Monday, 16 March 2020

Evolution of the Peerage

This is a simplistic article. It is not intended to be "academic" but merely an explanation for those new to these matters or uncertain. It may help writers of fiction, for example.

In the earlier Middle Ages the principal nobles were the earls. There was no one with a higher title, except for the king himself.

Everyone else who held land directly from the king was a "baron". in the sense of "King John's barons". It didn't matter if you held one manor or ninety-nine you were a baron. However, obviously, the ones with larger amounts of property tended to be more influential.

At this point I should mention there were such creatures as "barons of Glamorgan" or "barons of the earldom of Chester". These were men who held land from the magnate who owned the lordship in question - but they were not necessarily of national importance.

When kings started to summon parliaments, the most important men received an individual summons. This included all earls (if of age) but only selected barons. The king, or his officers, did the selecting. After a time, the selections became largely automatic. Sir Boris was called every time. So was his son, Sir John, when he inherited. These men were barons in the modern sense, members of the "House of Lords".

Just to make it confusing, some top grade knights (bannerets) also received individual summons. But these summons did not become hereditary - and not all bannerets received them!

The system took a while to evolve. For a long time the only way to become a (parliamentary) baron was to receive an hereditary summons to Parliament. The first barony conferred by Letters Patent was in 1387, when Sir John Beauchamp was made Lord Beauchamp of Kidderminster by Richard II. Rapidly thereafter creation by Letters Patent became the norm, as did the practice of restricting the honour to heirs male.

During the late 14th and the 15th century the peerage developed into a more modern form. New ranks, viscount and marquess, were added. (Dukedoms, a sort of super-earldom, originally restricted to the king's close relatives, originated in the early 14th century.) Creation was almost, if not entirely, by Letters Patent.

However, even in the mid-15th century, it is not uncommon to find the same man called "Sir John Audley" in one document, and "John, Lord Audley" in another. A certain fluidity remained...

As the 15th century progressed, and even more so in Tudor times, the peerage became more of a sealed and separated caste, clearly distinct from those who were not peers.

Friday, 13 March 2020

The Talbot Sisters

(Note, this is an article I wrote some time ago - it has not been updated to reflect information contained in recent publications. It is offered as it may still be of some interest.)

When considering John Talbot (1384-1453) first Earl of Shrewsbury, and his second wife, Margaret Beauchamp (1404-1468) it is difficult to decide which of the pair was the more formidable. John Talbot was a sort of fifteenth-century Field-Marshal Montgomery, a famous soldier who spent much of his adult life fighting first against Owain Glyndwr’s Welsh supporters, and later in numerous campaigns against the French. (There was a brief intermediate period when he served as an extremely unpopular Lieutenant of Ireland. He started a feud with the Earl of Ormonde which went on for decades.) An English hero in his time (though largely forgotten now) he was hated and feared by his enemies in roughly equal measure. When dealing with rivals in England he was every bit as ruthless as he was in war, and not at all reluctant to make use of outright violence.

As for the Countess Margaret, whom he married in 1425, she had inherited a feud of her own with her Berkeley cousins. Her mother had been the only child of Thomas, 5th Lord Berkeley – the cousins were Berkeley’s heirs-male. The resulting dispute over the family lands ran on for decades, and like her husband, Margaret was none too nice in her dealings. After Lord Berkeley had attacked Margaret’s manor at Wotton-under-Edge (in 1452), she had her son respond by seizing Berkeley Castle itself and taking Lord Berkeley prisoner. She also arranged for Lady Berkeley to be thrown into prison, where the lady died next year. (The feud was patched for a time by a marriage between Lord Berkeley and Margaret’s step-daughter – but that was by no means the end of it.)

This delightful couple had three sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Viscount Lisle, died with his father at the Battle of Castillon. The second, Sir Lewis Talbot, died in 1458 – possibly of violence, although the facts are sketchy. The youngest son, Sir Humphrey, lived a quieter life, initially as a retainer of his brother-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk, and died in 1492 while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The two Talbot sisters are the main subject of this article. One may have been the rightful Queen of England. The other became a duchess, and mother-in-law of one of the Princes of the Tower. Both have a place in the ongoing saga of Richard III.

