Part Thirteen: William Hastings & Eleanor Butler


Happy Saturday! For those following along in this series, today we’re going to delve into Richard’s claim to the throne, specifically focusing on William, Lord Hastings’s execution in June 1483 and the legitimacy of Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. If you missed Part Twelve, you can catch up here, and it might be useful to have read this timeline of 1483 as I’ll be referencing events from it.

In the [roughly] six weeks between Richard, Duke of Gloucester arriving in London and Hastings’s execution, tensions were high, but information on what specifically was unfolding and how the lines were drawn remains unclear. It appears that there was at least one serious threat of a plot against Richard’s person in early June, however how concrete it was is debatable. Still others argue that it was imagined and Richard used it as an excuse to rid himself of potential obstacles to him seeking the throne.

Regardless, the traditional narrative is that everything came to a head during a Council meeting on June 13 attended by Richard, the Duke of Buckingham, and Hastings, the result of which was Hastings’s swift execution, as well as the arrest of two other men present – Archbishop Rotherham and Bishop Morton. Looking only at names and dates, it’s a remarkable about-face in the relationship between Richard and Hastings given that both were aligned in opposition to a Woodville assumption of power earlier that spring.

The party line – as far as we can glean – is that Hastings, Rotherham, and Morton began plotting together, however what exactly their scheme was is lost to us. It seems unlikely that Hastings would decide to throw in his lot with the Woodvilles given his poor relationship with the Marquess of Dorset, but it’s also worth pointing out that two men – Hastings and later Buckingham – both did 180s on Richard in the span of a few months. This can be read as both men abhorring what they saw as a planned usurpation (in Hastings’s case) and/or unforgivable tyranny (in Buckingham’s case), but that also assumes neither man was in fact primarily motivated by their own ambition.

It also bears underscoring that plots against whoever held power is not always an indictment of their governance. We see it as such in Richard’s case because of how events played out and the complicating factor of the “Princes in the Tower,” but given Edward IV’s recent death, a minority government, and the lack of clarity over who would monopolize Council, it’s not wholly surprising that there would be a series of rebellions as everyone jostled for position.

Most of the chroniclers’ reports of Hastings’ death accept that he was guilty of working against Richard. The dividing factor is of course whether he fell out with Richard on Edward V’s behalf, or whether he was working with Rotherham and Morton to take more control themselves. With Richard out of the way and the Woodvilles on the decline, it’s possible that the three men believed they would be able to run Council through majority rule. Hastings was a popular and well-known figure in London – perhaps more so than either Richard or Anthony Woodville – he could have credibly believed he had a chance.

Another note is that while Hastings’s execution does appear to have occurred quickly after accusations of treason were leveled at him during the meeting, the speed and violence doesn’t mean his death was illegal. Given Richard’s position as Lord Protector and Constable, he in fact had the power to convene a trial and execute Hastings as he saw fit. It was unsavory and dramatic, yes, but not a crime.

A few days later, the Archbishop of Canterbury visited Queen Elizabeth in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey and prompted her to turn over her younger son, Prince Richard, Duke of York. I’m to get into this more in later posts, but for the purposes of today, from this point onwards, Richard’s two nephews were ostensibly together in the Tower of London, thus garnering the later moniker the “Princes in the Tower.”

Taken together with Hastings’s death, it paints a picture of an efficient power grab for Richard to make his final reach for the throne. But there’s some additional context that complicates the picture. Richard reportedly provided evidence for Hastings’s guilt that the London public accepted as true, and later that month he exchanged pleasant letters with Hastings’s brother, Ralph Hastings. Less than a month later, Hastings’s other brother, Richard Hastings, would attend Richard’s coronation. Thus, was Hastings’s guilt overwhelmingly proved to the point that neither his family nor the City of London protested?

It could be argued that citizens were cowed into acceptance, but Matthew Lewis rebuts this theory in his biography of Richard in language with which I agree:

“London was never averse to opposing a monarch, let alone a duke, and was never afraid of locking out an army or fighting a mob within its walls. In living memory, the city had delivered Lord Saye and Sele to Jack Cade for execution, fought Cade’s men on London Bridge when they became unruly, locked its gates against Margaret of Anjou, opened them to Edward IV despite Henry VI’s presence in the city, murdered Lord Scales for firing artillery at them and fended off the Bastard of Fauconberg’s attack. The examples of the city’s resolve and willingness to protect its own interests are legion. The fact that they accepted, at every step, and without murmur, Richard’s actions is worthy of note. They were not scared. Richard had no army.”

