Recently, historian John Ashdown-Hill published a book called Royal Marriage Secrets, in which he purports to uncover evidence that Edmund Tudor, father of Henry VII, was not the son of Owen Tudor but of Edmund Beaufort—evidence, in short, that would entail renaming an entire dynasty.
The speculation does have some basis in fact. Following the death of Henry V, Catherine of Valois, a widow of only twenty-one, was said to have difficulty “curb[ing] fully her carnal passions,” and a contemporary rumor had it that Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset (d. 1455) sought to marry her. The result was this statute, which refers to queens generally but is generally regarded by historians as being aimed at Catherine:
Item, it is ordered and established by the authority of this parliament for the preservation of the honour of the most noble estate of queens of England that no man of whatever estate or condition make contract of betrothal or matrimony to marry himself to the queen of England without the special licence and assent of the king, when the latter is of the age of discretion, and he who acts to the contrary and is duly convicted will forfeit for his whole life all his lands and tenements, even those which are or which will be in his own hands as well as those which are or which will be in the hands of others to his use, and also all his goods and chattels in whosoever’s hands they are, considering that by the disparagement of the queen the estate and honour of the king will be most greatly damaged, and it will give the greatest comfort and example to other ladies of rank who are of the blood royal that they might not be so lightly disparaged.
Assuming that he actually did have ambitions to marry Catherine, Edmund Beaufort heeded this warning; Owen Tudor, a mere squire, did not. At some point, he and Catherine of Valois secretly married and had a family of children together.
Ashdown-Hill, however, speculates that two of these children were fathered not by Owen, but by Edmund Beaufort out of wedlock. Unlike other historians who have indulged in such speculation in the past, he claims to have found concrete evidence that Edmund Tudor, and his brother Jasper, were Edmund Beaufort’s illegitimate offspring: their coats of arms. “These coats of arms, which owed nothing whatever to the arms of Owen Tudor, were clearly derived from the arms of Edmund Beaufort. The blue and gold bordures of Edmund and Jasper Tudor were simply versions of the blue and white bordure of Edmund Beaufort. . . . The whole purpose of medieval heraldry was to show to the world who one was. And the coats of arms of Edmund and Jasper Tudor proclaimed, as clearly as they could, that these two ‘Tudor’ sons of the queen mother were of English royal blood, while their bordures suggest descent from Edmund Beaufort. The only possible explanation seems to be that Beaufort was their real father.”
As further “proof,” Ashdown-Hill writes that a century later, Henry VIII rescued only two bodies from the dissolution: that of his sister Mary and his grandfather Edmund Tudor. Noting that Henry failed to retrieve his great-grandfather Owen’s body, Ashdown-Hill asks, “Could it have been that Henry VIII knew more about his true paternal ancestry than later historians?”
This, however, is awfully slender evidence on which to impugn Queen Catherine’s virtue—especially when one considers all of the evidence that Ashdown-Hill overlooks. First, as my friend Karen Clark pointed out on a Facebook discussion of this question, there is the strong resemblance between the Tudor brothers’ arms and that of their half-brother, Henry VI—suggesting that the coats of arms were designed to indicate not ancestry from Edmund Beaufort, but their kinship to Henry VI.
Indeed, the Act of Parliament creating Edmund and Jasper earls, unmentioned by Ashdown-Hill, stresses the brothers’ relationship to the king (and their legitimacy):
To the most excellent and most Christian prince our lord the king, we the commons of this your realm, most faithful subjects of your royal majesty, in your present parliament assembled; in order that there may be brought before the most perspicacious eyes of royal consideration the memory of the blessed prince, Queen Catherine your mother, by whose most famous memory we confess we are very greatly affected, chiefly because she was worthy to give birth by divine gift to the most handsome form and illustrious royal person of your highness long to reign over us, as we most earnestly hope, in glory and honour in all things; for which it is necessary to acknowledge that we are most effectively bound more fully than can be said not only to celebrate her most noble memory for ever, but also to esteem highly and to honour with all zeal, as much as our insignificance allows, all the fruit which her royal womb produced; considering in the case of the illustrious and magnificent princes, the lords Edmund de Hadham and Jasper de Hatfield, natural and legitimate sons of the same most serene lady the queen, not only that they are descended by right line from her illustrious womb and royal lineage and are your uterine brothers, and also that by their most noble character they are of a most refined nature – their other natural gifts, endowments, excellent and heroic virtues, and other merits of a laudable life and of the best manners and of probity we do not doubt are already sufficiently well known to your serenity – that you deign from the most excellent magnificence of your royal highness to consider most kindly how the aforesaid Edmund and Jasper, your uterine brothers, were begotten and born in lawful matrimony within your realm aforesaid, as is sufficiently well known both to your most serene majesty and to all the lords spiritual and temporal of your realm in the present parliament assembled, and to us; and on this, from the most abundant magnificence of royal generosity, with the advice and assent of the same lords spiritual and temporal, by the authority of the same to decree, ordain, grant and establish that the aforesaid Edmund and Jasper be declared your uterine brothers, conceived and born in a lawful marriage within your aforesaid realm, and denizens of your abovesaid realm, and not yet declared thus . . .
