she left him, at least for a time, taking with her about £5,000 worth of his property and decamped to her Yorkist dower castle, Sandal. In his will of June 1415 he offered her a choice of his belongings to the value of £2000 in return for her abandoning any claim to one third or one half of his goods. This suggests his belongings must have amounted to more than £6,000! Since Joanne was already engaged in a quarrel with her Willoughby stepson over personal property, it seems she was not a lady who considered material possessions to be unimportant.

It should not be overlooked that Henry Scrope was a nephew of the late Archbishop of York, and it may be that his loyalty to the Lancastrian regime was not a fervent as it appeared on the surface. In any event he allowed himself to be drawn into the conspiracy known as the Southampton Plot led by Joanne’s stepson, Richard of York, Earl of Cambridge, which sought to replace Henry V with the Earl of March.

It is equally possible that Scrope went into the conspiracy with every intention of betraying it. It appears certain that he did his best to persuade the Earl of March not to get more deeply involved – hardly the action of a convinced plotter – and that he remonstrated with Walter Lucy, March’s close adviser over the matter. Scrope was not even invited to a crucial supper party at Cranbury, held by March and attended by Cambridge, Lucy and Lord Clifford.

However, it was March, not Scrope, who disclosed the conspiracy to Henry V, and the result was that Scrope was executed and all his lands and possessions forfeited. Duchess Joanne acted very promptly to secure a share of the proceeds, including a solid gold statue of the Virgin and various items of plate stamped with the Scrope arms that she claimed as her personal property. It appears nothing was done to retrieve the various expensive items she filched. Scrope’s brother and heir, and his mother, were not so fortunate. Although Henry V intended to permanently alienate most or all of the family’s lands, he had an attack of conscience on his death-bed, and the youngest Scrope brother, and eventual heir, John, was able to rebuild much of the inheritance.

It is, in fact, unlikely that Henry Scrope was guilty of intending the deaths of Henry V and his brothers. It is much more reasonable to say that his offence amounted to Misprision of Treason at worst.


Complete Peerage, G.E. Cokayne

Henry IV of England, J.L. Kirby

1415, Ian Mortimer.

The Fears of Henry IV, Ian Mortimer

Henry V and the Southampton Plot, T.B. Pugh

The History of England Under Henry the Fourth, J.H. Wylie

This explains how closely the three rebels and Sir Ralph Scrope were related. Note that Sir William of Bracewell’s sons married two de Ros sisters and that the Bolton branch lived on into the seventeenth century although the Masham male line died out early in Henry VIII’s reign. Furthermore, Richard, Bishop of Carlisle, was Richard III’s cousin.

Sir Roger of Clarendon

It is not widely know that Richard II had a half-brother on his father’s side. This was Sir Roger of Clarendon, son of Edward of Woodstock ‘the Black Prince’ by one Edith de Willesford.

Roger was almost certainly older than Richard II. In 1372 he received an annuity from Edward III of £100. He was also married, but unfortunately his wife died in 1386, and there were no children. He does not appear to have married again.

Roger was left a silk bed in his father’s will. After the accession of Richard II, he became a Knight of the King’s Chamber. However, he does not appear to have attracted the attention of the King’s enemies in the upheavals of 1386-1388, so perhaps he was seen as a moderate, or was not regarded as a threat.

In 1398 a duel with another knight led to Roger being imprisoned. He obtained bail, but ran off when his opponent subsequently died, presumably because he thought he might be convicted of murder. This train of thought suggests he was not particularly close to Richard II, because a man in his position might reasonably expect a royal pardon for practically anything.

In 1402 he was arrested, accused of plotting against Henry IV. 1402 was a difficult year for Henry. Not only was the Glyndwr rising in full swing in Wales, but Edmund Mortimer had defected to the rebels. Henry even felt obliged to temporarily imprison a number of ladies on suspicion of treason – a rare event that hints at paranoia. Roger was linked to a conspiracy of certain friars to restore Richard II, who was still supposed to be alive in Scotland. His crime may have been nothing more than to believe his half-brother was alive and broadcast his opinion.

Roger was executed at Tyburn. So almost certainly by hanging, and quite possibly by the full sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering.



The Lion Rampant

History of England Under Henry IV, James Hamilton Wylie.

The Royal Household and the King’s Affinity 1360-1413, Chris Given-Wilson.

The Problem with ‘Usurpation’ (re-blogged from

With my long-standing interest in treason and usurpation, I was fascinated to see the video of the mock trial of the Magna Carta barons staged in the wonderful surroundings of Westminster Hall on 31 July 2015.* I use the term ‘Magna Carta barons’ loosely, and indeed the trial itself could address only one arbitrary, early point in the long journey of the development of that charter which eventually gained its famous title. This was the moment in time at which King John had, after much ducking and diving, sealed the charter in June 1215 and immediately reneged by getting Pope Innocent III to repudiate it.

Though doubtless there will be historians who disagree, I take it – as did the script of the trial – that King John had hitherto behaved in a manner so thoroughly unacceptable as to be termed tyrannical. In giving his judgement, The Hon. Stephen Breyer from the USA cited John Locke’s (albeit anachronistic) assessment that for his subjects to have the right to rebel, a king should be seen to have systematically refused to adhere to the law of the land. Of course no method of testing a king’s behaviour in a court of law existed in 1215, but for his rule to be considered truly tyrannical I think this criterion would be taken as read.

Legal frameworks of the time would have been governed by the weight of precedent, and certainly the judges at our mock trial took the view that John himself had been ‘made king’ by a legal process. This process included religious ceremonial with sacred oath-taking, not only oaths of allegiance but also the coronation oath sworn by the king himself. In consequence of King John’s breaching of the latter, the rebellious barons invoked a long-standing custom and – therefore – legal right known as diffidatio, i.e. they exercised the right of a free man to repudiate his oath of loyalty to his overlord for a justifiable reason. Underpinning this right of diffidatio was the recognition that fealty was a two-way street: that for a subject to keep his oath, the king must do the same.

In our modern age, when promises made are routinely broken, and ‘God-fearing’ is no longer a term to be taken literally, the significance of an oath sworn while invoking the presence of God is scarcely understood and seldom respected: consider the context of judicial process, which is one of the few surviving circumstances when such oaths are still routinely encountered (and routinely flouted). Yet in the Middle Ages, as I have tried to indicate in writings such as my Small Guide to the Great Debate, the process of oath-swearing was one of the pillars of mediaeval society. It was a crucial matter if either party abandoned their solemn oath.

The bonds of this mutual compact defined the relationship between king and subject, already long-established by the 13th century, and gradually developing throughout the ages. It is this promise on the part of the king that is most often forgotten in the cries of ‘usurper!’ that are so widely bandied about in relation to certain monarchs; and it is key to my repeatedly asserted argument that most often the term ‘usurpation’ is a misnomer that merely reflects the prejudices of the person using it.

