One of the main reasons we now have an amazing King in the list of British monarchs is without doubt the precontract between Lady Eleanor Talbot and King Edward IV.
The turning point in the election of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as king of England was the discovery of a precontract between the former king and the representative of the noble and powerful family of the Shrewsburys.
Everything started in the early summer of 1460 when Eleanor and Edward met for the first time. She was 24, he was just 18. Edward fell in love with her and she was captivated by the charming new King. It seems that he had promised to marry her after bedding her and the wedding took place in secret, possibly in the spring of 1461 in the presence of Canon Robert Stillington who, on 1st November of the same year, was awarded by Edward an annual salary of £365 (around £235,000 today!). That was a regular contract of marriage so why do we refer to it as a precontract? The answer is that the term precontract has to be accepted with all the implications it had in medieval times: that is neither more nor less than an actual marriage. Precontract does not mean a “betrothal” but it is a legal term to indicate a marriage contract and it becomes a precontract only when a second marriage is arranged for one member of the couple while still married to the previous spouse. So the term precontract does not mean a contract arranged before a marriage but a contract arranged before a subsequent marriage. It is important to clarify this key point to fully understand the reason Richard, Duke of Gloucester, could become King Richard III.
If we consider the succession of events in the life of Edward IV, it is easier to understand why his brother, Richard, was the true and legitimate heir to the throne of England.
Edward IV married Eleanor Talbot with a regular contract of marriage. The nature of this marriage was a secret one, so the sources we have cannot be contemporary but date to about twenty years later. When Edward married Elizabeth Woodville (possibly on 1st May 1464), Eleanor was still alive even though retired as a tertiary of the Carmelite Priory in Norwich. This implies that the second marriage of Edward was adulterous. It also means that the second contract was invalid and Edward was a bigamist. This invalidity could not be changed by the death of the first wife before any children of the second marriage had been born, so there is no justification for Edward’s behaviour and it is undeniable that the consequence of the precontract was the immediate bastardisation of all the issue of the marriage between him and Elizabeth Woodville. The validity of a marriage depended on the existence of a contract, not on the birth of children so it didn’t matter that Edward and Elizabeth had ten children, both boys and girls. The fact that Edward V and Richard of York were born after the death of Eleanor Talbot (she died on 30th June 1468) is not relevant because they were offsprings of an invalid marriage, ergo the king’s bastard sons.
The precontract was known to the Council thanks to the witnessing of Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells. He claimed he had celebrated the wedding of Edward and Eleanor and this declaration could be a factor in his arrest in 1478 as, apparently, the bishop had previously revealed the secret marriage to George, Duke of Clarence, who afterwards claimed to be the true heir to the throne. On 8th June 1483, Stillington unveiled the precontract’s existence to the Council during a meeting at which Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was not present. The possible reason for his absence could be that Stillington had already informed Richard about the precontract.
Many wonder if there was written proof of the precontract’s existence but so far nothing has been found and it is very unlikely anything will come to light. The first reason for this is that it is possible every proof in favour of Richard’s legitimacy to the crown was destroyed by the Tudors to strengthen their very weak claim to the English throne, and second because no proof of evidence was normally produced to invalidate a marriage. The authority of a bishop’s word was enough both for the Council and Church to accept the precontract as a fact. A false declaration for a man of God in medieval times was a warrant of eternal damnation in Hell. From then on, the Council started to consider Richard of Gloucester as the successor to his brother and the approval of the three Estates of Parliament to declare Richard king is proof of this. Edward V signed his last official document on 9th June 1483.
For centuries, historians have investigated the person of Robert Stillington and his role in the events of that crucial year, looking for a possible proof of bribery from Gloucester and Stillington’s corruption. This has been in vain. Nothing that could prove either or both has been found and Richard III never rewarded Stillington for his key role in his accession to the throne. Stillington was eventually handed over to Henry VII and died in prison after having being involved in the plot to place Lambert Simnel on the throne.
Other additional elements that could indicate the existence of the precontract were the fact that Edward IV declared public his marriage with Elizabeth Woodville only in September 1464, a couple of months after the death of Joan, Eleanor’s sister-in-law (possibly a witness of the first marriage?). Other elements are the sources. Over the centuries, historians have tried to give their personal opinions on the matter and many convey that the precontract was indeed a fact.
The Crowland Chronicle and the Titulus Regius state that Eleanor Talbot was indeed Edward’s wife and the Crowland writer uses the word matrimonium referring to the two of them. No source refers to Eleanor as Edward’s mistress.
