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

Debunking the Myths – Richard the Secret Usurper

Ripon Cathedral misericord

“And in another isle toward the south dwell folk of foul stature and of cursed kind that have no heads. And their eyen be in their shoulders.” – Sir John Mandeville (14th c.)

Today’s blog focuses on the long-standing myth and rumor that, upon Edward IV’s sudden and unexpected death on the 9th of April, 1483, Richard secretly conspired to usurp the throne from his nephew, the 12-year old Edward V. The rumor finds dramatic presentation in Shakespeare’s play, but some contemporary chroniclers say it had been in circulation from the very beginning of the boy’s 11-week reign.

Dominic Mancini, an Italian cleric and diplomat who was sent to London to report intelligence back to the French king Louis XI, wrote in 1483 that the fear of usurpation found root even before Richard left his castle in Yorkshire to accompany the young king to London for his coronation. Mancini writes of a widespread belief that the appointment of a Lord Protector for the boy inevitably placed the uncle in a position to take the crown because “it had been found that no regent ever laid down his office, save reluctantly, and from armed compulsion, whence civil wars had often arisen.” “Moreover, if the entire government were committed to one man he might easily usurp the sovereignty.” “Having entered the city the first thing he [Richard] saw to was to have himself proclaimed, by authority of the council and all the lords, protector or regent of the king and realm. Then he set his thoughts on removing, or at least undermining, everything that might stand in the way of his mastering the throne.”

Some scholars even suggest Edward IV did not intend a protectorate at all, saying that it was his intention for his young son to be immediately anointed in a coronation ceremony, and henceforth rule on his own behalf with the assistance of a royal council. Professor Rosemary Horrox takes this viewpoint by saying that Richard “made himself protector” in her introduction to the Parliamentary Rolls of 1484, and in her book RICHARD III: A STUDY OF SERVICE, where she writes that the man who authored the Crowland Chronicle, a man who was likely a member of Edward IV’s inner circle and possibly on the royal council, voiced no objection to this hasty coronation and the bypassing of Richard having a dominant role in the reign of Edward V.

Both Mancini and the Crowland chronicler were writing in retrospect, following Richard’s accession to the throne on June 26, 1483, after the news broke that the children of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth were illegitimate by their parents’ bigamous and invalid marriage. Thus, it is no surprise that their narratives are shaped by this hindsight; inevitably they both make suppositions about Richard’s true intentions in order to view the events of May-June, 1483 within some logical framework. It is a commonplace difficulty when examining any account of historical events, whether written by a diplomat, a cleric, or a merchant in his personal correspondence.

This is why physical evidence from the period can be much more enlightening than letters, missives or chronicles written by contemporaries. Perhaps no more dramatic proof of this can be found than in the discovery of Richard III’s skeletal remains, the information they’ve provided and the myths they have already dispelled. Examination of those remains has already proven that Richard did not suffer from a “hunchback” or a withered arm or a horribly disfiguring physical impairment.

In this vein, I would like to discuss another piece of physical evidence that lends silent testimony to Richard’s intentions in May and June, 1483. This evidence, I believe, confirms that Richard was more widely accepted as Lord Protector than previously reported and there was no premeditation to remove Edward V.

A Most Curious Coin

In preparing my talk on the symbolism of Richard’s boar badge for the Richard III Foundation in October, 2015, I ran across a very surprising discovery: a coin that was minted and distributed in 1483 – also known as the “Year of Three Kings: Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III”. It was arrestingly beautiful and, given that it was struck at the Tower Mint in London during one of the most controversial periods of English history, I felt compelled to research it further.

Boar coin

Gold Angel Coin

This is the front or “obverse” side of the coin, a monetary unit established by the first Yorkist king, Edward IV, and called the Angel. With the exception of Edward IV’s brief and failed experiment with a “Rose-Noble” or “Ryal” coin, the Angel was the most valuable of all coins (80p), being made of gold, and was intended to replace the gold Noble coins which had been circulated in England since the reign of Edward III. The image on the obverse side of Angel coins depicts the Archangel Saint Michael slaying a dragon. Around the edge of the coin are words in abbreviated Latin announcing the name of the ruling monarch and his titles – king of England, France and Lord of Ireland. In the above image, those words indicate that the monarch’s name is Edward.