In pre-Conquest England there was in place a history of election of kings by the Saxon equivalent of Parliament (the Witangemot), based on the fundamental requirement of the office to perform a mutually understood function: the defence of the realm and its people. This was gradually extended to include wider responsibilities, notably for the proper administration of justice. In return, the king was entitled to call upon his people to perform whatever was understood to be due to enable him to fulfil such responsibilities. The principle that the king had a duty to perform a job of work continued to be understood for many centuries, and it was only by analogy with succession from father to son in other areas of life that a similar expectation developed in relation to the throne. Although kings often tried to influence who succeeded them, there was never any ‘law of succession’.

Requirements such as embodying the fount of justice as well as the office of leader and commander throw a clear light on crises of succession like the deposition of Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI who fell short of expectations. An even more relevant case is that of the conflict between Stephen and Matilda. Matilda might be the only surviving legitimate issue of Henry I, but his decision to make her his heir was self-serving and ultimately catastrophic: she was not born into an age when a woman could don harness and lead an army in the field. Returning to the mock trial of the barons, a question raised by the presiding judge exemplifies an abiding misapprehension on this point. Why, asked the judge, did the barons in 1215 not choose to replace John with his son, Henry (later Henry III), then aged seven? The question answers itself when you are not blinded by the assumption that the crown was governed by some imagined law of father-to-son succession: in a time of turmoil and civil strife, when the very rule of the land needed to be taken into strong hands, what fool was going to opt for rule by a seven-year-old? That he was later able to succeed upon his father’s death (now aged nine) was principally a function of the abilities and virtues of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, his champion and Regent of England.

In 1399 a new dimension entered into the matter of the succession when Henry IV challenged Richard II for the crown and the latter abdicated, rather than defending his right to the death as would have been appropriate to the tradition of the warrior-king. Parliament was drawn into the front line in the disposition of the crown, going through the formal procedure of acknowledging the abdication of Richard and the succession of Henry. The new king is said to have publicly exhibited proof of his genealogy, but the record of the Rolls of Parliament is remarkably non-committal in regard to his descent, and much more specific as to the rewards of his victory over the ruinous former king:

‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I, Henry of Lancaster, claim this realm of England, and the crown with all its members and its appurtenances, inasmuch as I am descended by right line of the blood from the good lord King Henry the third, and through that right that God in his grace has sent me, with the help of my kin and of my friends in recovering it, which realm was at the point of ruin for lack of governance and destruction of the good laws.’ [Parliamentary Rolls of Mediaeval England, 1399 Part 1, vol. iii, pp.422-3.]

Here we have an echo of that same accusation as used by the barons against King John; and despite the fascinating arguments concerning precisely which line of royal descent Henry IV might have claimed, the salient point of this remarkable statement, as accepted and recorded by Parliament, was that God had favoured him in stepping in to avert the ruin of the realm. Had there existed a law of succession which stipulated primogeniture, there was in fact a royal descendant whose claim would have been superior to Henry’s: this was the young Mortimer heir Edmund, Earl of March, then the same age as the son of King John whom we encountered above. Clearly, when the option of the valorous and successful adult Henry was available, there was no support for the claims of a seven-year-old, however senior his line of descent. A child of that age, and one who lacked the support of a strong figure as Regent, ipso facto failed the basic qualification as warlord-cum-lawgiver.

It is also noteworthy that the childless Richard II, knowing that the succession to the crown was being eyed by his several uncles, had kept them guessing by naming alternative heirs at different times: another indication that primogeniture was not regarded as the primary criterion. Henry IV, once on the throne, tried to secure the succession to his line by statutory enactment in Parliament, but the view of Stanley Chrimes (in English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century, p.24) is that this was merely declaratory and did not determine the line of succession: it recognized but ‘did not create’ Henry’s title. By the same token, it made no general provision for a public law of succession.

Only in 1460, when Richard, Duke of York came to press his claim to the throne in opposition to Henry VI, was the emphasis on primogeniture brought to the fore. York’s claim depended on it wholly – it rested on his sharing the same senior line of descent as the Mortimer heir disenfranchised by Henry of Lancaster sixty years earlier. And although Parliament made several attempts to avoid passing judgement on the matter, when forced to reach a conclusion they decided in York’s favour. There were, of course, excellent reasons for striking the bargain that reduced Henry VI to a cipher, since his inept and compliant rule had bankrupted the crown and allowed England to degenerate into a smouldering civil war.

In the case of Henry IV, could the word ‘usurpation’ be applied? The historically literate answer is no. In 1399 Richard II had abdicated rather than defend his crown to the death, effectively abandoning the throne to the judgement of Parliament which accepted Henry of Lancaster’s argument that God had helped him rescue the realm from misgovernment and lawlessness. This echoed the complaints of the Magna Carta barons, namely that the king had resiled from his sacred oath to fulfil his responsibilities to his subjects. So by these standards, and as accepted by Parliament, Henry IV cannot be named a usurper in terms of the legal structure of the day.

It was only in 1460 that Richard, Duke of York secured a decision by Parliament which established primogeniture as an acknowledged criterion for the succession. How this criterion was applied in hindsight to the Lancastrian succession raises a thicket of legal questions, the untangling of which would take someone more expert in jurisprudence than me. Clearly York’s argument was that the first Lancastrian king was a usurper, and his statement to Parliament went into extensive genealogical detail to disprove Henry’s fanciful tale that his mother’s line of descent from Henry III was senior to the line of Edward III and Richard II. However, to this inexpert observer it seems that the Parliament of 1460 stopped short of disallowing the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty, which fits with their desire to reach a compromise with Henry VI. It would have been simpler, and in hindsight would have prevented much unrest and loss of life, if they had declared him a scion of a usurping line, but that would have meant deposing him. Perhaps their legal advisers balked at the idea of retrospective legislation. And York himself had always vowed himself Henry’s true subject. Whatever their reasoning, an accommodation was cobbled together which permitted Henry to keep his crown on condition that York was acknowledged as his heir apparent. I am tempted to suppose that the Lords in Parliament recognized that Henry’s mental capacity was dubious, and that it would be unrealistic to hold him to oaths he had sworn as a child which he probably no longer remembered or comprehended. Whichever way you look at it, although York’s claim of primogeniture was accepted, the deal of 1460 was unique to the prevailing circumstances; it could scarcely be regarded as a precedent, and indeed it permitted the line of Lancaster to cling to the view that theirs remained the rightful royal house of England.

Thus Parliament had signally failed to grasp the opportunity to codify any law that stipulated primogeniture (or anything else) as a qualification for the succession. As Stanley Chrimes commented, ‘It does indeed seem that no such public law existed. In the absence of a direct and competent heir, politics, not law determined the succession. Hence both judges and commons avoided the topic.’ [Op. cit. p.22.]