. . . We, who embrace with sincere affection and goodwill all good men, especially the subjects of our power and rule, weighing with due consideration the foregoing and also the noble qualities, the exceptional natural gifts and the honourable reputation and manners and the other laudable merits of the probity and virtues with which we have in many ways perceived, both by our own experience and by the testimony of many faithful men, our sincerely beloved Edmund de Hadham, our uterine brother, to be distinguished, and among other things [considering] the nobility of birth and proximity in blood by which he is related to us as someone who is descended by right line from the illustrious royal house; and, moved by his foregoing merits, honouring him with singular grace, favour and benevolence, and thinking it right that, as he every day produces better examples of virtue and probity, our affection towards him should at the same time expand and grow according to the increase of his virtues, and that we also should adorn him, whom the nature of virtue and the royal blood have ennobled, with a title of civil nobility, the sign of a special honour, and the emblems of illustrious dignity, we have promoted, and do promote, by our own will, not at the instance of any petition of his or of another’s presented to us in this regard, but simply from our own generosity, the same Edmund, our uterine brother as aforesaid, as earl of Richmond alias de Richemond, we have appointed, ordained and created, and do appoint, ordain and create, him earl of Richmond alias de Richemond, and by the girding of a sword and of other appropriate insignia and ornaments in this regard, and by the present handing over to him of these our letters, we have invested and do invest [him] in and with the estate and dignity of such an earl; and we have given and granted, and we give and grant by these present letters to the same Edmund all the earldom and the name and title of earl of Richmond alias de Richemond, each and every kind of style, degree, seat, honour and preeminence pertaining and belonging in any way to the estate and dignity of earl. . . .
We, who embrace with sincere affection and goodwill all good men, especially the subjects of our power and rule, weighing with due consideration the foregoing and also the noble qualities, the exceptional natural gifts and the honourable reputation and manners and the other laudable merits of the probity and virtues with which we have in many ways perceived, both by our own experience and by the testimony of many faithful men, our sincerely beloved Jasper de Hatfield, our uterine brother, to be distinguished, and among other things [considering] the nobility of birth and proximity in blood by which he is related to us as someone who is descended by right line from the illustrious royal house; and, moved by his foregoing merits, honouring him with singular grace, favour and benevolence, and thinking it right that, as he every day produces better examples of virtue and probity, our affection towards him should at the same time expand and grow according to the increase of his virtues, and that we also should adorn him, whom the nature of virtue and the royal blood have ennobled, with a title of civil nobility, the sign of a special honour, and the emblems of illustrious dignity, we have promoted, and do promote, by our own will, not at the instance of any petition of his or of another’s presented to us in this regard, but simply from our own generosity, the same Jasper, our uterine brother as aforesaid, as earl of Pembroke alias de Pembroke, we have appointed, ordained and created, and do appoint, ordain and create, him earl of Pembroke alias de Pembroke, and by the girding of a sword and of the other appropriate insignia and ornaments in this regard, and by the present handing over to him of these our letters, we have invested and do invest [him] in and with the estate and dignity of such an earl; and we have given and granted, and we give and grant by these present letters to the same Jasper all the earldom, and the name and title of earl of Pembroke alias de Pembroke, each and every kind of style, degree, seat, honour and preeminence pertaining and belonging in any way to the rank and dignity of earl. We have willed and granted in addition, just as we also will and grant by our same letters to the aforesaid Jasper, that he shall have and occupy in every parliament, council, assembly and any other places both in our presence and elsewhere the place, sitting-place and seat immediately after and next to the place, sitting-place and seat of our dearest uterine brother Edmund de Hadham, earl of Richmond, alias de Richmond, his elder brother, and of his male heirs: so that the same Edmund and his male heirs shall be preferred [in front of and before] the other earls and any others below the rank and honour of duke of our realm of England in honour, dignity and preeminence and in place, sitting-place and seat.
The “appropriate insignia and ornaments” likely includes the coat of arms.