Eleanor was married to Thomas Butler, heir to Ralph, Lord Sudeley, a Lancastrian, when she was approx. 14 years old. This was in some ways an unambitious match, as the Butlers of Sudeley were not of magnate rank. They would have been regarded as having only local importance but for the family’s long tradition of personal service to the Lancastrian kings, which gave them influence at court. Having said this, it is important to recognise that Shrewsbury himself was a ‘new man’ a first earl, promoted through the peerage because of his exceptional military service.

Thomas Butler died around 1461, during the lifetime of his father. His stepmother was Alice Deincourt, Lady Lovel. This Alice, who was Francis Lovel’s' grandmother, was governess to Edward (Lancastrian) Prince of Wales. She petitioned to be released from the job in 1460 because a) he was old enough to be ruled by men and b) her own infirmities.

Elizabeth Talbot, while young had married the Mowbray heir and become Countess of Warenne. This was a much greater marriage than Eleanor’s and lined her up to be one of the greatest ladies in England, Duchess of Norfolk after her father-in-law died in 1462. After Thomas Butler’s death she seems to have gradually assumed the role of protectress of her sister, who eventually spent most of her time living within the Mowbray sphere of influence in East Anglia.

Eleanor quite possibly caught Edward's eye when she petitioned him about her dower rights. (Edward was in Norwich in May and October of 1461), though the Butler family were acquainted already with him since Lord Sudeley's sister, Elizabeth Butler, Lady Say, was his godmother. Some difficulty had been caused by the transfer of lands to Eleanor without royal licence. This issue was resolved, but Eleanor’s property remained small, to say the least – the consequence of her husband dying during his father’s lifetime.

If Richard III’s accession statute, Titulus Regius is to be believed, at some point before Edward IV’s purported marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, King Edward went through an irregular marriage with Eleanor and the relationship was consummated. An irregular marriage was one conducted without the full rites of the church and in private without publication of banns. Even the participation of a priest was not required to make it binding. Such marriages could be ‘regularised’ by obtaining a dispensation. Edward’s own grandparents had been through exactly the same process and sought a dispensation. Edward did not bother, either in Eleanor’s case or after his equally irregular marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Why he did not in the case of Elizabeth is something of a mystery. One possibility is that he was idle and ill-advised. Another is that (if he had committed bigamy) he did not want to tell lies to the Pope.

It is sometimes asked why, if Eleanor was married to Edward, she did not come forward and protest after his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was announced. This overlooks the difficulties and real dangers that a woman of small resources had in going head-to-head with the absolute sovereign of England. It would have been utterly impractical for Eleanor to do so, to say nothing of being highly embarrassing. There were no children involved, and as Eleanor seems to have had a strong religious bent she may have preferred to keep quiet and live in peace.

Eleanor Talbot died in 1468 at Whitefriars Priory in Norwich where she was a benefactress and 'conversa' [lay member]. Her younger sister Elizabeth was out of the country at the time, attending on Margaret of York at her wedding.

You may think that if Edward had the sense to ‘renew’ his marriage vows with Elizabeth Woodville, then Edward V could very well have been legitimate, as could his younger brother and his sisters Katherine and Bridget.

Professor R.M. Helmholz deals with this very point in
Richard III Loyalty Lordship and Law (ed. P.W. Hammond) page 93-94. I quote: ‘Under medieval canon law, adultery, when coupled with a present contract of marriage, was an impediment to the subsequent marriage of the adulterous partners. It was not simply a matter of having entered into an invalid contract. The parties to it rendered themselves incapable of marrying at any time in the future, because under canon law one was forbidden to marry a person he (sic) had "polluted" by adultery where the adultery was coupled with either a present contract of marriage or "machination" in the death of the first spouse. Thus...if Sempronius being validly married to Bertha, purported to marry Titia and consummated this second, purported marriage, Sempronius and Titia would not only have entered into an invalid union and committed adultery, they would also have incurred a perpetual impediment to marrying after Bertha's death. This is precisely the situation (it was alleged) of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.’