The effect was that however the royal family’s internal issues were decided, whether by themselves or by any outside agency, the situation remained as it was in 1215: that he who took on the sworn obligations of kingship would be held to account for how he performed them. And if he should be adjudged deficient, it was not usurpation but a necessary service to the kingdom to remove and replace him.

* For those of us who have crossed swords in the past with James Eadie, QC, there was a particular piquancy to his defeat on this occasion.

Lost in Southampton: Richard of Conisbrough


Richard of Conisbrough was Richard III’s grandfather on the paternal side. He is a shadowy figure, the last son of Edmund of Langley and his wife Isabella of Castile. Even his date of birth is uncertain, varying in different accounts by up to ten years. His father left him no inheritance, and there were rumours that Edmund and his eldest son suspected that Richard was not Langley’s child, but that of John Holland, with whom Isabella of Castile was known to have had an affair. (Some have suggested that this may account for the y-Dna mismatch between Richard and the current Beauforts, and this is a possibility, although it is far more likely it occurred somewhere in the past 16 Beaufort generations.)
At any rate, Richard was known to be the ‘poorest Earl’ due to his lack of income; he was his mother’s heir but monies due to be paid him came only irregularly after Richard II was deposed and Henry IV came to the throne. In 1408, he married Anne Mortimer in secrecy, without parental permission. It appears to have been a love match as Anne came with no particular wealth. With Anne, he had three children, the latter of whom was named Richard— he eventually became Duke of York, and the father of Edward IV and Richard III
When Anne Mortimer died in 1411, Richard of Conisbrough married the heiress Maud Clifford and swiftly had a daughter Alice.
Then in 1415, he fell in with a plot against the reigning Henry V shortly before the King was meant to sail to France for Agincourt. Along with Lord Scrope of Masham and Thomas Grey, he plotted to replace Henry with Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, Anne’s brother, who also had a strong claim to the throne. However, Edmund himself informed Henry, and the conspirators were arrested in Southampton after they had made several meetings. They seemed to have expected mercy, with a heavy fine…but no mercy was forthcoming from the stern Henry.


St Julien’s, resting place of Richard of Conisbrough

All three men were executed; Grey hanged, drawn and quartered; Scrope decapitated and his head sent to York; and Conisbrough executed by the headsman but allowed to ‘keep his head’ with him after death due to his royal ancestry. He was buried without ceremony in the tiny St Julien’s church, which formed part of the God’s House hospital. Dating from 1185, this chapel still stands in the shadow of a massive towered gateway, although it is in private hands and can only be viewed from the exterior.
So one may think Richard got his just dues for plotting against King Henry. But how serious was this plot? Was there even a plot at all? Professor Anne Curry has doubts as to its veracity as does historian T.B. Pugh. It is just as likely that Henry was simply removing a few disgruntled lords (Conisbrough had some reason to be disgruntled—he had been charged a 10,000 mark marriage fine) and sending a harsh warning to anyone who thought to defy him when he was away on campaign in France. The three plotters were not terribly organised and their supposed plots vague at best, and none of them seemed particularly supportive or loyal to Edmund of Mortimer, which may make it unlikely that they truly wanted him as king—apparently, they called him a hog and a pig!
So whatever the case, Conisbrough lost his life aged somewhere between the ages of 30 or 40, but luckily, because he was not attainted, he was able to pass on his estates to his orphaned son, four year old Richard. Shortly thereafter, Conisbrough’s elder brother died at Agincourt, and in due time young Richard was acclaimed as his heir and inherited his titles and lands.
Conisbrough is rather a forgotten figure, except as dealt with in a Shakespeare play. Despite the possibility he had done very little against Henry V other than grumble a bit with a few other northern lords, no one seems to mourn his execution overmuch…unlike, for instance Anthony Rivers, executed for treason by Richard III in 1483. There is certainly just as much if not more evidence that Rivers was plotting against the Duke of Gloucester on behalf of his Woodville kin; the fact that no one spoke up for him after his arrest speaks volumes. They had weeks to do so. But it seems, alas, Conisbrough did not have Rivers’ charisma…or write poetry.

Anne Curry: Agincourt-A New History
TB Pugh: Henry V and the Southampton Plot of 1415


Part 2 – For a kingdom any oath may be broken – York’s title 1460



This is an essay about the legitimacy of the duke of York’s title to the English crown. I am not going to delve into the duke’s motive for claiming the crown, or into the details of the rebellion that led to his claim. I have covered both these issues in previous posts on this site[1].

Who was the true king of England: the Lancastrian Henry VI or his cousin Richard duke of York? That was the question uppermost in the minds of the lords spiritual and temporal in parliament in the autumn of 1460.[2] They were debating this question because: “…In October the duke of York came over from Ireland to Westminster at the beginning of parliament and as soon as he had entered the upper chamber of the royal palace, where the lords spiritual and temporal were sitting, he approached the royal throne and claimed the seat as his own; he put forward an account of his descent from Lionel duke of Clarence, to whose successors, he said, the kingdom of England belonged, since he was the elder, rather than to the descendants of John duke of Lancaster, the younger brother from whom king Henry was descended.[3] It was a claim as dramatic as it was unexpected and parliament was fully occupied for three weeks discussing the duke’s lineage and his rights.

The outcome of their discussion was so disconcerting to the anonymous author of

‘A Short Latin Chronicle’ that he lapsed into English when writing about it: ”Wherefore the king understanding the said title of the said duke [to be] just, lawful, and true and sufficient by the advice and assent of his Lords spiritual and temporal and the commons in the parliament and by the authority of the same parliament, approves, ratifies, confirms and accepts the said title (as) just, good, lawful and thereunto gives his assent and agreement of his free will and liberty. And moreover it is said by advice and authority, declared, called, established, affirmed, and reputed that the said Richard duke of York (is) very true and rightful heir to the crown of England and France.”[4] Everything is in the duke’s favour except the outcome. His title to the throne is thrice lawful; the Lancastrians are thrice usurpers. Nonetheless, York is not to be crowned until after Henry is dead. It was a recipe for disaster.

York was ten years older than Henry and statistically, at least, unlikely to outlive him. More importantly, the queen and her disinherited son were still at large with an armed force, embittered and well able to oppose this Act of Accord. Not for the first time, nor for the last, an English parliament had managed to make a bad situation worse. The only royal settlement likely to subsist now was one settled on a battlefield. Moreover, the Act of Accord presents a constitutional conundrum. If parliament judged York’s title to be unbeatable, why did they not give effect to their judgment? And, if York believed in the truth and justice of his title, why did he agree to bend his knee to the usurping Henry? The answers to these questions lie in the politics of the day.

York’s Petition

York submitted his written claim on the 16 October 1460[5]. It had the virtue of simplicity, being based solely on his hereditary right of succession. The only evidence adduced was York’s lineage. The main thrust of his case was that in 1399, when king Richard II was deposed, Henry of Lancaster seized the throne, which more properly belonged to Edmund Mortimer earl of March who was descended (through his grandmother Philippa) from Lionel duke of Clarence the third son of king Edward III; whereas, Henry of Lancaster was descended from John duke of Lancaster the king’s fourth son.