At roughly the same time the Duke of York joined Edward V in the Tower, Richard postponed his nephew’s coronation until November. The reason for the delay was absolutely tied to Richard’s claim to the throne, and so now we turn to the figure of Eleanor Butler. On June 22, the day meant to be Edward V’s coronation, a series of sermons were delivered through London claiming that Edward IV’s sons couldn’t inherit the throne because they were illegitimate. The primary argument was that at the time of Edward IV’s 1464 marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, he had in fact been married to another woman – Eleanor Butler.

A secondary argument has been woven into these claims, which is that Edward IV was himself illegitimate and the product of an affair his mother, Cecily Neville, had in Rouen in 1441. This was reported by Mancini, however he wasn’t present for the sermons and may well have been picking up gossip given that this particular rumor pre-dated 1483. The argument for it was that given Edward’s birth in April 1442, he had to have been conceived in July 1441, a time in which his father, Richard of York, was on the road for a military campaign. Further credence is lent by the fact Edward was given a bare-bones christening, while his younger brother, Edmund of Rutland, was given all due pomp and circumstance the following year. This, however, ignores the possibility that Edward was born prematurely, that Cecily might have joined York on the road (not unusual), and that given Cecily had already buried at least one infant son, the christening may been simple for the sake of speed. York himself never evidenced any uncertainty over his paternity and accepted Edward as not only his son, but his heir.

The presence of this argument in Richard’s claim to the throne has been cited as further evidence of his ruthlessness – he was theoretically outing his own mother’s adultery, but given that Mancini was the only one to report this, I’m of the opinion it can safely be set aside.

So, we return to Eleanor Butler. The question of whether Edward IV indeed married Eleanor and whether that marriage was legal has divided historians, but if I had to make an estimate I’d wager the majority side against Richard on this one. What is without doubt is that Eleanor was a real person, and that she was a relatively well-connected noblewoman. Her father was John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and her mother was Lady Margaret Beauchamp, making her a relation by to the Beauforts and the Nevilles. She was born in roughly 1436 and married by 1449 to Thomas Butler, son of Lord Sudeley. She was widowed prior to Edward IV taking the throne in 1461, but her family was Lancastrian, her modest estate was seized, and she died in June 1468. There are no recorded children and we have no idea what she was up to between the time of her husband’s death and her own.

The charge is that somewhere between 1461 and 1464, Edward and Eleanor entered into some kind of marital contract. This is complicated by the fact that a verbal agreement could be seen as legally binding, and so one version of events is that Edward wanted to sleep with Eleanor, promised marriage, and she relented. Once the affair was over, Edward went on his merry way and eventually married Elizabeth Woodville. What makes this version of events plausible is that his marriage to Elizabeth was conducted in similarly secrecy, however a significant stumbling block is why the Talbot family wouldn’t have raised a fuss once Edward came forward with his marriage to Elizabeth in 1464?

It’s an unanswerable question, so let’s return to 1483 and how this accusation was handled. The charge of bigamy at Edward IV and Elizabeth was outlined in a series of sermons and then followed up by Buckingham in speeches to London’s city officials and leaders. Evidence for the charge was outlined in a document known as the Titulus Regius, which was destroyed during the reign of Henry VII. As a result, it’s hard to weigh its credibility.

The timing of this reveal is often read as convenient for Richard. That’s maybe true, if you assume that he was dead-set on taking the throne. The other way of looking at it is that it would have been impossible for this to come to light prior to 1483 because Edward IV was alive and would obviously have taken extreme measures to protect the security of his own line. The only opportunity would have been in 1470-1471 when the Earl of Warwick briefly restored Henry VI. Had he known about the illegality of Edward’s marriage, then would have been a great time to bring it to the forefront, but 1) that assumes Warwick knew, 2) he had larger fish to fry, as they say, and 3) Henry VI’s claim to the throne wasn’t dependent on Edward’s marriage, so it was irrelevant to the re-establishment of the House of Lancaster.

