Re-evaluating the Reputation of Edward IV
Is Edward IV the most underrated of British monarchs? This theme, addressed on the Homepage of this website and in the essay “Blaming the Dead Guy,” has been adroitly and thoroughly addressed in Dr. Anthony Corbet’s book Edward IV, England’s Forgotten Warrior King: His Life, His People, and His Legacy.
Dr. Corbet’s book is uniquely organized in three sections: The Story, The Legacy, and The People. Most of us are accustomed to writers weaving analysis and biography into a general narrative, so this is a different approach. However, considering the undertaking which Corbet describes in his Introduction, most readers will find this arrangement satisfying. “The Story” is a biography of Edward IV, and ends at his death in 1483. “The Legacy” addresses the events and issues that took place after his death. The last section, “The People,” provides helpful biographies of the individuals who participated in Edward’s life, made an impact upon it, or were affected by it.
Dr. Corbet is a wonderful champion for Edward IV’s legacy, which has all too often been judged by what happened after his death and overshadowed by his nefarious brother Richard III who has managed to attract more noise for his unsuccessful reign of 26 months than his brother Edward has for a successful reign of 22 years. To my delight, Dr. Corbet is not afraid to hold up the Edwardian standard as he confronts the arguments put forth by the all too vocal Ricardians. Like a pit-bull, he gets his teeth into the alleged marriage contract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler and tears apart the notion that this was a legal justification for the illegal deposition of Edward V. The contract issue is at the heart of the tragedy that destroyed Edward’s children and his legacy, and no one has covered this more thoroughly or better than Dr. Corbet. For me, the strongest argument against the contract is what he repeats in many examples: No authority except the Church had the right to judge the validity of Edward’s and Elizabeth’s marriage. Even Henry VIII, not known for often deferring to authority, had the delicacy to turn to the Church in the matter of his marriage. But then again, Henry was sincere; the men who orchestrated the deposition of Edward V were not.
The Illegality of Edward V’s Deposition
By demolishing the marriage contract myth, Dr. Corbet underscores the illegality of Edward V’s deposition. He highlights the absurdity of the notion that a “Parliament” convening in the name of no King, had the legal grounds to depose the incumbent King. We can’t grant the name of “Parliament” to any group that convened after Edward V’s scheduled Parliament had been cancelled; the King was not at liberty to open it; everyone was fearful that Richard had called for an army of northerners to enter the capital; Edward V’s strongest supporters were dead, in prison, in sanctuary, or in exile. Whether one wants to call this group a “Parliament,” a “Great Council,” or just a large group of important people who were being forced to do something almost literally at the point of a sword, it still comes down to frightened, cowering people caving into the aggression and brutality of the most powerful entity in the kingdom – Richard of Gloucester and his supporters. This is the only area of disagreement I have with Dr. Corbet; the prospects of a minority had nothing to do with their decision. As the Croyland Chronicler writes: “The three strongest supporters of the new king being thus removed without judgment or justice, and all the rest of his faithful subjects fearing the like treatment, the two dukes did thenceforth just as they pleased.”
I relish Dr. Corbet’s indignation at the treatment of young Edward V. I understand how some Ricardians might be beating their breasts because of his unnecessary outpouring of sentiment in regards to this defenseless young boy and his little brother (Sarcasm Alert! My own views about sentiment, and especially in regards to Edward IV’s sons, are in the essays “Sentiment and the Writing of History” and “Sentiment and History“). After looking at the Ricardian comments regarding the 2010 animated film “Crown of Blood” on YouTube, I am even more convinced that nothing sends some of these Ricardians into fits faster than someone feeling sympathy for these two young boys.
The Bully of Gloucester and His Followers
Dr. Corbet calls Richard and his supporters, including those who acquiesced in the deposition, bullies:
“In the end, Edward V, the lawful King of England, was disinherited by a 1461 marriage contract which was unwritten, undetailed, unplaced, undated, unsigned, and unsupported.”
“Nobody, not Richard, not Buckingham, not Howard, would have dared to make such a despicable accusation if Edward IV had been alive. But they did dare to bully the imprisoned boy king, aged a mere twelve years. It was disgraceful; naked ambition had supplanted all common sense.”
