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In my last blog post, A Perfect Coup, I discussed the situation that Richard III, as Duke of Gloucester and Protector of the Realm, may have found when he arrived in London in the summer of 1483. The one glaring issue that I didn’t address was the development of the story of the illegitimacy of the Princes in the Tower. So here goes…

The issue of the execution of Hastings, Rivers, Grey and Vaughn has been inextricably linked to the declaration of the illegitimacy of the sons of King Edward IV, but what if that were a mistake? The executions have been regarded as brutal measures employed by Richard to clear a path to the throne; the declaring of the boys’ illegitimacy being the end game to which this process had aimed. Applying hindsight, it is easy to muddle events and apply an overarching scheme to events which may have been very separate at the time. If Richard arrived in London to find a squabbling mess and tried to resolve it, what if this was just another devastating piece of news to be dealt with? And what if someone unexpected was pulling the strings?

One of the biggest mud pies thrown at the story of the Princes’ illegitimacy is its convenience to Richard. I would argue that it was far from convenient, but many will see only Richard’s ambition. For now, it is enough to understand that a pre-contract of marriage was, in medieval England, under canon and common law, a marriage as though a church ceremony had taken place. Saying “I will marry you” was the precise equivalent of saying “I do” before an altar. If, therefore, a pre-contract existed it would, without doubt or room for argument, make the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville bigamous and any children of that union illegitimate and incapable of inheriting the throne.

Is it feasible that King Edward IV indulged in a clandestine ceremony equivalent to a marriage in his late teens and early twenties in order to get a lady, concerned for her own reputation and keen for a dream match, into bed? Well, yes. That is precisely how he became married to Elizabeth Woodville. I would not be surprised (though can only offer conjecture) if many women were wooed this way in those years but all remained silent to preserve a reputation that would otherwise be destroyed, to prevent their future marital prospects from being harmed and to avoid incurring the wrath of the young king. Perhaps Elizabeth Woodville was the last in a line, the one who simply would not remain quiet, or with whom Edward genuinely fell in love. Either way, they were married in secret with limited witnesses, including Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta, and the union was kept secret for several months, even from his closest friend the Earl of Warwick. Did Edward hope to extricate himself but found that he had finally played the game one too many times and with one capable of matching him?

Whatever the truth, the notion that Edward may have engaged in such a practise would surely not have been alien or repugnant to the people of London. When Edward returned to reclaim his throne in 1471, Philippe de Commines believed Edward was welcomed by London because the City’s merchants hoped for repayment of the debts that he owed them and the City’s wives hoped to return to his bed. His carnal reputation served him well in 1471 but doomed his son in 1483. Without a doubt this background made the allegations against him far more plausible than they otherwise may have been.

To return to 1483; the Crowland Chronicle tells us that “It was set forth, by way of prayer, in an address in a certain roll of parchment, that the sons of king Edward were bastards, on the ground that he had contracted a marriage with one lady Eleanor Boteler, before his marriage to queen Elizabeth”. This sermon was delivered by Dr Ralph Shaa, half brother to the mayor of London on 22nd June 1483, the date set for the coronation of Edward V. The sermon was entitled ‘Bastard Slips Shall Not Take Deep Root’ and made public the alleged pre-contract of marriage. It appears that the sermon also questioned Edward IV’s own legitimacy, though this charge was swiftly dropped, whether for lack of truth, evidence or will to offend Duchess Cecily. It was also unnecessary if Edward’s children were proved illegitimate and Richard may still have wanted a relationship with his mother!

A Likeness Believed To Be Lady Eleanor Butler

A Likeness Believed To Be Lady Eleanor Butler

The story was supposedly brought to Richard by Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells. Claiming to have been a witness to the pre-contract, Stillington presented his evidence to a Parliamentary committee who believed in it enough to declare the boys illegitimate and request that Richard take the throne as the only legitimate male heir of York. It is frequently contended that this revelation was too well timed to be true, that it came from nowhere at just the right time to win the throne for Richard. But there is more to it than that. It was not such a well timed coincidence.

