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 1527, 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)

Annette Carson: “RICHARD DUKE OF GLOUCESTER AS LORD PROTECTOR AND HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLAND”, Imprimis Imprimatur (2015)

Claire Ridgway: “Henry Percy Won’t Play Ball”, The Anne Boleyn Files http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/13-may-1536-henry-percy-wont-play-ball

Marilee Hanson: “The relationship between Henry Percy & Anne Boleyn”, English History http://englishhistory.net/tudor/henry-percy-anne-boleyn-relationship

Claire Ridgway: “The End of Henry VIII’s Marriage to Anne of Cleves”, The Anne Boleyn Files http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/9-july-1540-the-end-of-henry-viiis-marriage-to-anne-of-cleves

Marilee Hanson: “Anne of Cleves: Facts, Biography, Information & Portraits”, English History http://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/anne-of-cleves

Marilee Hanson: “Catherine Howard: Facts, Biography, Portraits & Information”, English History http://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/catherine-howard

Claire Ridgway: “The Fall of Catherine Howard”, The Anne Boleyn Files http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/the-fall-of-catherine-howard

Claire Ridgeway: “The Bill of Attainder against Catherine Howard and Lady Rochford”, The Anne Boleyn Files http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/21-january-1541-bill-attainder-catherine-howard-lady-rochford

Marilyn Roberts: “Terror for the Howards at Christmas”, The Anne Boleyn Files http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/470-years-ago-terror-for-the-howards-at-christmas