“The Great Council bullied the imprisoned and unrepresented twelve-year-old King Edward V.”
In the morality play that the later Tudors made of the Wars of the Roses, Edward IV’s sins are punished “in the person of his son Edward V” (Michael Hicks). Paul Murray Kendall made an unsuccessful attempt to separate the interests of father and son, but one can hardly support Kendall’s position that Edward IV and Richard had a strong fraternal relationship when Richard managed to destroy everyone Edward loved. The Ricardian fiction that Edward V was more Woodville than Plantagenet and that the father and son had little connection is just another lie perpetuated by people who continue to bully Edward V today. Do I exaggerate when I say that Edward V is the most hated 12-year old in history, and one of its greatest victims? A child who is hated for the nothing he did wrong? Dr. Corbet has harsh words for the indifference that Richard’s defenders show; they deny Edward V the justice that they demand for his supplanter:
“The English people, their descendents included (my italics),should hang their heads in shame that they allowed such a thing to happen. A Great Council, if it can be called that, did not have the power to nullify a marriage or the power to depose a lawful king. The former power resided with the church and the latter power resided with a properly constituted Parliament.”
Defending the Father and the Son
Richard and his supporters used the father to depose the son, and historians since have used the son to punish the father.
Like me, Dr. Corbet sees this for the injustice that it is, and he rightly attacks all of the Ricardian myths, and not only the 1461 marriage contract, that have been used to defame Edward father and son. He addresses crass and thin Ricardian arguments regarding Edward IV’s legitimacy. I wonder whether the proponents of this position are as sure of the date of their own conception as they are of Edward IV’s, an event that happened over 500 years ago. I don’t especially think the Ricardians serve any purpose second-guessing Cecily Neville’s monthly cycles, Richard of York’s conjugal visits, and Edward IV’s gestation period, other than to make another tasteless attempt to blacken Edward. But since the Ricardians have made Richard III’s mother’s fidelity a matter of argument, Dr. Corbet has no choice but to pick up the gauntlet and expose the slander for what it is by re-examining the information that is available to show that there is no case for assuming that Edward IV himself was illegitimate.
The Ricardian arguments are not new; they convinced no one but Edward’s enemies then, and they convince no one but Edward’s enemies now.
Shattering Ricardian Myths
There are other fables that have been part of the Ricardian dogma: presenting the Woodvilles as a malevolent party of voraciously greedy individuals who were powerful enough in 1483 to threaten Richard of Gloucester, characterizing Elizabeth Woodville as a “cruel, stupid and mean character” (Kendall) who was insecure enough to destroy an Earl and his family for a personal slight and a brother-in-law who already had enough rope to hang himself. As Dr. Corbet points out, her distrust and fears after Edward IV’s death were justified, but she, like her husband, has been denigrated by historians ever since for what Richard did to her children.
Dr. Corbet portrays Elizabeth as a woman of great political acumen, but she has suffered in comparison with Margaret Beaufort because it was Margaret’s son, and not Elizabeth’s, who finally won the Crown. Richard’s usurpation, totally unexpected and beyond the power of Edward IV and Elizabeth to stop, has robbed both of them of their due. Dr. Corbet writes: “Edward IV had no reason to suspect that Richard would be so grossly unfaithful except that his politically astute Queen might have suggested to him otherwise.”
Motive and Opportunity for Murder
No one would expect to read a book about Edward IV’s legacy that didn’t include speculation regarding the disappearance of his sons Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. Dr. Corbet presents very convincing reasons why the story of the murder as related by Thomas More may be fairly sound, and why the Bones found in the Tower and currently housed in Westminster Abbey may be those of the Princes.
Dr. Corbet writes:
“The mystery surrounding the fate of King Edward’s sons, Edward V and his brother young Richard, remains somewhat unresolved, but the confusion is mainly related to the efforts of some scholars who refuse to understand, or are unable to understand, the specific treachery of Richard III in relation to the throne…”
Thus, the murder of the Princes is a mystery by and large because it is to the advantage of Richard’s supporters to make it so. Dr. Corbet looks at the case against Richard III, Buckingham, and Henry VII, the chief suspects, as well as other persons of interest such as the Howards and Margaret Beaufort. To look for a murderer, one looks at those who have motive and opportunity. Richard had both.
