Edward IV has a bit of a reputation for liking, and being liked by, the ladies… he once said that his mistresses were the merriest, wiliest and holiest in the land. The merriest naughty lady was Jane Shore, the best known of Edward’s mistresses. Lady Eleanor Butler nee Talbot finished up in a nunnery, so presumably she was the holy mistress and the topic of today’s post. The wiliest mistress was Elizabeth Lucy/Lucie or Wayte by whom Edward had at least two children. Sir Thomas More thought that it was Elizabeth Lucy with whom Edward was pre-contracted but there are other sources including Mancini and later Philip de Commines who discuss Edward’s marriage to another woman before Elizabeth Woodville.
History, in order to be fact relies on evidence which can, of course, be misleading. Much of the evidence relating to Edward’s marriage to Eleanor Butler is circumstantial and the sources are often rather biased. Wagner makes the very good point that Margaret of Anjou and the Lancastrians never made any reference to a pre-existing marriage…but then the marriage was a secret. Mancini wasn’t a big fan of Richard III so the fact that he reports a sermon which identified the king’s children as illegitimate has to have some clout. For the sake of fairness I should point out that Vergil wrote an account of the same sermon and categorically states that no one mentioned illegitimacy…feeling confused yet? The Croyland Chronicle was troubled by no doubts at all. It very clearly states that the whole thing was cooked up by Richard to justify the usurpation of the throne. The Richard III Society have rather a lot to say on the subject and plenty of evidence to support the view that Richard wasn’t making up the marriage but none of the evidence is incontrovertible. It is a deductive process.
We can be sure that Lady Eleanor Butler, nee Talbot, was daughter to the Earl of Shrewsbury and Margaret Beauchamp. When she was thirteen she was married off to Sir Thomas Butler who was the son and heir of Lancastrian Lord Sudeley. Thomas died in 1461 but before the Battle of Towton – though there was a Thomas Butler who died during the Yorkshire battle on the Lancastrian side. The evidence for the date of Thomas’s death is discussed by Ashdown-Hill (who frequently writes in the Ricardian) who notes that the inquisition post mortem was dated to Henry’s reign rather than Edward IV’s. It is possible he died from injuries sustained at the Battle of Blore Heath. Eleanor should have been a wealthy widow.
In the rather complicated game of chess that was landownership Eleanor’s father-in-law took back one of the two manors that had been settled upon her with her marriage to his only son. A licence was required for the transfer. This was neither applied for nor issued so the Crown promptly confiscated both properties that were Eleanor’s inheritance. By this time the king was not Henry VI but Edward IV. The confiscation may or may not have been because of Sudeley’s Lancastrian sympathies – it might simply have been part of a strengthening of the York hand.
Eleanor went along to petition Edward for the return of her property (you may be familiar with a similar story – there are several parallels between Eleanor’s plight and that of Elizabeth Woodville.) At which point the teenage Edward became very friendly indeed with the pretty widow who was slightly older than him. In fact he became so friendly that he may have promised to marry Eleanor. Interestingly if its a question of a pattern repeating itself it’s worth noting that Edward attempted to bribe Elizabeth Woodville’s father and when that didn’t work there was the story of the threat of violence which didn’t work either so that Edward found that the only way to enjoy rather more of Elizabeth Woodville’s company was to offer her marriage…note the word story…hard evidence is in short supply. Had Edward been much more naive three years earlier when he is supposed to have pre-contracted to Eleanor Butler? Or did he want to avoid marriage already having one secret wife? Ashdown-Hill speculates that Edward’s promise to Eleanor took place just after his coronation.
In the Middle Ages, the promise of marriage followed by intercourse was marriage and recognized as such by the Church although it required the irregular marriage to be regularised before any children could inherit. No priest was required for an irregular marriage and actually there really would be no witnesses around (one hopes) to testify as to whether a promise of marriage had been made prior to any activity that could be deemed naughty.
In 1483 Duke Richard of Gloucester claimed that Edward’s children were all illegitimate because Edward was pre-contracted to another woman before marrying Elizabeth Woodville. Cue Robert Stillington to step forward. He claimed that not only had the pre-contract existed but that he had witnessed an exchange of vows – so, much more organized that a quick promise to marry Eleanor at some point in the future whilst muttering sweet nothings and fumbling with the laces of her dress. The next thing you know Parliament was merrily constructing the Titulus Regius which proclaimed Edward’s bigamy to the world and bastardized all his children including the young King Edward – who swiftly lost his crown to his uncle. It is worth mentioning at this point that Henry VII had the Titulus Regius reversed prior to his marriage to Elizabeth of York who was also bastardised by the proceedings.
This all leaves many, many problems. Firstly, you’d have thought that Eleanor Butler might have had something to say about her spouse getting re-hitched. Certainly you’d have thought her family might have had something to say on the subject – it is often suggested that Eleanor was a poor widow rather like Elizabeth Woodville with no one to speak up for her but Eleanor’s sister was the Duchess of Norfolk. Her mother was Margaret Beauchamp – the eldest daughter of Richard Beauchamp the Earl of Warwick – her half-aunt was Anne Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick meaning that the Kingmaker was her uncle and yes you’d have thought that Talbot being the husband of the eldest sister would have been the Earl of Warwick, he certainly thought he should have been and it definitely caused ill will amongst the Beauchamps and their respective spouses. But all that aside, Eleanor was not on her own in the world and even if she had been she’d already demonstrated that she was capable of speaking for herself when she petitioned Edward for the return of her manors. There was a large network of noble relations who surely to goodness would have taken a dim view of Edward doing the dirty on Eleanor? Unless they had something to gain perhaps? Or to lose?
