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From The Emperor’s Desk: in my recent post I discussed how Henry Bolingbroke became King Henry IV of England. Historians consider him a usurper and although he did have a strong hereditary claim to the throne his assumption of the crown was more of a right by conquest than him being the legal heir to King Richard II.

When Richard II was forced to abdicate the throne on September 29, 1399, Henry was next in line to the throne according to Edward III’s entailment of 1376. That entailment clearly reflects the operation of agnatic primogeniture, also known as the Salic law. At this time, it was by no means a settled custom for the daughter of a king to supersede the brothers of that king in the line of succession to the throne.

Indeed, it was not an established belief that women could inherit the throne at all by right: the only previous instance of succession passing through a woman had been that which involved the Empress Matilda, and this had involved protracted civil war, with the other protagonist being the son of Matilda’s father’s sister (not his brother). Yet, the heir of the royal estate according to common law (by which the houses and tenancies of common people like peasants and tradesmen passed) was Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, who descended from the daughter of Edward III’s third son (second to survive to adulthood), Lionel of Antwerp. Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, was Edward’s fourth son and the third to survive to adulthood. The problem was solved by emphasising Henry’s descent in a direct male line, whereas March’s descent was through his grandmother.

The official account of events claims that Richard II voluntarily agreed to resign his crown to Henry on September 29. The country had rallied behind Henry and supported his claim in parliament. However, the question of the succession never went away. The problem lay in the fact that Henry was only the most prominent male heir, but not the most senior in terms of agnatic descent from Edward III.

Although he was heir to the throne according to Edward III’s entail to the crown of 1376, Dr. Ian Mortimer has pointed out in his 2008 biography of Henry IV that this entail had probably been supplanted by an entail made by Richard II in 1399 (see Ian Mortimer, The Fears of Henry IV, appendix two, pp. 366–9). Henry thus had to overcome the superior claim of the Mortimers in order to maintain his inheritance.

This difficulty compounded when the Mortimer claim was merged with the Yorkist claim in the person of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. The Duke of York was the heir-generalof Edward III, and the heir presumptive (due to agnatic descent, the same principle by which Henry IV claimed the throne in 1399) of Henry’s grandson Henry VI (since Henry IV’s other sons did not have male heirs, and the legitimated Beauforts were excluded from the throne). The House of Lancaster was finally deposed by Edward IV, son of Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York, during the Wars of the Roses.

Henry avoided the problem of Mortimer having a superior claim by ignoring his own descent from Edward III. He claimed the throne as the right heir to King Henry III by claiming that Edmund Crouchback was the elder and not the younger son of King Henry. He asserted that every monarch from Edward I was a usurper, and he, as his mother Blanche of Lancaster was a great-granddaughter of Edmund, was the rightful king. Henry also claimed to be King of France, but Henry III had no hereditary claim to that throne.