Dr. Corbet writes:
“Some critics have argued that Richard did not need to kill the princes in the Tower, but that argument is difficult to understand. King Edward V was a proclaimed king…Moreover, the Great Council had pronounced that he was illegitimate and so not eligible to be king; but there were grave doubts about that decision. Once Richard was anointed and crowned, it was suggested that there would be no rebellions against him, but history proved the critics wrong.”
Of course, Ricardians will pretend that the July Conspiracy didn’t exist, that Buckingham’s Rebellion was not a rebellion of Yorkist gentry and officeholders, and that Henry Tudor’s army at Bosworth was not composed of Yorkists, as well as of French, mercenaries, and Lancastrians. None of Edward IV’s servants became part of Richard’s loyal circle, and many ended up fighting against him in the end. The Ricardians don’t get it because they don’t want to get it, and they still insist in making enough clamor to seduce many to their obtuseness.
Dr. Corbet also looks at other possibilities: that the Princes died of natural causes or escaped. He mentions several of these theories and respectfully gives them his notice. I admire him for his restraint; in his place, I’d want to say that many Ricardians would believe the Princes were abducted by aliens before they would admit that Richard III was most likely the one who ordered their murders.
The Alleged 1461 Marriage Contract Fails to Pass Muster
Richard and his supporters used and continue to use allegations of illegitimacy to justify Edward V’s deposition and degrade Edward IV’s reign. Dr. Corbet calls “The 1461 Marriage Contract Story” the mechanism “which marked the Death Knell of the House of York.” In this chapter and elsewhere, Dr. Corbet examines all facets of this issue and explodes each one. He shows how Eleanor Butler’s kinship to Warwick, Warwick’s attempted marriage negotiations with France, and Cecily Neville’s own inquires failed to uncover a prior marriage contract between Edward IV and any other woman. Edward IV was considered a bachelor before the face of the world during a time at which Bishop Stillington was a prominent person in Edward’s government. Dr. Corbet stresses that no one came forward to oppose Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville on the grounds that it was invalid when it was first revealed, not even Eleanor herself or her Talbot kin. He points out that Edward IV and Eleanor never lived together as man and wife.
Dr. Corbet cites both More’s and Bacon’s positions on the alleged illegitimacy of Edward’s children and says, “Those who are more sympathetic to Richard spend much effort attempting to deny the account of Sir Thomas More; In fact, they sometimes infer that the honorable man is a liar. Sir Thomas More later died for what he considered the truth about the English Church; his reputation far exceeds that of his critics.” Let me add that More’s reputation also far exceeds that of Robert Stillington, Phillippe Commines’ “wicked bishop.” Indeed, it was this double-standard that the Ricardians impose by trusting Stillington’s word while rejecting More’s outright that created the first crack in my own Ricardianism back in 1968, a little more than a year after I fell victim to Ricardian proselytizing. One look at Stillington’s career, which Dr. Corbet describes, is enough to doubt Stillington’s sincerity. Thomas More, on the other hand, had no ax to grind against Richard III when he wrote his history 30 years later.
Dr. Corbet then dedicates an entire chapter to canon law and proves beyond a doubt that only the Church was the final arbiter on what constituted an invalid marriage. His reinforcement of this by example after example leaves me wondering how anyone can fail to be convinced by the strength of his arguments. Once again, my only disagreement with Dr. Corbet is his soft attitude towards Richard, who I believe knew full well that the allegations of illegitimacy against his brother and nephew were lies and who hypocritically used them for his own self-interest. He was not a good man, and he certainly wasn’t a great one; I can’t think well of a man who hides his malice when under the yoke of a stronger man and then lets it explode against a weaker man when the stronger is removed and it is he who is the most powerful.
