Debunking The Myths – How Easy Is It To Fake A Precontract?

This post investigates another aspect of the popular belief that upon Edward IV’s untimely death his brother Richard, duke of Gloucester conspired to usurp the throne from his nephew, as recently addressed in our piece about the Edward V coins. Originally my fellow loon and I were unaware of each other’s research, so we were surprised to discover how well our findings supported each other!

On 10 and 11 June 1483, Richard wrote to his affinity in the North and asked for troops to support him against the Woodvilles who, he claimed, were plotting his destruction. On 22 June Ralph Shaa preached his “bastard slips” sermon, followed by similar speeches by the duke of Buckingham, and on 26 June a quasi-parliamentary assembly of the Three Estates of the Realm – the nobles, bishops and representatives of the commons who had come to London for the coronation and subsequent first Parliament of Edward V – offered Richard the crown in place of his nephew. Allegedly Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, had come forward and testified that the boy’s father, Edward IV, had secretly entered into a legally binding marriage contract with Lady Eleanor Butler, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, who was still alive when he, again secretly, married his queen, Elizabeth Woodville. This second marriage was therefore invalid, which meant that young Edward – along with all his siblings – was illegitimate and couldn’t inherit his father’s title.

This was a key turning point: Richard had been staunchly loyal to his brother and all surviving evidence suggests that up until mid-June he had every intention of pressing ahead with his nephew’s coronation. He had sworn allegiance to him, spent the month and a half since his arrival in London preparing robes and food, issued letters of summons for the 40 esquires who were to receive the knighthood of the Bath on the occasion and even paid £800 of his own money towards the royal household, which, according to an analysis by Dr. Rosemary Horrox, was on the verge of bankruptcy. He also minted Gold Angels and other coinage in young Edward’s name. To mint valuable gold coins for a king you’re planning to depose at the earliest opportunity seems unnecessarily wasteful, especially when your treasury is empty.

Moreover, Richard’s political future in his nephew’s government seemed secure: the speech drafted by Chancellor John Russell for Edward V’s first Parliament proposed not only to extend his Protectorate beyond the coronation, but to expand its remit from keeping law and order to in the future also have “tutele and oversight of the king’s most royal person during his years of tenderness”, effectively making him regent. This may have been a break with the traditional division of power between protector, council and guardian of the king, as Annette Carson has concluded, but it wasn’t a partisan move on Richard’s part or evidence of his ambition. According to the Crowland chronicle part of the council had been arguing for it all along:

“The more prudent members of the council, however, were of the opinion that guardianship of so youthful a person, until he should reach the years of maturity, ought to be utterly forbidden to his uncles and brothers on his mother’s side.”

This concern led directly to the decision to limit Edward V’s escort from Ludlow to London to 2000 men. At this point, Richard was still in Yorkshire.

Nevertheless, some people – including Dr. Horrox, who in her ODNB of Richard assumes that he “chose to end” his protectorate which, she acknowledges, was a “period of harmony” – believe that the sudden revelation of the precontract was too convenient to be true. They argue that the executions of William Hastings, Antony Woodville, Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan and the threat of troops advancing from the North terrified the council – the same council which only two months earlier had successfully persuaded the queen to limit her son’s escort to 2000 men – and the Three Estates into accepting a fabricated precontract so Richard could satisfy his hitherto secret ambition of becoming king. As brother and uncle of kings, Lord Protector, Constable, Great Chamberlain and Lord High Admiral of England, Richard was indeed a powerful man, so could it be true?

As I discovered while researching this post, there’s a lot of confusion over what a precontract actually is, even among historians. In a nutshell, it’s a promise to marry which is binding if it is made either a) per verba de praesenti (“I marry you”) or b) per verba de futuro (“I will marry you”) and then followed by sexual intercourse. It’s not an engagement as we understand it today: a person who has previously (“pre”) made such a binding promise (“contract”) to someone can’t just go and marry someone else instead. Which is precisely what Edward IV was alleged to have done according to Titulus Regius:

“At the time of contract of the same feigned Marriage, and before and a long time after, the said King Edward was and stayed married and troth plight to one Dame Eleanor Butler, Daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury, with whom the same King Edward had made a precontract of matrimony, a long time before he made the said feigned Mariage with the said Elizabeth Grey, in manner and form above said.”

The precontract that deposed Edward V tends to be viewed as some kind of exotic technicality, but precontracts were common not only in medieval England, but well past the Reformation and affected all levels of society, even kings. A well documented example is Richard’s great-nephew Henry VIII, who tried to have three of his six marriages annulled on the basis of an alleged precontract. In all three cases the claim was highly dubious, but Henry was not only an anointed and firmly established – if not feared – king, but also Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England. So how did he fare?