… has been contracted between Princess Beatrice of York and property developer Count Edoardo Mapozzi. Unlike the cases of her sister and cousins the Dukes of Cambridge and Sussex, we cannot easily trace a common ancestor for the couple.
Of course, despite those who still claim that Edward IV’s 1461 secret marriage didn’t happen, Louis XIV, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Andre Previn and Ed Sheeran have all done so. One historian must be so frustrated at being unable to write about them.
Recently I came across an interesting article on Royal Central listing all the Queens who had anniversaries relevant to June-births, deaths, coronations, marriages and the start of their reigns. However, I did notice a couple of things in it that I would query–an error and an omission.
First the error. The article mentions that Elizabeth Woodville, who died on June 8, 1492, having been packed off to Bermondsey Abbey, was the first ‘non-royal’ Queen of England. In fact, she was not. Most of the Queens were not themselves royal but children of the nobility–the daughters of Counts and Earls. Elizabeth’s father was not titled at the time of her birth, so she was neither a princess nor of the nobility, but she did actually have some royal English ancestry through her mother, Jacquette of Luxembourg, daughter of Peter, Count of St Pol, who was descended on her father’s side from Henry III via his daughter Beatrice of England, and on her maternal side from King John via his daughter Eleanor of England.
The omission is Lady Eleanor Talbot, the probable first wife of marry-secretly-in-haste Edward IV who died died sometime in June 1468. Even if you don’t believe in the pre-contract, despite considerable circumstantial evidence including Edward mysteriously paying for repairs of the church in the village where Lady Eleanor held the manor and handing out loaves of bread to each villager, she should have been mentioned even if only as a ‘disputed’ consort.
If Lord Guildford Dudley, husband of the short-reigning Jane (Grey) can get a mention as ‘disputed’ on the Wiki entry about Consorts, Eleanor, I think, deserves at least that much! (Sudeley Castle, which has connections to Lady Eleanor through her Boteler marriage has now embraced her story and has a display about her–hurrah!)
There are other ‘disputed’ consorts later in history, of course, as listed comprehensively in John Ashdown-Hill’s book Royal Marriage Secrets, and even other bigamous marriages. Most interestingly, perhaps, is the second wedding of Henry VIII, Edward’s think-alike grandson, to Anne Boleyn–he “married” her in a secret ceremony BEFORE his annulment from Katherine of Aragon was finalised… (And people still somehow imagine Edward couldn’t possibly have done much the same?)
UPDATED POST ON sparkypus.com A Medieval Potpourri https://sparkypus.com/2020/06/01/ralph-boteler-lord-sudeley-father-in-law-to-lady-eleanor-talbot/
The arms of Ralph Boteler, Lord of Sudeley ..
Take a trip to the lovely Cotswold town of Winchcombe and there you will find Sudeley Castle. Some of those that lived in the castle are well known such as Queen Catherine Parr and the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey. Their stories are well documented elsewhere and I won’t touch upon them here as I want to focus on an earlier owner Ralph Boteler, Lord of Sudeley who was born around 1393 and was to become father-in-law to Lady Eleanor Boteler, or Butler as she is more commonly called, nee Talbot. Eleanor was married to Ralph’s son Thomas.
Ralph, from aristocratic stock, led an illustrious life. He had rebuilt Sudeley after fighting in the France where its most likely he would have met John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, Eleanor’s father. Among the titles he held were Baron Sudeley, Captain of Calais, Lord high Treasurer of England and Chamberlain of the King’s Household. He was also a generous benefactor to St Peter’s Church, in Winchcombe, enabling it to be rebuilt in 10 years after the earlier church fell into disrepair.
John Talbot, lst Earl of Shrewsbury – father to Eleanor Butler nee Talbot. Both `John and Ralph fought in France.
