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The Alleged Precontract

The Alleged Precontract Between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler: Whose Opinion Matters?

Edward meets his future queen under an oak tree.

Edward meets his future queen under a tree.

Many Ricardians maintain that the deposed Edward V and his brother Richard of York were no threat to Richard III because the precontract (if it existed) between their father and Eleanor Butler rendered them illegitimate and Richard the rightful King.  But such reasoning is faulty.  It might satisfy Ricardians to rationalize their hero’s usurpation and their contention that he had no motive to murder the Princes, but it is not the opinion of modern Ricardians that matters.

What matters is whether Richard’s contemporaries believed the charge of illegitimacy, and the sources overwhelmingly support that they did not.  John Rous, antiquarian of the Earls of Warwick, said that Richard usurped the throne “Having feigned a title to the Crown for his own advancement.”  The Croyland and London Chroniclers described the alleged precontract as a “palpable device” to give “colour” to Richard’s designs on the Throne.  A London citizen reported that “King Edward V should have been crowned the 4th day of May… the Duke of Gloucester in his household took upon him to be King.”

In order to convince us that Richard had no motive to murder the Princes because they were illegitimate, not the proper heirs of Edward IV, and had no claim to the throne, Ricardians must first convince us that the English universally accepted that the Princes were indeed illegitimate, not the proper heirs of Edward IV, and had no claim to the throne.  This test fails completely in light of the growing unrest, culminating in what is most popularly called Buckingham’s Rebellion in October 1483, which sprang up from discontent in the south and west immediately following Richard’s departure from London on progress on July 20, 1483.

The Ricardians rarely present the uprising as being in Edward’s favor, but only in Tudor’s.  To say that the uprising was first in Edward’s behalf is to admit that Edward V had supporters and that there were many who weren’t buying the idea that he could not be King because he was illegitimate.  It was the rumor of the death of the Princes that turned the rebellion from being in Edward’s behalf to being in Henry’s, that Tudor might marry Elizabeth of York, heir to her brothers now that they were reported to be dead.  Many of those who participated in the rebellion were Yorkist loyalists who had a connection with Edward IV and his household and who remained true to his line.  One of Richard’s disappointments was the fact that his brother’s men did not come pouring over to his side in swarms.  Hastings was the first of Edward IV’s loyal friends to show Richard the truth that he was too blind to see.  Much of the Ricardian claim that Richard was a popular King depends upon the strength in which the precontract was believed by Richard’s subjects.  It’s obvious that they didn’t believe it.

Who Had the Authority to Decide The Validity of the Marriage?

The Ricardian supposition that the sources neglected to directly name Eleanor Butler as the injured party because of a Tudor propaganda campaign is likewise faulty.  Why should the sources trouble themselves to remember that Eleanor was the lady if they didn’t believe that there was a precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor to begin with?  As Giles St. Aubyn in 1483 – The Year of 3 Kings very nicely says, “The most compelling reason for rejecting the story of Edward IV’s precontract is that there is not a shred of evidence to support it.  It was based on a series of assertion, almost certainly invented, intended to justify the unlawful deposition of the rightful King.”  He goes on to say, “The Petition (by ‘Parliament’ to make Richard King) is remarkable for supplying no proof whatever of its charges, professing them to be matters of common knowledge and offering ‘hereafter, if and as the case shall require,’ to provide sufficient proof ‘in time and place convenient.’  There is no record that this promise was kept, or what witnesses were examined.”