Moreover, since, as Ashdown-Hill pointed out, the whole point of medieval heraldry was to point out one’s background, why did Edmund and Jasper Tudor’s contemporaries fail to recognize them as Edmund Beaufort’s bastard offspring? In 1485, one man in particular would have been well served by questioning Edmund Tudor’s legitimacy, since it in turn would have allowed him to question that of Henry Tudor (whose parents would have been first cousins, married without a proper dispensation, if Edmund Tudor had been Edmund Beaufort’s son). That man, of course, was Richard III, facing an invasion by Henry Tudor.
In a proclamation issued in June 1485, Richard described Henry Tudor as “descended of bastard blood both of father side and of mother side, for the said Owen the grandfather was bastard born, and his mother was daughter unto John, Duke of Somerset, son unto John, Earl of Somerset, son unto Dame Katherine Swynford, and of their double adultery gotten.” Yet he nowhere questioned the legitimacy of Henry Tudor himself, or that of Edmund Tudor: he simply wrote, “the said rebels and traitors have chosen to be their captain one Henry Tydder, son of Edmund Tydder, son of Owen Tydder.” If there were any grounds to impugn the legitimacy of Henry Tudor or his father (not to mention Jasper Tudor, whom Richard also describes as Owen Tudor’s son), why did not Richard make use of them? Indeed, if there were any clues to Edmund Tudor’s illegitimacy to be found in his coat of arms, Richard, the founder of the College of Arms, was especially well equipped to obtain expert advice.
As for Henry VIII’s apparent indifference to Owen Tudor’s remains, Ashdown-Hill undermines his own argument by writing that Henry “did very little to rescue any royal burials from the doomed churches” (italics mine). Given such wholesale neglect on Henry VIII’s part, at least as portrayed by Ashdown-Hill, there need be no significance in Owen’s sharing the fate of other illustrious remains. Indeed, the tomb of another great-grandfather of Henry VIII, Richard, Duke of York, had fallen into such disrepair during Elizabeth I’s reign that the queen appointed commissioners to deal with the problem.
Finally, we have Owen Tudor’s illegitimate son, David Owen, born in 1459. If Ashdown-Hill’s theory were correct, David Owen would have no blood ties to either Edmund or Jasper Tudor. Yet in his will, he orders masses for the souls of “King Henry VII, Edmund, sometime Earl of Richmond, Jasper Duke of Bedford, my father and mother’s souls, my wife’s and all Christian souls.” As my friend Debra Bayani, who is writing a biography of Jasper, asked, why would David Owen remember Edmund—a man who died before David Owen was born—if Edmund was not his relation?
With all of this contrary evidence, Ashdown-Hill’s gleeful references to the “so-called Tudor royal family” seem ill-founded, to put it politely.
Sadly, Catherine of Valois isn’t the only historical woman whose reputation Ashdown-Hill sees fit to impugn on insufficient evidence in Royal Marriage Secrets. We’re informed that Catherine’s mother had “enjoyed the reputation of being something of a nymphomaniac”—a reputation that authors such as Tracy Adams have recently questioned, although you couldn’t tell it from anything in Ashdown-Hill’s book. (And what, precisely is “something of a nymphomaniac”? One might as well go whole hog.) He tells us that Margaret of Anjou became pregnant while Henry VI was mentally ill—in fact, Henry VI did not suffer his breakdown until Margaret’s pregnancy was well advanced—and adds, “it has long been questioned whether Edward of Westminster was truly fathered by Henry VI.” Needless to say, the political motivations behind the rumors of the illegitimacy of Margaret’s son go unremarked. Even the mother of Elizabeth Woodville comes in for a gratuitous slur when Ashdown-Hill writes that “it is possible that Jacquette had already been pregnant at the time of her second marriage.” No evidence is offered in support of this assertion.
I find this willingness to stain the reputation of historical women on such flimsy evidence disheartening, particularly when the writer doing this academic version of “slut shaming” is an accredited historian. I find it even more disheartening when the author is someone dedicated to restoring the good name of another historical figure, Richard III. But Catherine of Valois’s royal dignity survived her corpse’s being exhumed and put on display to be bussed by Samuel Pepys; no doubt it will survive this latest assault.
W. H. Blaauw, “On the Effigy of Sir David Owen in Easeborne Church, Near Midhurst,” in Sussex Archaeological Collections (1848).
Ralph Griffiths, King and Country: England and Wales in the Fifteenth Century (“Queen Katherine of Valois and a Missing Statute of the Realm”).
P. W. Hammond and Anne F. Sutton, Richard III: The Road to Bosworth Field.
Sofiga Matich and Jennifer S. Alexander, “Creating and recreating the Yorkist tombs in Fotheringhay church (Northamptonshire),” in Church Monuments, vol. XXVI (2011).
The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England (CD-ROM).