Taking a closer look at the coin, I noticed right away that there was a boar’s head between the saint’s halo and the first letter of Edward’s name.  I wanted to know why it was there and whether it had any symbolic meaning that could tell us something about the politics of the day. In other words, why would the well-known device of Richard as Duke of Gloucester and later King Richard III, appear on a coin during his brother’s or his nephew’s reigns?

What I discovered is that Edward IV’s early reign saw not only the inventing of the Angel as a new currency, but the development of a new system of “initial marks” or “privy marks” or “mint marks” on coinage. Prior to 1461, English coins routinely had mint marks on them to signal where they were struck (there were multiple mints in England, including York, Canterbury and London), to give some information about their age, and which “run” of coin stamping they were produced in. The minting of coins in the medieval period was a combination of artistic skill, basic manufacturing and quality control. Bullion or plate would be brought into the mint, fashioned into blanks and then stamped with coin dies to produce officially sanctioned images. The dies were created by skilled craftsmen with the approval and under the careful eye of the Mint Master.

Every three months, the English Exchequer would conduct something known as the “Trial of the Pyx” – random coins from various mint runs would be carefully examined and weighed against official exemplar coins kept in the Pyx Box. Coins that were found unequal in weight to the Pyx exemplar, or with imperfections in their hammered images, told the examiners that there was a problem with a particular run of coins coming out of the mint. Sometimes, it was a corrupt moneyer who provided bullion or plate that did not contain the right amount of silver or gold in the alloy, thus cheating the Crown by skimming off small amounts of precious metal, a practice that often brought with it a the penalty of death. If this was the case, the examiners at the Pyx Trial could then go back and “recall” the coins bearing similar mint marks from the production batches. And possibly identify the cheater who supplied the bullion.

The secret language of “mint marks” was usually in the form of crosses (saltires), loops, or pellets. During Edward IV’s reign, a new system was developed: the addition of mint marks that were uniquely heraldic. This practice was truly innovative and continued for over two hundred years thereafter, until the practice of hammering coins was discontinued. Consistent with this new Yorkist practice, coins during the reign of Edward IV, especially those of great value like Angels, would contain mint-mark symbols of significance to his royal house. The Rose and the Sun in Splendor were particular favorites, both being heraldic badges of Edward IV.

When changing the mint mark, an artisan would sometimes just recarve the new image over the previous one. It saved time and money to do so, as opposed to creating an entirely new coin die. Even more confusingly, I discovered that English kings who newly came to their thrones would sometimes just use their predecessor’s coin dies: the artisans at the mint would pick up the prior dies, make whatever changes were necessary (if any) and continue stamping out new money until the new king’s administration developed a design for his own coinage.

So that’s a very basic summary of minting coins in the 15th century. But here’s the rub: Edward IV never used the boar’s head on any of his coinage, as a heraldic mint mark or otherwise in the symbolic imagery of his reign. I had to ask myself what I was looking at. Was it a coin from Edward IV’s, Edward V’s or even the early days of Richard III’s reign? The balance of evidence suggests it was from that most precarious of periods in the Plantagenet dynasty: the few short weeks when Edward V was king and his uncle Richard was recognized as Lord Protector.

A Gold Angel from the Lord Protectorate Period: May-June 1483

In October of 1955, two workmen reported that they had dug up 83 gold and 22 silver coins at the corner of the Zandstraat in Herentals, a province of Antwerp, Belgium. “They had been engaged in foundation work for a new building to be erected on the site of an ancient house and had found the coins about 5 feet below street level.” It turns out the workmen falsely reported their discovery; what they’d actually found was an ancient broken vase that contained a hoard of 225 gold and 22 silver coins that was probably hidden by someone during the Spanish-Dutch wars in the late 16th century. When I read the article concerning this discovery in the British Numismatic Journal, written by preeminent coin expert Herbert Schneider in 1955, my eyes immediately jumped to a sentence describing the origin of the coins, coming from “no less than 36 different countries, provinces, seigneuries, or towns, including 20 English gold coins, among them a George Noble of Henry VIII and an Angel of Edward V.”