Of course, since Edward married Elizabeth Woodville in secret it would have been impossible for anyone to jump up and down about just causes and impediments at the time of the marriage. Also it has been suggested that Eleanor Butler had no children and seems to have been disposed to a contemplative life. She may have been quite happy to let sleeping dogs lie…sadly she didn’t leave a deathbed confession witnessed by a posse of nuns that would have settled the issue without further ado.
Thirdly, how very convenient it was for Richard that Edward was dead before he chose to mention the embarrassing news that his brother had made one too many marriage vow – and just before Edward V’s coronation as well, such a co-incidence! However, if Stillington didn’t tell Richard about the marriage until after Edward’s death Richard could hardly be expected to take action any sooner.
Fourthly, just why didn’t Stillington spill the beans earlier? That’s easier to explain- though still circumstantial. Stillington managed to move from being someone fairly insignificant to the keeper of the Privy Seal as well as Bishop of Bath and Wells during the reign of Edward IV– co-incidentally at the same time the marriage of Edward to Elizabeth Woodville became public knowledge.
Interestingly Stillington found himself in the Tower in 1478 along with Edward’s other brother, George, Duke of Clarence. It has been alleged that Clarence, who may or may not have been drowned in a vat of Malmsey, had been told by Stillington of the pre-contract – hence the private execution…although if I was Edward, I would probably have ensured that Stillington had a nasty accident with some marbles at the top of a steep set of steps at about the same time, if he had indeed been telling tales or there was even the remotest possibility of tale telling. Edward was capable of that sort of behaviour – just look what happened to Henry VI on the very night that Edward arrived in London on May 21, 1471.
Legally speaking Richard should have had the matter tried in an ecclesiastical court to be absolutely certain that his nephew didn’t have a claim to the throne and equally if Edward had been married to Eleanor Butler presumably he could have got a Papal Dispensation in order to then marry Elizabeth Woodville – though his grandson, Henry VIII, knew all about the difficulties of that particular route. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick – Kingmaker and Eleanor Butler’s uncle might have had a view on it…a good reason for saying nothing, especially as Elizabeth Woodville was introduced to the court as Mrs Edward Plantagenet at the very point that the Kingmaker was in France negotiating for the marriage of a French princess to Edward.
Edward married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464 three years after his supposed marriage to Eleanor – historians tend to accept that she was definitely his mistress. The only real difference between Eleanor’s so-called marriage, if it happened, and Elizabeth’s was that Edward acknowledged Elizabeth as his bride. Elizabeth had taken the precaution of having her mother as an additional witness but none of the testimonies survive today, or if they do they’re tucked away in some dark corner of the archives. This means that either Edward made false promises to Eleanor in order to have his wicked way; he intended to marry Eleanor but then the political situation changed and besides which he’d had his wicked way; he was married to Eleanor but both parties decided to pretend it had never happened; or Richard made the whole thing up in order to usurp his nephew’s throne.
And whilst we’re on the subject of irregular marriages – which Edward and Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage was then a papal dispensation was required to ‘regularise’ the whole thing and preferably before children were born because if the marriage remained irregular then whilst the union itself was legal the children of the union couldn’t inherit. As it happens there is no evidence of Edward seeking a papal dispensation to regularize his marriage to Elizabeth – it would appear that Richard III was quite right – he was the heir not his nephews – but there was absolutely no need to go dredging up a pre-contract. It has been suggested that Edward IV didn’t ask the pope for a dispensation to regularise his irregular marriage to Elizabeth Woodville because that would have meant deceiving the Pope about his marriage to Eleanor Butler – which moves us from circumstantial evidence to mind reading.
Eleanor took herself off to a convent where she died in June 1468 in the Convent of the White Carmelites in Norwich as a lay sister. She’d been a benefactress to the nuns before joining them behind the convent walls. Interestingly, because there is something of a mystery in the whole business Ashdown-Hill identifies the fact that Eleanor held land that she didn’t inherit, didn’t gain through her marriage and which she couldn’t have afforded to buy – indicating that someone had given Eleanor the land…that someone – well, Edward IV…though Ashdown-Hill doesn’t provide the reader with a handy grant signed and sealed with the Crown stamp meaning that it is possible that someone else might have given her the land – though we don’t know who. It’s also worth mentioning that Ashdown-Hill is very much in favour of Richard III. You never know though, all sorts of interesting documents turn up in archives around the world from time to time – perhaps one day someone will uncover some incontrovertible evidence about Lady Eleanor Butler and Edward IV, in the meantime there’s plenty to speculate about.
Edward V was born in 1470, two years after Eleanor Butler died – if his father had been pre-contracted the fact that Eleanor was dead would still not have made his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville legal and even if it was his only marriage it was still an irregular marriage. It wasn’t as though Edward didn’t know that a papal dispensation was required to regularise the union – his own grandparents Anne Mortimer and Richard of Conisbrough required one- and you’d have thought that one of his advisors might have mentioned it in passing.
Ashdown-Hill, John. (2010) Eleanor the Secret Queen: The Woman who put Richard III on the throne. Stroud, The History Press
Wagner, John A. (2001) Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses Oxford: ABC Clio