Helmholz goes on to point out that if Elizabeth Woodville was unaware of the marriage to Eleanor Butler
then a marriage contracted after Eleanor's death would been valid.

So - on the point of Lady Eleanor - it seems that if Elizabeth Woodville knew about Eleanor, then any remarriage after 1468 would have been automatically invalid. Unfortunately we cannot possibly establish what Elizabeth Woodville did or did not know. Moreover, since Edward and Elizabeth had already been through a form of marriage, a dispensation would have been needed to repeat the sacrament, and Edward certainly did not obtain one.

A further issue is that neither the original Edward-Elizabeth Woodville marriage nor any subsequent marriage that may have taken place between the was celebrated
in facie ecclesie . Such marriages were contrary to the rules of the Church and thus raised a presumption of bad faith. According to Helmholz, in the case of of Edward and Elizabeth, who went out of their way not to have banns read and so on, this would ‘in most circumstances render the children of the union illegitimate’ even though (as I understand it) the marriage itself might be regarded as valid. It must be acknowledged that the same conditions applied to the Edward-Eleanor marriage, but in their case there were no children to be illegitimated.

Elizabeth, Duchess of Norfolk was Executrix of Eleanor's will. (The will, unfortunately has not survived, but would probably have contained provision for her soul and bequests of personal items.). As well as the Norwich Whitefriars, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge also benefited from Eleanor's patronage. She gave money for the building of 10 of 16 buttresses inside the Old Court and was closely associated with the College for over 30 years. Some 28 years after Eleanor's death, Thomas Cosin, the College’s Master, set up a benefaction as a memorial at Elizabeth's request to her 'famous and devout' sister and Thomas Butler. The benefaction was a Fellowship, an institution that still continues today. John Ashdown-Hill has demonstrated that Eleanor possessed certain lands which were not dower lands (which would have gone back to her father-in-law) cannot have been inherited from the Talbots (because such lands would have gone to male heirs) and which Eleanor did not have the means to purchase. The implication is that this property was given to her by Edward IV. These lands Eleanor had already transferred to Elizabeth before her death, possibly because she knew she was dying.

On Duchess Elizabeth's return from Burgundy that summer, her retainers John Poynings and Richard Alford, were arrested. They were apparently suspected of involvement in a conspiracy with the exiled Duke of Somerset, their lady’s first cousin. Whatever the truth of the matter, the two men were found guilty and executed in November 1468. It is even
possible that Elizabeth herself was imprisoned, because these sort of temporary immurements were done on the authority of a privy seal writ, the records of which (to the great convenience of fiction writers if not historians) are nearly all long since destroyed.

However, Duke Charles would always keep a soft spot in his heart for the self-styled Duke of Somerset and he continued, secretly, to pay him a pension, while overtly supporting the Yorkist cause. Despite his exclusion from the general festivities, Somerset was able to make good use of his benefactor's wedding celebrations, through clandestine contact with Lancastrian sympathisers among the many English hangers-on attending. By this means, messages were exchanged with persons highly placed in England, who still looked for the restoration of Henry VI to the throne of his fathers, when fate smiled once more on Lancaster's cause.” (Quote from Geoffrey Richardson)

Elizabeth received a pardon before 7 December 1468, and another one subsequently in connection with a land-grab. Interestingly, Edward IV refused at that time to resolve the long-running Berkeley Inheritance dispute in which Elizabeth was involved. Colin Richmond in The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century mentions that Elizabeth’s social circle in the 1470s included Margaret Beaufort, Morton, and Lady Anne Paston, the sister of the exiled (and later executed) Somerset. Since her half-nephew Shrewsbury was lining up with Clarence and Warwick in 1468-1469, it’s perhaps not that surprising Edward was suspicious of her. It may be that it was as well for this particular Talbot sister that her husband was so vital (and faithful) to the Yorkist cause.