The Lords’ objections

The king, who was consulted next day, requested the lords to state objections to Yorks claim.[6] The lords prevaricated. They asked the king’s justices for advice. The justices declined to give it on the grounds that the succession was above the common law, and beyond their jurisdiction and competence. The sergeants-at-law also refused to give their counsel; they argued that if the succession was too weighty for the king’s justices, it was surely above the sergeants’ learning and authority. It seems that only those of the blood royal, and the lords spiritual and temporal were qualified to solve this problem. Freedom of speech was allowed and each lord was to put forward whatever he could to strengthen the king’s title and to defeat York’s. Eventually, five objections were raised:

  • First, the lords were bound to remember the great oaths of fealty that they had sworn to the king. These oaths argued against York’s claim since they could not be broken.
  • Second, the great and noble acts of parliament (unspecified) made in various earlier parliaments could be used against York’s title. Being statutes, these acts carried far more authority than any chronicle and defeated any claim made by any person.
  • Third, similarly, the various entails (again unspecified) made by the heirs male with regard to the crown of England argued against Yorks title, as may appear in various chronicles and parliaments
  • Fourth, York did not bear the arms of Lionel duke of Clarence; and
  • Fifth, Henry succeeded to the throne as the heir of king Henry III, and not as a conqueror


York’s response to the objections

The matter of oaths was important, which is why it was the first objection. Although it did not go directly to the merit of York’s title, it was a considerable barrier to the success of his claim. The lords were concerned about two things. First, their own oaths of allegiance to Henry as king “by succession, borne to reign” and to his son Prince Edward, which they had sworn less than twelve months previously at Coventry. Second, they were reminding York of his own oaths of allegiance and obedience, and many protestations of loyalty made to the king over the last decade. The breaking of these oaths was not merely a religious impropriety; it was sinfulness, the breaking of God’s law. To be forsworn was to court eternal damnation.

York responded in kind. He acknowledged every man’s duty to uphold God’s law and Commandments. However, he distinguished between oaths that preserve truth and justice and oaths that promote untruth and injustice. The first kind is obedient to Gods law, which prefers truth and justice; whereas, the second kind is contrary to God’s law. Moreover, since no man can absolve himself from obedience to God’s law to uphold truth and justice and since the oaths referred to by the lords are of the second kind, they are void and of no effect. An oath of allegiance does not bind a man to do anything unfitting or unlawful.

Despite the spiritual views expressed by both sides, Yorks final sentence contained an unmistakable temporal message for the king and his lords. It was a principle York had expressed in an open letter to the king just before first St Albans (1455). Whilst emphasizing, yet again, that he and his followers are the king’s true liegemen ready to live and die in his service he added “…to do all things as shall like your majesty to command us, if it be to the worship of the crown and the welfare of your noble realm (my emphasis).” York was putting conditions on his loyalty and obedience. He was making an important distinction between the institution of ‘the crown’ and the person of the king, and between them both and the rights of the realm. The implication is that although ‘royal authority’ is vested personally in the king, he must behave in accordance with the accepted norms of English monarchs as expressed in the coronation oath that binds them all. York is also introducing the concept of the ‘realm’ of England as a political entity distinct from the monarchy. It has its own rights to which the crown is ultimately responsible. This was more than just a device to protect him from accusations of treason or ‘oath-breaking’; it represents a fundamental tenet of England’s constitution, which we see put most forcibly in Magna Carta.

The second and third objections raise a significant constitutional issue. The key question is whether the Act of 1406, which gave statutory recognition to Henry IV’s title, was the final authority on the issue of succession. The lords obviously thought so, since they argued that it was of an “ authority to defeat any kind of title made to any person”. Having pointed out correctly that the only statute or entail made by any parliament in the past was the Act of 1406, York based his case on two mutually supporting grounds. First, if Henry IV’s title were valid as claimed, he would neither have needed nor wanted statutory recognition of it. Second, his own title being true according to God’s law and natural law was imperishable, even though it had not been asserted earlier. Henry’s title, however, was pretense and in passing the statute, parliament had recognized a title that Henry was not entitled to. The Inheritance Act of 1406 was, therefore, ultra vires. From a constitutional perspective, this was an important development; the theory of a parliamentary title was being subordinated to a theory that God’s law of inheritance determined the succession. York was not impugning the authority of statutes generally; he was simply saying that even though a statute (or an entail) might be binding in normal circumstances, it could not stand against his divine right of inheritance[7].

On the fourth objection that York did not wear the livery of his ancestor Lionel, his answer was predictable. The fact that he didn’t wear that livery did not mean he was not entitled to. He did not wear it for the same reason he had forborn from claiming the crown earlier, and which reason was well known.

The last objection was that Henry took the throne as the rightful heir to Henry III and not as conqueror[8]. York rejected this objection outright. It is simply not true, he said, that Henry IV was the lawful heir to Henry III “…and the opposite, which is the truth shall be readily enough shown, proved and justified by adequate authority and as a matter of record”. He added that Henry’s words were fraudulent and meant to disguise his “…violent and unlawful usurpation” from the people.

The Act of Accord

The Official account of the lords’ “sad and ripe communicacion in this matere[9] is brief but illuminating. The tension at Westminster is palpable. Under pressure from York to bring the matter to a rapid conclusion, the Chancellor seems on the verge of panic. He is desperate for a result that will reconcile York’s ‘unbeatable’ title with the lords corporate obligation to protect the common weal of the realm, their personal duty to king Henry and their consciences. The Chancellor proposed that Henry should retain the crown during his lifetime and when he dies, York should succeed him. It is, the Chancellor suggests, a resolution that avoids the trouble that might ensue, saves the king’s honour, preserves his dignity and estate, and may appease the duke of York — if he agrees! It also means the lords will not have broken the oaths they swore to the king at Coventry. The Chancellors plaintive call for anybody with a better idea to come forward is testament to his despair; as also, is his plea that the lords should stand by him when he explains the situation to the king. For want of something better, the lords readily agree to this outcome.

In truth, there was no appetite to depose a crowned and anointed king who had reigned for thirty-eight years, no matter how grave were his faults[10]. Although the lords sympathized with York’s predicament, they regarded his claim as inopportune. Notwithstanding the legality of his title, he was unable to overcome fifteenth century realpolitik. It was further confirmation that the succession was a political and not a legal process. For the lords the overriding consideration was to preserve the peace of the realm. It is a consideration that ordinarily would protect them from accusations of inconsistency and bad faith; however, in reality they were simply evading the issue and not solving the problem. Only the complete destruction of the Queen’s party or the Yorkists had any hope of procuring an effective peace. Furthermore, the disinheritance of the Prince of Wales guaranteed the continuance of war.