Surprisingly, he failed in two out of three cases. Let’s look at each of them in detail:

Anne Boleyn

Henry had changed his kingdom’s religion to be able to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his second wife, Anne Boleyn, but in 1536 their marriage was on the rocks and Henry was looking for pastures new. One of the tools he tried to use to get rid of Anne was her former relationship with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.

In the 1520s, when Anne was lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, a romance had developed between her and Percy and they had become secretly “engaged”, presumbably by making a de futuro marriage vow. Henry, who had his eye on Anne for himself, asked his then Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to intervene and “after much debate and consultation about lord Percy’s case it was finally decided that his engagement to Anne Boleyn should be dissolved and that he should instead marry one of the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughters, Lady Mary Talbot, which he later did.”

The fact that the engagement had been dissolved at his own insistence didn’t stop Henry from claiming now, nine years later, that it was in fact a legally binding contract and therefore made his marriage to Anne invalid. His new Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, tried to persuade Percy to support this version of events, but he refused to be bullied. On 13 May 1536 he wrote to Cromwell:

“I perceive by Raynold Carnaby that there is supposed a pre-contract between the Queen and me; whereupon I was not only heretofore examined upon my oath before the archbishops of Canterbury and York, but also received the blessed sacrament upon the same before the duke of Norfolk and other the King’s highness’ council learned in the spiritual law, assuring you, Mr. Secretary, by the said oath and blessed body, which afore I received and hereafter intend to receive, that the same may be to my damnation if ever there were any contract or promise of marriage between her and me.”

There’s little reason to doubt his sincerity. His marriage to Mary Talbot was very unhappy and in 1532 Mary had tried to obtain an annulment by claiming Percy had blurted out during an argument that they weren’t really married as he had been precontracted to Anne. However, as he stated in his letter to Cromwell, the matter was investigated and he swore on the Blessed Sacrament in front of the duke of Norfolk, the archbishops of Canterbury and York and Henry’s canon lawyers that it wasn’t true. He should have jumped at the opportunity to regain his freedom, but de futuro marriage vows only became binding if followed by sexual intercourse, so if he hadn’t slept with Anne then there was no binding contract.

Faced with Percy’s refusal, the king had to find another reason why his marriage to Anne was invalid. In the end it was declared null and void due to unspecified impediments supposedly confessed by Anne herself, but if she had hoped that this would save her life it wasn’t to be. She was accused of adultery with a number of men, including her own brother, and of planning to replace Henry with one of her lovers, which was treason. All but one of the accused, a musician who had been pressured into confessing, pleaded not guilty, but to no avail. On 15 May Anne was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to death. How she could have committed adultery if her marriage to the king was invalid was not explained. Percy, who sat on the jury that convicted her, fainted and had to be carried out. He died eight months later of natural causes. On 17 May the queen’s supposed lovers were executed, followed two days later by Anne herself, her sentence having been commuted from burning to beheading. Incredibly, Henry had been able to make the unlikely incest charge stick – the spectators at George Boleyn’s trial were betting ten to one that he would be acquitted – but not the claim of the precontract.

Anne of Cleves

Henry’s marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was a political match and not a happy one. They were married in January 1540 and by June Henry was looking for a way out, complaining that he was unable to have sex with her because she was ugly, that she wasn’t a virgin and even that she smelled bad. Sir John Wallop, the English ambassador in France, was therefore instructed to speak to the Cardinal of Lorraine about Anne’s former marriage negotiations with his brother, duke Francis of Lorraine.

Henry knew that many years ago Anne and Francis had been contracted to marry; in fact, he had questioned this after meeting her for the first time in an attempt to call off the wedding, but her brother’s ambassadors had dismissed his concerns. They declared that they had not only read the agreement, but also been present when the ambassador of the Duke of Gueldres, who had arranged the match, declared it null and void, and promised to provide copies of both the agreement and its dissolution. However, all they had been able to produce was a notarised statement that they had investigated the Cleves archives and found a report which stated that the negotiations “were not going to take their course”. Crucially, they had been unable to confirm whether the marriage contract was per verba de praesenti or de futuro and Henry now used this to his advantage.

On 6 July Anne was asked to agree for a church court to investigate her marriage, which she did. The following day a convocation presided over by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer began to consider the evidence and after two days of “mature deliberation” found the marriage “null by reason of a precontract between lady Anne and the marquis of Lorraine, that it was unwillingly entered into and never consummated, and that the King is at liberty to marry another woman, and likewise the lady Anne free to marry.” Specifically, it was argued that Anne’s marriage contract with Francis had likely been per verba de praesenti and therefore binding even without consummation and that, far from not being able to get it up, Henry had deliberately abstained from sleeping with Anne while awaiting clarification of the matter since, if the precontract turned out to be valid, it would have made their children bastards.