Anne Crawford's article The Mowbray Inheritance in Richard III Crown and People states that in May 1476 William Berkeley agreed to make over his reversionary rights to the Mowbray estates (rights that would of course only arise in the event of Anne Mowbray's death without children) to Richard of York and his heirs male. In return Edward IV agreed to pay off Berkeley's debts "to the Talbots" in the sum of £34000. Let’s say that again. Thirty four thousand pounds. That’s getting on for fourteen million sterling in modern values.

Now who exactly among "the Talbots" got this money is not clear, but presumably the money could have spread itself around the family.

From the same article:

"Edward also persuaded [sic] Anne's mother, the widowed Duchess of Norfolk, to forgo her own dower and jointure in order to augment her daughter's dower. In return she received a
much smaller [my emphasis] grant of manors, all of which were to revert on her death to Richard of York for his lifetime."

The subsequent marriage of Elizabeth Talbot's daughter to young Richard of York, with all its onerous conditions as far as the Mowbrays were concerned, may be seen in this light as a combination of threat and bribe. "You keep quiet and your daughter gets to be Duchess of York, perhaps even Queen. Step out of line and you're as much the loser as we are. More so; we've already forced you to give up some of your dower. We can have the rest any time it

As it happened, Elizabeth’s daughter, Anne Mowbray died in 1481, long before there was any possibility of her marriage being consummated. Under the unjust legislation Edward IV put through Parliament for his own family’s benefit, the Mowbray lands went to Richard, Duke of York, and the rightful heirs, Lord Howard and Lord Berkeley were denied their inheritance. (Though as mentioned above, Berkeley had agreed to be robbed, Howard certainly hadn’t.)
It has been suggested that after Edward IV’s death Eleanor’s family may have approached Richard about the pre-contract and that Richard got Stillington in to confirm their information. Indeed, Buck suggests Eleanor told her mother and Elizabeth of the pre-contract as she was upset at Edward’s treatment of her. However, he also suggests her father tried to do something about it, but this cannot be true as Shrewsbury was long dead.

Elizabeth Talbot certainly had no great cause to love Edward IV, and maybe she did indeed provide evidence about sister Eleanor once Edward was safely dead. It would have been an excellent way to extract the Mowbray lands from Richard of York and get herself and John Howard a fair deal.

John Ashdown-Hill in his December 1997 article in the
Ricardian points out that, according to Commynes, Stillington claims to have witnessed the pre-contract, though a witness wasn't necessary - just a promise of marriage followed by sexual intercourse, and that it was up to Eleanor herself, as the 'wronged party', to put the case to a Church court, so Stillington had no obligation to speak out against the pre-contract if she hadn't done so. Stillington spoke up only when the first 'wrong' looked like it was going to be compounded by the enthronement of a bastard.

Richard III treated Elizabeth Talbot kindly when King. She was in attendance at his Coronation and given her rightful precedence as a duchess. Richard referred to her as his 'kinswoman' (she was Anne's full cousin), and he granted her land and property which she was 'to hold by the service of a red rose at midsummer'. This additional land (Chelsea) she was subsequently ‘persuaded’ (after Richard’s death) by Margaret Beaufort to grant to Margaret’s henchman, Reginald Bray.

After 1485 Elizabeth decided to take up the lease of a great house within the precincts of the Minories, London. Here she could live a religious life without actually becoming a nun, and, despite her Lancastrian family connections, she surrounded herself with a group of what might reasonably be called ‘Yorkist’ ladies – for example the daughters of Sir Robert Brackenbury, King Richard’s faithful supporter, who had been killed at Bosworth.

Elizabeth died in May 1507, and was buried in the Minories. She did not spend all her time within its precincts – for example, she was one of the ladies who were sent to greet Catherine of Aragon on her arrival in England. If they had only shared a common language, Elizabeth could have told Catherine a few interesting tales about her new country.

For anyone who would like to know more about Eleanor Talbot, I highly recommend Eleanor The Secret Queen by John Ashdown-Hill. Elizabeth Talbot appears in the same source, but for more about her, see Colin Richmond’s three books about the Paston family, or indeed, the Paston Letters themselves, in which she appears as one of the more charming and tolerant characters.