The “Parliament” that made Richard King could not be called a “Parliament” at all, for it was completely under his thumb.  The supporters of Edward V who could not reconcile to Richard’s usurpation were either dead, in prison, in exile, or in Sanctuary.  After the examples of Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan, and especially, of William Hastings, supporters of Edward knew exactly what would happen if they tried to swim against Richard’s course.  Those who were inclined toward Edward but wanted to stay alive, if they came to Parliament at all on June 25, 1483, were well aware that Richard had armed soldiers in London and that more were coming from the North.  What was so lawful about members of a “Parliament” acquiescing to a petition at the point of a sword?  This “Parliament” did not have the authority to judge Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.  Only the Church could do that, marriage being one of the 7 sacraments.  As the New Catholic Encyclopedia indicates, a council of clergymen is required to judge the validity of a marriage.  It further indicates that the burden of proof is on the one who questions the validity of the marriage, and that the Church is inclined to accept a marriage as valid by default, unless convincing proof is offered to the contrary.  What do you think that the Church would have determined concerning a marriage that had been universally recognized for 19 years?  The alleged precontract was never submitted to the Church for an examination of its validity.  So, not submitted to examination in either civil or ecclesiastic courts, the precontract cannot be valid nor can Richard be said to be a lawful King.

Where Were Eleanor’s Friends and Family?

There is more.  Mortimer Levine brought up a good point in “Richard III:  Usurper or Lawful King,” Speculum, XXXIV, 1959.  He points out that even if the precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler were true, it would not affect Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, because Eleanor Butler died in 1468.  So, if Edward IV indeed had made a binding promise to Eleanor Butler prior to marrying Elizabeth Woodville on May 1, 1464, allegedly then making himself a bigamist, he was no longer a bigamist after 1468, following Eleanor’s death.  When Edward V was born in 1470, and Richard, the Duke of York, in 1473, Eleanor was no longer alive, but had been dead for years.  Therefore, if the precontract were true, only Elizabeth of York, born in 1466, and Mary of York, born in 1467, would be affected, since the remainder of Edward IV’s and Elizabeth Woodville’s children were born after Eleanor’s death.

If the precontract were true, why didn’t Eleanor come forward when Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth was made public in September 1464?  When a young woman addressed this question through the Ricardian newsletter, one member’s smug response was that Eleanor was a lady who would rather hide her secret and seek refuge in the Church than challenge the King’s marriage publicly.  This is a specious argument for many reasons.  First of all, we know nothing of Eleanor’s character, so it cannot be said for certain that she would by nature rather retreat than fight.  It would be no small thing for which she was fighting, but for the title of Queen itself.  Ricardians cannot respond that it would be dangerous for her to do so.  After all, the Ricardians claim that Bishop Stillington had knowledge of the precontract, and he still managed, during the time of Edward’s and Elizabeth’s marriage, to serve as Chancellor of England.  Further, when George of Clarence was madly rushing from one treason to another in 1476 and 77, Stillington was one of those arrested and imprisoned in the Tower for words “prejudicial to the King.”  Ricardians assume that prejudicial words were regarding the precontract.  But Edward IV eventually released Stillington from the Tower.  Would he have done so if the “prejudicial” words involved the royal marriage and the succession itself?  And if the precontract were true, why should Eleanor fear for her life if Stillington managed to keep his?  The fact that Stillington was a bishop would not prevent him from suffering an unfortunate “accident.”  His offense to the King was even greater than that which eventually led to Thomas Becket’s assassination over 3 centuries earlier.  And Edward IV was not a man to provoke concerning the succession.  Furthermore, even if Eleanor were a retreater and not a fighter, would the same be said of her male kin?  Eleanor Butler was related to the Talbots, who held the earldom of Shrewsbury.  Are we to suppose that she couldn’t have gone to her male relatives to redress the matter?

How Could Such a Thing Stay Secret?

There is even more reason to doubt the truth of the alleged precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler. When Edward IV publicly announced his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in September 1464, Eleanor would have found plenty of people who would have loved to hear her story. Most importantly, Richard Neville, the earl of Warwick, and George of Clarence. Warwick in particular had reason to hate the marriage between Edward and Elizabeth, which had been done behind his back while he was in France negotiating a marriage between Edward and the French princess.