On 12 July Parliament announced Anne’s agreement to the annulment of her marriage to Henry, including her confirmation “that she remaineth not carnally known to the King’s Highness’s body”. Henry showed his gratitude by deciding “to endow you with £4,000 of yearly revenue. We have appointed you two houses, that at Richemont where you now lie, and the other at Blechinglegh, not far from London, that you may be near us and, as you desire, able to repair to our Court to see us, as we shall repair to you. When Parliament ends, we shall, in passing, see and speak with you, and you shall more largely see what a friend you and your friends have of us.” In return Anne sent him the ring she had received for their “pretensed marriage”, asking for it to be broken into pieces. It was a good deal: although she endured public humiliation and had to give up her title as queen, her cooperation with Henry’s wishes not only saved her life, but made her one of the wealthiest women in England.

Catherine Howard

Only 19 days after his marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled, Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Like her cousin Anne Boleyn, she was a niece of Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk, and her fall from grace was just as spectacular. On 2nd November 1541 Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, passed a letter to Henry which alleged that while growing up in the household of her step-grandmother, the dowager duchess of Norfolk, Catherine had affairs with Henry Manox, her music teacher, and Francis Dereham, a servant of the Howard family and now the queen’s secretary. The claims were made by a chambermaid who had shared a dormitory with her. Stunned, Henry ordered an investigation.

The chambermaid and Manox were questioned and Manox admitted that he “had commonly used to feel the secrets and other parts of the Queen’s body”, but denied sleeping with her, unlike Dereham who “used to haunt her chamber rightly and banquet there until 2 or 3 a.m.” Dereham and a number of Howard servants were arrested and sent to the Tower. Dereham confessed under torture that he “had known her carnally many times, both in his doublet and hose between the sheets and in naked bed”, but insisted that this had ended before her marriage to the king and that Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, had “succeeded him in the Queen’s affections”. Culpeper was arrested, tortured and confessed that “he intended and meant to do ill with the Queen and that in like wise the Queen so minded to do with him.”

On 8 November, Catherine herself was interrogated and made a written confession, in which she admitted to sexual relations with Dereham, but denied that they were contracted to be married:

“Examined whether I called him Husband, and he me Wife.— I do Answer, that there was Communication in the House that we Two should Marry together; and some of his Enemies had Envy thereat, wherefore he desired me to give him Leave to call me Wife, and that I would call him Husband. And I said I was content. And so after that, commonly he called me VVife, and many times I called him Husband. And he used many Times to Kiss me, and so he did to many other commonly in the House… As for Carnall Knowledge, I confess as I did before, that diverse Times he hath lyen with me, sometimes in his Doublet and Hose, and Two or Thre Times naked: But not so naked that he bad nothing upon him, for he had al wayes at the least his Doublet, and as I do think, his Hose also, but I mean naked when his Hose were putt down.”

In a letter to Henry she implied that Dereham had forced himself on her:

“Also Frauncez Derame by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose and obteyned first to lye uppon my bedde with his doblett and hose and after within the bedde and fynally he lay with me nakyd and used me in suche sorte as a man doith his wyfe many and sondry tymez but howe often I knowe not and our, company ended almost a yere before the Kynges majestye was maried to my lady Anne of Cleve and contynued not past oon quarter of a yere or litle above. Nowe the holl trouythe beyng declared unto your majestye I most humble beseche the same to considre the subtyll persuasions of young men and the ignorans and fraylnez of young women.”

Catherine clearly hadn’t learnt from the experiences of her predecessors, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves. Admitting to a precontract with Dereham might have saved her life since, having been consummated, it would have invalidated her marriage to the king; denying it meant that her dalliance with Culpeper came dangerously close to treason. Henry’s advisors on the other hand were only too aware and interrogated the dowager duchess about a possible precontract between Dereham and her step-granddaughter.

Denying the precontract sealed Catherine’s fate. Henry now sought to establish adultery, which again proved easier than establishing a precontract. She admitted to secret meetings with Culpeper, calling him her “little sweet fool” and giving him presents, but both denied a sexual relationship. Nevertheless, on 1 December Dereham and Culpeper were convicted of treason and on 10 December Culpeper was beheaded and Dereham hanged, drawn and quartered. Their heads were put on spikes and displayed on London Bridge, where they remained until 1546.

