I was going to write a rather long post today about Richard III and the supposed precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, but I got sidetracked last night by this post. Neat, isn’t it? Naturally, I got to trying to make my own video trailer, and before I knew it, it was bedtime. I’ll post my trailer once I finish it. Which may be a while, as Steven Spielberg I ain’t.
Anyway, on July 6, 1483, Richard III and his wife, Anne Neville, were crowned King and Queen of England.
I’m fascinated by Richard III and the Wars of the Roses, and I’m even a member of the Richard III Society, but I’m not a great admirer of Richard III, as readers of this blog have no doubt deduced. I have no difficulty believing that he was a good husband to Anne and a good father to his children (legitimate and illegitimate), and I’ll admit that he probably did mean to govern well once he took the crown. (Though one online fan’s characterization of him as being responsible for “the foundation of Western law” struck me as a bit, er, overstated. Next we’ll have the guy writing the United States Constitution.) But I also believe it very likely that he killed his nephews, or at the very least let it be known that he wouldn’t inquire very closely if something amiss happened to the young boys.
Which brings us to the precontract story. That, I think, is probably the issue that divides the Ricardians from the non-Ricardians. If you can believe that there was a precontract, you can also believe that Richard III took the crown only reluctantly and that his enemies were a bunch of scheming ingrates who slandered his name only to gain power for themselves. If, on the other, you don’t believe there was a precontract, it’s rather simple to believe that Richard III, having fabricated this story to obtain the throne, was ready to eliminate anyone who stood in his way.
And I’m one of those who doesn’t believe the precontract story. If, as Richard’s partisans argue, Edward IV had Clarence executed and Stillington imprisoned to keep them from blabbing about the precontract, why did he later release Stillington? And if there was a precontract, surely more people than Clarence and Stillington knew about it. Edward IV wasn’t a stupid man; why didn’t he quietly take care of the matter with the Pope instead of taking the chance that no one else would mention Eleanor Butler? And why did neither Eleanor Butler nor her relations ever speak on her behalf, or at least tell their grievances to the Earl of Warwick, who would have loved the opportunity to attack the Woodville marriage? It wasn’t as if Eleanor were a humble peasant girl; she was quite well connected.
With Edward IV and Eleanor Butler both dead in 1483, one person might have been able to shed light on Edward IV’s relationship with Eleanor: William Hastings, Edward IV’s closest friend and longtime partner in skirt-chasing. And perhaps not at all coincidentally, Richard III had him executed days before Richard and his agents began to circulate the precontract story.
There’s also the matter of jurisdiction. In England, the ecclesiastical courts were where questions of marriage and legitimacy were decided. Richard III never took the question of the precontract to the papal courts where it belonged. Moreover, neither Edward IV’s children nor their mother, Elizabeth Woodville, was ever given the opportunity to defend the validity of the Woodville marriage by questioning the existence of the precontract. Richard III got around this problem by proclaiming that the matter of the precontract was notorious, but it was a notoriety that came suspiciously late in the game.
So unless I hear something that convinces me that there was a precontract, my coronation day best wishes will continue to be grudging. But I’ll be a sport and give them anyway.