Richard’s defenders point to the secrecy of Edward’s and Elizabeth’s marriage as further proof that the precontract was true, but Edward’s secrecy is just as well explained as the actions of a young man who knows that he is going against the wishes of his mentor. Edward at 22 was no different than Richard II had been at the same age when he tried to squeeze out from under the thumbs of his own power-hungry and controlling relatives. Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth was just as contrary to Warwick’s wishes as Edward’s desire to form an alliance with Burgundy instead of France. Having been thwarted in his objectives to form an alliance with France through a marriage between Edward IV and a French princess, Warwick likewise understood that Edward had embarrassed him before the whole world, which had thought that Warwick had the King under his control.

From Warwick’s perspective, Elizabeth was also objectionable because her family had been Lancastrian adherents and because, although her mother was of noble blood, her father was a mere English gentleman. Marriage to Elizabeth would bring England no diplomatic gain nor a sizable dowry. As relations between Edward IV and Warwick grew more strained, Warwick would have had even more reason to repudiate the marriage he hated, so Eleanor and the Talbots would indeed have had his ear if they had told him the story of the precontract. Further, since Warwick was in negotiations with the French regarding a marriage between Edward IV and a French princess in 1464, and since even Isabella of Spain was once considered as a consort for Edward, we might conclude that the entire world, including Edward’s mentor Warwick and his intimates, considered Edward a bachelor prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville on May 1, 1464. Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, was alleged to have produced the story of the precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler discretely in early June. The idea of Richard’s using this as a pretext to taking the throne might have been floated to William Hastings, who violently objected, thus sealing his fate.

On June 22, 1483, the day that had been settled to be Edward V’s coronation day, the crowd was instead treated to a sermon at St. Paul’s Cross by Ralph Shaw, a Cambridge doctor of theology, alleging that Edward IV’s children were illegitimate, and declaring that Edward V had no right to the throne. By that time, the supporters of Edward V had been repressed, and both boys were in the Tower under Richard’s control. No one could come to Edward’s defense.

Unlike what Ricardians sometimes suggest, Stillington was not an obscure church mouse, but a former Chancellor and a member of the King’s Council. So, if the precontract were a reality, Stillington had kept quiet about it for a long time, and had disclosed it only when the timing was right.

A Problem with Timing

One of the arguments that Alan Sheppard presents in his study guide “The Princes in the Tower” is that the alleged precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler is made more believable because the important Robert Stillington, former Chancellor and the bishop of Bath and Wells, rather than an anonymous country priest, informed Richard of it.  I think the opposite.  The alleged precontract would have had much more credibility if a simple priest had informed Richard of it.  Stillington was a public and worldly figure who had a political past.  He had been imprisoned in the Tower by Edward IV.  If he was the source of the story, the precontract can only be viewed with the greatest suspicion, especially because the allegations regarding Edward V’s legitimacy were not made public until June 22, 1483, when Edward’s friends had been destroyed, the boys were secured in the Tower, London was filled with Richard’s soldiers, more were coming from the north, and a crowd was on hand, expecting the coronation of Edward V.  If Stillington had been sincere, he would have presented his story regarding the precontract immediately after Edward IV’s death, when Hastings and Edward V’s other loyal subjects were alive, free, and unintimidated, and before Richard had a death grip on the government and his opposition.

It is not by accident that Rosemary Jarman’s Stillington in the historical novel We Speak No Treason comes out from nowhere, tears in his eyes, imparting a tale that is painful to tell.  In this manner, readers are misled to think that Stillington was a simple, unworldly man whose motives were unsullied.  The very idea that Ricardians expect us to reject Thomas More’s History because he served in John Morton’s household when he was a boy but do not apply the same standard to Stillington, rejecting the words of a man martyred for a principle but accepting another’s without examination because they like what he says, is a perfect example of special pleading and typical of the fallacious reasoning by which Ricardians argue.