The historical opinion of York’s behaviour is unforgiving. At the time, the Lancastrians depicted him as a hypocrite whose claim to the crown was based on personal ambition and not on the common interest. Many modern historians endorse that view and it is easy to understand why. He swore at least two oaths of allegiance to the king and one of allegiance and obedience, and he made numerous declarations of his loyalty; yet in the end, he tried to depose Henry. York’s integrity can only be defended by examining his motives, which is outside my scope. Therefore, I will not comment on these accusations save to add a health warning. Most, if not all, of this opinion is derived from Lancastrian propaganda. The Yorkist counter-claims are clearly set out in the many political manifestos they produced during the 1450’s. These contained Yorkist propaganda for sure, but a balanced view of what was happening is only possible by considering both sides of the argument.

That said, I do believe that York’s action in accepting the Act of Accord, and his motive for so doing have been misconstrued by some historians. Parliament, it seems, is absolved from acting inconsistently or in bad faith because they moved to preserve the peace; whereas York is denounced for doing the same thing.[11] It is a strange judgment that simultaneously acquits the lords and convicts York for keeping the peace.

He had “taken the moral high ground and promptly compromised” writes John Watts, adding that “under the terms of his own argument, Duke Richard could not bind himself to the deferment of his right during Henry’s lifetime: any oath to do so would be contrary to God’s law and hence null and void.” The professor adds with a flourish “what true king would agree to be subject to a usurper?[12] The notion that York was prevented from accepting the Act of Accord since, on his own argument, it was untruthful and contrary to God’s law, is a shallow one. It ignores the reality of York’s situation and does his argument on the matter of oaths a disservice. The succession cannot be considered in the vacuum of religious doctrine, moral rectitude or personal right. It is, I repeat, a political process, not a legal or religious one. From York’s perspective, this action had been forced on him by constitutional system that made it impossible for him to protest against the excesses of a corrupt and incompetent Lancastrian regime and the breakdown in law and order, without committing treason. York’s cause of action had never been against the king, but against those household servant and royal favourites who abrogated royal authority.

For ten years York championed the cause of good governance in the common interest but he had achieved nothing, other than a reputation as an incorrigible rebel. This was the opportunity to put both the will and the means for good governance in one person. There is no discord between his argument on oaths and his acceptance of a compromise. Whilst the Act of Accord fell short of his objective, it commanded the most support and was self evidently in the common interest. It would indeed have been contrary to God’s law for York to insist on the strict letter of his right at this time and against the wishes of the English lords. He realized he lacked the broad spectrum of support necessary to depose Henry. The change from being the king’s true liegeman to wanting to replace him was too much too soon even for many of York’s supporters. The fact that this desire for a peaceful outcome was futile is neither here nor there from York’s perspective. Since he could do nothing to guarantee the pacification of Lancastrian dissidence, he could at least ensure his own good intentions.

Ultimately, York’s challenge ended in failure. A successful strategy depended on speed and surprise ‘…a speedy coronation; the swift removal of Henry…’[13] Once York was forced to claim the throne rather than seize it, his enemies had time to concert their opposition to him. However, by establishing the superiority of his title over the Lancastrians, York paved the way for his son Edward to seize the throne in 1461.

[1] See Richard 3rd duke of York (2) ‘The king’s true liegeman’ – 10 February 2015; and (3) ‘The man who would be king’ 8 March 2015

[2] Chris Given-Wilson (Ed) – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England (Boydell Press 2005): Anne Curry and Rosemary Horrox (Eds) Volume 12 pp. 509-510 (introduction) and 516 to 521 (PROME). York claimed the throne on the 10 October 1460. His written petition to parliament was read aloud on the 16 October 1460. It was the petition that the Lords spiritual and temporal were considering.

[3] Nicholas Cox and John Cox – The Crowland Chronicle Continuations (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986) p111.

[4] James Gairdner- Three Fifteenth Century Chronicles (The Camden Society 1880) pp.170-71; the full title of the ‘Latin chronicle’ is ‘Compilatio de gestus Britonum et Anglorum’ (MS Arundel 5 College of Arms).

[5] PROME Vol 12, ibid: see also Margaret Lucille Kekewich et al (eds.) – The Politics of Fifteenth Century England: John Vale’s Book (Allan Sutton Publishing 1995) p 195 (ff.130v–134/111v–115. The title and claim of the crown by Richard duke of York in the 39th year of king Henry VI))

[6] PROME Vol 12, ibid; the lords spiritual and temporal were commanded to find “…the strongest objections to defend the king’s right and title and to defeat the title and claim of the said duke of York.”

[7] SB Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the 15th Century (Cambridge 1936) pp.27-30. This paragraph is based on Professor Chrimes’ lucid and succinct explanation, which has stood the test of time.

[8] The lords were wrong; Henry also claimed the throne as conqueror.

[9] PROME Vol 12; ibid

[10] Unlike, the deposition of Edward II, and the deposition of Richard II, there was no case against Henry VI of willful incompetence or tyranny. In fact he seems to have been a good, almost saintly, man personally. A regency government could have adequately managed during his periodic spells of mental infirmity.

[11] PROME, Vol 12 p 524. It is quite clear from the Parliamentary Roll that York accepted the compromise to preserve the peace.

[12] John Watts – Polemic and Politics in the 1450’s; Margaret Lucille Kekewich et al (Eds) – The Politics of Fifteenth Century England: John Vale’s Book (Allan Sutton Publishing 1995) at page 34; see also P A Johnson – Duke Richard of York 1411-1460 (Oxford1991 corrected edition) pp. 212-219.

[13] Watts at p35.


Part 1-– Necessitas non habet leger – The Lancastrian title 1399


I am not arguing that Henry IV usurped the crown in 1399. That judgment has already been made and hardly challenged since the fifteenth century[1]. Neither will I rehearse the reasons for king Richard II’s downfall in 1399; they are already well enough known. My sole purpose in this essay is to make a few observations about an emerging historical debate concerning the true basis of Henry of Lancaster’s title to the throne.

The issue turns primarily on the meaning of Henry’s declaration to the quasi parliament that assembled on the 30 September 1399. According to contemporary sources, once bishop Asaph had declared the throne vacant, Henry rose from his seat, blessed himself and stepped towards the empty throne, which he claimed by right of inheritance (de jure), by conquest (de facto) and by the will of God. His claim is recorded in the Parliamentary Roll for the October 1399 parliament. This is what is written (modern spellings): “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I, Henry of Lancaster challenge this realm of England and the crown with all the members and the appurtenances, as I that am descended by right line of the blood coming of the good lord Henry the third, and through that right that God of his grace has sent me with help of my kin and of my friends to recover it, the which realm was in point to be undone for default of governance and undoing of the good laws. ” These words form part of the ‘Record and Process’, which is a Lancastrian memorandum describing their version of Richard II’s dethronement. It was incorporated into the Parliamentary Roll (PR) as a matter of official record[2]. Any examination of this aspect of PR has to deal with two important preliminary questions. First, how far is the official account to be trusted? Second, was it Henry’s intention to seek parliamentary approval of his title?