On 21 January an Act of Attainder was passed against Catherine, which found her guilty of wanting to “return to her old abominable life” with Dereham and to “bring her vicious and abominable purpose to pass with Thos. Culpeper.” Since a mere intention to commit adultery wasn’t actually treason, it also declared “that an unchaste woman marrying the King shall be guilty of high treason” and on 13 February Catherine was executed. The same Act found the elderly dowager duchess, her eldest son William, his wife, two of her daughters and several of their servants, who had all spent Christmas in the Tower, guilty of concealing this treason. They were sentenced to life imprisonment and their property was confiscated.

Richard vs Henry

As the above examples show, even a king and head of the church couldn’t simply declare that a precontract existed; he had to prove it and there was no guarantee that he would succeed. Henry’s position was well-established – Anne Boleyn’s trial took place in the 27th year of his reign, that of Catherine Howard in the 32nd – and he had all the tools of his office(s) at his disposal to assemble evidence and intimidate witnesses, including imprisonment and torture, but he only succeeded in one case – Anne of Cleves – and only because the lady played along. Canon law hadn’t changed since the Middle Ages, so let’s compare Henry’s experience to Richard’s claim of a precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Talbot.

While Richard had been confirmed as Lord Protector by the council and was working in co-operation with its members, he was in a considerably weaker position than Henry. He wasn’t an anointed king, merely de-facto regent, had only recently arrived in London and only had 200–300 retainers at his disposal (500–600 including Buckingham’s men). Unlike Anne of Cleves, neither Stillington nor Lady Eleanor’s family appear to have been rewarded for supporting the precontract claim. There’s also no indication that they were intimidated, imprisoned or tortured to make them support it, like the relatives and supposed lovers of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

The Crowland Chronicle, written with hindsight in 1486, speaks of “armed men, in fearful and unheard-of numbers, from the north, Wales, and all other parts” marching on London in response to Richard’s letters, but Simon Stallworth, in his letter to Sir William Stonor dated 21 June 1483, doesn’t sound fearful or suspicious. On the contrary, he assumes they’re a peace keeping force:

“Yt is thoughte ther shalbe 20 thousand of my Lorde Protectour and my lorde of Bukyngham menne in London this weike to what intent I knowe note but to kep the peas.”

As it turned out, the 4000 men who answered Richard’s call didn’t arrive until his coronation and were sent home without seeing any action. Clearly he expected trouble, either due to a plot against his life, as he claimed in his letters, or the revelation of the precontract or both, but in the end reinforcements weren’t needed. The executions of Hastings, Rivers, Grey and Vaughan may have contributed to a general feeling of uncertainty, but a contemporary fragment in the Cely papers suggests that, far from seeing Richard as the culprit, people were worried about his safety:

“… there is great rumour in the realm, the Scots have done great [harm] in England, the Chamberlain is deceased in trouble, the Chancellor is desperate and not content, the Bishop of Ely is dead, if the King, God save his life, were deceased, the Duke of Gloucester were in any peril, if my Lord Prince, who God defend, were troubled, if my lord of Northumberland were dead or greatly troubled, if my Lord Howard were slain.”

The logical conclusion therefore has to be that the precontract that deposed Edward V was accepted without threats or bribery because the evidence itself – at the very least Stillington’s testimony – was seen as convincing.

Richard of Gloucester, Protector and Constable of England or Henry VIII, King and Supreme Head of the Church of England: who do you think was more powerful?

Related Posts:

“Debunking the Myths – Richard the Secret Usurper”

“The Trial That Should Have Happened in 1483”

Sources And Further Reading:

H A Kelly: “THE MATRIMONIAL TRIALS OF HENRY VIII”, Wipf and Stock; Reprint edition (2004)


Claire Ridgway: “Henry Percy Won’t Play Ball”, The Anne Boleyn Files

Marilee Hanson: “The relationship between Henry Percy & Anne Boleyn”, English History

Claire Ridgway: “The End of Henry VIII’s Marriage to Anne of Cleves”, The Anne Boleyn Files

Marilee Hanson: “Anne of Cleves: Facts, Biography, Information & Portraits”, English History

Marilee Hanson: “Catherine Howard: Facts, Biography, Portraits & Information”, English History

Claire Ridgway: “The Fall of Catherine Howard”, The Anne Boleyn Files

Claire Ridgeway: “The Bill of Attainder against Catherine Howard and Lady Rochford”, The Anne Boleyn Files

Marilyn Roberts: “Terror for the Howards at Christmas”, The Anne Boleyn Files

36 thoughts on “Debunking The Myths – How Easy Is It To Fake A Precontract?

      • Oh, I see. Well, it seems Henry was prepared to try pretty much anything to get his marriages annulled, but this article is about pre contracts, so I haven’t looked into this particular attempt.


  1. This is an interesting article. There is an omission that is relevant to the logic of the argument. It is not the case that there was no suggestion that Robert Stillington was rewarded for ‘revealing’ the pre-contract.