As Eleanor was only a child of about 13 when she married Thomas, who was a fair bit older than her at about 28, their marriage would not have been consummated immediately and therefore she would have lived with her in-laws at Sudeley for the first few years of her marriage. It would seem an affection grew between her and her father in law, for later, after the death of Thomas, it would appear that she either persuaded her second, and secret husband, the young Edward IV to act generously towards her former father in law, or he did so to make his new bride happy for, within 6 months of the secret marriage, which took place around February 1461, Edward issued a grant – ‘exemption for life of Ralph Botiller, knight, Lord of Sudeley, on account of his debility and age from personal attendance in council or Parliament and from being made collector assessor or taxer….commissioner, justice of the peace, constable, bailiff, or other minister of the king, or trier, arrayer or leader of men at arms, archers, or hobelers. And he shall not be compelled to leave his dwelling for war’. Three months later Edward further granted ‘Ralph four bucks in summer and six in winter within the king’s park of Woodstock’ ( 1 ) Sadly all this good will evaporated on the death of Eleanor in 1468. Historian John Ashdown-Hill has described this volte-face as a ‘hostility’ resulting in Ralph having to surrender his properties, including Sudeley, which went in the main, to the voracious relatives of his new and bigamous ‘wife’, Elizabeth Wydeville. For following a pardon granted to Ralph on the 17 December 1468 when two properties Griff and Burton Dassett, taken earlier by Edward, were returned to him, Ralph was ‘induced to issue the following grant:
‘Know all men present and to come that I, Ralph Boteler, Knight, Lord Sudely, have given, granted and by this my present charter have confirmed to Richard, Earl Rivers, William, Earl of Pembroke, Anthony Wydevile, Knight, Lord Scales, William Hastings, Knight, Lord Hastings, Thomas Bonyfaunt, Dean of the Chapel Royal, Thomas Vaughn, one of the Esquires of the King’s body and to Richard Fowler, the castle domain and manor of Sudeley, with all its belongings in the county of Gloucester, and all lands, rent etc., in Sudeley, Toddington, Stanley, Greet, Gretton, Catesthorp and Newnton and also the advowson of the church or chapel of Sudeley, to hold the same to them and their assignees’ ( 2)
Sadly , Edward, not content with taking Ralph’s properties he may have, according to John Ashdown-Hill also sent him to prison, where he died in 1473 (3). People (and history) will have to judge for themselves the true reason Edward took such a heavy hand with Ralph after Eleanor’s death and whether it was, as some say, because of his loyalty to the Lancastrian cause (having supported the redemption of Henry VI) or did it perhaps have something more to do with Ralph being privy (or a reminder) to the illegality of the Wydeville marriage?
Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. Rebuilt by Ralph Boteler ..
St Peter’s Church, Winchcombe. Ralph Boteler gave generously enabling the church to be rebuilt after the original one fell into a ruinous state.
St Mary’s Church at Sudeley Castle..
( 1 ) Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey p38 CPR 1461-1467, pp.72,191. John Ashdown-Hill.
( 2) Eleanor: The Secret Queen p150. Close Roll 8 Edward IV, no.3. dorso, 23 February 1469. John Ashdown-Hill.
(3) Elizabeth Widville Lady Grey p51. John Ashdown-Hill.
Occasionally, an image glimpsed quickly on TV appears to be something it is not. This happened to me when I first saw the TV trailer for the series Catching History’s Criminals: the Forensics Story on the Yesterday channel.
Being inured to the old, old propaganda that Richard III was the first criminal in all Creation, predating Satan himself, the black-and-white image I glimpsed—very briefly, and then only in close-up—appeared to be the one that went the rounds when Richard’s skull was used to re-create his true appearance. The one where the skull had his NPG portrait superimposed. So, I watched the programme, fully expecting another biased item that condemned him for the boys in the Tower, etc. etc.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be nothing of the sort. It wasn’t even about Richard! It was about a woman, Isabella Ruxton, who was murdered in the 1930s. The picture shown was, like the one of Richard, her skull superimposed on her photograph. The pose was the same as Richard’s, but the thing that spooked me initially, was the left eye. It seemed so like Richard’s left eye in the NPG portrait that I really was convinced Isabella was Richard.
Maybe it does not seem so evident to you but, to me, that fleeting out-of-the-blue glimpse on a TV screen was very convincing.
After this case, this one, this one and this one , here is another secret marriage. The groom was the conductor Andre’ Previn KBE and the bride was the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, both of whom were born in Germany.
Here is an obituary for Mr. Previn, or Preview if you prefer.
Things are looking dark for those in denial about Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Talbot …
PS Even Albert Roux is at it
There is a pub in Bridgnorth, near where I live. Well, let’s be honest, there’s about a hundred. If you have ever been to Bridgnorth, aside from the Severn Valley Railway, the funicular railway from Low Town to High Town and the remains of the slighted castle, which lean at a greater angle than the Tower of Pisa, the sheer number of pubs will strike you. The one I was referring to is The Bell and Talbot on Salop Street in High Town. The hanging sign shows a dog lying beneath a bell while the one on the wall looks a bit more like a coat of arms, with two hounds rearing up either side of a bell.
The symbol of the Talbot Hound is easy to miss but is significant in Shropshire. Talbot dogs were small white hunting hounds, extinct now, but understood to be an ancestor of the beagle and the bloodhound. The origin of the breed, its emergence in England and the reason for the name are all lost in the mists of time, but they have an enduring connection to the most prominent Shropshire family of the last five centuries.