Can the official account be trusted?

Professor E F Jacob describes the Lancastrian  account as “…tendentious and in certain material respects erroneous”.[3] And it is certainly contradicted by independent chronicle accounts. One eyewitness to the September gathering quotes Henry as actually claiming the throne, as the “nearest male heir and worthiest blood descendant of the good king Henry the third…”[4] Such a significant difference between the PR and the Chronicles requires explanation. The Record and Process part of the PR was almost certainly drafted by lawyers in the Lancastrian interest. Their intention was to justify Henry’s claim and disguise the profanity of deposing an anointed king and usurping the rights of Richard’s heir. The draftsman undoubtedly took great care over the wording of Henry’s claim and title to the crown, since the issue was a complex one and his title was doubtful. However, the fact that this is probably not what Henry actually said in September is immaterial; the PR represents the official, mature and considered Lancastrian position and even historians cannot go behind it in order it to absolve Henry from having usurped the crown.

We can be reasonably sure that If Henry of Lancaster had possessed an unequivocal title as heir male to Henry III it would have been recorded explicitly in the Roll. The fact that it isn’t suggests that in the interval between the September assembly and Henry’s first parliament wise counsel had prevailed on him to tone the claim down. The legitimacy of Henry’s title was still doubted by some lords, who were perhaps uncomfortable with such a bold and controversial proclamation of his hereditary right. These doubters needed to be pacified. Even Henry’s principal northern supporters, the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland, had misgivings about dethroning Richard and were certainly (at first) thinking of Mortimer as his legitimate heir should the circumstances arises. It was in Henry’s best interest to keep the precise nature of his hereditary title ambiguous. It affected not only his right to the English throne but also the English claim to the French throne.[5] In the lawyers’ opinion there was virtue in obfuscating this claim. And that, according to Chris Given-Wilson,[6] is exactly what the draftsman of the Record and Process achieved.

S B Chrimes thinks that actually it is a very clever combination of claims since it conceals the weakness of his de jure title by paying lip service to it, “…without committing himself to any definition of what constituted a legally complete title.[7] Although the words ‘right line of blood’ imply a distinction between the ‘right’ line and the wrong line, Henry shrewdly, did not define the ‘right line’. The point being that these words could mean almost anything Henry wanted them to mean. The weakness of Henry’s hereditary title can also be gauged by the necessity to claim the crown on the additional grounds of conquest (cleverly disguised as being in defence of hereditary rights) and God’s will. K B McFarlane’s judgement is that Henry lacked a convincing de jure title; however, whilst his accession could never be regular, with some clever jiggery-pokery, “it could be made to look less illegal.”[8]

What was Henry’s intention?

The problem with this question is that the answer relies less on the facts than on the interpretation of his motives and intentions from the circumstances. The notion of a parliamentary solution would suggest a separation of character between the king and parliament, which is contrary to our understanding of their constitutional relationship in the fourteenth century. Besides, the assembly that gathered on the 30 September 1399 was not a parliament. It was a meeting of those who normally constituted a parliament, gathered in Westminster Hall to witness Richard’s abdication.[9]

Stubbs’ Victorian notion that Henry was a constitutional monarch[10] no longer holds sway with many historians. K B McFarlane is particularly critical of Stubbs’ assessment: “ Yet even in the ‘Record and Process’ there is no basis for supposing that Henry desired a parliamentary title in Stubbs’ sense. Henry neither owed his position to Parliament nor wished it to be thought that he did. He claimed the throne by right; acceptance of that claim was the most he expected of parliament.[11] Neither is there much evidence of ‘election’. Notwithstanding their obvious misgivings, the Lords accepted Henry’s accession, without comment. Henry’s personal challenge (‘I challenge this realm of England’) could not be taken up for obvious reasons. There can be no disguising the fact that it was the use of armed force and deception that had got Henry to Westminster in September, ready, willing and able to seize the crown. Notwithstanding that, he was regarded as the best man to restore good governance to the realm and England’s greatness. The English did not want another child king, or a weak old man to reign over them.

Heir male or heir general?

Seen in that light, the theories concerning the literal meaning of Henry’s declaration take on a different aspect. There are basically two theories; the first is that Henry’s words ‘by right line of blood’ were a reference to his matrilineal line from Edmund earl of Lancaster, called ‘Crouchback’.[12] This is, a Historians argument in the sense that it is based on a particular interpretation of his words and the circumstances. Henry’s words are ambiguous and he did try to exploit the Crouchback legend as a lever to gain the throne[13]. I think this theory is implausible for two reasons. First because it does not necessarily follow logically that the absence of a specific claim as ‘heir male’ automatically means the opposite. Second and more importantly, such a claim would be absurd. Nobody has been able to satisfactorily explain why Henry, despite robust legal advice to the contrary, would make a claim that he and everyone else knew was untrue and anyhow was inferior to Mortimer’s.

Second, we have what I would call a ‘lawyer’s case’. It is the antithesis of the Crouchback theory and is also based on a particular interpretation of Henry’s words. As Ian Mortimer’s points out, Henry of Lancaster was descended from Henry III through both his father and his mother, and: “a statement that [he] was heir to Henry III implies nothing more than that he claimed the throne from one (or both) of these two descents.”[14] Although Dr Mortimer’s understanding as there stated is unarguable, it is, nonetheless, testament to the equivocality of Henry’s title as set out in the PR. Furthermore, in my opinion, Dr Mortimer moves too quickly to the conclusion that Henry was referring to his descent as heir male to Henry III. That is equally improbable because it also is untrue. It could only be made true if Henry successfully overturned the history of the English succession, and conceded that the exercise of royal authority was subject to parliamentary approval.[15]

No king of England if not king of France

Dr Mortimer is, in fact making a hypothetical legal case that Henry never actually made at the time, and for good reason. It turns on two points of law. First, that a woman could not inherit the crown or transmit any title to her children. Second, that all the entails made by previous kings were unlawful because parliament was not consulted.[16] However, the facts are against him.  On the first point: two English kings (including, by the way, the progenitor of the Plantagenet dynasty) inherited the crown through the female line.[17] Furthermore, Edward I’s entail of 1290 made it impossible for Henry to either assert or to demand male domination of the crown.[18]  All these decisions demonstrate the fallacy to treating the succession as a matter of law. It is a political process and the settlements and entails of kings have all been made for political reasons.

