The White Rose Of Mortimer?

Most historians now accept that, while the white rose of York was a heraldic badge used by the house of York during the Wars of the Roses, the origins of the red rose of Lancaster can only be traced back to Henry VII.1 After his accession to the throne in 1485 and marriage to Elizabeth of York he effectively invented it when he created the bi-coloured red and white Tudor rose, which symbolised the union of the houses of Lancaster and York. But what about the origins of the white rose of York?

The Welsh Marches – Yorkist Heartland

It is hard to over estimate the influence their Mortimer ancestry had on the Yorkists and their claim to the English throne. The Mortimers were descended from Lionel, duke of Clarence, the third son of King Edward III, whereas the Lancastrian kings of England were descended from his fourth son, John duke of Lancaster. The Mortimer claim, albeit through a female line, was therefore more senior and the Mortimers had long been viewed with suspicion because of this. Upon the death of Edmund Mortimer, fifth earl of March and the family’s last male descendant, both his title and claim to the throne passed to the son of his sister Anne – Richard, third Duke of York (who also had a claim through is paternal ancestors, albeit less senior). York also inherited most of his wealth and therefore the funding for his campaign to eventually press this claim from his Mortimer ancestors. The lands he received included the town of Ludlow in the Welsh marches and its castle, where he and his family spent time and his sons Edward and Edmund had their own separate household, just like Edward’s own son later did.

Even much of the symbolism we now think of as Yorkist originates from the Mortimers. They were not just the earls of March, but also earls of Ulster and both Richard, Duke of York and his eldest son Edward added Mortimer and Ulster to their coats of arms, as did Edward’s daughters.

Edward’s arms before he became Edward IV, combining the Mortimer arms, Ulster and the royal arms of England

Edward also adopted the white lion of the earls of March as heraldic badge alongside the sun in splendour, a sunburst allegedly inspired by his victory over the Lancastrians at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461. As the name suggests, this place is situated in the Welsh marches not far from Ludlow and the contemporary Davies Chronicle indeed records that just before the battle he had witnessed a natural phenomenon known as parhelion:

“the Monday before the day of battle, . . . about 10 at clock before noon, were seen 3 suns in the firmament shining full clear, where of the people had great marvel, and thereof were aghast. The noble Earl Edward them comforted and said, ‘be of good comfort and dread not; this is a good sign, for these three suns betoken the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and therefore let us have good heart, and in the name of Almighty God go we against our enemies.’”2

However, the earliest source for the claim that “for the which cause, men imagined, that he gaue the sunne in his full brightnes for his cognisauce or badge” was the Tudor contemporary Edward Hall, whose chronicle wasn’t published until 1548, almost a hundred years after the battle. Moreover, as John Ashdown-Hill has noted:

“Edward, Earl of March (Edward IV) subsequently claimed to be the legitimate heir of his ancestor, King Edward III, and of Edward III’s grandson, King Richard II. Both of those earlier monarchs had also used forms of the sun as one of their royal badges in the fourteenth century.”3

Indeed, a list of heraldic badges used by Richard, duke of York allegedly dating from c. 1460 states that “The badges that he beareth by King Richard II is a white hart and the sun shining”, which implies that the house of York was already laying claim to a sunburst before the battle of Mortimer’s Cross which took place after the duke’s death.4 This would make sense given that the duke, when he submitted his claim to the throne to Parliament on 16 October 1460, specifically argued that after Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king, had deposed Richard II, the throne more properly belonged to Edmund Mortimer, who – as noted above – was descended from the third son of Edward III whereas Henry was only descended from his fourth son.5

Sunburst on Richard II’s tomb effigy (copyright: Westminster Abbey)

Whatever the inspiration for the sunburst in Yorkist heraldry, it is often seen combined with a white rose to form a rose-en-soleil. Edward, who was born in Rouen, France, where his father was stationed during the Hundred Years’ War, was referred to as “the Rose” or “the rose of Rouen” in Yorkist propaganda documents, such as this:

“Lette us walke in a newe wyne yerde, and lette us make us a gay gardon in the monythe of marche with thys fayre whyte ros and herbe, the Erle of Marche.”6

Rose-en-soleil

It is therefore not surprising that when Edward, now King Edward IV, incorporated Ludlow as a parliamentary borough in 1473, having set up the Council of Wales and the Marches in the previous year to act on behalf of his infant son and heir, Edward V, for whom he had established a household at Ludlow Castle, he granted the town a coat of arms that combined the white lion of the Earls of March with three white roses. But was this a case of merging existing Yorkist symbolism into Mortimer heraldry or the house of York seizing its Mortimer heritage and reinventing it as Yorkist?

