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"Birther" Controversies and the Wars of the Roses

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Was King Edward IV Illegitimate? (1442)
Cecily Neville, Duchess of York

Cecily Neville, Duchess of York

Getty Images / Hulton Archive

In 2004, a British Channel4 documentary claimed that Edward IV was illegitimate, and thus descendants of his brother, the Duke of Clarence, were the real legitimate British monarchs. This claim was not a new one. During Edward's lifetime, the rumor circulated: that Edward did not look like his father, though his brothers did.

The main sources of the rumor were:

  • Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Called the Kingmaker, he supported first Edward IV and then Henry VI.

    Warwick supported Edward IV, his first cousin, in defeating Henry VI in 1460/1461. Warwick arranged for his daughter, Isabel Neville, to marry George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV. By 1469, Warwick had turned against Edward and supported Henry VI instead. Warwick spread the rumor that Edward IV was not the son of Richard of York. Cecily Neville, Edward IV's mother, was also Warwick's aunt. Warwick claimed that Cecily Neville had had a relationship with an archer in the absence of her husband. This would invalidate Edward IV's claim to the throne as the York heir.

    As part of his alliance with Henry VI, Warwick married his other daughter, Anne, to Henry VI's son, Edward, the Prince of Wales. But the prince was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury along with Henry VI in 1470. With Edward IV again in power, Warwick married Anne to Clarence's and Edward IV's brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III).

  • George, Duke of Clarence. Clarence aligned himself with Warwick's attempt to remove his own brother Edward IV from the throne. Since Clarence was married to Warwick's daughter Isabel Neville, Clarence believed Warwick would replace a toppled Edward with Clarence. Clarence soon came to believe that Warwick instead would restore Henry VI. Clarence again changed sides; Edward IV forgave his brother and in 1472 even gave Clarence Warwick's title. But Clarence continued to plot against his older brother. Clarence spread the rumor that Edward was not the son of Richard of York and was thus a bastard. Shortly after, in 1478, Clarence was "privately" executed at the Tower of London on the orders of his brother, Edward IV.

  • Cecily Neville, Edward IV's mother (and the mother of the duke of Clarence and Richard III). The source alleging that Edward's own mother made this claim was Dominic Mancini, an Italian who visited England in 1482 or 1483, likely as a spy for a French archbishop. Mancini was in England at the time of the death of Edward IV and was also there for coronation of Richard III. Mancini wrote an account of his trip after he returned. He spoke little English; he may have been informed of events on his trip by a physician who spoke Italian, who claimed to have treated one of the princes in the Tower, and who became part of Henry VII's court. Mancini's account, which was rediscovered in 1934 after being lost for hundreds of years, claims that Cecily Neville was angry with Edward IV when he married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, and in her anger told some that he was a bastard.

  • Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. In a petition to parliament in 1483, days after Richard III declared Edward V and the other children of Edward IV illegitimate, Stafford called Richard III "undoubted son and heir" of his father, perhaps as a reference to Edward's IV's supposed illegitimacy.

  • Richard III. In Shakespeare's play named for Richard III, and according to Polydore Vergil, with no other corroboration, Richard III himself is said to have stated that his brother was not legitimate. In Vergil's account, Cecily, Edward and Richard's mother, protests being falsely accused of adultery.

Were the accusations accurate? If true, Cecily Neville, wife of Richard of York, had committed adultery, presumably in her husband's absence.

Arguments for Edward's Illegitimacy

  • The main argument used for Edward being illegitimate was that Edward did not resemble his father. His face was more rounded and he was significantly taller than other York family members.
  • Cecily Neville would know; she was the mother; at least one source says the claim of illegitimacy came from the duchess herself.
  • Countering the argument that Richard III would have used this charge if it were true: Richard III may not have alluded to the illegitimacy of his brother, as it might have put his own legitimacy in doubt. A mother who had one affair might have had others.
  • Richard of York was gone for five weeks, at least several days travel from where Cecily of York was staying in Rouen, a window in which it is calculated that Edward IV would have been conceived. Recent evidence has surfaced of prayers being said for his safety during this window of time, confirming that he was absent.
  • Nothing in the record indicates that Edward IV was born prematurely. As one writer on the issue puts it, "We can also assume that Edward was not born prematurely as there is no mention of it. The risks associated with sickly or premature babies with a claim to the throne meant that chroniclers always recorded them in writing." [The History Onyx]
  • Edward IV's christening was held in a side chapel of the cathedral while his next brother's christening (Edmund, Earl of Rutland) was held in the main hall, and was a much more lavish affair. This must mean that the Edward was considered of lower birth than his brother was.

Arguments Against Edward's Illegitimacy

  • George, Duke of Clarence, was said by contemporaries to resemble his brother, Edward IV, and was also tall like Edward was; Edward was not unique in his differences from the rest of the family.
  • Richard III did not allude to Edward IV's illegitimacy in making his own claim to the throne. Richard instead alleged that Edward's children were illegitimate because of a pre-contract of marriage that invalidated Edward's marriage to Elizabeth of Woodville. The former would have been a stronger claim for Richard's priority over Edward's sons, so if he did not make the claim, it is likely because he knew the claim, which had already surfaced, was not true.
  • Cecily Neville's supposed statement of her son's illegitimacy, in reaction to hearing of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, was transmitted by someone whose reliability could easily be questioned. In any case, it could have been simply an angry accusation without basis in truth. Her supposed statement contrasts with other rumors, which also can be questioned as unreliable, that she protested being accused falsely of adultery.
  • The source of the statements of Edward's illegitimacy all came from people with connections to Edward's opposition, who thus had an interest in lying.
  • That absence of Richard of York? Where Richard of York was stationed was only a few days travel from where his wife was staying; one road between them would have been safe to travel. Evidence of some absence during the five week window is not evidence that there was complete absence.
  • Even if Richard of York was absent, if Edward IV were born just weeks early, the absence would be irrelevant. It's simply untrue that every sickly or premature royal child was noted as such in surviving records. Two of Edward's elder siblings died early, so even if he was born small or sickly, it might not have been noted.
  • The lavishness, or lack of it, of a christening could vary considerably, depending on other factors. Two of Cecily and Richard's first three children had died early, and the parents might have hurried the christening, expecting that the new baby, Edward, might not live long. The hurried christening might also indicate that Edward was born prematurely, adding to worry about his survival.
  • Perhaps the strongest counter-evidence: Richard of York never questioned the paternity of this son, and he and Cecily Neville went on to have nine more children after the birth of Edward. The next was born just over a year after Edward's birth. There's no evidence of estrangement, which might be expected if Cecily had committed adultery and become pregnant as a result.

Further, it could be argued that Edward IV's right to rule was as good as Henry VII's: Edward also won the right to rule through defeating his predecessor militarily, thus held the right through conquest. Both were sons of mothers whose descent from Edward III was through John of Gaunt's Beaufort offspring who had been explicitly excluded from royal succession.

Most importantly, the claim that all British monarchs since Edward IV should be displaced by descendants of the duke of Clarence, his next younger brother, ignore that Henry Tudor seized the crown not by right of inheritance, but by right of conquest.

Conclusion?

Was Edward IV illegitimate? The only real conclusion is that we don't know with any certainty.

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