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Medieval Britain

Was Edward IV Illegitimate?: The case for the defence

by Trish Wilson, 27 July 2014

History is full of mystery but how often has the mystery been overtaken by the myths and the truth lost in the mists of time? Oh how cherished are those myths, but when one applies the colander test just how watertight are they?

British history is full of them and none more so than that period quaintly known as the War of the Roses - anything but - and that granddaddy of them all, Richard III. Was he? Did he?

Lately it has been his eldest brother, Edward IV, born 28 April 1442, who has come in for scrutiny and a claim that he was indeed illegitimate. So what is the claim and how does that bear up under scrutiny?

The claim, and historical evidence

The claim is that at the critical time needed for conception his father Richard, duke of York, was away from his base in Rouen for a period of five weeks, overseeing the siege of Pontoise over a hundred miles away, which necessitated several days of marching, while at the same time his wife was (allegedly) having an adulterous fling with an archer by the name of Blaybourne. This same claim also makes mention of the fact that Edward's baptism was in stark contrast to that of his next brother, Edmund. Let us now look at this thesis in the light of what facts we do have at our disposal.

It would seem that there is one fact that has already been overlooked, but no longer. As regards those crucial five weeks, who would have known better than anyone, including those in Rouen, where York was at any given time or, for that matter, any gossip? Those who served immediately under him, that's who.

Warwick didn't start pushing those rumours about Blaybourne as part of his strategy to unseat his cousin until 1469. So who of them was still around in 1469? Who accompanied York to France in the summer of 1441, served him during that campaign, and would have been only too happy to give Warwick the lie if he had been in a position to do so? It's none other than Sir Richard Wydeville, later Earl Rivers, Edward IV's father-in-law, who was executed in August 1469 on Warwick's orders following the Battle of Edgecote. So was Rivers executed to feed Warwick's appetite for revenge or to silence him? Intriguing thought isn't it? As it is, Edward IV must have known that his father-in-law served under his father, so why that desperate story about conception in England unless Rivers was no longer alive to counter Warwick's allegation?

Two other notable persons who accompanied York to France were John de Vere, earl of Oxford (father of the earl who served under Henry VII), and James Butler, earl of Ormonde and Wiltshire (one of those who was named as being the real father of Edward of Lancaster) who was defeated by Edward IV at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross, both of whom were ardent Lancastrians and both of whom were executed during the first eighteen months of Edward IV's reign.

Henry VI Part 1
An imaginative scene from Henry VI Part 1 in which the participants in the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) select white and red roses to mark their allegiances

Edward IV

Edward IV was the only War of the Roses commander to win all of his military battles, and was possibly also England's very first Renaissance king. It's thanks to him that the printing press finally arrived in England.


York didn't hesitate to suggest that Edward of Lancaster was not the legitimate son of Henry VI so why, if Oxford or Ormonde/Wiltshire had any suspicions that York was not the father of Edward, didn't they turn the tables when they had a chance to do so? It does seem rather curious that, given the allegation made against him, Butler apparently never said anything that would have hoisted York on his own petard.

York's whereabouts

So where was York during those crucial five weeks?

He was definitely absent for five weeks but that's not the be-all and end-all as there are other factors to consider. Was York really that far away? Could Edward have been an early or late arrival? Could Cecily even have exchanged a few words with Blaybourne without others in Rouen Castle knowing about it? [1]

So let's now look at those other factors, geography, military, baptism, genetics and last but not least obstetrics.

It's all very well to claim that so-and-so must have been born out of wedlock because his mother's husband was not around at the time but it's not that simple. Precisely when a baby arrives is up to Mother Nature, not the calendar.

First of all, when looking at the claim of distance being 160km (100 miles), what are the geographical facts? What is the actual distance between Rouen and Pontoise? It's 93.05km (59 miles). Furthermore in medieval times the two towns were linked by an old Roman road known as the Chaussée Jules César, and the actual route was Paris-Pontoise-Rouen. That was superseded in 1824 by Route Nationale 14 which, from Pontoise onwards, follows the old Roman road and is almost as straight. The distance between Paris and Rouen along that road is 125km - that's just under eighty miles, so if it's only eighty miles to Rouen from Paris with Pontoise in between, how on earth could Pontoise be over a hundred miles away?