Arms of Ludlow

The Mystery Of Misericord S15

The parish church of St Laurence in Ludlow, sometimes referred to as “Cathedral of the Marches” due to its size and beauty, dates back to at least Norman times, but it was substantially rebuilt in the 15th century after Richard, duke of York, had inherited the Mortimer titles and lands. Part of this building work, which started in 1433 and was completed around 1455, was to enlarge the chancel and add a new roof decorated with roof bosses heavy with Yorkist heraldry, such as Richard’s personal badge, the Falcon and the Fetterlock, and the white Hind at Rest of Richard II.

Ceiling in Ludlow with roof bosses (click to enlarge)

The chancel also received one of the finest collections of misericords to have survived England’s very own Cultural Revolution, King Henry VIII‘s Reformation. Medieval church services could be very long and misericords helped priests, monks or choristers to stand through them even if their seats were folded up by allowing them to lean against a ledge on the underside of the seat. Most of these ornately carved lean-tos were destroyed during the Reformation, in some cases used as firewood to melt the valuable lead out of stained glass windows, many of which were also lost at that time.

Misericord N10 with the Hind at Rest of Richard II

St Laurence’s is home to 28 misericords which appear to have been carved in at least two phases. The first is thought to date from about 1425 and produced 16 misericords while the remaining 12 were carved during the second phase, which followed the completion of the new chancel and roof. They were commissioned by the Guild of St Mary and St John, commonly known as Palmers Guild, a philanthropic confraternity of prominent citizens from Ludlow and the surrounding area. The Guild accounts for 1447 show that 120 planks of “waynscotbord” from Bristol had been acquired to make “new installations … in the high choir of the parish church …”.

The exact distribution of old versus new misericords is not certain as they were removed and reinstalled during the restoration of the church in the 19th century and no inventory was made to document their original position. It is however possible to date individual misericords based on the heraldry used in the carvings. For example, the fetterlock, a badge originally used by Edward Langley, first duke of York, appears on misericord N13 in combination with a falcon to form the personal badge of Richard, Duke of York and misericord S15 shows a rose within a fetterlock, clearly another reference to the house of York.

Misericord N13

A further misericord, N15, has roses flanked by more roses. All three motifs also appear on roof bosses in the ceiling above, so must have been part of the second wave of carvings which followed the expansion of the chancel. Is this evidence for the white rose of York being imported into the Welsh Marches? Not so hasty.

Misericord N15

Misericord S15 is actually reconstituted from fragments. The ledge with the carving of a rose within a fetterlock appears to have been grafted on to a plain seat and it is uncertain whether or not the twisted ring next to it is part of the original supporters as it is completely separate from the main carving.

Misericord S15

The rose on S15 is similar in style to the supporters on misericord N15, so both misericords were probably carved in the same phase, and both have two layers of five petals each while the roses at the centre of N15 have one layer of five petals. However, the twisted ring is empty with no indication if it ever contained another image and, if so, what it was. In the ceiling above is a roof boss with a similar ring, divided into four segments and filled with foliage or flowers. Did the ring on S15 originally correspond to this roof boss? Or did it contain something else?

Leintwardine – The Missing Link?

In the village of Leintwardine, not far from the old Mortimer power base of Wigmore, stands the church of St Mary Magdalene. Its location is rural, its size modest and aesthetically it is unremarkable. Having been built in several phases from the 12th to the late 15th century, each new structure appears to have been grafted on to the earlier ones without much thought for symmetry. Nevertheless, it has received an unusual degree of attention from the powers that be. The Mortimers funded much of the building works and in 1328 Roger Mortimer, first Earl of March (1287 – 1330), made a grant for initially nine and later ten chantry priests to sing daily masses for the souls of King Edward III and Queen Philippa, Edward III’s mother Isabella (who infamously was rumoured to have been Roger’s lover and for a while ruled England with him), the bishop of Lincoln as well as his own family and ancestors. Despite having executed Roger for treason, Edward III himself made two pilgrimages to Leintwardine in 1353, gifting money on one visit and laying a cloth of gold before the statue of the Virgin Mary on the other.