A “Palpable Device” Needed to Justify Usurpation

The matter of a precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler is accepted by some on face value for no other reason but that it seems in character for Edward IV to make a promise to marry a woman in order to get her into bed with him.  It is fallacious, however, to take allegations at face value regarding issues as critical as the precontract.  The word of a vengeful man (Robert Stillington), the lust of another man (Edward IV), the power-lust of a third man (Richard III), and the acquiescence or complicity of many others (the “Parliament” that met on June 25, 1483 or Richard’s Parliament that met in January 1484) together do not provide proof that the precontract was true.  If Richard wanted to cloak his usurpation in any manner of legality whatsoever, he had to come up with a rationalization that wasn’t too ridiculous.  What other reason could he give but illegitimacy as an excuse to depose Edward V, an innocent 12-year old?  What wrongdoing on Edward’s part could Richard cite?  And so it was only logical that Richard and his supporters should strike at the parents in order to destroy the son.

Ricardians Who Don’t Believe It

Although many Ricardians hang their hats on the precontract, there are others who admit that it wasn’t very important.  Thomas Costain in The Last Plantagenets writes:  “It is probable that Richard grasped at the bishop’s belated exposure as a means of easing his conscience… He did not need to mask his intentions under so frail an excuse.”  What Costain is saying is that it really wasn’t important that Richard have a legal excuse for taking the throne.  Costain feels that his being the best man for the job was all the excuse he needed.  Funny how all of the worst despots in history have thought of themselves as “the best man for the job.”  Never mind legality.  Never mind the Church.  Never mind justice.  Here is a new motto for Richard:  “Loyalty binds me, so to hell with that!”  And it doesn’t matter that England was not the Roman Empire, where succession was sometimes decided by assassination, where “the best man for the job” was often the most brutal, where the youthful age of an heir was a vulnerability that the adults could exploit to destroy him.  Age has never been a factor in determining the English succession, nor does it provide Richard with an excuse to destroy the boy he swore to protect.

In the April 1977 edition of The Ricardian Register, Anne Sutton said that the precontract wouldn’t have mattered if the adherents of Edward V had been the stronger in 1483.  I thank her for admitting that might, not right, decided the issue in Richard’s favor.  I might add that Edward V’s supporters might have prevailed had they known the depths of Richard’s treachery.  Sutton’s remark suggests that Edward V and Richard III were rivals, just as Edward IV and Henry VI had been rivals.  However, that is not true, and Ricardians who refuse to see the difference will never get it right, nor will they ever understand the anger that Richard’s actions generated among his subjects and certainly among Edward IV’s former servants and officers.  In Henry VI, Part 3, Shakespeare’s Richard compares himself to Judas as he kisses the infant Prince (later Edward V).  To many Englishmen, Richard’s usurpation was a betrayal.  Edward V was the incumbent King of Richard’s own party.  Richard had sworn to recognize him as the successor of his father, not once, but several times.  Edward V was placed under his protection, and Richard exploited him.  Furthermore, as one of the administrators appointed by Edward IV in his son’s infancy, Richard had always been responsible for Edward V’s welfare.  All this cannot be said of the relationship between Edward IV and Henry VI.

Ricardian Carolyn Halstead wrote that “had he (Edward V) confided in Richard (i.e., folded like laundry to his uncle’s will), he might have succeeded in tranquility… and there perpetuated a dynasty which, from the brilliance of its commencement, bid fair to shine as one of the most glorious of any recorded in British history.”  In other words, the precontract didn’t matter; Richard had to take the throne because he couldn’t get along with Edward.  Incompatibility with the King is hardly justifiable rationale for usurpation.  This sounds more like Richard’s problem than Edward’s.  Further, if Richard found it difficult to get along with a 12-year old adolescent, how equipped would he be as King to deal with mightier issues?

