My brother Pericles Wyatt, as my father liked to say, is by blood the rightful king of England, the nephew of Richard III in the 18th generation, and as such the senior surviving Plantagenet. Richard was crowned king of England on 6 July 1483. It was described at the time as a joyous occasion. Little did anyone present imagine that it would become an event of rancorous controversy, for never has it been so true, sadly for my own family, that history is written by the winners. Just two years later, an exiled adventurer called Henry Tudor took Richard’s life and crown at Bosworth Field and unleashed an assault of unprecedented viciousness on the reputation of the last Plantagenet king of England.
Henry’s own claim to the throne was so tenuous that he spent his reign in a state of permanent anxiety. His propaganda machine, which utilised the most brilliant and malignant minds of the day, set about justifying the new regime by declaring Richard a usurper. Within weeks of swearing loyalty to his nephew, Edward V, the rapacious Duke of Gloucester had the boy declared illegitimate on the grounds that the marriage of Edward IV to Elizabeth Woodville had been invalid. To the disbelief of the country, it was announced that the late king had conducted a previous marriage with a low-born harlot called Elizabeth Lucy, who was conveniently dead
The tale of Edward and Elizabeth Lucy, who had briefly been one of his many amours, was preposterous, and was meant to seem so. What really occurred, and what the newly crowned Henry VII so successfully suppressed, was quite different, as John Ashdown-Hill amply demonstrates in his scintillating and elegant book covering six disputed royal marriages. As far as we know, Richard, who had been appointed Lord Protector in Edward’s will, planned to have his nephew crowned in June 1483, going so far as to order coronation robes not only for the boy but for himself. What happened next appears to have come as much as a surprise to him as to anyone else.
No less a man than Bishop Stillington of Bath and Wells, the former Chancellor to Edward IV, revealed to a stunned royal council that Edward had married Lady Eleanor Talbot, the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, several years before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, the former still being alive at the time. (She was to die in a convent in 1468.) Most historians have questioned this, assuming Eleanor to have been a light of love, but, as Ashdown-Hill points out, a genuine marriage was in keeping both with Edward’s history and the character and status of Eleanor. No Elizabeth Lucy, she was a woman of piety and moral rectitude who was not only of royal descent but the sister of the Duchess of Norfolk; in other words, not the sort of woman to accept the role of courtesan.
The sexually rampant Edward had a penchant for secret marriages and extravagant promises. His wedding to Elizabeth Woodville was conducted secretly, and Elizabeth herself was concerned about its validity. As Ashdown-Hill reveals in this fascinating tour d’horizon of royal chicanery, Edward would not have been the only king of England to have committed bigamy (both Henry VIII and the future George IV were to do likewise).
It was not until the late 18th century that royal marriages were required to be public affairs, sanctioned by the reigning monarch and conducted by a member of the clergy before witnesses. Nor were there any such things as marriage certificates. It was simply enough for two people to say to each other ‘I marry you’ for the contract to be binding.
Ashdown-Hill puts together a compelling and scholarly argument in support of the Edward-Eleanor marriage being more than a convenient story cooked up by an unscrupulous man intent on seizing the throne. Indeed, Richard’s reaction to Stillington’s startling confession was a reasonable one, and followed due process of law. He asked for any evidence of such a marriage to be collected and put before the council and parliament. The evidence, which was destroyed by Henry Tudor, must have been convincing because parliament duly offered the crown to Richard, as Edward IV’s only legitimate heir. Parliament, admittedly, might have been glad to acquiesce, as the history of minority kingships had not been a happy one and Richard was a proven administrator with a reputation for justice.
As Henry VII had cemented his claim to the throne with his hasty marriage to Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who had also been declared illegitimate, it was doubly important to obliterate any suggestion that Stillington had told the truth. The Act of Parliament which declared the bastardy of Edward’s offspring was therefore repealed and all copies were ordered to be destroyed.
Fortunately for the truth, fragments have come down to us. Ashdown-Hill writes with a conviction based on new and solid research. Stillington was not only a witness to the Eleanor Talbot marriage, but may well have spoken of it to Edward’s erratic younger brother, the Duke of Clarence. Clarence’s execution for treason in February 1478 was incited by Elizabeth Woodville, who according to contemporary writers, suspected the duke knew more than was healthy for the security of her children.
Had Richard lived, there is a strong suggestion that he would have reversed the Attainder that Edward subsequently passed on Clarence and his young son and daughter, the Earl of Warwick and Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, barring them from the succession. After the early death of his sole legitimate child, Richard nurtured and promoted Warwick, who was later murdered by Henry Tudor for having an infinitely better right to sit in his place.
As for my own claim to royal status, had Henry’s gamble failed, it might be my brother wearing the crown today, as his direct line of descent is through Clarence’s daughter. However, the Attainder against his family still stands, and I cannot see the present monarch or her heirs repealing it any time soon.
Meanwhile, they and anyone interested in a more balanced assessment of Richard III’s right to be king can do no better than read this engrossing and extremely pertinent book.