Schneider proceeded to catalogue and describe each of the English coins:

“Apart from the obvious rarity of a rather crinkled and somewhat battered George Noble which has normal features and legends, only an Angel of Edward V (Pl. XXV, 19), is of outstanding importance and interest. This is the fifth known specimen and was struck from the same pair of dies as the British Museum coin, illustrated in Brooke’s English Coins, Pl. xxxv. 2, which had hitherto been on a plane of its own, for the other three Angels of Edward V are all from a different altered obverse die of Edward IV combined with a different reverse die of Blunt + Whitton’s Type XXII. On Whitton’s list we find their obverse under No. 7, and the reverse is Blunt + Whitton Type XXII, reverse of No. 6, whereas the British Museum and the Herentals specimens were struck from the dies listed by Whitton under No. 4, the reverse of which tallies with Blunt + Whitton Type XXII, reverse of No. 7.”

Although I am not a numismatist by any stretch of the imagination, this description told me that there were, indeed, gold Angels produced during the short reign of Edward V. More surprisingly is how Schneider went on to describe the appearance of the Edward V Angel found in Herentels, Belgium:

Edward V (1483)

ANGEL. Obv[erse]. Initial mark Boar’s Head (over Sun + Rose). Read DI FRANC*/*. Saltire stops.

Rev[erse]. Initial mark Sun+Rose. Reads /DRVCEM REDEMP* otherwise no stops. Whitton No. 4. (Cf. Brooke’s English Coins, Pl. xxxv, 2.)

So now I had an expert saying that during the reign of Edward V, gold coins such as Angels were minted with the boar’s head mark on them.

Reading further, I found an article from 1949 in the British Numismatic Journal, written by F. O. Arnold, which addressed the controversy over Angel coins bearing the boar’s head mark.   The controversy mainly arose because Edward V’s reign was only 11 weeks long – not long enough in some numismatists’ minds to produce coinage. They argued that such coins were produced during the end of Edward IV’s reign. However, Dr. Arnold disagreed and said the Tower Mint records showed in Edward V’s reign “some 49 lb. in gold coins and 434 lb. in silver coins were in fact minted, and Hawkins himself and most other numismatists subsequently agreed that coins bearing the name of Edward and a boar’s head upon them were definitely assignable to the reign of Edward V.”

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of coins that still exist today that are known to come from the reign of Edward IV. None of them contain a boar’s head.   This fact, along with the opinions of Schneider and Arnold and the British Museum, suggest that the coin shown above was in fact minted during Edward V’s reign. At the very least, it shows that a coin die was created with the name of King Edward and a Boar’s Head on it. Can there be any explanation other than it was made between April 9 and June 26, 1483?

It turns out that some coin experts, and indeed one who gave a presentation at a meeting of the British Numismatic Society in the mid-1980s, have the opinion that the gold Angel with a boar’s head and bearing the name of Edward was actually made during the early months of Richard III’s reign. They argue that the mint men simply picked up a die from the prior Edward V’s coinage, and stamped a boar’s head on top of what had been there originally. But that theory and its presentation were never published in the Society’s journal. And, given the way Richard III came to the crown – following the deposition of Edward V – it would seem illogical and even contrary to common sense for Richard III’s new coins to bear the name of a king who was just declared a bastard, although it is always possible that some errant coins were produced. If it was a matter of convenience to be re-using old dies and carving a boar’s head over a previous mint mark, then why didn’t the goldsmith also carve over the name Edward?  Coins produced during Richard III’s reign always abbreviated his name as “Ricard” so all it took was etching over three letters – not a very onerous task.

Finally, I located an article from 1934 in the British Numismatic Journal written by Christopher Blunt that addressed more broadly the “Coinage of Edward V”. There, he catalogues not only an Angel coin from the Protectorate period, but also a Groat, Half-Groat, and Penny – all bearing the boar’s head with the name Edward on the obverse.   So it appears that the Angel coin I was looking at wasn’t just a “one off” event. Coinage during the short reign of Edward V indisputably bore (forgive the pun) boar’s head mint marks.