If the pre-contract were true, no one during Edward’s lifetime would bring the allegation into the light for fear of retribution from both the king and his queen, not to mention her family. A lady (or ladies) would also have to consider their own prospects should they announce such an embarrassing disgrace. Eleanor Butler died in 1468, but was alive when Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, so if the pre-contract were true there would be no doubt of bigamy. It seems likely that Edward’s death was required for this news to be made public.

In 1478, 5 years before his death, Edward IV had executed his brother George for treason. George’s rap sheet was as long as any man’s arms and it is hard to say that he didn’t bring his fate upon himself, but I wonder whether it might have relevance to this story. The Parliament Rolls record the charge the king brought against his brother, stating “a conspiracy against him, the queen, their son and heir and a great part of the nobility of the land has recently come to his knowledge, which treason is more heinous and unnatural than any previous one because it originates from the king’s brother the duke of Clarence”. The charge adds that “He also said that the king was a bastard, not fit to reign, and made men take oaths of allegiance to him without excepting their loyalty to the king.” In 1478, Stillington was closely associated with George, Duke of Clarence. When Clarence was arrested Stillington was too and spent time confined in the Tower of London for unknown offences believed to have been in connection with George’s treason.

So, as early as 1478 we have a brother of King Edward IV plotting against the king, queen and “their son and heir”, questioning the king’s legitimacy, and we have Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells closely enough associated with the plot to be imprisoned. George was also charged with retaining a copy of “an exemplification under the great seal of an agreement made between him and Queen Margaret promising him the crown if Henry VI’s line failed”, showing that he was seeking to assert a claim as the heir both of York and of Lancaster. Is it inconceivable that Stillington’s secret had found its way to the eager ears of Clarence and that this was what drove him to rebellion? Disposing of a clergyman was notoriously difficult and Stillington was eventually released.

If we step back in Stillington’s career, there is more coincidence. Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, when Stillington was an archdeacon and Keeper of the Privy Seal. In 1465 he became Bishop of Bath and Wells and in June 1467 he was appointed Edward’s Lord Chancellor, a role he held (excepting during the re-adeption of Henry VI) until 1473. It may mean nothing more than a steady career progression, but reward and promotion followed on from Edward’s wedding, perhaps because he knew Stillington held a secret that had to be preserved. After his dismissal as Lord Chancellor in 1473, Stillington seems to have grown close to George, Duke of Clarence, becoming embroiled in the duke’s treason by 1478 in a frustratingly unspecified manner. Perhaps it is unspecified because it would have destroyed Edward’s line if made public.

Wells Cathedral, burial place of Robert Stillington

Wells Cathedral, burial place of Robert Stillington

There is another figure who may have been at play too. Why did Stillington seek out Richard in 1483? I find it hard to except the ‘happy coincidence’ or questions about why it did not arise earlier. I can’t imagine a circumstance before 1483 when it could have arisen. Warwick may not have known and Clarence was silenced if he was threatening to reveal this secret. So why then? Well, Edward was dead so Stillington could expect a degree of impunity, though could not be sure how Richard might react to his news. The succession was about to take place and Stillington was about to watch the coronation of a boy he knew to be illegitimate. Before then, when Edward was alive, it was not an issue. Now it was. Perhaps Stillington, into his sixties by 1483, presumed he wouldn’t live to see the matter become a problem and would be excused from dealing with it. Maybe George had bound him to reveal the secret when the time was right. Or just maybe Stillington didn’t seek out Richard. Perhaps Stillington was sought out to deliver this news. By who? The very man More accused of revealing Lord Hastings’ plot to Richard.