An Edwardian Who Does

Michael Hicks can hardly be called a Ricardian.  However, in his December 2003 article “The Sins of the Father” in BBC History magazine, he considers the precontract and comes down on the side of “Maybe Yes” in regards to its truth.  I have the feeling that he was warming up to this article during the writing of his 2003 biography of Edward V.  Hicks writes that Edward V was “the victim of circumstances and events before he was born,” primarily as a result of his father Edward IV’s carelessness and promiscuity.  Hicks very early in the article takes on the Ricardian argument that if Edward V was indeed illegitimate, he wouldn’t be a threat to Richard III, responding that he was a threat because there were those who didn’t believe — or who were not impressed by — Richard’s arguments regarding the illegitimacy of Edward IV’s children and who conspired to reinstate Edward.  On the other hand, Hicks states that the English monarchy is an hereditary office in which strict rules determine the succession.  He adds that legitimacy, as well as seniority of birth, was also a prerequisite.  Considering that the Plantagenets descended from William I, I don’t find this argument persuasive.  William I wasn’t just allegedly a bastard; he was the real thing.  The entire royal line of England since the 1066 Conquest has succeeded through the line of the illegitimate William the Conqueror.  Now, just how set in stone was that requirement? (Update: A reader has reminded me that “right of conquest” was another justification for kingship, and that this would apply to William I.  Thus, his illegitimacy was irrelevant.)

Furthermore, Hicks seems to be falling into a trap that is quite modern: that when someone does something wrong, we should place the blame anywhere but on the person who committed the wrongdoing.  That is why Hicks has no problem “blaming the dead guy” for what Richard did.  It is silly to blame Edward IV for things that happened after his death, as if the living Richard had no choice but to “exploit” his brother’s “carelessness and promiscuity” in the Summer of 1483.  Richard and his supporters (or abettors) weren’t compelled to exploit the issue; they were just compelled to justify Richard’s usurpation.  Neither Edward IV or Edward V can be blamed for this.  Richard and his Ricardians needed a “palpable device” to rationalize their actions.  Since Edward V’s age wasn’t a factor for determining his claim to the throne (despite what Ricardians like Terry Jones and Varrel Smith think, age has never been a factor in determining the English succession), and since Edward V himself hadn’t done anything wrong, Richard and his affinity had to look elsewhere.  Where else would they look than toward wrongdoing on his parents’ part?

Considering Edward IV’s alleged liaisons with Margaret “Elizabeth” Lucy and Eleanor Butler, Hicks states that there is a pattern to Edward’s behavior.  Both of these women were widows who, upon soliciting the King for his support in keeping their property, ended up in his bed.  Since Elizabeth Woodville was also a widow who by legend met Edward under a great oak tree to ask for the property of her dead husband John Grey, Hicks assumes that Edward IV had intended to use her as he had used others.

Throw Out As Many Reasons as Possible and See What Sticks

Richard’s Parliament itself exploded the importance of the precontract.  When it met in January 1484 to affirm Richard’s title, along with the most outrageous accusations against Edward IV and his government were these four reasons for declaring his marriage with Elizabeth Woodville to be invalid:  1) It was done “without the knowing and assent of the Lords of this land.” 2) “And also by Sorcery and Witchcraft.”  3) “Was made privily and secretly, without edition of banns, in a private chamber, and profane place, and not openly in the face of the Church.”  4) “And how also at the time of the contract of the same pretended marriage, and before and long time after, the said King Edward was and stood married to one Eleanor Butler, daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury, with whom the same King Edward had made a precontract of matrimony, long time before he made the same pretended marriage with the said Elizabeth Grey, in manner and form abovesaid.”  It is interesting that Richard’s Parliament listed several reasons, as if they felt that they had to come up with as many as possible to make sure that at least one of them would “stick.”

The second reason listed is stock stuff of the times and absolutely idiotic.  The first and third reasons hold no weight.  The Church had indeed recognized the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville for 19 years, knowing all the while that it had been made in secret and without banns.  The civil government too had recognized the marriage for 19 years, also knowing the secrecy in which it was carried out.  Why quibble about it 19 years after the fact, except as a purely political ploy?

