As regular readers of this blog know, I am fascinated with medieval genealogy and with the Wars of the Roses and have continued to research these topics even while writing my current novel, which is set in Tudor England. Recently, my delving into French sources (undertaken with the aid of a professional researcher) revealed a startling fact: that Henry VI, once thought to have not set foot in France after 1432, traveled to Rouen in 1441 and sired an illegitimate son. The son’s identity?
None other than Edward IV.
Though he left the governance of France to subordinates, the young Henry VI did in fact have an interest in his overseas possessions. Lacking self-confidence, however, he chose not to travel to France in his royal capacity. Thus, in the late summer of 1441, the nineteen-year-old king, assuming the guise of a simple archer, journeyed to France. It was not the only time the king would pose as a humble subject: in 1445, greeting his new bride, Henry pretended to be a mere squire.
Dressing as an archer offered several advantages to Henry. It allowed him to dress simply, as he preferred. It also allowed him to mingle with the common soldiers and to get a feel for the conditions in which they were fighting. And–perhaps most importantly for our purposes–it showed off his manly physique. (The exhumation of Henry VI’s bones in the nineteenth century revealed the king to have been strongly built.)
Although the disguised Henry had initially joined the Duke of York at Pontoise, the duke, concerned about his wife’s well-being, sent the young archer back to Rouen to ensure her safety. Lovely and lonely, Cecily Neville was much taken with the handsome, inexplicably well spoken young archer. Henry, meanwhile, was so overcome with the duchess’s beauty that he broke his vow to remain chaste until his marriage. The result, born on April 22, 1422, was young Edward.
Before returning to England, Henry had revealed his deception to the duchess, who in turn told her secret to her husband. The Duke of York had little choice except to accept the boy as his own. To do otherwise would have been to proclaim himself a cuckold, something the proud duke had no desire to do–particularly when the father was a man otherwise known for his chaste living. The duke therefore allowed his son to grow up unaware that he was the firstborn son of the King of England. Henry VI, meanwhile, suffered intense guilt over having broken his youthful vow of chastity. So crippling was his shame that when he finally married, he could not complete the marital act. Only in early 1453, after he unburdened himself in a written confession to Margaret of Anjou, was he able to consummate his marriage and father a child upon his wife. It is this confession, filed in the archives of Angers following Margaret’s death and long ignored by French scholars who failed to recognize its significance, which reveals the truth about Edward IV’s parentage.
It is possible, of course, that the document could have been forged by someone in the French court who wished to discredit Edward IV as illegitimate. Other evidence, however, tends to corroborate the confession. Henry always seemed well disposed toward young Edward, creating him Earl of March at a very young age. Significantly, after the Duke of York fled to Ireland after Ludlow, Henry treated the Duchess of York very generously.
Most telling, however, is the 1460 Act of Accord in which Henry VI disinherited his own son by Margaret of Anjou in favor of the Duke of York and his progeny. As Henry was younger than the Duke of York, Henry might well have expected that he would outlive York and that his actual successor would be Edward, Earl of March. Might the passivity with which Henry accepted the Act of Accord be in reality an act of love for the handsome, vigorous son whose paternity he never dared to acknowledge openly? And might Henry VI’s failure to lead his troops in person at Towton be a reluctance to fight against his firstborn son?
Henry VI died after the victorious Edward IV’s return to London in 1471. Contemporaries widely believed that he was murdered, while Edward IV himself put it about that the king died of melancholy. It is quite possible, however, that Henry, with his legitimate son by Margaret of Anjou dead, was overcome by joy at realizing that his firstborn son had survived Tewkesbury and could thereafter rule in peace. Henry’s surfeit of joy caused him to suffer a fatal heart attack.
As for Henry’s secret lover, Cecily of York, whether she ever revealed the truth about Edward’s parentage to any of her children can only be speculated upon. It is notable, however, that in 1484, Richard III had Henry VI’s remains moved from Chertsey Abbey to Windsor Castle. Was he following the secret instructions of his mother, who could pay this posthumous tribute to the “archer” she loved only after Edward IV was dead?
We may never know the answers to some of these questions. One thing, however, is now clear: as this transcription in modern English of Henry VI’s anguished confession to Margaret of Anjou indicates, Edward IV was a Lancastrian king.