Among the church’s treasures are the wooden choir stalls and misericords in its chancel. Their origin is uncertain. According to one theory, they were brought here from Wigmore Abbey at the dissolution of the monasteries, together with the carved stone fragments now fitted into the wall left and right of the altar. Wigmore Abbey, dedicated in 1179 by the Bishop of Hereford, but originally founded around 1140 at Shobdon by Oliver de Merlimond, a steward of Hugh Mortimer (c.1100 – 1181), was a place of great spiritual significance for the Mortimers and many of them, including several lords of March, were buried there. Tradition has it that every year on the feast of the nativity the abbot led a procession from Wigmore Abbey to St Mary Magdalene, so the church would seem like a natural new home for the choir stalls after the abbey was dissolved. Unfortunately, not much is left of the abbey apart from the abbot’s lodgings which are now incorporated into a private residence. The abbey church is almost completely destroyed, so doesn’t offer any clues.

According to another theory, the stalls were made for the Mortimer Chapel in St Mary Magdalene, which is thought to have been completed around 1353, sparking the visit from King Edward III. However, chantry chapels don’t normally contain choir stalls and the heraldry in their carvings suggests that they were created at a later date. Several bear the Antelope Gorged and Chained, a personal badge of the Lancastrian kings which can be found on the tomb of Henry V (1386 – 1422) at Westminster Abbey, but is most often associated with his son, Henry VI (1421 – 1471). It appears on many pilgrim badges for this king who was revered as a saint after his death, although he was never canonised.

Choir stall with Antelope Gorged and Chained

This would make the choir stalls of St Mary Magdalene contemporary to the first phase of misericords at St Laurence in Ludlow and indeed the Antelope Gorged and Chained is also found in Ludlow.

Misericord N6 in Ludlow

Moreover, like St Laurence, St Mary Magdalene also has an elaborately carved wooden ceiling whose roof bosses mirror some of the carvings on the choir stalls. However, unlike Ludlow the choir stalls and ceiling at Leintwardine lack any Yorkist symbolism. Or do they?

Choir stall with rose in ring

On two of the stalls is a carving which bears a striking resemblance to misericord S15 in Ludlow: a twisted ring, this one encircling a five-petaled rose. Roses are ubiquitous in medieval imagery and, according to a tourist guide for Shrewsbury, the twisted cord is a common motif in the Shropshire area, but the rose and ring motif is repeated on one of the roof bosses in the wooden ceiling where it occupies a prominent position on the central ridge, just like the falcon and fetterlock and rose within a fetterlock in Ludlow. It would therefore seem unlikely that the use of this motif is purely decorative.

Ceiling in Leintwardine with rose roof boss (click to enlarge)

But if it isn’t and if the choir stalls and ceiling date from the early or mid-15th century, then who commissioned and paid for them? The church’s main benefactors, the Mortimers, died out in the male line in 1425 and their heir Richard, duke of York was 14-year old lad who lived with his Neville in-laws in the North. Moreover, their rising political profile meant that they were increasingly absentee landlords with their last major building projects at Wigmore and Ludlow dating back to the 14th century. Indeed, a report from 1424 states that the abbey in which so many of their ancestors lay buried was in a sorry state and used by locals as a public toilet, which suggests that they hadn’t paid attention to it for some time. Did the local congregation raise the funds for the church or did the influence of the Ludlow Palmers who renovated St Laurence extend to Leintwardine? But if so, why is there no heraldic reference to the new lord as there is in Ludlow? The roses in rings on the choir stalls and ceiling are the only potentially Yorkist motifs in the whole church. The misericords were attacked with an axe during the Reformation, so perhaps some were lost, but the ceiling is fully preserved and doesn’t feature any falcons or fetterlocks.

Combining all of the above, the most likely explanation seems to be that the choir stalls and ceiling were commissioned for the chancel and nave of St Mary Magdalene where they are currently situated and installed after the accession of Henry V and before Richard, duke of York, who didn’t come into possession of all his estates as Duke of York, Earl of March and Lord Mortimer until 1432 and then appears to have focused his attention on Ludlow, had fully established himself as the new lord. So what of the roses?

The White Rose of Mortimer?

