Anti-history: Edward IV’s ‘Secret’ Illegitimacy

As the old saying goes, it’s a wise child that knows its own father; one might add it’s a sure child that knows its own mother, if only because maternity is harder to conceal, deny or be mistaken about. So while doubts have been cast on King Edward’s paternity ever since the 15th century, it’s always been accepted that his mother was Cecily, Duchess of York – at least, until 2015, when some gobsmacking new theories were unleashed on an unsuspecting Ricardian community.

According to their author, both Edward and his younger brother Edmund were born on the wrong side of the blanket. Not, (as the usual story goes), because Cecily had been playing fast and loose in Rouen with a lowly archer called Blaybourne. No, apparently the Duchess wasn’t their mum at all; the real adulterer was her husband Richard, Duke of York, who had sired this brace of bastards upon no less a personage than Jacquetta de St Pol, mother of Elizabeth Woodville – so not only was Edward’s 1464 marriage ill-advised, it was also (gasp!) an incestuous union with his half-sister! And as if that wasn’t incredible enough, York’s liaison is supposed to have occurred in the 1430’s, making his eldest sons some ten years older than contemporary sources indicate.

After skimming through a scathing review in Ricardian Bulletin, I thought the book in question sounded much too wacky to take notice of, and dismissed it from my mind – until I read the March 2017 Bulletin, wherein the author presents the ‘evidence’ to support her preposterous tale. Cecily in such a snit about Richard’s adultery that she refuses him sex, hence their lack of issue in their first decade of marriage! Five family members, including the Duchess herself, calling Edward illegitimate, (they tactfully gloss over Edmund, perhaps because that poor bastard was killed at the battle of Wakefield in 1460), so therefore it MUST be true. Besides, the boys admit it themselves, in a letter to the Duke from ‘we your true and natural sons,’ – the key word being ‘natural’, the term used to describe illegitimate or adopted children! Fancy no-one noticing THAT before; I guess we all took for granted that the expression had an altogether different and more innocent meaning. And fancy no-one noticing or reporting that Edward and Edmund looked a bit, well, pubescent at their christenings in 1442 and 1443; I’m curious to know how the author explains that – albeit not curious enough to shell out for a copy of her book.

So yes, I am condemning it unread. The latest article was hard enough to swallow; I can’t stomach an entire volume of such stuff. It has the dubious distinction of being the first book I don’t want to give even the small publicity of this blog by identifying its title or author – because it isn’t just revisionist, it is anti-history, an uncorroborated web of fantasy woven from mistakes, misinterpretations, metaphors and supposed coded messages in paintings. (Anyone sufficiently desperate to know what it is can ask a Richard III Society member). I won’t elaborate further because I plan to offer a reasoned response (minus the snark) to the Bulletin, and don’t want to pre-empt its possible publication – but I will post it on here in due course.

Meanwhile, naturally, I’d love to know the truth about Edward IV’s legitimacy, but the only thing that would convince me is scientific proof – which we’re unlikely to ever get. What a shame our Victorian forebears, who weren’t shy about opening tombs to have a good nosey at royal remains, didn’t have DNA analysis – I bet they’d have settled the question!

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…

Literature Matters: The White Queen

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, World Book Night edition, 2013

I only read this book because my local library gave me a free copy on World Book Night – and by the time I’d finished, I was sincerely glad I hadn’t paid for it.

The underlying story is good (based on the incredible life of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of Edward IV, it could hardly be anything else); and two pages of bibliographic references show that the author has done her homework. That she has drawn from some of the more lurid sources isn’t surprising – this is, after all, a romantic novel – thus we see Elizabeth waylaying Edward for their first meeting as a supplicant clutching the hands of her two little boys; and shortly after, the hackneyed ‘death before dishonour’ scene in which she grabs his dagger and threatens to cut her throat rather than be seduced. The heroine and her mother are both shown as practising witches, capable of whistling up storms, causing Richard of Gloucester to lose the use of his arm and, of course, ensnaring Edward; and throughout, Elizabeth harks back to her supposed descent from the French water-goddess Melusina. (The legend of Melusina and her ducal lover crops up periodically, in passages intended to echo Elizabeth and Edward’s relationship. I found these chokingly annoying, but luckily they appear in italics so can be easily spotted and skipped without detriment to the main narrative).

The bulk of the story is told in the first person, present tense, by Elizabeth Woodville. This gives The White Queen a certain freshness and immediacy, although the style is difficult to carry off plausibly in this genre, and I wasn’t overly impressed by Gregory’s attempt. The early chapters are riddled with references to Edward as a ‘boy’; and while he might have been five years Elizabeth’s junior, I can’t imagine her (or any 15th century lady) using the term for a man well into his majority – let alone for a proven warrior who had reigned as king for three years by the time the story starts. Much of the dialogue is clunky and full of over-explication; this may be necessary to communicate the background history to the reader, but it makes for some pretty unlikely conversations between characters of the time. And Gregory wins my personal award for ‘Most Excruciating Bit of Dialogue in Any Historical Novel’ with Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford’s remark to Cecily, Duchess of York, regarding the latter’s son George, Duke of Clarence: ‘…what would one call him?’ She pauses to wonder what one would call Cecily’s favourite son, then she finds the words: ‘An utter numpty.’ Unbelievable! Bad enough to employ such a grotesque anachronism; even worse to deliberately draw attention to it as though it’s clever and funny. (I guess Gregory thinks it is; she must be laughing all the way to the bank to have fans who pay good money to read such ghastly stuff).

To me, the best parts of The White Queen were the lively battle scenes (possibly because they’re not told in Elizabeth’s voice), the imaginative resolution of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ mystery and Elizabeth’s relationship with Richard III in the closing chapters. But altogether I found it an unsatisfying experience which left me baffled as to why this author is so popular – she’s certainly no Jean Plaidy or Antonia Fraser. Her graceless prose has nothing beautiful to wallow in, nothing substantial to get the teeth into; her sentences are short, her language so basic that (bar a modicum of sex and violence) she might be writing for children. Maybe that’s the appeal – it’s quick, simple, undemanding bland pulp. But if The White Queen is a fair representation of Gregory’s work, it’ll be the first and last of it I read – and I sure as hell won’t be watching the forthcoming TV adaptation!

Conclusion? Don’t waste your money. Buy David Baldwin’s non-fiction biography of Elizabeth Woodville instead; it beats this hands-down for readability and interest.