Friday, October 29, 2021

Was Edward IV's Marriage to Elizabeth Woodville Valid?


Unknown author, Anglo-Flemish School, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Was Edward IV’s Marriage Valid?

The beautiful golden-haired widow pleading with him for the return of her lands impressed the young King Edward IV. How brave she was to talk to the King herself! Her family fought on the Lancastrian side in the recent wars, the opposite side to him, but she dared to see him alone.

Edward soon fell in love with the lovely Elizabeth Woodville, but legend has it that when he tried to seduce her she suddenly threatened him with a knife, telling him that it was marriage or nothing. Determined to have the young woman, Edward married her in secret in 1464, not openly in the face of the church, as no banns were declared. There were rumours that he had even hired a pretend priest, so that he could have his way with Elizabeth, and that he’d done this before with other women!

However, Edward soon told his family about the marriage. They were furious about an alliance with the ambitious Woodvilles, and regarded Elizabeth’s status as too low for Edward. The Earl of Warwick, the powerful ‘Kingmaker’ was especially displeased when the King suddenly declared that he couldn’t marry the French Princess Bona, because he was already married. Princess Bona, the sister-in-law of Louis XI and the daughter of the Duke of Savoy would have been a much more prestigious match for Edward than an English widow with two sons already, even if she had an important mother, the Duchess of Bedford. Elizabeth’s father was a middle-ranking knight. Edward’s brothers, Richard and Clarence were ‘assuredly displeased’. The new Queen was not even a virgin, and a politically important treaty with Louis XI which included the arranged marriage with Princess Bona was ruined.

A Happy Marriage

Edward and Elizabeth were happily married for nineteen years, although handsome Edward had several mistresses, and had ten children. However, after Edward died suddenly in 1483, his brother Richard based his claim to the throne on the marriage being invalid,  because of the secrecy concerning it, the lack of evidence of its legitimacy, and because the King may have already had a pre-marital contract or even been married to Lady Eleanor Butler, making his children illegitimate.

Eleanor, the daughter of the first Earl of Shrewsbury, was also a young widow. She had been married to Sir Thomas Butler who died in battle in 1461. According to the chronicler Comynes, Edward promised to marry her after sleeping with her. He made this promise in front of Robert Stillington, the Bishop of Bath and Wells. This was enough to be a pre-marital contract, according to the decretals of Pope Alexander III.

The big flaw in this argument is that Eleanor came from a powerful family, and neither she nor they protested about his marriage to Elizabeth. Eleanor’s sister was the Duchess of Norfolk, and her mother was Margaret Beauchamp, oldest daughter of the Earl of Warwick, so they could have made a fuss.

The Bishop’s supporters presented a petition to Parliament, later called the Titulus Regius,setting out the argument that the marriage to Elizabeth was invalid, because of the pre-contract. The petition called this marriage ‘ungracious’ and ‘pretensed’, even suggesting that it may have been attained by the ‘sorcery’ and ‘witchcraft’ of Elizabeth and her mother, Jacquetta. This enabled Richard to become King.

There are still questions about the legitimacy of the marriage, even today, but as Edward made Elizabeth his Queen, and Eleanor’s family didn’t protest his marriage to her, I think that it was very likely to have been a valid match.




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