If the precontract was as weighty a reason as modern Ricardians claim it was, why was it listed fourth and why are the other lame reasons needed at all?

Why Would Henry Publicize It?

Ricardians look towards the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, seeking “evidence” that the precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler existed.  Although Stillington officiated at Henry’s coronation, he spent some time in prison under Henry VII for his involvement in the Lambert Simnel imposture.  Copies of the document by which Richard’s Parliament affirmed his title (the “Titilus Regius”) were ordered destroyed.  These events are used as “evidence” of the truth of the precontract.  Ricardians think that Henry VII would have had the “Titilus Regius” read publicly and denounced, if it had been false.  This is specious thinking.  First, a public hearing would only have been politically wise had the English BELIEVED the “Titilus Regius.”  But why should Henry give credence to something that no one except Richard’s immediate followers believed (or pretended to believe) by giving it a public forum?  After all, he was going to marry Elizabeth of York and make her the mother of his heir.  Why would he care to remind everyone that his fiancee’s wretched uncle and his followers had declared her a bastard, especially if everyone thought that the precontract was nothing more than a “palpable device” for Richard’s usurpation anyway?  Why would he dignify it with a public hearing?


  1. Anton Gray

    I am surprised, upon reading this post, that the role of the bequest in royal succession, in England.has been completely ignored.
    William I bequeathed his throne to his SECOND son, William Rufus. Stephen bequeathed his throne to Henry II (to settle a war). Richard I bequeathed his throne to his brother John ignoring the claim of his nephew Arthur.
    Richard II asserted his right to bequeath his crown, In his will, without naming a successor, shortly before he was overthrown.

    • Pamela Horter-Moore

      Thank you. I didn’t know this. I’m assuming Edward IV thought he had covered all bases regarding the succession. Perhaps on his deathbed, he began to have reservations about the surety of his son’s succession. Not only young Edward’s age, but the feuds between Hastings and various members of the Queen’s family – especially Rivers– and Edward’s growing suspicion of his brother Gloucester (as I see it).
      It had always been my contention that Edward had done everything he could to ensure his son’s succession. Edward didn’t make his son Prince of Wales until he had vanquished the Lancastrians and Fauconberg’s rebellion. Then, on June 26, 1471, he invested the 8-month-old with the title. Ironically, on this date twelve years later, Richard would claim the throne.
      There must have been some pomp around this event, because a week later on July 3, “Parliament, the temporal and spiritual lords took an oath recognizing baby Edward as the heir to ‘the Crowns and Realms of England and of France, and Lordship of Ireland.” (from Cora Scofield, The Life and Reign of King Edward IV)
      I think it is significant that Edward loaded his son’s household and administration with every Yorkist who he thought was important enough to safeguard the Yorkist heir.
      “Officers were then appointed to the baby Prince’s household. Thomas Millyng, the Abbot of Westminster, who was already the baby’s godfather, was made Chancellor to the Prince; Lord Dacre was made Steward; and Thomas Vaughan was made Chamberlain. Edward was not only made Prince of Wales, but was made Duke of Cornwall and Earl of Chester, as well. Then the three men named above, the Queen Elizabeth Woodville, George of Clarence, Richard of Gloucester, Anthony Woodville, William Hastings, John Alcock, and others were chosen to administer the Prince’s affairs until he reached his majority.” (Scofield)
      On November 9, 1477, the seven-year-old prince hosted a feast at Westminster Palace that included the lords present paying homage to him. The child thanked his uncle Gloucester for doing it “so humbly.” Naturally, it was Edward’s father who was behind this.
      I think it’s a mistake to fault Edward for not doing more, and perhaps he did make a bequest in his 1483 will, which I understand is nonextant.
      In the long run, though, Edward was forced to trust the loyalty of the members of his own party. No matter what he might have done, Richard and his supporters would have swept it aside in their power grab in June 1483.
      Your comment and insight are much appreciated.


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