The baptism

There is also the claim about the baptism of Edward IV, which was in complete contrast to that of his brother Edmund born a year later. Edward had his in a side-chapel while Edmund had the full royal razzmatazz. Apparently this also provides evidence of an illegitimate birth, but what does that actually prove? What if Louis de Luxembourg, archbishop of Rouen (whose great-niece Elizabeth Wydeville, daughter of Richard Wydeville, went on to marry York's son Edward) wasn't in Rouen at the time? And what about the christenings of their younger siblings, George and Richard? Did they get the full works too? It has been suggested too that his parents had nothing to celebrate. Well York certainly didn't - the loss of Pontoise was a severe blow with the French less than sixty miles from Rouen.

[1] It's important to stress the strictures of the circumscribed life of a military garrison. How would Blaybourne, if on his own, get past the guards never mind anyone else and how could he at any time have been alone with Cecily without some curious mind and a wagging tongue? Anything out of the ordinary soon gets around.

Furthermore he had cause for concern following a meeting of nobility in Nevers in March 1442 to decide what they did next, with some holding out for peace negotiations, a matter on which King Charles VII took a contrary view.

What if it was an emergency baptism given in the belief that the souls of unchristened babies are denied access to heaven?

It is a fact that midwives were permitted by the Church of Rome to carry out an emergency baptism if there was any likelihood that the baby might not survive. What if Edward did arrive early or was not thought likely to survive? It's worth bearing in mind what had happened to his brother Henry the year before, being born and having died on the same day. As it is, there could be a variety of reasons for the disparity. The fact that Edward's baptism was so low-key compared to that of Edmund is certainly not proof that he was illegitimate however much a song and dance is made about it.

Family resemblances

As for Edward, tall and fair, not looking like his father, short and dark, what of it?

His brother George didn't match their father either, but nobody seems to make a fuss about that. How many children actually look like their parents or, more to the point, how many sons take after their fathers? How many of today's royal children look like their fathers? Just because 'Peregrine Fortescue Smythe' or 'Joe Bloggs' fail to look like pater/dad is no reason to suppose that mater/mum was having it away with someone else.

Some children take after their grandparents, as did Henry VIII, and others after their parents' siblings - there have even been cases of cousins being taken for twins. Edward's sister, Margaret, was almost six feet tall, his paternal uncle, Edward, duke of York, who died at Agincourt, was tall and corpulent, and his direct ancestors Edward I (Longshanks) and Edward III were both known for their height. What we turn out to be is down to our genes, and what about that recessive gene that produces red hair that may skip a generation? If one is going to propose that kind of argument wouldn't it be better to take a look at other family members first?

Early or late arrival

Applying the nine month/forty week gestation period so retrospectively is also fraught with peril, as full term is actually somewhere between 37-42 weeks and, according to NHS statistics, most births occur between 38 and 42 weeks of pregnancy.

If Edward had been conceived on 21 August 1441, then birth would have been one week short of full term. Alternatively, if Edward had been conceived just before his father left Rouen then it would been a 41-42 week gestation. One cannot claim that because so-and so was born on such-and-such date that his or her conception must have happened on such-and-such date nine months before. Can obstetricians even now predict precisely when it's all going to happen? Again according to NHS statistics, only 5% of babies arrive on the due date. The most recent Prince George kept the whole world, including his mother, waiting for the better part of a week.

In addition to that, pre-term babies account for 10% of births. Famous figures such as Isaac Newton, Anna Pavlova, and Winston Churchill were all born after only seven months of gestation? Edward IV may have been another. Let's not forget his grandson, Prince Arthur, who arrived only eight months after the wedding.

York, while royal, was not in the immediate line of succession and the birth happened in France not England, so the chroniclers would not have paid it quite as much attention as a direct-line birth.

The alleged affair, and the parents

As for that alleged affair between Blaybourne and Cecily Neville, how could two such persons get together in such circumstances? Rouen Castle was a fortified base, not a royal palace, and it was on a war footing which meant security would have been extra-tight. Quite frankly the idea that anyone of the rank-and-file could in such a short time and in such an enclosed community have 'had it away' with his commanding officer's wife is quite ludicrous.

How on earth could Blaybourne have done anything without some of his mates knowing about it? With the garrison being York's base, the castle would have been very crowded, swarming with servants as well as guards, so there would not have been much privacy, just as there isn't much privacy in army life now, certainly not for the rank and file, in a life that is regulated twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week.

What made Blaybourne stand out from amongst the rest so much so that he could attract Cecily's attention? And how they could have met without others knowing about it?