Edward V’s claim, on the other hand, very much was dependent on Edward IV’s marriage. There is some evidence that this supposed contract with Eleanor played a role in George, Duke of Clarence’s death in 1478. In Part Eight of this series we examined Clarence’s execution and the reasons for it. As noted there, the accusations against George included his perpetuation of the rumor Edward IV was illegitimate, among other irritants, but the language was vague enough to encompass other threats. For example, the existence of a contract that voided his marriage to Elizabeth. Had that been a motivating factor, Edward wouldn’t have been in a position to say so in 1478, but it would explain the relatively minor treason that George committed in 1477 prompting execution, while his far greater crimes in 1469-1471 were forgiven.

The final layer to this is that Bishop Stillington was arrested at the same time as George for reasons that remain murky, but indicate they were working together. Stillington was later released, he was a member of Edward IV’s Council, and he remained there under Richard’s protectorate. Had he known about Eleanor Butler, he had the means to share that information once with George and then again with Richard. You could take it a step further and say it’s possible he knew about it because he had been somehow involved with it in the early 1460s, thus garnering a reason for Edward to keep him close by for the rest of his reign.

Mancini, who was largely unsympathetic to Richard, notes that Elizabeth was “terrified” of George in 1478 because of his insults against her family and his claim she “was not the legitimate wife of the king.”

In 1483, it feels significant that a man named Edward Grey, Lord Lisle was close to Richard in London. Lisle was married to Eleanor Butler’s niece, Elizabeth Talbot and was sharing a roof with Richard in June 1483. He, too, would have been able to share information. And it’s worth wondering why the extended Talbot family would allow their long-dead relation to be smeared if the story was created whole-cloth.

Then there is William Catesby, a lawyer who served Lord Hastings, and then later Richard. Catesby was also related to the Talbot family by marriage and in fact had overseen a gift of land Eleanor Butler made to her aunt, the Duchess of Norfolk, in June 1468 shortly before her death. If Catesby was offering the Talbot family legal services, then he may well have been equipped to provide evidence that the marriage between Eleanor and Edward existed.

Finally, Eleanor Butler’s sister, Elizabeth, attended Richard’s coronation in July – a strange act if she had just witnessed her sister’s reputation tarnished incorrectly. And you can’t argue she had to be there given Richard’s own mother declined to attend (an issue for another time). She, too, would have been in the position to share information with Richard.

So, you are brought back to the issue of timing and the so-called convenience of this story dropping into Richard’s lap just before his nephew’s coronation. It depends on how you look at it – Richard had been in London for less than two months when the Eleanor issue was publicly raised. It would have taken time to 1) bring it to Richard’s attention and 2) have Richard verify its truth. Much like with Hastings’s death, there’s something to be said for the fact that London accepted the argument housed in the Titulus Regius as fact. We have to assume there was compelling evidence in it, even if it was false.

It’s obviously annoying that the document in question no longer exists in its entirety, but its destruction is illustrative of the dynastic struggle itself. By declaring Edward V and his brother illegitimate, then so too were Edward IV’s daughters…even more so given that the boys were born post-Eleanor’s death, while Elizabeth of York was born before. When Henry VII took the throne in 1485 he had the instrument reversed and destroyed, restoring Elizabeth’s legitimacy, and then married her. From that point on, questioning the Queen’s legitimacy was impolitic, but it also meant that the “Princes in the Tower” were legitimate once more. If they were dead, then it was a non-issue. Less so, if you fundamentally didn’t know what happened to them, but we’ll return to that later on.

The end result of the Eleanor Butler claim was that Richard was petitioned to take the crown. He accepted, was crowned, and so began the reign of King Richard III. As far as the public knew, the former Edward V and Duke of York remained housed in the Tower of London, while his mother and sisters remained in Westminster. In the short-term there was little push-back. Richard and Anne were crowned jointly on July 6, 1483 in a ceremony featuring a who’s who of Yorkist England. While Cecily Neville absented herself, the coronation was attended by Richard’s last remaining sibling in England – Elizabeth, Duchess of Suffolk. Another attendee was Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, who was about to step into the fray on behalf of her son, Henry Tudor. We’ll pick up there next time.

2 thoughts on “Part Thirteen: William Hastings & Eleanor Butler

  1. Kasia Stark

    I always wondered why Edward’s (George’s son) claim to the throne was not actively pursued? If Edward V and Richard of York were illegitimate, the crown should go to George’s son, right? Maybe you’ll touch on it in the upcoming episodes, but if not, I’d appreciate your thoughts on it.

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