    The problem is that many writers expand on what Commynes said without reference to his writing. He is quoted second hand from writers that have a bias one way or another.

    If you go to the earliest transcription of his works, he deals at considerable length with Stillington’s rewards and motives. These have been included in some secondary writings about Elizabeth of York.


    • Hi, thank you for your comment. I assume you’re referring to the claim in de Commynes’ MEMOIRS that Richard was going to reward Stillington’s son with land and arrange for him to marry one of the daughters of Edward IV? I didn’t mention it because there’s no evidence that Stillington – a Catholic bishop – had a son. The marriage claim in particular seems unlikely given that Richard swore an oath to Elizabeth Woodville that he would find good husbands for her daughters and offered Elizabeth of York to the duke of Beja.


  2. Hi, yes that was Commynes’ comment. Oddly, even Alison Weir makes the same error in discounting its probability for the same reasons. However, to be a reward for the precontract, the promise to Stillington must have been made in summer 1483. Richard’s promise to Elizabeth Woodville dates from spring 1484 and the proposed alliance with Portugal even later. So there is no contradiction since the son probably died in between.

    The existence of the son adds credence to Commynes text and is confirmed by the mention of his will in the history of his parish in Yorkshire in 1485.

    There are also further facts in the original text that add to the truth of the allegation. The son was brought before the French parliament – Commynes was a member of the council and was probably a witness. Also, he met Henry Tudor and his followers after their flight to France, so they are further potential sources.


    • I don’t think it’s an “error”, I merely think that the story related by de Commynes – whose Memoirs I’ve read – is unlikely. First and foremost because, as mentioned in my post, all surviving evidence suggests that Richard intended to crown Edward V. He therefore had no motive to reward Stillington for publicising the precontract. On the contrary, abandoning the coronation meant reigniting unrest he had been trying to calm down. This included offering to swear an oath to Elizabeth Woodville to persuade her to leave sanctuary in May 1483, an unlikely offer if he was planning to bastardise her daughter and marry her to the (presumably illegitimate) son of the man who would be instrumental in bastardising her. He would have also wasted money on preparing for the coronation when neither he nor the Treasury were flush. And if Stillington’s son died before Spring 1484 I would have expected Richard to reward Stillington instead, but there’s no evidence that he did. Neither is there evidence that he rewarded Eleanor’s family or the Three Estates who decided to set Edward V aside. Of course Stillington could have come forward of his own volition, son or not, and Richard simply felt that he couldn’t go through with the coronation if Edward V was a bastard. That would explain the absence of rewards (or threats) but in that case de Commynes’ story would be just gossip.

      I’m not sure I understand your 2nd paragraph correctly. Are you saying that Stillington mentioned his son in his will? If so do you have the exact words? Michael Hicks writes in Stillington’s ODNB that there’s no evidence for a son who Richard was planning to reward, so if he’s wrong I’d be interested to know. Many thanks.


  3. You’ll forgive me, and I doubt this comment will be published as I’m a stubborn skeptic of all things Richardian, but the summation of Canon Law and the customs surrounding pre-contract here is not all it seems

    Canon Law, like most laws, can be very different in practice then it is in theory, and there were ways of bending and getting around it for the rich and powerful. Eleanor of Aquitaine divorced her first husband, Louis of France, on the grounds of consanguinity even after they’d had two children, and despite having recieved a dispensation for the marriage in the first place. Her son did John a very similar thing with his first wife.

    More pertinent, however, are the technicalities of Canon Law, and common law in relation to this matter.
    I quote “In canon law, the exchange of future consent between a couple could be invalidated if both agreed, if one party entered relgiion, or if one party exchanged words of present consent with a third party”
    Conor McCarthy, Marriage in Medieval England, Law, Literature and Prace, p90.
    In this passage, McCarthy discussed the arrangement between John Paston II and Anne Haute, who made words of present or future consent, and by all accounts, consummated thier arrangement. There is even a suggestion that they had a child. Yet no marriage took place, and according to Helen Castor the betrothal was broken off in 1477. Others writers make it clear that because of the changes in political climate, the arrangement was no longer advantageous to the families.

