This week I’m taking part in the Historical Writers Forum Historical Scandals Blog Hop and really, there could only be one such scandal for me to write about, couldn’t there? And to accompany it, my three White Boar books will all be on discount for four days (see below for details…)
This week, the first in May, sees the possible anniversary of the very start of the scandal I’m concerned with…
In 1464, the young King of England, Edward IV – who had won his crown just three years before at the age of 18 at the bloody Battle of Towton – was being lined up for a strategic marriage. His cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (known to history as ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’ for his role in propelling Edward to the throne and in later twists and turns of the monarchy in the so-called Wars of the Roses), had been negotiating for some time to arrange a marriage with a continental princess. The lucky woman was most likely to be Bona of Savoy, sister-in-law of French King Louis XI, with whom Warwick was keen to forge an alliance.
It was, of course, seen as vital to the young King’s future for him to make such a marriage, to secure strong allies abroad, both for himself (especially perhaps after the upheavals of the recent civil war between the Yorkist and Lancastrian scions of the royal House of Plantagenet) and for the well-being and wealth of England. It’s a situation memorably parodied in the Blackadder episode ‘The Queen of Spain’s Beard‘, but one that could (and did) have major repercussions.
But Edward, for reasons that have been debated by historians for centuries, turned the court, and ultimately his relationship with Warwick, upside-down with the sudden announcement in the autumn of 1464 that such an arranged marriage would not – indeed could not – happen. For, rather than waiting for a marriage treaty to be negotiated with one of the most powerful royal houses in Europe, he had in fact already made his own choice of bride. And not only had he made his choice, he’d gone ahead with the marriage already, in secret, maybe several months before. (The date traditionally given is 1st May, with the story being that Edward was captivated by the sight of the beautiful widow standing in the greenwood with her two young children waiting to petition the King for help in a financial dispute – 1st May of course being a traditional date for amorous antics by young people celebrating the return of springtime, often among fresh new greenery…)
The court (and likely the rest of the country and Europe) were scandalized – for a number of reasons. Not only had Edward made his own choice, without recourse to his Royal Council and leading adviser, Warwick, but the woman in question, usually known as Elizabeth Woodville, was also a commoner without fortune (albeit descended through her mother from the royal house of Luxembourg). Not only that, but she was five or six years older than 22-year-old Edward, and also the widow (not the expected virgin) of Sir John Grey, a knight who had fought against the Yorkists and died at the Battle of St Albans in 1461.
Could Edward have made a worse choice of bride? What were his reasons? Was it love (or lust) as commonly portrayed? Was it witchcraft practised by Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, to ensnare and control the young King, as suggested in some near-contemporary texts, and often depicted in historical fiction? Was it Edward seeking to show Warwick he was an independent man and master of his own destiny, rather than a pawn to be moved where and when his cousin dictated?
Whatever the reasons, the marriage was to have enormous consequences, not only in the years immediately following (as Warwick and Edward’s younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence, reacted to the increasing power and influence of the large Woodville family), but almost twenty years later – when the legality of this marriage, contracted in secret as it had been, was called into question in the summer of 1483, the Year of the Three Kings. Without it we also wouldn’t have one of the most controversial episodes in English history – the rise to the throne of King Richard III and the mystery of what happened to his nephews, Edward and Elizabeth’s two sons, latterly popularly known as the ‘Princes in the Tower’.
For in the spring of 1483, when Edward IV died and normally his eldest son, also Edward, aged just 12, would have been expected to become King, the legality of his marriage to Elizabeth Grey (nee Woodville) became disputed in what can be seen as a second scandal. Preparations were underway for the coronation of the new King Edward V, when evidence was presented to the Royal Council that purported to show that Edward IV had been married before his scandalous marriage to Elizabeth – and that his first wife was still living at the time.
The evidence and fact of that previous marriage is often disputed, with some seeing it as a fabrication by Richard III (Edward’s youngest brother, then Duke of Gloucester, Protector of the realm and head of the Royal Council) to allow him to seize the throne with a veneer of legality. Others present strong arguments for the validity of the case for Edward’s bigamy and therefore the two boys’ illegitimacy. Certainly it appears that not only the Royal Council was convinced by the evidence brought by Bishop Stillington of Bath and Wells (who said he had officiated at the secret wedding of the young Edward IV to Eleanor Butler, nee Talbot, prior to the Woodville wedding), but also the three estates in Parliament, which elected to put aside the claim to the throne of young Edward V and offer the crown instead to the next heir, Richard.