Last but not least, there are the parents, so let us consider them. Would 'Proud Cis' really have stooped that low? A mere member of the rank-and-file and possibly an odiferous member at that? If she needed solace for the temporary loss of her husband and the permanent loss of her son why pick somebody so low-down? Out of the entire male population was Blaybourne the only one who had 'sex appeal'? Would she even have met him without others in attendance? The colonel's lady might meet those of the rank-and-file but it would hardly be done alone. What if York had provided her with her own special escort? As it is, the risk in that crowded space, full of activity, would have been enormous. How could she have achieved it without the medieval equivalent of Lady Rochford?

Let's face it, Blaybourne was hardly in the same league as Thomas Culpepper, one of Henry VIII's equerries. Above all, why should she have done it? A pair of glancing eyes that had her hormones going crazy? Sounds like something out of Hollywood.

York, for all any of us know, may already have been entertaining the idea of making a rival bid for the throne, in which case it would have been absolutely crucial that this first surviving son was the legitimate heir. Is it possible that York, one of the mighty magnates of the time, tamely accepted another man's son not just as his own son but as his legitimate heir. When he began his bid for the crown and with succession in mind would he have carried on the pretence? In fact he never disowned paternity - surely a case of res ispa loquitur - the thing speaks for itself.

Cecily's outburst - the truth or maternal indignation?

As to what Cecily is alleged to have said when she heard about her son's marriage, how much credence can we place on that? When a fit of anger descends upon us and judgement and caution get thrown to the wind we all sometimes say and do what we later regret and for Cecily this may have been more of a shock than has hitherto been realised.

One needs to examine this allegation with all the cool reasoning that one can muster. For a start, would the mother of a reigning king admit to such a perfidious act of adultery that would undermine her son's position, especially considering the difficulties that he had experienced before attaining it?

Furthermore, what was to stop their enemies making allegations of further adultery, particularly Margaret of Anjou who had been accused of the same? And what did she actually say: 'Not a true son of York'? What did she mean by that? That he had not been fathered by her husband or that he had not done what her husband would have expected him to do or had completely failed him? Which?

So what might have caused Cecily to completely lose her rag? For that we must go back a few years to something that may not have been fully appreciated, the Neville-Woodville feud and the ill-feelings that were abounding before Warwick's acts of piracy during his time in Calais. As the wife of the duke of York, Cecily was high in the pecking order but not as high as she would have wished. To her mind and no doubt to those of the Neville tribe she should have ranked as second lady in the land, but she didn't so who was number two after Queen Margaret? It's none other than Jacquette, wife of Earl Rivers, and it was a matter of protocol given Jacquette's previous marriage to John, duke of Bedford, eldest surviving brother of Henry V, father of Henry VI, the same Jacquette who was also related to Queen Margaret, with a sister who was married to Margaret's fraternal uncle. How that must have rankled with the pushy Nevilles who were hardly in a position to accuse the Woodvilles of the very sins they had already committed themselves.

It was one act of piracy in particular that caused the fur to fly and that was against a fleet of Hanseatic ships heading for the Hanseatic centre, the port of Lübeck. Given the Hanseatic position at the time, which included the North Sea and the lucrative England-Burgundy trade which necessitated the use of the North Sea, one can perhaps guess what consternation that caused. It was enough for Henry VI to set up a commission of inquiry, and who was put in charge of that commission - none other than Sir Richard Wydeville who duly summoned Warwick, as he had every right to do, to his base in Rochester. By that time Warwick had another axe to grind, his predecessor in the role of captain of Calais, Wydeville, having refused to relinquish his command until the troops in Calais had been paid their much-in-arrears dues, but of course Warwick saw it in another light - this upstart inferior trying to rain on his parade - and chose to ignore it.

From there it went from bad to worse once Queen Margaret had entered the fray, and at the subsequent council meeting Warwick again refused to oblige, with the meeting ending as a royal punch-up between members of the royal household and Warwick's retinue. Warwick only narrowly escaped being impaled on an angry cook's spit which he later claimed was an attempt on his life by the queen. It could be said with a certain truth that not all War of the Roses battles took place on the field.

Not long after, the boot was on the other foot when Wydeville who had been appointed warden of the Cinque Ports and was charged with defending Kent against the Yorkist earls (Salisbury, Warwick and March) and his wife were 'captured' by them in Sandwich and subjected to an appalling torrent of abuse. If the seeds of enmity had not been sown already they were certainly sown then.