    This was not the only case of a broken betrothal. Clearly, it was possible for them to be broken, and did happen in real life. Hence, the Ricardian vision of a strict and rigid canon law being upheld by Bishop Stillington is misleading. A lot depended on circumstances, and as other cases reveal- the words that were actually exchanged. In the same book the other asserts ;’the courts were looking for a very specific verbal formula’. Or, in the words of Charles Donahue Jr, an expert in marriage cases and the clerical courts “There was considerable ambiguity in the the formulation of the rules about what constituted present and what fiture consent'”

    There often to be reference to marriage, or the intent to take in marriage. It was not enough for a man to simply say ‘I will do as I have said’ or ‘I will carry out my promise’, if he had previously expressed intent to marry. This could be taken are a mere promise of a future betrothal, as a opppsed to a marriage, and there were cases of men who made verbal contracts with women in order to get them into bed, that were so ambigous or vague, that they were impossible to enforce.
    The point is that we don’t know what words Edward exchanged with Eleanor. He might well have been deliberately ambigious, so she could not enforce the promises later on in a church court- and there is no evidence she did make any attempt to do so. This leads to my final point.

    Why was the pre-contract not judged in a church court? It should have been. The vast majority of marriage cases were, because marriage was under the jurisdiction of the church. Also because the personel of these courts had the necessary expertise in canon law, and they could interrogate witnesses, as well as allowing defendants to question the evidence presented, and plead thier own case.
    There was no such procedure in 1483. The case was judged on the basis of Bishop Stillington’s word and testimony alone- when most church courts required more than one witness. The parties involved could not speak for themselves, as they were both dead.
    Instead it was put before a secular convocation, of men who were not schooled in the technicaities and procedures of canon law.

    Quite simply, Richard did not have to scare the council into doing what he wanted. He and the Bishop could just over-ride and avoid the usual legal prodedure instead, and do what was expedient for them. Without witnesses to the event, without knowledge of the circumstances, or the actual words spoken, the court had little to go on except what they were told.
    I still suspect to this day, that if the matter had been put before a church court, they might well have ruled in favour of King Edward- especially if the case had been tried earler. The whole thing has all the appearances of a put up job.
    ….and having childish fits of pique about Henry VIII bending the law (so why couldn’t Richard do it too) do not solve anything.


    • Hi, thank you for your long and detailed comment. I agree that, based on the surviving documentation, we can’t answer all the questions about the precontract conclusively. However, that cuts both ways, so I think there’s still value in questioning the view that Richard faked the precontract by comparing his actions, as far as they’re known, to someone who tried to influence the outcome of a similar claim. I picked Henry VIII because he was a person of authority and his actions are relatively well documented and I included the possibility of coercion or rewards because it has been alleged that Richard scared the council and / or Three Estates into cooperation and Henry used both.

      It’s certainly possible that a church court may have come to a different conclusion about Edward and Eleanor, but then again it may not – as you say, we don’t know what exactly Edward said and the Three Estates included Lords Spiritual who would have known canon law. Also, Henry did refer his claims to church courts, but the outcome still depended on the cooperation of the witnesses, which leads back to Stillington – who was himself a bishop and knew canon law – and how he was treated by Richard.

      Personally I keep an open mind about what made Richard change course from working towards the coronation of his nephew to taking the crown himself, but on balance – taking into account everything I mentioned in my post – I think the possibility that the precontract was genuine has to be seriously considered.


      • I never said the pre-contract was ‘faked’. Its likely that Edward did make some kind of vague promise, and used it many times to get women into his bed- but had absolutely no intention of carrying it through.

        What I question is whether that ‘promise’ could have ever held up in court as a valid marriage. I greatly doubt it- and consdering the rules on free consent, I doubt the church would have taken great pains to enforce any marriage if both parties no longer wanted it.

        Thus, the whole thing just stinks of a convenient pretext to get the Princes out of the way. Deposing them would have courted too much opposition. better to make it look legal and above board.

        What strikes me as vaguely amusing is how many will assert with absolute certainty that Richard did not have to kill the Princes, because he cut them out of the sucession with the declaration of illigitimacy- but then declare they were the true legal heirs four years later- totally ignoring it.

        If it did not make a difference to the people at the time, who were prepared to use them as a focus for plots and uprisings against Henry Tudor, you can bet your botton dollar they would have been a focus for disaffection Richard had be lived longer. Titulus Regulus or none.

        He was not, contrary to popular opinion, universally adored- unlike today in certain circles. –Ducks–


      • I would also seriously question the testimony of the Crowland Chronicle, known for its pro-Yorkist bias.


    • Apologies for replying to your original comment, but WordPress doesn’t give me the option to reply to your follow-up comments.

      I didn’t mean you said that Richard faked the precontract, I meant that this is a common allegation which my blog post is questioning – hence its title (“How Easy Is It To Fake A Precontract?”). Sorry if that wasn’t clear. I’ve actually agreed with you that we can’t answer all the questions around the precontract conclusively without knowing the exact details and I never claimed we could. My post is based on the currently available documentation, incomplete and flawed as it may be. However, this documentation – yes, chronicles, but also account books, letters, coins etc – suggests that Richard was working towards the coronation of Edward V until mid-June 1483 when he wrote to York for troops and preparations for the coronation stopped – as explained in my post.