Unfortunately, a scarcity of records surviving from Richard’s reign and the brief period of interest just before it (through deliberate destruction under the later Tudor regime, it’s often posited) means that the evidence presented to the Council and Parliament doesn’t survive, but it seems likely that an investigation was conducted to examine the veracity of Bishop Stillington’s claim before it was put before Parliament. That Henry Tudor attempted to destroy every copy of the Act of Parliament that solidified the outcome in law (known as Titulus Regius, it was signed into law in January 1484) – and that without having it read before Parliament as was customary when repealing an Act – does suggest that the records of the evidence and subsequent investigation may well have been deliberately destroyed. It can be surmised that they would likely have cast doubt on the legitimacy of Tudor’s own bride, sister to the princes, Elizabeth of York – by marriage to whom Tudor sought to shore up his own, otherwise tenuous, claim to the throne.
Whatever the truth or otherwise of the prior marriage (also known as a ‘precontract’ – see here for more details of that), it does show remarkable similarities to the scandalous marriage that Edward contracted with Elizabeth Woodville on that day in 1464: in both cases it was conducted in secret, with no independent witnesses, between the young King and an older woman, who was the widow of a Lancastrian knight.
How would the scandal have been seen by those alive at the time? That was something I explored for my second novel telling of the life and times of King Richard III for younger readers – The King’s Man. In this brief excerpt, Matthew, Richard’s erstwhile page, and the Queen’s ward Alys Langdown have just heard the news that young Edward V has been put aside in favour of his Uncle Richard:
Alys was standing staring out of a window, but swung round as we entered.
‘Well, is it true?’
I was taken aback by her abruptness.
‘Is what true?’
‘What they are saying. What everyone apart from us in his own household knows about. That Parliament will ask the Duke to be King.’
I sat down, even though she hadn’t invited me to.
‘That’s what I’ve heard. Master Lyndsey, my master’s steward, he says all this is why Parliament wasn’t postponed when the coronation was.’ He had been speaking of it to Master Hardyng, the secretary, in the dining hall. Not that I’d been eavesdropping… ‘He says the Bishop of Bath and Wells told the Duke and the Council that the old King had been married before he met the Queen. That he had himself performed the ceremony in secret. So when King Edward married the Queen, he was already married – to someone who was still alive.’
‘So poor Edward and the others are…’
She couldn’t bring herself to say the word, dropping into a chair next to mine with a mixture of emotions chasing across her face. I carried on to save her.
‘The King’s second marriage was bigamous, so it wasn’t legal, yes. So Edward can’t become King because he’s not the legal heir.’
Silence reigned for some minutes, before Alys spoke again.
‘So who was she? His first wife.’
‘Lady Eleanor? Master Lyndsey says she was the widow of a Lancastrian knight. Her first husband died some time before King Edward took the throne.’
‘A widow? Just like Queen Elizabeth was when she met the King. And her first husband was a Lancastrian too.’
‘Was he?’ I asked. As usual, the intricacies of the royal family were a mystery to me. ‘How odd. According to Master Lyndsey, both ladies were older than the King too – by five or six years.’
Alys’s green eyes narrowed in thought.
‘And both marriages happened in secret, didn’t they? When the King and Queen married, they didn’t tell anyone for months. Until the Earl of Warwick said he was arranging a marriage for the King with a foreign princess. Then it all came out. It was quite a scandal. The King should have asked the Lords for permission, of course. And the Earl was especially angry. All his plans went for nothing.’
Another silence. Were we all thinking about how similar the stories were?…
Matthew and Alys were not alone in trying to make sense of these latest scandals to rock late medieval England, and everyone’s interpretation may have been different. This will have been especially true more than five hundred years ago, when ordinary people had far less access to information than we do today – being reliant on what was officially communicated by the powers that be, and, of course, the myriad rumours that swirled everywhere. And these scandals and their repercussions continued to swirl for many years – a situation that provides valuable fodder for my upcoming novel King in Waiting… but, as they say, that’s another story…
In the meantime, to accompany the Blog Hop, my White Boar books are all on an Amazon ebook countdown discount for four days – from 6 May to Sunday 9th May at 10pm (both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk).
Maybe during the last Blog Hop in early December you downloaded The Order of the White Boar for free? Why not grab a discounted copy of its sequel The King’s Man today – or The Order of the White Boar itself if you don’t have it, or even the two-in-one version of The Order? Just follow these links for details and to download…
Or, if you prefer paperbacks, why not visit Dickon’s Book Store on Facebook, and buy direct at a discount? Lots of other Ricardian books are featured there too! https://www.facebook.com/groups/776229869748536/
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Alex Marchant is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name and Right Trusty and Well Beloved…, two anthologies of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A third book in the ‘White Boar’ sequence, King in Waiting, will be published in 2021, as will Alex’s forthcoming timeslip novel Time out of Time.
Alex’s books can be found on Amazon at:
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This one is dear to my heart as well. It inspired my own trilogy. 🙂
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