John Ashdown-Hill, in his book Eleanor: The Secret Queen, examines the issue of the pre-contract in great detail. One relationship that he picks out fascinated me and seems to fit in with the events of this and my previous post. Eleanor Butler nee Talbot was the daughter of John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, a veteran of the wars in France who had worked there alongside Edward’s father the Duke of York. John Talbot had a niece named Alice Talbot (c1390-1436) who married Sir Thomas Barre of Burford. One of their daughters, Jane, married, as his second wife, Sir William Catesby Snr, becoming step-mother to Sir William Catesby Jnr, the lawyer who may have reported against Lord Hastings to Richard. John Ashdown-Hill asserts that there is evidence that Eleanor and Jane knew each other quite well. On 4th June 1468 Eleanor gifted a manor at Fenny Compton to her sister Elizabeth and Sir William Catesby Snr was a witness to the document (Eleanor: The Secret Queen, J, Ashdown-Hill p140). Sir William Snr had been attached to the Lancastrian household and cause and may even have fought at Towton for Henry VI. His uncle Robert did and William was attainted after the battle and briefly exiled. Through the 1460’s Catesby Snr became attached to the Earl of Warwick and began to expand his land interests veraciously. At the readeption of Henry VI the combination of Warwick and Lancaster sang to Catesby and he was appointed Sheriff of Northamptonshire during the brief period. He was pardoned after Edward IV’s return and remained as Sheriff until his death.

So the Catesby family are linked in a professional capacity and by marriage to the Talbots and directly to Lady Eleanor Butler. Could Sir William Catesby Jnr have heard a Talbot family tale of Eleanor’s ‘marriage’ to the king? Could he or his father have been engaged to offer legal advice on the matter? Perhaps this ambitious family held onto the story until it could serve them best. If that were the case (though obviously it is beyond proof and can only ever be conjecture), and if Catesby informed against Hasting to Richard in search of self promotion, it is possible that he deemed the time right to seek out the old Bishop of Bath and Wells. He may have believed Richard would be pleased with the news that would make him king. Certainly his rewards flowed once Richard was king and he became a hugely wealthy landowner and powerful political being. Could Sir William Catesby have found Robert Stillington and encouraged him to bring this story to Richard? It would surely explain the ‘convenient’ timing. If Catesby believed that it would ingratiate him to Richard, could he even have fabricated the pre-contract, making a plausible case with believable evidence from an old family connection to the Talbots and dredging up Clarence’s old ally Stillington to add credibility?

It is impossible to know the truth of the pre-contract story at this distance. John Ashdown-Hill’s book is well worth a read on the subject. It is apparent that such an act is not beyond the bounds of Edward IV’s character, though to allow one or more pre-contracts to stand would have been incredibly reckless. Although the evidence is lost to us now, what was presented to Parliament was complete and convincing enough for them to find that Edward’s children were illegitimate. This much is irrefutable. It is impossible to tell how or from where the story originated. It may have been the true cause of George, Duke of Clarence’s downfall. Stillington may have kept his secret until conscience forced him into the daylight or William Catesby sought him out to tell his story. Richard may have had prior knowledge of the story, may have been shocked to hear it, or may have been party to its fabrication. We can never know and I will leave you to make up your own mind which of these seems the more likely.

Sir William Catesby

Sir William Catesby

I am left wondering one more thing. If Sir William Catesby was really behind the reporting of a plot by Lord Hastings to Richard and he was also at work in the emergence of the pre-contract story, what else was he willing to do to secure his position at the new king’s right hand? Is there another suspect emerging from this murky episode whose fingerprints might be found upon the fate of the Princes in the Tower? Did Catesby take a further step in his bid to win favour? If he sold out Lord Hastings and used an old story to procure the illegitimacy of a king, was he beyond arranging the deaths of two boys if he thought it would suit his new, all powerful, grateful and generous master? If he was involved, it would beg the question as to what Richard knew. Catesby’s rewards suggest he was not out of favour in any way, so either Richard did not know or he was complicit. Perhaps Buckingham lost faith with a man who couldn’t control his own lawyer, or maybe Catesby pinned the deed on Buckingham and Richard refused to believe that the Duke was innocent.

Or maybe none of this rings true.

What do you think?

Matthew Lewis is the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt’s has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor.

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