In the middle ages the rose was associated with Christ and the Virgin Mary and therefore popular as both decorative and heraldic emblem. As John Ashdown-Hill and others have noted, “Roses of three colours – white, gold and red – had certainly been used by various kings, queens, princes and princesses of the so-called Plantagenet royal family as badges since the thirteenth century.”7 These included Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, her son Edward I and Richard, duke of York’s uncle Edward, second Duke of York. But they were not the only ones. The seal of Edmund Mortimer, third Earl of March (1352 – 1381) showed his arms suspended from a rose bush in flower. Being a seal, the colour of the petals is unspecified, but C. W. Scott-Giles has claimed that the white rose was “originally a badge of the Mortimer earls of March, and was used by Earl Roger, who died in 1369”8 while Michael Powell Siddons reports that:

“A white rose is given in Writhe’s Garter Armorial as the badge of Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, a founder knight of the Order of the Garter, and a pedigree roll of Edward IV of 1461 shows that the rose was considered to have come to the House of York from the Mortimers, by descent from whom came their claim to the throne. This roll does not give a colour to this rose, and does not attribute any rose to the House of Lancaster. Another pedigree roll of Edward IV is freely decorated with the white rose en soleil, but without any indication as to which family it came from. Some later sources give the Mortimers’ badge as a rose per pale Argent and Gules. It is noteworthy that although the will of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, quoted below, mentions several items decorated with roses, none of these are white. In the lists of the badges of the Duke of York (sometimes given as those of Edward IV), the earliest of which probably date from before 1460, the white rose is given as a badge for the castle of Clifford, which came to the House of York through the second marriage of Richard, Earl of Cambridge (exec. 1415), with Maud, daughter of Thomas, Lord Clifford.”9

Indeed, the contemporary list of heraldic badges used by Richard, duke of York which associates the sunburst with Richard II also associates the white rose with Clifford Castle. Unfortunately, how the rose badge came to be associated with the castle is unknown and the building itself offers no clues as it lies in ruins. However, the Maud Clifford who was the heiress of Clifford Castle married not Richard, earl of Cambridge, but first William Longespee, earl of Salisbury, and after his death John Giffard of Brimpsfield, after whose death in 1299 (!) it passed through her daughter Margaret, countess of Lincoln, to the earldom of Lincoln and then in the 14th century to the Mortimers of Wigmore.10 It therefore probably came to the house of York through Anne or Edmund Mortimer.

As descendants of both the Plantagenet royal family and the Mortimers the house of York could have inherited its rose badge from either or both these sources, but the absence of any Yorkist heraldry in Leintwardine and the fact that the red rose of Lancaster hadn’t been invented yet seems to suggest that the roses at St Mary Magdalene don’t refer to either Richard, duke of York or Henry VI. Moreover, John Ashdown-Hill has pointed out that, with the exception of one poem which must date from before 1460 since it mentions the Earl of Salisbury who died at the battle of Wakefield, in contemporary political poems the white rose of York “is not explicitly related to Richard, Duke of York, himself. Instead, York’s personal badge is generally referred to as the fetterlock. For example, a poem on the battle of Northampton (10 July 1460) speaks of ‘certeyne persones þt late exiled were, … þe Rose (Edward, Earl of March), þe Fetyrlok (Richard, Duke of York), þe Egle (Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury) and þe Bere (Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick)’.” Instead “the Yorkist rose often appears to have been seen specifically as the badge of Edward, Earl of March, eldest son of the Duke of York – the future King Edward IV” who wasn’t born until 1442, didn’t move to Ludlow until the 1450s and didn’t lay claim to the throne until after his father’s death in 1460.11 This would tie in with the presumed timing of the building work at St Mary Magdalene and the two stages of renovation at St Laurence’s. It therefore seems not unreasonable to suggest that the rose badge was originally used by the Mortimers and adopted by their Yorkist heirs around the time when Richard, duke of York began to lay claim to the throne of England.

