Two days ago, we covered the usurpation of 1399 and the events leading up to it. Today, we’re going to examine the issue raised at its end, which dealt with the supposed dynastic crime against nature that the accession of Henry IV rendered. This, of course, links the beginning of the royal House of Lancaster with its end, when Henry IV’s grandson, Henry VI, was deposed in favor of his cousin, Edward IV.
There are two modes of thinking on the Wars of the Roses – one is that Richard, Duke of York (Edward IV’s father) was prompted to rise up against Henry VI because he believed himself to be the rightful heir to the throne. As such, the civil war was the righting of a wrong carried out half a century prior. The second is that York’s claim merely became helpful once war was inevitable and that his true motivation – or at least, his original motivation – was actually government reform. You can read more about that in earlier posts on York himself and Henry VI’s instability.
But if we zoom into the first of these options, then it’s taken for granted that Henry IV had no business wearing the crown, and as such neither did his son or grandson. This assumes that Richard II, who was childless, was meant to be followed by his cousin, Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March. The small problem that the 5th Earl had in 1399 was that he was a child of seven and no one was going to set aside a bad king for a child king.
The 5th Earl was the eldest son of Roger Mortimer, the 4th Earl of March, who was himself the son of a woman named Philippa of Clarence. Philippa, married to the 3rd Earl, was the only legitimate child of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the second son of the venerable Edward III. This is important, for it means that the Earls of March had royal blood via a female ancestor, or, in other words, they claimed the throne through a woman.
This is in stark contrast to the House of Lancaster, for Henry IV was the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Edward III’s third son. Yes, John of Gaunt was younger than Lionel of Clarence, BUT Henry was a direct male heir.
The issue of inheriting through a woman was a tricky one in the Middle Ages, particularly when dealing with royalty. In France, per the Salic Law it was illegal to lay claim through a female line. England, notably, had no such law. It was this little difference (plus a natural antipathy) that helped spur the Hundred Years War going on at the same time, for England claimed the French throne via a woman (Edward III’s mother, Isabelle of France), while France bypassed her.
The rules of inheritance were opaque at best in this time, if for no other reason than they were relatively easy to set aside when necessary and could be thrown out by force. The nobility often did just that, however to do so with royal lines was a more complicated matter altogether thanks in no small part to the belief that a crowning was ordained by God. Hard and fast guidelines were often created when they had to be and the House of Plantagenet, which had ruled England since 1154, had had the immense good fortune of producing a plethora of princes.
Simply put, the matter hadn’t bee issue since Henry II ascended the throne in the 12th century and that had notably followed 19 years of anarchy when a woman – Henry’s mother, Matilda of England – attempted to claim the throne. The entire affair did little to instill much confidence in female leadership. The next real crisis of the succession didn’t happen until 1376 when Edward III was on the throne. We’ve covered this year in more detail here, but it was then that Edward’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales, passed away at the age of 46. For a man with as many sons as Edward III, the loss of one shouldn’t have created a dynastic mess, but it did for the Prince of Wales had already produced a son of his own – Richard.
For a king not expecting to live long, the reality of a young grandson as heir with a plethora of adult uncles wasn’t pretty. He also had no way of knowing what the future held for Richard, including who he would marry and whether he would beget children of his own. There was also the small matter of whether Richard would even reach adulthood given the child mortality rate. As such, Edward III spent his last months planning for the future, though the way in which he did wasn’t well known at the time and it’s only occasionally mentioned when the Wars of the Roses are discussed today.
Plainly stated, he created an entail that dicrated the crown would pass through his male descendants. This created a legal means to bypass his female descendants, which in 1376 meant Edward III intended for John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster to be Richard’s heir, not the Earls of March. (It is probably worth noting here that Lionel of Clarence was long dead – this wasn’t Edward playing favorites among his sons, this was him excluding the offspring of his granddaughter, Philippa, in favor of Gaunt.)
Now, that doesn’t necessarily solve the issue, for Edward III was dead by 1377 and what Richard II intended as of the 1390s is by far more pertinent. Given his relationship to his uncle (Gaunt) and his cousin (Henry IV), it’s unlikely that he intended them to inherit his throne. But he didn’t legally undo what his grandfather did – likely because he had every expectation of someday producing children of his own.
So, skipping past Richard’s deposition, the 5th Earl of March died in 1425 and his “claim” to the throne passed to his nephew (the son of his sister), Richard, Duke of York. When York found himself excluded from Henry VI’s government throughout the 1440s and 1450s – him, with royal blood, in favor of upstarts(!) – suddenly the issue of dynastic claim became altogether more important. It was particularly timely given that Henry VI remained childless during the first eight years of his marriage and many believed York was his natural heir. When Henry VI and Marguerite of Anjou produced a son, enabling the continuation of the Lancastrian line, suddenly the brewing political strife was all but poised to spill into violence.
By the letter of the law, the entail of 1376 clears a black mark from the reigns of Henry V and Henry VI, for there was an argument to be made that they were intended for the throne. As such, it weakens the argument of the House of York throughout the 15th century that Henry IV illegally bypassed the 5th Earl of March. What it doesn’t do, of course, is negate the 1399 usurpation itself, which removed the rightful (if terrible) king in favor of another.
And that, my friends, is the dynastic dispute.