In about 1080 Matilda of Flanders, Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy traveled to Dumferline for the christening of Princess Edith. The infant was the daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and his wife, Margaret, who would later be canonized by the Catholic church. Standing as godmother, Matilda held the child during the ceremony and the infant reportedly amused herself by tugging on the veil of the Queen’s headdress until it gave way. Onlookers took this as a omen that the Princess would also one day be a queen, and they were correct: Two decades later Edith would marry Matilda’s son, Henry, and be crowned queen of England.
Within three years, Matilda was on her deathbed. She spent her last months at a priory in Caen, the illness from which she had suffered since the summer was apparently exacerbated by the death of one of her daughters. Her husband, William the Conqueror, heard her last confession before she died on November 2, 1083.
Fun fact: Henry VIII was not the first monarch to divorce their spouse from the throne. That auspicious honor goes to none other than King John, who, upon ascending the throne in 1199, divorced his wife, Isabel of Gloucester, and married the young Isabella of Angouleme. There are a few reasons why this divorce is of less fame, though it was its own 13th century scandal at the time. For one, this would be John’s only divorce and he stopped at two wives. Secondly, there was no religious component – the annulment, for all its detractors, was approved. And finally, instead of casting aside a princess and marrying an Englishwoman, John did the reverse. Isabel of Gloucester was no Katherine of Aragon and she didn’t have the familial ties of claiming relation to the Holy Roman Emperor. For that matter, we don’t know whether Isabel had any desire to stay married to John in the first place.
Which brings us to Isabella of Angouleme, who had one notable characteristic in common with Anne Boleyn – they were both wildly detested by the public.
One bit of irony I’ve always enjoyed about those taking pride in claiming descent from the Conquest is that doing so essentially means that you’re both French and once swore fealty to a bastard. All of today’s monarchy, in fact, can be traced back to an illegitimate French duke who was scrappier than he was “to the manor born.”
William the Conqueror, otherwise known as William I or William the Bastard, was the illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy and a mistress, usually known simply Herleva. The daughter of a tanner, she may have met the duke as a member of his household, but she certainly wasn’t lofty enough to marry him and become duchess. Her son, however, was a different story, which underlines the general flexibility of succession back in the day. Yes, a legitimate eldest son was generally considered the heir, but in the absence of one, all sorts of back bends could be accomplished.
Of everything that came out of the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in the Leicester parking lot, one clear benefit was renewed debate over the reputation of the king outside of the usual cast of historians. Hearing the man’s complicated and lengthy career summed up for the purposes of pithy synopses, I was struck again by the symmetry in the stories of Richard III and his father. Both grew up with fathers deemed traitors by the English government; both had a long track record for ability; both claimed the throne when other men sat on it. You could make the argument that both men were known for loyalty up until the 11th hour, but that is a trickier argument when discussing Richard, Duke of York.
On October 10, 1460 York entered Parliament, held at Westminster, and walked directly to the empty throne where he placed his hand on it, laying claim. After more than a decade of insisting his protests against the rule of his cousin, Henry VI, were based out of a desire for reform and not ambition, this severely undermine the purity of the Yorkist cause. It is also a critical intersection of two ways of looking at the Wars of the Roses: were the wars fought over a dynastic struggle or a response to mismanagement? Likely, it began as the latter and turned into the former. But still, at what point did York begin fighting to name himself king instead of closest councilor?
Richard was born on September 21, 1411 to Richard, Earl of Cambridge and his wife, Anne Mortimer. His father was the younger brother to the childless Edward, Duke of York and both men were the grandsons of King Edward III through his fourth surviving son, Edward, Duke of York. Richard’s mother, Anne, was the granddaughter of Philippa Plantagenet, only daughter of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, second surviving son of Edward III.
Put more simply: Richard had an excellent claim to the throne, being descended from Edward III through both his parents.