Hogging the Spotlight
The outrageousness and violence of Richard’s actions ensured that his hapless nephew’s reign and his own would be short and bloody. He also ensured himself an undeserved place in the spotlight, at first as a master villain and then as the rose of English chivalry. The enormity of his actions ensured that his melodrama would be played over and over to the sound of boos and applause. The stability, prosperity and peace of Edward’s second reign, his fiscal carefulness, his contribution to architecture, literature and technology, his good governance, and his interest in trade and shipping which sparked what would become the greatest navy in the world, all of these accomplishments were forgotten when compared with the tragedy that came after, the tragedy that Richard created. They just didn’t make for good drama, William Shakespeare! Edward’s sons became nothing more than “an archaeological deposit, a forensic project, a literary exemplar, a historical mystery, or an inconvenience to be palmed off on some half-forgotten nobleman” (Michael Hicks).
We who care about justice for the dead are still waiting for justice for Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard, Duke of York.
Restoring Edward IV’s Legacy
At the end of Section Two, “The Legacy,” Dr. Corbet highlights Edward IV’s spectacular accomplishments. His court was magnificent. He collected objects of great beauty and value and began what would become the Royal Library, while managing to keep his government and his household fiscally sound. He built additions to several royal palaces and the splendid Chapel of Saint George at Windsor Castle. He was a friend of William Caxton’s printing press and his Queen and brother-in-law were keen patrons. It was under his reign that this invention would get its start in England, revolutionizing the world in ways that even Edward and Caxton could never have imagined.
Edward was wise enough to know that the world was requiring a new kind of King: one who was couched in reason, logic, and learning, rather than in arms and warfare. One who had the foundation to rule in peace than strive in battle. As my cousin P.A.S. noted, Richard III was so unlike Edward in his love of conflict that it was really Henry VII who became the successor to Edward’s legacy. It is startling but not incongruous to note that the fatherless Henry VII sometimes referred to Edward IV as his father, and I believe he meant more by that than the fact that he was married to Edward’s daughter. Henry, however, was more heavy-handed than Edward in seeking financial support from his subjects. This, as well as his paranoia and lack of personal charm, ensured that he was never as loved as Edward was loved.
Dr. Corbet notes how Edward was inclined to make conciliatory gestures to former enemies; he was quick to embrace a sincere man who would let bygones be bygones. Although Henry VII had a deep respect for Edward’s methods but as deep a paranoia towards all Edward’s male relatives, he was much like Edward in his desire to bring a former enemy under his tent. This could not be said of Richard III (see “Self-Delusion”).
Edward IV was raising his son and heir to be a King who was fit for the New Age — well-educated, eloquent, courtly, and intelligent – and one of the most despicable things Ricardians say is that there was little connection between father and son. Edward drew up the details for his education and modified them as the Prince grew older. Edward was the one to whom Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, and Alcock would report if the Prince required discipline. Edward, Prince of Wales, spent more time in London, in the public eye, and in his father’s presence than the Ricardians will admit. Edward wanted to raise a perfect prince, and it is plain that Edward the Prince was never far from his father’s thoughts or heart.
Dr. Corbet describes Edward’s interest and encouragement of English trade. He, nicknamed The Merchant King, promoted policies that enriched the merchant and middle classes and benefited himself from the marketplace and from commercial shipping, thus initiating England’s destiny as a sea power. In May 1481, he took the Prince of Wales with him on an excursion to review the royal fleet at Sandwich, intent on introducing his son to the expanding world in which he was to be a part.
As a military man with an unblemished record, a manager of finances, and an astute judge and leader of men, Edward the King had few equals. If he had lived long enough to see his heir reach maturity, or if Richard of Gloucester had been an honorable man willing to put up with the challenges of a Protectorship under an intelligent, well-educated, and strong-willed young Edward V, Edward’s legacy would have continued and England would have become a European powerhouse as it was during Elizabethan times without the cruelties, suspicions, insecurities, and bloodshed that characterized the Tudor dynasty.
I congratulate Dr. Corbet for creating a thorough and well-researched work that is absorbing as well as convincing and inspiring. It is hoped that this begets a well deserved Renaissance of admiration for Edward IV, an understanding of what was lost in the downfall of his sons, and a re-examination and rejection of the Ricardian myths that Dr. Corbet so successfully trounces.