Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Edward IV and Eleanor Talbot

For those of you who wish to know more about Eleanor Talbot, I strongly recommend Eleanor, The Secret Queen by John Ashdown-Hill. Even if you disagree with Dr. Ashdown-Hill's conclusions - and if you are sceptical about Richard III you will feel obliged to - there is nothing wrong with the factual content of the book, which gathers together everything that can be known about this lady.

Instead of trying to give you a digest of this text, I shall give you the key points of my conclusions on Eleanor, following my study of this book.

1. She was quite definitely the daughter of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, which (incredibly) has been doubted by some historians. Talbot's name is little known these days, but at the time he was a hero, roughly equivalent to Churchill or at least Field Marshal Montgomery.

2. It is wrong, therefore, to think of Eleanor as 'obscure'. Although her own marriage to Sir Thomas Butler of Sudeley was a modest one, her father was a leading nobleman and her sister was the Duchess of Norfolk. (The same Duchess of Norfolk who served as Principal Lady-in-Waiting at Margaret of York's wedding and was the mother of Anne Mowbray.)

3. Eleanor's mother was a Beauchamp - Margaret, eldest daughter of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. A lady of very high rank by birth, if this needs to be said, half-sister to Anne Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick. Which makes the 'Kingmaker' Eleanor's uncle. (Perhaps fortunately for Edward IV the family quarrel between the Beauchamp sisters meant this connection was not emphasised.)

4. Another Beauchamp sister, Eleanor, married the Somerset killed at St. Albans. So, Henry Duke of Somerset and his brothers were Eleanor's first cousins.

Of course it is impossible for Ashdown-Hill, or anyone else to prove that Eleanor's alleged secret marriage to Edward IV took place. By the nature of such marriages no evidence can be extant, the witnesses being long dead. Then again, we have almost as much evidence for the ceremony as we have for that between Edward and Elizabeth W. It's really Edward's acknowledgement of the latter ceremony that makes the difference. The event itself was equally irregular.

Edward was evidently attracted to women some years older than himself and preferably widows - Eleanor, Elizabeth, 'Jane' Shore and Elizabeth Waite/Lucy all seem to fit the template.

However, let's forget personal attractions for a minute. Could there have been a political reason for Edward to marry Eleanor? Possibly, just possibly. Edward was keen to conciliate Somerset (an issue to which I shall return in due course) and in that context his marriage to Somerset's cousin might have been seen as a white rose/red rose union. With the added bonus of bringing the powerful Talbot family on board into the bargain. Given that Warwick and Montagu were very annoyed by Edward's pardon of Somerset, it would be in line with Edward's trouble-avoidance philosophy to keep the matter temporarily secret. And then when Somerset defected to the other side again, it would give a reason for an angry Edward to dump Eleanor and turn to the gorgeous Elizabeth.

It's a fascinating subject for speculation, but it can't be proved. What Ashdown-Hill has proved is that Eleanor had land which a) she did not inherit b) she did not hold by dower or jointure c) which she could not afford to buy. This land was almost certainly granted to her by Edward; and since Edward did not go around granting lands to random females, there is something there that cannot easily be explained away.

Anyway, read the book, see what you think.

8 comments:

Susan Higginbotham said...

It's been a long time since I've read this and I'm too lazy to dig it out, but I remember thinking that Ashdown-Hill assumed too readily that since the land wasn't inherited or jointure or dower land, it must have come from Edward IV. It struck me as strange, and still does, that if the lands had belonged to the crown, Ashdown-Hill couldn't find some mention of them as being such.

Brian said...

Hi Susan,

The land must have come from somewhere. It definitely wasn't dower, jointure or inheritance. Eleanor was relatively poor and is most unlikely to have been able to raise cash to purchase - anyway, why would she when she had no children? So the only other answer seems to be a gift or grant. The Crown is by far the most likely person/body to make such a grant.

There may be another solution, but I'm scratching my head to think of one.

Susan Higginbotham said...

I suppose it's possible that her father granted her some land during his lifetime or that during her widowhood, she exchanged some of her jointure or dower land for the estates in question. If the grant did come from the king, however, one alternative explanation is that it might have been hush money to keep her from claiming that whatever (if anything) had taken place between them constituted a marriage.

Elizabeth said...