What does this all mean? Can we deduce any political messages from the imagery contained on the Edward V coins? I think we can.

Political Symbolism of the Edward V Gold Angel

It would be stating the obvious that images and symbols were widely used for political propaganda in the 15th century. We need look no further than the Edward IV Roll at the Free Library of Philadelphia to observe how the Yorkists used the power of images to maximize political messaging. Examination of the multiple images in the Edward IV Roll is notable for its utter lack of a boar, or boar’s head, as a heraldic or family device. It belonged, uniquely, to Richard when he became Duke of Gloucester and later King.

Coins, like genealogical rolls, promoted political messages. The coins bearing the name of Edward V and a boar’s head mint mark announce very strongly that Richard was recognized to be the singular powerful lord supporting his reign. Not only was he personally subsidizing it by supplying it with his own money and administrative talents, but he was the undoubted “power behind the power” in maintaining his nephew’s realm. There is no dispute that in the period from May 9 to mid-June, the Crown’s administrative machinery was kept in smooth working order without any evidence of Richard trying to “undermine” Edward V’s rule.

Rosemary Horrox demonstrates in her book RICHARD III: A STUDY OF SERVICE that there is no evidence showing panicked minds or general insecurity between Richard’s assumption as Lord Protector and events leading up the first sermons preached about Edward IV’s precontracted marriage to Eleanor Talbot. In fact, she says, the council operated in apparent harmony and without controversy; Richard made every attempt to maintain continuity with the prior regime, without promoting his own partisans into the mix. Sir John Wood, formerly the Speaker of the Commons in Edward IV’s 1483 Parliament, was made Lord Treasurer of the Exchequer to replace the deceased Earl of Essex on the 16th of May. William, Lord Hastings, was re-ordained in his position as Master of the Tower Mint on the 20th of May. Coinage struck at the Tower Mint in May and June was made under the mandate of the Lord Treasurer, John Wood, showing that perhaps Hastings was either distracted with other issues or perhaps falling out of favor. In any case, Horrox comments that at this time, “most Englishmen seem to have acknowledged” Richard’s authority, as he was able to command former men from Edward IV’s household in dicey situations where orders issuing from a suspected usurper would have otherwise been met with a decided lack of enthusiasm.  There was no indication of the latter.

That Richard was widely accepted as Lord Protector and as the “power behind the power” of Edward V’s nascent regime is even more strongly supported by the speech prepared by John Russell, bishop of Lincoln and the new Chancellor under Edward V. This speech was prepared in anticipation of the Parliament scheduled for the 25th of June, and was probably written somewhere between the 13th of May and the 5th  or 10th of June. As Professor Charles Ross has commented in his biography RICHARD III, this speech carries with it not only the personal viewpoint of Russell, but “may be regarded as official government policy”. Russell’s speech castigates the Queen’s relatives as being unreliable support to the new regime, and casts Richard as Lepidus, twice consul of Rome, who was elected by the Roman senate to have guardianship of the boy Ptolemy, king of Egypt and to not only provide for his education and physical well-being but also to address himself to the administration of all great things concerning his realm. As Annette Carson explains in her treatise, RICHARD AS LORD PROTECTOR AND HIGH CONSTABLE (2015), this was a proposition that gave even more power to Richard as guardian of Edward V and Protector of the Realm.  Certainly, there is no evidence here of any fear that he was grasping to usurp his nephew’s crown.

Coins from the reign of Edward V thus provide us a glimpse into a stable albeit brief period, where Richard’s authority as Lord Protector was not controversial and where the new government seemed poised to solidify and even enlarge his guardianship. The disclosure of Edward V’s bastardy arose outside the inner workings of Richard’s protectorate administration, and must have been just as surprising and shocking to him as to the public.

(By the way:  if you’re interested in acquiring an Edward V Angel coin such as the one described above, be prepared to pay a hefty price.  Auction estimates range in the 25,000 GBP range for one in good condition. And that was in 2013.)