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Today is the anniversary of the birth of Richard III, King of England and Lord of Ireland. The focus today of this blog entry is whether or not he was a usurper.

Richard III (October 2, 1452 – August 22, 1485) was King of England and Lord of Ireland from 1483 until his death in 1485. Richard was born on October 2, 1452 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, the eleventh of the twelve children of Richard, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville, and the youngest to survive infancy. Richard III was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. For those keeping track, the House of Anjou, AKA the Plantagenet Dynasty, ruled England and Ireland for 330 years, 8 months, 3 days beginning with the accession of Henry II on December 19, 1154 and ending with the defeat and death of Richard III on August 22, 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, marking the end of the Middle Ages in England.

When Richard, Duke of York, brother Edward IV died in April 1483, Richard was named Lord Protector of the realm for Edward’s eldest son and successor, the 12-year-old Edward V. Arrangements were made for Edward’s coronation later that year on June 22, 1483.

Richard III, King of England and Lord of Ireland

However, before the king could be crowned, the marriage of King Edward V’s parents, Edward IV and Elisabeth Woodville was declared bigamous and therefore invalid. Therefore, now officially illegitimate, their children were barred from inheriting the throne. On June 25th, an assembly of lords and commoners endorsed a declaration to this effect and proclaimed Richard as the rightful king. He was crowned on July 6, 1483. The young princes, Edward and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, were not seen in public after August and accusations circulated that they had been murdered on Richard’s orders.

When I began studying English Royalty I believed that the claim that Edward IV’s marriage was illegal was the rationalization by Richard III and his party in order for Richard to justify usurping the throne. Was there a basis for such a claim? Indeed there was a basis for his claim and it was taken seriously at the time.

The basis for this claim was the evidence that prior to Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, Edward was already pre-contracted to marry a wealthy widow by the name of Lady Eleanor Butler. Lady Butler had passed away by the time Richard claimed the throne and therefore couldn’t corroborate this claim. Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, a stalwart supporter of Richard, was the chief witness to the pre-contract of marriage between Edward IV and Lady Butler. According to Roman Catholic Church Law at the time, a pre-contract was a solemn oath to marry in the presence of clerical witnesses and this pre-contract took precedence over any other form of marital arrangement. This contract was legal and binding and therefore had to be legally dismissed for the parties to be free to marry somebody else.

As stated elsewhere in this blog regarding the legality of the succession, no king, at least by this time period, could alter the succession to the crown by decree or declaration. Parliament was firmly the Legislative body of the Kingdom and all laws proposed needed to be passed by Parliament, even changes to the succession. View yesterday’s blog entry on the succession of Queen Mary I where her brother Edward IV tried to bypass his half-sisters but his Will was not approved by Parliament prior to his death, thus making an attempted alteration to the succession illegal.

Therefore in order to legally justify Richard III’s taking of the throne in June of 1483 an Act of Parliament was issued in January 1484 entitled “Titulus Regius (The Title of King)” The Act stated that Edward IV’s marriage had been bigamous and therefore invalid. In the nullification of the marriage it also rendered all the children of the marriage as illegitimate, namely the young King Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York.

An interesting note is that the Titulus Regius did not actually name Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath as the main clerical witness for the claim of the pre-marital contract of Edward IV and Lady Butler. Instead the Titulus Regius named a Burgundian chronicler, Phillipe de Commines, as the main witness to the contract. The source of Phillipe de Commines witnessing the event was written in his memoirs where he said he witnessed the signing of the pre-contract between Edward IV and Lady Butler.

Edward IV, King of England and Lord of Ireland

An another interesting point about the Act making Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s children illegitimate is that the taint of illegitimacy did not tarnish the desirability of their daughter Princess Elizabeth of York. In order to heal the rift in the family, and it seems to bolster Richard III’s hold up the throne, he sought the hand of his niece in marriage. Her mother, Queen Elizabeth (formerly Elizabeth Woodville) flatly refused his advances. Even after Richard was deposed the new king, Henry VII, successfully won the hand of Princess Elizabeth of York and United the warring branches of the English Royal Family. Elizabeth of York’s stain of illegitimacy didn’t bother Henry nor prevent her from becoming Queen Consort of England. She really had a better claim to be a Queen Regnant of England but that’s another story.

One of the first acts of Parliament convened by Henry VII after he became king was to repeal Titulus Regius. This restored the legitimacy of the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, and the legitimacy of their children, including Elizabeth of York. Henry honoured his pledge of December 1483 to marry Elizabeth of York. They were third cousins, as both were great-great-grandchildren of John of Gaunt. Henry and Elizabeth were married on 18 January 1486 at Westminster Abbey.

Today the vast majority of historians view the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville as legally valid. That’s not to say the pre-contract between Edward IV and Lady Butler didn’t occur, it vary well may have, there just isn’t enough evidence to determine, either for away, if the pre-contract was made.