The Private Life of Edward IV by John Ashdown-Hill
It is no exaggeration to say that John Ashdown-Hill’s investigations into the Wars of the Roses, particularly his role in the rediscovery and identification of the remains of King Richard III, have proven revelatory and may ultimately be considered revolutionary for the historiography of fifteenth century England. His latest title The Private Life of Edward IV continues those efforts, challenging long held views about the first Yorkist monarch and his supposedly libidinous lifestyle.
The Wars of the Roses (1455-1487) – the struggle for the English throne between rival branches of the Plantagenet dynasty – recaptured the public imagination when remains thought to be Richard III (1452-1485) were found within the site of the former Greyfriars Church in Leicester in September 2012, as John Ashdown-Hill and Philippa Langley (President of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society) had proposed. Following anthropological and genetic testing confirming the historic find, the remains were reinterred at Leicester Cathedral in March 2015. It was a remarkable moment broadcast live on national television: a ceremonial reburial and a public rehabilitation for the monarch infamous as the usurper of the throne and murderer of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower.
Historians and scientists are increasingly working hand in hand, but for John Ashdown-Hill’s latest case study into the personal life of King Edward IV (1442-1483) the truth is largely to be found in a re-examination and deeper analysis of the contemporary sources which have “never really been documented or explained in detail.” Alongside the documented record is the most complete account to date of Edward IV’s known itinerary during his lifetime; a vital tool in identifying the dates and locations for the key events of his life.
The case made is that contrary to historical reputation Edward IV was not wildly promiscuous and, crucially, that his first relationship resulted in a marriage that was consummated and fully legal. Which means that the sons from his second marriage, the Princes in the Tower, were illegitimate. Thereby Edward’s brother, Richard III, did not usurp the throne in 1483 but was his legal successor. The case concludes with a chapter on the chances of identifying the possible remains of the bodies of the Princes in the Tower, leaving the question of their fate very much open. If the author is right we must look at the Wars of the Roses with fresh eyes and be prepared to revise long accepted conclusions. Which is not to suggest that devils have become angels or vice versa on the path to Yorkist golgotha, but this is a strongly revisionist work.
The role of women lies at the heart of the story and some would prove to be every bit as ruthless as the menfolk. In this account the heroine is the relatively unknown Lady Eleanor Talbot; the villainess her successor in the royal bedchamber, Elizabeth Widville. The opening event which shapes everything that follows is Edward’s first marriage to the enigmatic Lady Eleanor Talbot (c. 1436 – 1468). She was the fourth of five children from the second marriage of John, Lord Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury.
Talbot was a famed English military commander during the Hundred Years War with France (1337-1453). Eleanor’s mother, Lady Margaret Beauchamp, was the eldest daughter of Richard de Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick and Elizabeth de Berkeley. Prior to her relationship with Edward, Eleanor had been married, at the age of thirteen to Sir Thomas Boteler, fifteen years her senior. The marriage lasted until Boteler’s death in 1459, leaving Eleanor a widow at twenty-three and free to find another husband.
Edward, a handsome and imposing figure standing well over six foot tall, was just eighteen when he met the older, more experienced Eleanor. However, he was unlikely to have been a virgin. Whilst no direct evidence exists for youthful escapades his cousin, John Mowbray, 4th Duke of Norfolk, is recorded visiting a brothel with his uncle Sir John Howard’s blessing and given money to boot “whan he lay at the stewe.” There can be little doubt that as a privileged young man Edward had ample opportunity to sow wild oats.
The author further argues that, whilst Edward was not promiscuous, he was open to relation with both sexes, conclusions drawn from the four “roughly contemporary sources” for his love life. Edward’s relationship with Eleanor began in late 1460, around the time his father, Richard, Duke of York, and his brother, Edmund, were slain at the Battle of Wakefield on December 30, 1460. By March 1461 Edward had fought back, defeating the Lancastrians and proclaiming himself king whilst the erratic and mentally unstable King Henry VI took flight.
Tracking Edward’s movements through his itinerary means that the date for his marriage to Eleanor can be identified as Monday 8 June, 1461. The ceremony took place at one of her Warwickshire manors. However, many historians have long held that no marriage took place and that Eleanor was only a royal mistress. The author’s assertion is that “modern historians have often made serious mistakes” due to a “total misunderstanding of the word ‘pre-contract.’ ” The error is to assume that “pre-contract” is synonymous with betrothal. Under fifteenth-century canon law a promise of marriage followed by sexual intercourse constituted a valid marriage. (Read the full article in Royalty Magazine Volume 24/09)