Walmer Castle in Kent
Walmer Castle in Kent was (and still is) the seat of the warden of the Cinque Ports, with one of the most famous of its incumbents being the first duke of Wellington


So what has this to do with Cecily's fit of rage? Put yourself in her shoes. How would you have felt at the thought that both you and your much 'put-upon' nephew, who had been thoroughly humiliated by the revelation of this marriage, would have to bend the knee to the daughter of your bête noire?

Or that the mother who had outranked you despite being married to a nobody was now back in royal favour and was also entitled to the same privileges and courtesies as yourself? That the family you so despised were now your in-laws? Or having to be in the company of people you would not wish to be seen dead with? Ouch!

Last will and testament

The final twist lies in the title Cecily used in her will: 'Cecill, wife unto the right noble prince Richard late Duke of Yorke, fader unto the most cristen prince my Lord and son King Edward'.

Was this Cecily's way of making amends for her intemperate outburst? Or setting the record straight? We shall never know for certain, but what a to-do is made about the will as well as that intemperate outburst.

Ricardians complain that there is also no mention of her son Richard or of her daughter Margaret, and that the will was so drawn up so as to keep Henry VII sweet.

By that time Richard, who had left no legitimate issue, had been dead ten years and Margaret was threatening the established order - only a few months beforehand Sir William Stanley had been executed for treason for apparently throwing in his lot with her and Perkin Warbeck. It would, therefore, hardly have been a wise thing to make any mention of Margaret, but there could be a variety of reasons for the failure to mention Richard - does anybody actually know what she thought, how she felt towards him?

Perhaps it's time this statement was looked at from the religious point of view. The church was still very much in control even though the rumblings of dissent had started and the dangers of hell fire and eternal damnation were served up on a daily basis. Cecily was known for her piety, so is it at all likely that at the last minute she would make so public a statement that might imperil her soul?

Seen in that light could this have been her act of contrition for having said something that effectively tarnished the reputations both of her husband and her son?

In conclusion given that we have no idea how long the period of gestation was, that an argument of forty weeks is fallacious to say the least, and taking into account all other factors, I put it to you that the case of Edward IV's illegitimacy is clearly not proven and, therefore, consequently fails.

One final point. It has also been claimed that if Edward were illegitimate then his brother George, or rather his children, since George was dead before Edward, were the legitimate heirs but they weren't owing to the Act of Attainder which was passed on George of Clarence which barred his children and subsequent descendants from the throne. As far as I am aware that act has never been repealed. With this being the case, how could Richard III make any claim to the throne if his brother's children had not already been barred?

 

Bibliography

Barker, Juliet - Conquest, The English Kingdom of France 1417-1450

Baumgaertner, William E - Squires, Knights, Barons and Kings

Baumgaertner, William E - War and Politics in 15th Century England

Crawford, Anne - The Yorkists - History of a Dynasty

Curry, Anne - The Hundred Years' War

Higginbotham, Susan - The Woodvilles

Licence, Amy - Cecily Neville, Mother of Kings

Miller, Michael D - The War of the Roses, Chapter 34, French Military Successes 1440-43

Okerlund, Arlene - Elizabeth Woodville, The Slandered Queen

Wagner, John H - Encyclopaedia of the Hundred Years' War

 

Other Main Sources

Richard III Society - Richard III - His family - The Duchess of York

Channel 4 - Britain's Real Monarch

Mick Baker - Richard III A Vindication (see link in sidebar)

AboutCom - Women's History - Was Edward IV Illegitimate

The History Onyx - Edward IV A Question of Legitimacy

Serendipity/Peter Meyer - Britain's Real Monarch

Vanora Bennett - Figures in Silk - Was King Edward IV Illegitimate?

 

Online Encyclopaedia Articles

Cecily Neville

Preterm Babies

Route Nationale 14 (in French)

Chaussée Jules César (in French)

Le Château de Rouen (in French)

Catholic Encyclopaedia - Baptism

 

General Sources

Michelin - Map of France

Rouen Tourisme - Cathédrale Notre Dame

University of Utah Health Sciences - Learn Genetics

NHS Choices - Pregnancy and Baby Guide

Tommy's the Baby Charity - Explaining Premature Birth

Castle Duncan Forums - Query on a Garrison

Medieval Castles - Castle Defensive Weapons

Cardiff Castle Garrison - Demonstrations and Talks

History Learning Site - Bill of Attainder

 

NB: Owing to the length of Miller's magnum opus, it is yet to be published in print and is consequently only available online - see link in sidebar

In the matter of genetics the author took a look at a number of sources, but found the University of Utah to be the best

 

 

     
Text copyright © Trish Wilson. An original feature for the History Files.