      As for the Crowland chronicler, again I agree that there are problems with his account and I take it with a pinch of salt, but how do you come to the conclusion that he had a pro-Yorkist bias? His stance towards Richard is generally hostile and Richard was a Yorkist. If anything I think the chronicler had an anti-Northern bias, one example being his remark about Richard’s reinforcements advancing from the North in “fearful” numbers, which is sometimes cited to support the allegation that Richard scared the council / Three Estates into cooperation. Hence why I mentioned it in my post.

      Lastly, I never suggested that Richard III was universally adored nor will you find a post on this blog that claims he was. We keep an open mind here and go where the evidence leads us. If new evidence emerges which proves conclusively that the precontract was fake or invalid I may well change my view, but until that happens I believe there’s a good chance – again, based on the currently available documentation – that it was genuine.


      • WordPress has some strange foibles, and as you say, one of these is the general lack of a reply button.

        I think one of the problems with this whole subject is that its so emotive, and there is so much misinformation on both sides. Even historians are not immune. They are their ‘pet theories’ (not quoting you) as well.

        As someone who dislikes misinformation (on all historical subjects, not just this one), I tend to investigate things and raise objection when I believe they are wrong, biased, or not presenting the full picture.
        That was the point with the commments about marriage laws and customs. Many people say ‘betrothals could not be broken-therefore…..
        The evidence does not show that, and to be honest, I think humans always have been inclined to bend the law to thier own ends, and always will.

        At the end of the day, I think a lot of it is a matter of interpretation. Sometimes, we all of us see what we want to see.


      • I think I was referring to Crowland’s general bias in relation to certain, earlier events.

        I totally get what you mean by anti-Northern bias! It was rife. When Margaret of Anjou bought Northerners and (heaven forbid) Scots with her, she might as well have been Lucifer himself flanked by the Demon hosts of hell, as far as the sources were concerned.
        And a woman fighting to protect her rights against men. What could be more unnatural? A Frenchwoman to boot, just like that ‘witch’ Joan of Arc.


      • I hope you don’t mind if I poke my nose into this terrific discussion, but in response to Lady of Winchester, I wanted to mention that the Richard III Society published an excellent article specifically challenging the Yorkist propaganda that Margaret of Anjou’s march on London in 1461 was bringing down “Northern demons” to inflict chaos, looting, rape/pillage, destruction and ruin. He compares what sympathetic Yorkist chroniclers were writing at the time against city records, grants of land/charters, and later activities to prove rather convincingly that the Crowland Continuator and Abbot Whethamstede, and Tudor historians who relied upon them, had developed a narrative that does not square with reality. Please see B.M. Cron, “Margaret of Anjou and the Lancastrian March on London, 1461,” THE RICARDIAN, December 1999, pp. 590-615, for further details. I view this article, and many others published by the R3S, as emblematic of good scholarship that challenges popular misconceptions about Queen Margaret and about this period of history. I find it refreshing to explore these avenues of thought; it reminds me that history is never cut and dried, and how important it is to question “perceived knowledge”.


    • Apologies again, I’m afraid WordPress is forcing me to reply to your original comment again.

      I completely agree with you that emotion, misinformation (my personal bugbear being copying & pasting “knowledge” without taking a critical look at the underlying facts or sources) and pet theories are among the biggest problems with not just Richard III, but also other areas of history. Of course we would never claim to know everything and, as you say, sometimes we have to interpret or make educated guesses and others may disagree with us (my fellow Loon and I sometimes disagree with each other!), so constructive comments are always welcome.


      • I have, sadly, had some very bad experiences with some Ricardians who give the sensible, level-headed, decent ones a bad name including having them make savage personal attacks against the Professor I studied under (No it was not David Starkey.), and others, such as Dan Jones.

        I don’t agree with everything my Professor says, but I respect him because he’s a good historian and a good tutor, he has been in the business much longer than me, and he knows more than I do about the sources.

        Really, I just think its wrong to attack people personally that you have never met.
        Critically examining thier works, and raising logical objections is fine, but not saying they’re stupid or ‘not a proper historian’ because you don’t like what they say- and then attacking those who defend them too.

        Sometimes, I wonder if people really understand what historians do, and how hard they work. It does make me smile what people say ‘there is hardly any evidence’. They clearly haven’t had to read and Calendars of Close Rolls, Exchequer records, Court rolls etc etc etc etc. I like to say there’s a lot of surviving evidence, its just that most of it is beauacracy, really boring and tedious, and doesn’t tell us what we’d like to know.