Henry VI is believed to have referred to John Talbot in 1449 as ‘Talbott, oure good dogge’: I’m sure he meant it as a compliment, but I wouldn’t appreciate such a label! Did the name of the hound emerge from this quip? Or was it a reference to the already-established Talbot breed, coincidentally sharing a name with Henry’s premier general in France? John Talbot became Earl of Shrewsbury and his family inextricably linked with the title and surrounding county for generations. The 1445 Shrewsbury Book, commissioned by Talbot, has an image of the earl presenting his book to Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s queen, with a little white Talbot hound standing behind him.
In 1569, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury was one of the few English noblemen wealthy and trusted enough to house Mary, Queen of Scots during her period under house arrest at Elizabeth I’s instruction. Shrewsbury was a prominent Protestant and Elizabeth made him a Privy Counsellor as part of the arrangement because of ‘his approved loyalty and faithfulness, and the ancient state of blood from which he is descended’. Mary was initially held at Tutbury Castle and although Elizabeth would not meet the costs of her prisoner’s keeping, Mary’s French incomes covered her hosts expenses for a while. She was moved two months later to Wingfield Manor, a more suitable, well-kept lodging than the dilapidated Tutbury with its inadequate drains. Although he would discharge his duty diligently, Shrewsbury was censured any time he left Mary’s company for his own business and despite his wealth, he and his wife, Bess of Hardwick found themselves financially embarrassed by the cost and Elizabeth’s refusal to help meet them. Mary was eventually removed from Shrewsbury’s care before her eventual entrapment and execution at Fotheringhay Castle.
Alton Towers lies just north of Shropshire, across the border into Staffordshire, and even as a theme park, it retains a link to the Talbot family who made it their ancestral home. The buildings that lie ruined today were built by Charles Talbot, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury in the early nineteenth century. The ride Hex is contained within the ruins and tells the story of that earl’s battle with the supernatural to lift a curse placed in him and his family.
For anyone interested in the fifteenth century, John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, remembered as Old Talbot, is a towering figure sadly eclipsed by later events. He was one of the few Englishmen Joan of Arc is reputed to have known by name. His fearless, often reckless leadership made him the most successful English general in France over many years. He was probably in his mid-sixties when he was eventually killed at the Battle of Castillon in 1453. His loss was such a blow that Castillon is considered the last battle of the Hundred Years War and there is a memorial in France to him, set up where he fell in recognition of a foe worthy of respect.
For those with an interest more precisely focussed on Richard III and the events of 1483, the Talbot family have a vitally important role to play. Unfortunately, there is little solid fact on which to hang any opinion of the controversy of Edward IV’s marital status. Where hard, written evidence is lacking – and we should expect it to be lacking, given the systematic destruction of Titulus Regius after Bosworth – I tend to fall back on the actions of people affected by events. In their reaction, or even inaction, we can often glean an idea of what must have been going on and what people thought of it.
The Talbot family come into sharp focus because the basis of Richard’s charge that Edward IV’s children were illegitimate is a claim that Edward was a bigamist. It was alleged that prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, he had already contracted a marriage to Eleanor Talbot, daughter of the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. We have no solid evidence that this is the case, but as I said, we probably shouldn’t expect to. Look at what people in London in June 1483 did, though. They accepted the evidence we are told they were shown. We cannot examine it and for the most part, historians dismiss it as fantasy. Yet those who could read it accepted it so completely that they deposed a king and offered the crown to his uncle. Why would they do that? Fear of Richard? Hardly. He had no army in London or anywhere nearby. He was mustering a few hundred men at Pontefract, but they had not left by then and London was well versed in resisting thousands, never mind a few hundred. Fear of a minority? Maybe, but Richard had shown himself willing to act as regent for his nephew, and he was the senior royal male of the House of York, an experienced governor and successful general (within his limited opportunities). Could it be that, just maybe, the allegations looked true?
Edward IV’s reputation, deserved or otherwise, surely made it seem plausible. None would doubt that he was capable of contracting a secret marriage to a relatively unsuitable older lady. That was, after all, how he ended up married to Elizabeth Woodville. By 1483, George Talbot was 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, the first earl’s great-grandson. He was probably too young to fight at Bosworth, but definitely supported Henry VII during the Lambert Simnel Affair. The Talbot family were Lancastrian in their sympathies; after all, their patriarch had built his reputation and title on defending that House. They are often considered hostile to Richard III, probably because of his accusation against one of their number, but I’m not sure that was the case. By the time of the Lambert Simnel Affair, supporting Henry VII was the natural position for the 4th Earl. Besides, if, as I strongly suspect, the Affair was an uprising in favour of Edward V rather than Edward, Earl of Warwick, then the Talbot family perhaps opposed it because they were perfectly well aware of Edward V’s illegitimacy.
