History Matters: Counterfactual Conjectures on the Marriage of Edward IV

Recently I’ve been thinking: why blame Richard III for whatever befell the ‘Princes in the Tower’? Because if you trace back to root causes, it was all their dad’s fault, really.

Yes – much as I admire Edward IV in other ways, I find his sexual behaviour repugnant: a man who exploited his position, striking good looks and personal charm to the utmost, bedding swathes of women irrespective of their marital status then discarding them (in some cases, to pass on to his mates). These days, we might recommend he sought therapy for chronic sex addiction – well, if Richard III can be decried as a ‘serial incestor’ and next thing to a paedophile in Michael Hicks’ Anne Neville, why balk at calling Edward IV a predatory sex-maniac? – and even in a more misogynistic age, his conduct towards women was remarked upon.

However, his libido wasn’t remarked upon as much as his ill-advised marriage. Although it’s easy enough to sympathise with Edward’s determination to marry for love, as most people in modern Britain do, in 15th century England this was undesirable for the nobility, unthinkable for the king, and his realisation of this desire was to have tragic consequences. Not that I blame Elizabeth Woodville for refusing to be another ‘loved and left’ and holding out for marriage. It shows a healthy self-respect from the Duchess’s daughter, as well as understandable ambition – after all, Edward was the ultimate catch – but he should not have married her. By the standards of the time it was utterly irresponsible and un-kingly to put his personal feelings above the well-being of his country. This older widow’s only fortune was her comely face and figure; she brought the Crown no rich dowry, no political advantage, no valuable alliance with a foreign power. Instead, their mesalliance made the King of England a laughing-stock in the courts of Europe, (and sorely affronted a potential bride, Bona of Savoy). It was a hideous, humiliating blow to his royal family, proud descendants of Edward III, obliging them to bend the knee to the daughter of a lowly Lancastrian knight and prompting Edward’s mother Cecily, Duchess of York, to cry, ‘That bastard’s no true son of York!’ (or words to that effect). It made Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, negotiating for a suitable princess even as the clandestine wedding took place, look a total berk – an insult he would never forget or forgive. And it outraged the rest of the nobility, above all Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, now forced to watch the king’s tribe of relatively humble in-laws elevated and inter-married with the established peerage.

It proved too much for Clarence and Warwick to stomach, and by 1469 their festering chagrin had broken out into open rebellion… so the deaths in the battles of Edgecote, Barnet and Tewkesbury, along with the rash of executions carried out in that period, can all be laid at the door of Edward’s marriage – as can the subsequent execution of the alienated, conflicted Clarence in 1478.

Meanwhile Richard of Gloucester succeeded in keeping his own counsel, tolerating his Woodville in-laws for his beloved eldest brother’s sake; but the depth of his true feelings became clear after Edward’s untimely death in 1483. Bitterly blaming the Woodvilles for encouraging Edward’s dissolute lifestyle and thereby hastening his death, refusing to lose everything he had laboured for to their rapacity, fearing the possible disaster of another minority rule and convinced of his nephews’ illegitimacy, (by virtue of a pre-contract to Eleanor Butler in which I can readily believe, given Edward’s reputation), Richard took matters decisively into his own hands.

And this would never have happened if Edward IV had only exercised some self-control and kept it in his cod-piece. If he had dutifully married an acceptable foreign princess and begotten an heir of indisputable legitimacy and royal blood, Richard would have had no reason to challenge the prince’s right to succeed. He would have remained Duke of Gloucester; there would have been no mysterious disappearances from the Tower of London, no battle of Bosworth, and no dishonoured corpse to find 527 years later under a car-park in Leicester.

Instead, what a price England paid for its hedonistic sovereign’s stupid selfish love-match…

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10 thoughts on “History Matters: Counterfactual Conjectures on the Marriage of Edward IV

  1. Sue Hickey, Amnesty International (Canadian Section, English-Speaking) coordinator for North/South Korea, Japan on said:

    my sentiments, too, I think. And why would Michael Hicks say those things about Richard? Incidentally I’ve been reading some 19th century commentary on Richard, as well as other thingsit seems that Richard III was noted for being a VERY brilliant young man, very intellectual, perhaps even genius level. He must have found the nattering Woodvilles really frustrating. No wonder he seems fidgety in the old portraits. And Rich, while he had bastards, welcomed them into his home after marriage. Was faithful to Anne and didn’t seem to think with his nether regions. Mind you the real Richard, was also quite something to die for in terms of looks…

  2. Richard III also had the normal rapacity of his age. As a younger son, he sought, and was reluctant to let go of what came his way. This was normal. Land was money, and money was necessary to live to one’s rank. It was also necessary power. Another element (re:Woodvilles) it was also an unstoppable force of the Middle Ages, especially after the Black Death, and its impact, to constantly seek to rise by marriage. The Spencers were steadily rising from sheep-farmers to Althrop/nobility. This might offer some sympathy for Elizabeth W – she just had too big a family! And however he performed in other spheres as king, his judgement was severely impaired by his recognition of the Woodville marriage,

  3. Pingback: King Richard’s Autumn ? | King Richard Armitage

  4. I’ve often felt that when R3 took the throne he wasn’t only looking out for his own safety but also trying to prevent yet another civil war and dynastic feud. It’s interesting to note that when he did take the throne he did things that E4 should have done such as the much touted legal reforms and potential international marriage upon his wife’s death. When I think about it, he was exactly the kind of king certain powers didn’t want for England, namely France.

  5. Edward’s marriage to “an acceptable foreign princess” would still have failed to result in “an heir of indisputable legitimacy and royal blood” because of the precontract.

  6. Marriage to an acceptable foreign princess after 1468, or an acknowledgement of the Talbot marriage in order to bend the Pope’s ear for an annulment then a foreign marriage would have worked. Outliving Stillington, who was at least twenty years older and was unwell from time to time, might have worked. Remaining so far up denial that he was just short of Cairo didn’t.

  7. Good points. I think if Edward had married a foreign princess, any pre-contract (if not annulled) was far more likely to have stayed hushed-up to avoid scandal/conflict with a foreign power, and any sons of the marriage far more likely (whatever their age/s when Edward died) to have been accepted as heir/s. Warwick and Clarence would not have been fatally alienated (at least, not at that time/for that reason), there would have been no tribe of relatively common in-laws for Edward to ennoble to the resentment of established nobility, far less reason for Richard to feel his position threatened… another interesting ‘trouser leg of history’ to explore!

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