I have wondered before about this 'shadowy' woman and will definitely find a way to get this book. I only wanted to ask you what argument between the Beachamp sisters to which you refer and did it have lasting effects of a political nature? I know this probably comes across as a pretty dense question, but I haven't heard of or don't remember hearing about this before.

Brian said...

Hi Susan
It would be extremely unusual in the 15th C for a father to grant land to a daughter. If done at all it would be parcel of a marriage contract and probably demised to her and the heirs of her body with remainder to Shrewsbury's heirs.
Yes, indeed, it might have been 'hush money.' But we can only speculate. I'm pretty confident if there was more evidence as to the origin of this land Ashdown-Hill would have found and published it.

Brian said...

Hi Elizabeth,
The dispute between the Beauchamp sisters was caused by the Beauchamp inheritance. This passed from their father, to their brother and then their niece.
When the niece died it was held that because Anne Beauchamp was her full-blood aunt - the other three being half-blood, born to Warwick's first wife - Anne should receive the whole inheritance.
The sisters and their husbands were not pleased by this, but all they were allowed was the Berkeley/Lisle inheritance from their mother and *nothing* from their father.
Talbot, for example, felt that he as the husband of the eldest sister, ought to have been Earl of Warwick.

DS said...

Hi Brian,

please forgive me for jumping in so late. I generally keep away from the Richard iii controversy -- it's just too bewildering --, and your blog (of which I am a faithful and trusting reader) is as far as I venture.

Yesterday, however, I stumbled into an utterly curious website "The Holbein code" (or something), and was induced to read one of its essays. It was rather complicated, and I can't say that I fully understand, or care much for the author's (I think his name is Jack Leslau) theories of survivorship -- they seem more than a bit far fetched, out there, and OTT (anyway, I'm too ignorant to jugde in this matter).

However, at the core of it, there was a fascinating idea -- i.e., that Edward IV never was married to Elizabeth Woodville; that this "marriage" was a sham, cooked up at the last moment as a plan of rescue, to avoid concluding a bigamous marriage to a French princess (which would have been an earth-shattering thing indeed).

Even coming across it in a novel, I should think this an ingenious and quite plausible theory, and it has bothered me the whole day. I've tried a lot of googling, but have been unsuccessful at every turn. Since I've come to regard and respect you as an authority, over those years of reading (never mind the Richard III society) -- please, please could you answer just with a "yes" or "no" to the one material question that's irking me so much: is there any positive, written, testified proof, apart from Edward IV's word, that he was indeed *married* to Elizabeth Woodville?

I should be so grateful if you could find the time to answer!

{And if you don't want to publish my question, because you'd hate to be involved with such outlandish speculations -- which I can fully understand -- I'd be grateful as well, if you sent me your "Yes" or "No" by e-mail, to eustacie1558 - at - googlemail.com. Please be assured that I have no intentions to publish anything on this topic, or to refer to your answer as confirmation of anything; it is only my own curiosity, which I want to satisfy!}

Brian Wainwright said...

Deep apologies for being so slow to answer, but for some reason your comment went into 'spam', which proves the system doesn't work as it should.


The simple answer is that the marriage is not supported by any documents, and the only 'proof' we have that it took place is that Edward presented Elizabeth to the court as his wife, thus acknowledging it. There were a few witnesses (the principal being her mother, I think) and presumably these people would have been willing to stand up at the time and confirm their presence at the ceremony. Obviously, their putative testimony is now lost to us.


Medieval marriage law is extremely complex. It is even more complex in England where common law issues around inheritance come into question. If Edward and Elizabeth married in secret that would not necessarily make it invalid. It would mean the marriage was 'irregular' and strictly a dispensation was needed to 'regularise' it. An example of this will be found with Edward's grandparents, Richard of Conisbrough and Anne Mortimer, who had their marriage regularised in exactly this way. Obviously if Edward was already married to someone else, the marriage would be invalid anyway, and there are other potential objections. Had Edward and Elizabeth married in church, openly, then it would be up to Eleanor Talbot, or whoever, to object at the time. If no objection had been made, it's 99% certain Edward's marriage to Elizabeth would have been regarded as valid. By marrying in secret, this protection was removed.


Under common law, the children of a couple who married in secret, or who married after the children were born, were not eligible to inherit land. This is why the Beauforts needed both a Papal dispensation and an Act of Parliament to make them 'fully' legitimate.