Back in 1483, the Talbot family made no move against Richard or his accusation about Eleanor Talbot and Edward IV. When Simon Stallworth wrote his newsletter to Sir William Stonor as late as 21 June 1483, the day before Dr Shaa’s sermon at St Paul’s Cross, he knew nothing of the impending bombshell. He did, however, note that Lord Lisle ‘is come to my Lorde Protectour and awates apone hym’. This is more significant that it is often deemed to be.
Lord Lisle was Edward Grey. He was not only the younger brother of Sir John Grey of Groby, the first husband of Elizabeth Woodville and therefore uncle to her two oldest sons, but he was also married to Elizabeth Talbot, a niece of Eleanor Talbot. If Richard was looking for evidence to substantiate or refute the charge he had been made aware of, Lord Lisle was a sensible person to consult. He might know whether there was any family tradition that Eleanor had married Edward and whether any evidence remained in Talbot hands.
Lord Lisle was from a Lancastrian family and Richard was about to offend the family of his wife, yet Lord Lisle remained with Richard and offered no opposition. Indeed, Lord Lisle attended Richard’s coronation, as did the Duchess of Norfolk, Elizabeth. Elizabeth had married John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk and was the mother of Anne Mowbray, the ill-fated bride of Edward IV’s younger son. She had been born Elizabeth Talbot, though, the youngest daughter of John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury and a sister of Eleanor Talbot. She was not so outraged by Richard’s accusations that she boycotted his coronation. Was this because Richard was, in actual fact, righting a wrong that the Talbot family perceived had been inflicted on one of their number by a deceitful young king?
There are many other elements to the precontract story. The timing is always cited as too convenient, but I would counter that George, Duke of Clarence seems to have been on the verge of revealing it in 1477 and it cost him his life. Who else would have been brave enough to trumpet the allegation during Edward IV’s lifetime? It would have been tantamount to signing your own death warrant. This piece of the puzzle is interesting though. We cannot be certain of the truth of the allegation of bigamy. We can, however, be entirely certain that the charge was made, that evidence was gathered (or fabricated), that what evidence existed was unanimously accepted by those able to examine it, that this evidence has subsequently been lost or destroyed and that there was no backlash from the Talbot family in 1483 (accepting that in 1485 Sir Gilbert Talbot, younger son of the 2nd Earl, joined Henry Tudor’s army).
It amazes me that such certainty in the fraud of the bigamy allegation is espoused today. There is no hard evidence for it, but there is also none against it. Expanding our consideration to more circumstantial elements, it is probable that the story nearly emerged in 1477, costing George his life, and it is certain that those who were exposed to the evidence in support of it entirely accepted it. It may have been a well-constructed lie, but it is at least as likely, if not more so, that it was true.
This year’s third series of “Versailles” reminded me of a further instance of secret marriage, even though some people maintain that nobody ever married in secret despite this case, that spawned two whole books, this one and this just decades ago, let alone Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville or her parents.
In 1683 or 1684, just months after the death of his first wife, Louis XIV is widely regarded as having married the similarly widowed Francoise d’ Aubigny, Madame Scarron, subsequently known as the Marquise de Maintenon. Just like Lady Eleanor, she was never crowned, but the similarities end in that she was married by an Archbishop not, perhaps a Canon, remained Louis XIV’s morganatic wife and outlived him.
Indeed, historians have no doubt at all that Louis XIV married Madame de Maintenon. Albeit they are not sure exactly when. Despite this, the marriage was never officially recognised – as will be seen, the King swore everyone to secrecy – and Madame de Maintenon was certainly never recognised as Queen of France.
From the memoirs of the Duc de St. Simon:
“But what is very certain and very true, is, that some time after the return of the King from Fontainebleau, and in the midst of the winter that followed the death of the Queen (posterity will with difficulty believe it, although perfectly true and proved), Père de la Chaise, confessor of the King, said mass at the dead of night in one of the King’s cabinets at Versailles. Bontems, governor of Versailles, chief valet on duty, and the most confidential of the four, was present at this mass, at which the monarch and La Maintenon were married in presence of Harlay, Archbishop of Paris, as diocesan, of Louvois (both of whom drew from the King a promise that he would never declare this marriage), and of Montchevreuil. …”
Another example of how easy it was to get married in secret, without ceremony or records, albeit in this case in 17th Century France.