On the second point, it is inconceivable that Henry would have been prepared to compromise his royal authority by submitting his will on the succession to parliament for approval. Henry was a legitimist not a constitutionalist and putting such power in the hands of parliament was against everything he believed in. Henry’s legal rights (such as they were) cannot be applied in a vacuum that ignores the realpolitik of the times. The notion that Henry wanted a ‘legal’ title is too simplistic. He wasn’t after a legal title per se. If he merely wanted a title that was legal then parliament could easily have given him one by constitutional election. The problem with that solution is that it would change the fundamental relationship between the king and his subjects. It was tantamount to recognising parliament’s power to hire and fire kings, which in the fourteenth century was something only God could do. No medieval king would voluntarily put himself at the mercy of parliament in such a way. It cannot be emphasized too much that Henry claimed the throne by divine hereditary right; all he required parliament to do was to accept that fact. As it happens, that is exactly what they did.[19] The strength of Henry’s declaration was in its precise ambiguity. It said neither too much nor too little; it neither inferred too much nor too little. It brilliantly preserved the fiction of parliamentary approval without in any way fettering royal authority or changing the constitutional relationship between the king and his parliament.

In addition, Henry had to maintain his claim to the French throne. If he  overturned previous English precedents enabling  women to pass on a regal title  to their children, it would undermine the credibility  of the English matrilineal claim to the French throne.  It was an issue that didn’t just affect the king. Most , if not all English nobility owned estates in France.The dual kingdom of England and France was not only the best way for them to protect their  estates, it offered the opportunity to increase them. The thought  that owing to their gender  the king’s heir might  inherit the French throne but not the English one,  did not bear thinking about. Basic common sense suggested an equitable settlement was necessary.

Necessitas non habet leger [20]

If Henry IV’s subjects thought he was the man to restore good government and  to restore England’s greatness, they were to be sadly disappointed. His was indeed a ‘reign of two halves’. In the first half there was rebellion; in the second half came debilitating illness. However in 1406,  necessity proved to be the mother of invention. The continuous rebellions, and the underlying threat from Edmund Mortimer drove him to seek a permanent parliamentary solution. The ‘Act for the Inheritance of the Crown’ [21] was meant secure the Lancastrian succession forever. It recognised, but did not create, Henry’s hereditary title and settled the throne exclusively down the male Lancastrian line. Professor Chrimes is uncertain whether this was making new law or simply confirming old law; but it really doesn’t matter, since the existence of a statutory title took the succession out of God’s hands without necessarily putting into parliaments. Ultimately, it all came to nought for Henry since the ‘Act for the Inheritance of the Crown’ was repealed before the end of the parliament in which it had been passed. It was replaced with a similar act, confirming that the throne could be inherited down male and female lines. Even by modern standards of flexible policy making, this was some U-turn[22]. However, as we shall see the tide of legitimism was running strong. Sixty-one years after Henry’s usurpation a statutory Lancastrian title could not stand in the face of a claim by one with an indefeasible right of inheritance. But that, as they say, is another story…

[1] There were three candidates for the crown in 1399. Edmund Mortimer, earl of March was descended through his mother from Lionel of Antwerp the third son of Edward III; whereas Henry of Lancaster’s father was John of Gaunt duke of Lancaster and fourth son to Edward III. The other candidate was Edmund of Langley duke of York and Edward’s fifth son. Mortimer had the best lineal title. Henry of Lancaster was the mob’s choice and Edmund was too old. Henry’s act of usurpation was not in deposing Richard II, but in  seizing the throne ahead of Mortimer.

[2] Chris Given-Wilson – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England: Chris Given-Wilson (ed) (The Boydell Press 2005) Vol 8, pp. 11-62. The ‘Record and Process’ occupies about one-third of the Roll record for this parliament. [PROME]

[3] E F Jacob –The Fifteenth Century (Oxford 1987 edition) at page 13. See also PROME Vol 8, pp. 11-62. For example, the Lancastrian account that Richard abdicated voluntarily is not supported by all independent contemporary accounts. The alternative version is that the king was taken prisoner and forced to abdicate. See Chris Given-Wilson – Chronicles of the Revolution (Manchester 1993).

[4] Chris Given-Wilson considers it doubtful that the Roll version contained Henry’s actual words. See Chronicles of the Revolution at page 45 citing the ‘ The Manner of King Richard’s Renunciation’ [Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 59 ff 230v-231]. The relevant portion of MS 59 can be found in ‘Chronicles’ at document 16 pp.162-167. See also Ian Mortimer – Medieval Intrigues: decoding royal conspiracies (Continuum 2010) p 298. Mortimer cites two other sources (the continuation of the Eulogium [p383] and an English Chronicle [Davies ed, English Chronicle p18]). In general terms these sources also suggest that Henry claimed the throne as ‘heir male’ to Henry III.

[5] The English kings’ title to the French throne was matrilineal. There was an awkward inconsistency in arguing a male hegemony for the English throne whilst claiming title to the French throne through the female line.

[6] PROME Vol 8 at page p3. Given-Wilson describes Henry’s claim as ambiguous and obsfucatory; “an uneasy compound of inexactly defined hereditary right, de facto conquest and alleged inadequacy…”

[7] S B Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge 1936), pages 24 and 25.

[8] K B McFarlane – Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (Oxford1998 SE) at p57

[9] Jacob – Fifteenth Century pp.16 and 17; Jacob quotes from ‘B Wilkinson – The deposition of Richard II and the accession of Henry IV (Eng Hist Rev liv p220) and discusses the constitutional relationship between the king and parliament, especially parliaments advisory role in matters of state and law at this time.

[10] W. Stubbs- Constitutional History of England (Oxford 1890). Stubbs placed his faith in the integrity of the Record and Process memorandum when assessing Henry’s title.

[11] See McFarlane – Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights pp. 56 and 57.

[12] There was a myth that Edmund earl of Lancaster was the first-born son of Henry III and therefore the heir apparent (He was called Crouchback because he wore the symbolic cross of a crusader on the back of his surcoat. He did not have a crooked back as some suppose). However, due to an (unspecified) infirmity, Edmund was passed over in the order of succession in favour of his brother Edward (later Edward I). The legend was complete nonsense. Edward was born in 1339, his sister Margaret was born in 1340 and Edmund did not arrive until 1345. We know from Adam of Usk’s eyewitness chronicle that Henry tried to exploit the Crouchback myth as a lever to gain the throne [See the Chronicles of the Revolution at pp. 157-161]. The emergence of the Crouchback mythology can be traced at least as far back as 1394 when John of Gaunt petitioned Parliament to have his son Henry Bolingbroke nominated as Richard’s heir, apparently on the grounds of his matrilineal descent from Edmund Crouchback. However, the evidence is inconclusive. We can, however, be sure that in 1399 Henry commissioned an inquiry into the claim that Edmund Crouchback was Henry III’s first-born son (See Chronicles of the revolution at page 196 and Michael Bennett – Richard II and the revolution of 1399 (Sutton 2006) at p61). The Inquiry’s conclusion was unequivocal; the Crouchback story was untrue.