    • Unfortunately there’s a lot of unpleasantness on the internet and not just in relation to history. People should realise that personal attacks are an own goal. Not only do they make the attacker look bad, they also suggest that he / she doesn’t really have any arguments.

      A good friend of mine is an academic historian, so I absolutely appreciate the hard work that goes into original research.


      • True, but sadly many do not. What is sad is when they don’t even seem to realize there’s anything wrong with it, or they think that something someone said/did hundreds of years ago, or one passage in a book justifies it.

        What I also despise though is double standards. If a person insits that I to am have an objective, fair-minded view of Richard, I don’t want them to go claiming that the Woodvilles/Tudors/Beauforts were the Devil Incarnate, and making all sorts of sillly, ahistorical assertions about them.
        They were all human- they all had good and bad points like the rest of us. To pretend anything else is just silly, and looks hypocritical.


    • I completely agree about double standards. Even historians aren’t free from it – sometimes they praise the same actions in one person but condemn them in another. I also think it’s difficult to guess a person’s motivation or character from a distance of 500+ years.


      • It reminds me of a certain modern, fashionable revisionist idea that Henry V was a ‘religious fanatic’. Read the works of Christine de Pizan- if Henry was a religious fanatic, then so was she- and Joan of Arc was more fanatical then anyone. They just claimed authority from the Church Fathers- she said the Saints ‘told her to do it’ directly.

        What’s more there’s evidence that Joan allowed followers to kill men who wanted to surrender or negotiate, so if we’re going to talk about ‘War Crimes’ we should apply the same standards to her.
        Of course, its always unwise to apply such modern ideas to the past, when they had no Geneva Convention and had their own version of the ‘rules of war’ which they would have considered themselves to be abiding by.


    • I’m no expert on Henry V, but from what I understand his contemporaries agreed that some of his more unsavoury actions, such as killing the French prisoners at Agincourt, were necessary given that in his situation ransom on a large scale wasn’t practical. I suppose you could argue that e.g. beheading would have been more humane than locking them in a barn and setting it on fire, but I completely agree that judging medieval people by 21st century standards is silly.

      As for religion, a lot of bad things have been done in its name, including by saints. One person’s true faith is another’s superstition.


      • Actally, what a lot don’t mention is that the order to kill prisoners was rescinded when it was realized that the French weren’t going to regroup and launch another attack.


    • “Why was the pre-contract not judged in a church court?”
      Why indeed? Why did the woman with the motive and means- she was already in church sanctuary- do nothing to contest it?

      Could it be because she knew there was a pre-contract?


  4. Good post and good blog. I almost didn’t read it at all because of the title- thought I was going to get crook backs and Tudors as virtuous as they were victorious.


  5. Pingback: The Trial That Should Have Happened in 1483 | RICARDIAN LOONS

  6. Pingback: Bishop Stillington’s Testimony: Was it Enough under Church Law? | RICARDIAN LOONS

  7. I am not sure if you will even see this, since the article is quite old, and the last time you commented was 4ish years ago. However I would like to point out some mistakes you made.
    Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy were a thing in 1522, not 1527. It was during her first service to Queen Catherine that the Percy romance happened. We also can not say for certain that HENRY VIII was behind it falling apart. We do know Henry Percy’s father was against it, since the Boleyns were not nobility.

    The second thing, even if Katherine Howard said she had pre-contract with Dereham, there is no evidence Henry would have spared her.
    The Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 made it treason, and punishable by death, for a queen consort to fail to disclose her sexual history to the king within 20 days of their marriage, or to incite someone to commit adultery with her. This measure retroactively solved the matter of Katherine’s supposed precontract and made her unequivocally guilty. No formal trial was held.


    • Hi, thank you for your comment, but I don’t think I have made any mistakes.

      The date of the alleged precontract between Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy was based on Eustace Chapuy’s letter from 1536, stating that Henry VIII had found witnesses to testify that Anne had married Percy 9 years earlier. I have now amended it according to Kelly’s suggestion that he may have meant 9 years before Anne married the king, but the year is actually not important for the purpose of the article.

      The suggestion that Henry was behind the dissolution of this precontract is based on the account by George Cavendish, gentleman usher of Cardinal Wolsey, which is linked in the sources, but again it isn’t important for the purpose of the article. What is important is that Henry wanted Percy to admit to having a precontract with Anne, but without success.

      Lastly, while there is no evidence that Henry would have spared Catherine Howard if she had admitted to a precontract with Dereham – I wrote “might have” – this appears to be what he was hoping to achieve since she was “examined whether I called him Husband, and he me Wife”, but again without success.

      My argument in both cases was that, despite his position as king and Head of the Church of England, Henry was unable to bring about the desired result regarding a precontract and that it is therefore difficult to see how Richard could have succeed where Henry had failed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s