Falcon and fetterlock with silver (white) rose, now oxidised, from the Edward IV Roll

Conclusion

The youthful years Edward IV spent with his brother in their household at Ludlow Castle seem to have left a deep impression on him since he established a similar routine for his own son, Edward V, and his daughter, Elizabeth of York, later followed the same pattern for her son, prince Arthur Tudor, whose heart is buried in St Laurence’s. Perhaps they also inspired him to brand the house of York by marrying a rose badge used by his Mortimer ancestors, including his father Richard, Duke of York, Earl of March and Lord Mortimer, with the sunburst of Richard II, just like Henry VII branded the Tudors by marrying the white rose of York to the (fictional) red rose of Lancaster. After all, he also adopted other Mortimer badges, such as the white lion of March which he kept using even after he had become king of England, for example on livery collars, and medieval nobles who, thanks to intermarriage, were often spoilt for choice when it came to arms and heraldic badges, usually chose to emphasise their most illustrious connections. In Edward’s case they would have been those upon whom he based his claim to the throne of England. As John Ashdown-Hill has concluded:

“If Edward IV did indeed derive his use of the white rose badge via his Mortimer ancestry, together with his claim to the throne, then his marrying of it with the sunburst emblem which had been a badge of Richard II, whether or not this was inspired by the triple sun phenomenon seen at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross, looks very much like a powerful legitimist statement in symbolic form.”12

Livery collar of suns and roses with the lion of March, tomb effigy of Sir Richard Herbert of Coldbrook, Abergavenny

I would like to thank the Mortimer History Society for their encouragement and patience with my many questions.

Sources & Further Reading:

  • Peter Klein: “THE MISERICORDS & CHOIR STALLS AT ST LAURENCE’S CHURCH, LUDLOW”, Ludlow (2015)

  • David Lloyd, Ewart Carson & Don Beattie: “THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST LAURENCE, LUDLOW”, Ludlow Parochial Church Council (2014)

  • Philip Hume: “ON THE TRAIL OF THE MORTIMERS”, Logaston Press (2016)

  • John Challis: “WIGMORE ABBEY – THE TREASURE OF MORTIMER”, Wigmore Books (2016)

  • John Ashdown-Hill: “THE RED ROSE OF LANCASTER?”, The Ricardian, vol. 10 (June 1996), pp. 406–420

  • John Ashdown-Hill: “THE WARS OF THE ROSES”, Amberley Publishing (2015)

  • Thomas Penn: “HOW HENRY VII BRANDED THE TUDORS”, The Guardian (2 March 2012) https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/02/tudors-henry-vii-wars-roses

  • Laura Blanchard: “THE EDWARD IV ROLL – THE ROLL ONLINE”, Richard III Society American Branch http://www.r3.org/on-line-library-text-essays/the-edward-iv-roll/the-roll-online/

  • Free Library of Philadelphia: “CHRONICLE OF THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD FROM CREATION TO WODEN, WITH A GENEALOGY OF EDWARD IV” https://libwww.freelibrary.org/digital/item/3310


  1. Thomas Penn: “HOW HENRY VII BRANDED THE TUDORS”, The Guardian (2 March 2012) 

  2. C William Marx: “AN ENGLISH CHRONICLE 1377-1461”, Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales MS 21068 and Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Lyell 34 
  3. John Ashdown-Hill: “THE WARS OF THE ROSES”, Amberley Publishing (2015) 
  4. ARCHOEOLOGIA vol. xvii, p.226, citing Digby MSS No. 28, quoted in Caroline Halsted: “RICHARD III AS DUKE OF GLOUCESTER AND KING OF ENGLAND, volume 1, pp. 404-5 
  5. Zenonian: “YORK OR LANCASTER: WHO WAS THE RIGHTFUL KING OF ENGLAND? PART 2 – FOR A KINGDOM ANY OATH MAY BE BROKEN – YORK’S TITLE 1460”, Murrey and Blue https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/york-or-lancaster-who-was-the-rightful-king-of-england 
  6. V. J. Scattergood: “POLITICS AND POETRY IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY”, Barnes & Noble (1971), p. 189 
  7. John Ashdown-Hill: “THE WARS OF THE ROSES” 
  8. C. W. Scott-Giles: “SHAKESPEARE’S HERALDRY”, Heraldry Today (1971) 
  9. Michael Powell Siddons: “HERALDIC BADGES IN ENGLAND AND WALES”, Vol. II, part 1, Boydell Press (2009), p. 211. 
  10. “A HISTORY OF CLIFFORD”, Clifford Parish Council (2008) and “DETAILED HISTORY OF CLIFFORD CASTLE EARLY OWNERSHIP” http://cliffordcastle.org/?page_id=177 
  11. John Ashdown-Hill: “THE WARS OF THE ROSES” 
  12. John Ashdown-Hill: “THE RED ROSE OF LANCASTER?”, The Ricardian, vol. 10 (June 1996), p. 410 

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