[13] See L J F Ashdown-Hill – The Lancastrian claim to the throne (Ricardian, Vol 13, 2005) at page 27. Dr Ashdown-Hill’s article is intended to show that Henry VII’s claim to be the last Lancastrian heir is untrue (which it is). However, his suggestion that Henry IV claimed the throne from his ancestor Edmund Crouchback is merely an assumption. It is not a fact.

[14] See Ian Mortimer – Fears of Henry IV (Vintage 2008), pp. 183-86; York or Lancaster: who was the rightful heir to the throne in 1460? (Ricardian Bulletin autumn 2008) pp. 20-24, with subsequent correspondence. See also ‘Medieval Intrigues’, chapters 8 and 9, and ‘York or Lancaster’ a rejoinder (Ricardian Bulletin, spring 2009) pp. 44 and 45.

[15] Henry could not agree to this without weakening the whole concept of Royal authority.

[16] See ’Fears’ p 369. Dr Mortimer asserts that that on the 30 September 1399, the assembled Lords Spiritual and Temporal, removed the right of kings to choose their successor by voting for Henry as their king from the three candidates proffered: Mortimer, York and Henry, and because Henry’s title was ratified in 1406, in parliament. His conclusion that “ This then was the basis of the Lancastrian claim in 1399: that only males could inherit the throne and all attempts by previous kings to settle the inheritance without consulting parliament were without any basis in law and thus void.” does no more than beg the question.

[17] The civil war of 1135-1154 arose principally because king Henry I died in 1135, leaving only his daughter Matilda as heir. Henry obviously had no objection in principle to a woman succeeding to the throne and reigning in her own right, since he nominated Matilda as his successor.   In 1127 he forced the Anglo-Norman nobility to swear an oath supporting her succession. However, Matilda was wholly unacceptable to the barons. Their objection seems to have been less  to women in general succeeding to the throne than a specific objection to this woman succeeding. Matilda was unpopular due to her ‘Germanic’ ways and haughty demeanour. The Norman barons also hated her for her anti-Norman activities and her marriage to their archenemy Geoffrey count of Anjou. They feared French influence at the English court. Stephen, whose title came through his mother Adela, was able with the consent of the barons to seize the throne ‘in the twinkling of an eye’. There is a remarkable similarity between the Treaty of Winchester in 1153, and the Act of Accord agreed in 1460 between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. In 1153, the Norman king Stephen remained de facto king during his lifetime, whilst the Frenchman Henry of Anjou (Henry II) was his de jure heir, having inherited Matilda’s title to the English throne. In 1460, Henry VI remained de facto king during his lifetime, whilst York was recognized as his de jure heir. On both occasions the de facto king’s own heir was bypassed in the succession, and on both occasions the de jure heir’s title was matrilineal. The treaty of 1153 bought peace; the Act of Accord of 1460 bought civil war.

[18] Ian Mortimer – Medieval Intrigues at p286. Edward planned to marry his daughters Joan, Margaret and Eleanor to foreign royalty in 1290. Making them all eligible to inherit and rule in their own right, and to pass on the throne to their children, was a powerful inducement for their foreign royal suitors  to make the match. In the end, it didn’t matter; Edward of Caernarvon succeeded his father as Edward II. Whilst he was demonstrably imperfect, Edward II still managed to sire the perfect king — Edward III.

[19] Henry was able to get away with such a obviously dubious claim because it was not the issue uppermost in the lords’ minds. They were much too concerned about the legality of deposing a crowned and anointed monarch and the consequences of doing that to pay much attention to the legitimacy of Henry’s title.

[20] Necessitas non habet leger. It means ‘necessity has no law’ and Henry wrote those words on a signet letter in 1403. It is a saying that encapsulates his ruthless ambition to legitimize the Lancastrian dynasty. His desire for a hereditary title was all consuming.

[21] See Statutes 7, Henry IV, c 2; and PROME, Vol 8 pp. 341-348 and 354-357, articles 38 and 60.

[22] PROME Vol 8 p324. Given-Wilson suggests that the change was probably made because at the time Henry IV was negotiating with the French for the Prince of Wales to marry one of Charles VI’s daughters. The French clearly did not like the idea that any daughter borne to the union would be barred from the English succession.

Why lineage still matters in battle

The crown of England, among others, has often been claimed in battle or by other forceful means. However, to exercise such a claim, it is necessary to persuade a challenger’s military followers that he has a dynastic claim of sorts, even when this is greatly exaggerated or totally spurious.

Thus William I, the Conqueror or Bastard, was the great-nephew of Emma of Normandy, wife of two earlier English kings ( Ethelred II and Cnut) and there was arguably no suitable adult male from the House of Wessex. Stephen (of Blois) was Henry I’s cousin when the latter had died without a legitimate male heir. Henry IV wrested the crown from Richard II when the latter was childless with a pre-pubescent second wife, whilst the Mortimer who was Richard’s heir had died the previous year allowing his young son to be leapfrogged. Edward IV was the senior Mortimer descendant and thus Richard II’s heir, whilst Henry VII’s claim is far more difficult. Jane (Grey), supported by her father and father-in-law, was nominated in Edward VI’s will, even though Henry VIII’s legislation trumped this, preferring Mary I. William III was both nephew and son-in-law to James VII/II before he caused the latter to lose his nerve completely and flee.

Two of these cases deserve further scrutiny. At his 1413 death, Henry IV must have thought he had accomplished his mission. He left four healthy sons and he could reasonably have expected them to have families of their own but two of these lines failed completely, a third possibly had two children legitimised and the fourth left a baby to reign as Henry VI. The mental instability and total unsuitability of the latter to his royal duties would not have been a problem in a larger legitimate family but it was. By the time that he and his son died in 1471, the House of Lancaster proper (descended from Blanche, Duchess in suo jure and Henry IV’s mother) was extinct save for the mainly foreign offspring of its heiresses.
So, in the absence of any true Lancastrian heirs in England, the claim somehow devolved upon the great-grandson of the first Earl of Somerset, conventionially recorded as Henry IV’s half-brother, who was also the grandson of Henry V’s widow. The future Henry VII’s royal descent has been open to question on two counts recently. It was certainly inferior to that of the House of (Mortimer) York and to the Portuguese royal house of the time. There is no doubt, however, that he, his father and uncle were Lancastrian-inclined in a political sense whatever their lineage and that this thin or non-existent lineage was spun continually, representing him as a son of Henry VI at one stage.
Ironically, the 13th Earl of Oxford, the commander to whom Henry owes his victory, was of unquestionable royal ancestry – through Joan of Acre, daughter of Edward I.

520 years ago yesterday

This should be considered along with:
Edmund Mortimer’s service in Ireland before the Southampton Plot,
Richard Duke of York as Lord Lieutenant in the 1440s/50s, where George of Clarence was born,
The coronation of “Lambert Simnel” in Dublin, to be clarified next month.

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