An Unsound Monarchy: Was Edward IV Illegitimate?

by JoHarrington

If Edward IV's mother really did have an affair with an archer, then Britain's royal family has been compromised since 1485. Elizabeth II has no blood right to be on the throne.

These rumors are not new. They were flung at Edward in his life-time. His younger brother, George, tried to take the crown off him on the strength of it.

The notion that Richard of York was not Edward's dad was denied at the time. It's largely been dismissed by historians ever since, not least because it wasn't in Tudor interests for it to be believed.

But what if it was true? A lot of circumstantial evidence would suggest that Edward IV was illegitimate. In which case, no British monarch since Richard III has had a right to be crowned on blood alone.

Why Edward IV's Legitimacy Still Matters Today

You might be forgiven for thinking that events over half a millennium ago don't really have relevance today. But you'd be wrong.

A lot of people died to put Edward IV on the English throne. Even more were slaughtered on those battlefields to keep him there.

For centuries, just one of those clashes - the Battle of Edgecote - represented the biggest loss of Welsh lives in a single day.  Another - the Battle of Towton - provided the same dubious body count for the English.

While the first day of the Somme might have smashed both records, Towton remains the largest battle ever fought on British soil.

The Wars of the Roses were all fought for Edward IV. Those mass graves piled high, cousins set against cousins, lives and livelihoods ruined, all happened in order for Edward IV to safeguard his throne.

But what if he had no right to have been crowned? What if his father was not Richard, Duke of York, but a low born English archer serving in a French garrison?

We may cast a wry smile now at the audacity of his mother, Cecily Neville.  It's a Medieval scandal which shouldn't really touch us now. She got away with it and who cares over 500 years down the line?

But the fact is that the entire British monarchy rests on the fact of Edward IV's legitimacy. 

Just as Britons today expect that Charles will succeed his mother, Elizabeth II; and that Prince William will follow his father in his turn.  It's blood-line which secures the inevitability of a coronation. It's blood-line which renders each an heir apparent.

Edward IV claimed his throne because he was the eldest son of Richard, Duke of York.  Richard was able to trace a direct lineage through his mother, all the way back to Edward III.  They initiated the Cousins' War and took the crown, because their genealogy stated that it was their birth-right.

But if Edward's father was really a common soldier, then old Lizzie Windsor over there has only vaguely more right to be queen than you and I. (She's safeguarded only by the fact that Henry Tudor claimed his throne by right of conquest, not blood - a rule of succession which later became outlawed.)

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Who was Edward IV's Father?

Any High School history student could tell you that the father of Edward IV was Richard, Duke of York. But actual historians might hesitate.

"His name is not King Edward - everyone knows his name is Blaybourne!"

Dauphin Louis XI of France apparently yelled it out, upon hearing of the English king's coronation. It would have hardly elicited more than polite laughter, largely due to the speaker's royal standing.

It wasn't exactly news. People had been saying it since the boy was born.

Nor was it unusual to state it of any high-ranking noble, especially a monarch. It was a very common allegation, hurled by anyone who sought to undermine the birthright of an individual.

Louis's own father had been deemed illegitimate by England's Henry VI.  Only nobody had believed it that time. Yet more were willing to accept it as truth of the matter in the case of Edward IV.

Edward IV had actually been born in France.  His mother, Cecily Neville, had accompanied her husband as far as Rouen, which was safely under English control at the time. 

This was during the tumultuous 1440s, when both England and France laid claim to the French throne.  As Henry VI's Lieutenant of France, Richard, Duke of York, was stationed there for many years.

Three of his children, Edward, Edmund and Elizabeth, were all born in Rouen. 

But then Louis XI's exclamations could merely be ignored as him causing trouble after the fact. After all, he had the nick-name of 'Universal Spider' for his scheming ways, and well knew the power of rumor. Plus it had been his father, Charles VII, who Richard of York had been trying to keep from becoming Dauphin.

Maybe Louis was worried that Edward IV would one day take up that cause again. It was a fair concern, because Edward did just that a few years later.  Only Louis wasn't the only one stating such rumors.

Dominic Mancini, the Italian ambassador to England during 1482-3, dutifully noted down court gossip dating from twenty-two years earlier, when Edward had married his queen, Elizabeth Woodville. Mancini (who didn't speak English and was reliant upon the translations of Italian speakers at court) heard tell that Cecily Neville...

'...fell into such a frenzy, that she offered to submit to a public enquiry and asserted that Edward was not the offspring of her husband the Duke of York, but was conceived in adultery, and therefore in no wise worthy of the honor of kingship.'

If it was true, then no public enquiry occurred.  Yet, even in England, the rumors persisted. Edward IV was forced to put out official rebuttals.

The story was always the same.  Cecily Neville had fallen for a tall archer named Blaybourne, who was based at the English garrison in Rouen. She had become pregnant by the commoner, while her husband was away on campaign.

Richard, Duke of York, had claimed the baby as his son, solely to save his wife's blushes and assuage his own humiliation. If words were spoken, then they were behind closed doors. At the very most, all that was really compromised was the Duchy of York.

Of course, no-one could have imagined, in April 1442, that the newborn Edward would one day become King of England.

Books about King Edward IV of England

Did Edward IV Look Like a Son of York?

He didn't noticeably share any characteristics with Richard of York. Which was highlighted with all due awkwardness.

One of the most vicious uses of the rumor came from Edward's own brother George, Duke of Clarence, aided and abetted by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick.

But George was trying to claim his brother's throne for himself at the time, so it was most definitely in his interests to have Edward declared a bastard.

George - who took after his mother - pointed out that Edward didn't resemble either of their parents. Unlike himself, or their youngest brother Richard, who was apparently the spit of their father.

Image: Cecily Neville
Image: Cecily Neville
Image: Richard III (Edward's brother)
Image: Richard III (Edward's brother)

Edward IV was also one of Britain's tallest monarchs. He towered over his contemporaries with his 6ft 4" frame.

In contrast, George was 5ft 7" and Richard should have been 5ft 8", were it not for scoliosis robbing him of valuable inches.

However, it should be remembered that some Plantagenets were very tall. Their 5 x great-grandfather, Edward I, stood at 6ft 2".

Moreover, we're only looking at Edward IV's brothers here. His sister, Margaret of York, was nearly 6ft tall.

When she met her husband, the Duke of Burgundy, she had to stoop to kiss him. Such a moment of embarrassment was very widely reported.

George stated outright that Edward IV shared none of the coloring of the rest of his family. Given that nobody sought to debate that point - and it would have been self-evident anyway to anyone glancing around the court - we can assume that it was correct.

We know from contemporary accounts that Edward had very fair hair. Some accounts state that it was blond, while others err towards a light brown. Other than his height, I could find no reliable records describing other aspects of his genetic make-up, like eye color.

There is a persistent telling which says that his mother Cecily had red hair. I haven't located the primary source for this. Richard, Duke of York, must have had dark brown hair, if Richard III was as like him as we've been told.

We also know that Margaret had grey eyes and that she was notably slender. Historical record and bone analysis have taught us that Richard III was very slight. On the contrary, Edward was a robust man, tending towards obesity by his 40s.

Image: George (Edward's brother)
Image: George (Edward's brother)
Image: Margaret (Edward's sister)
Image: Margaret (Edward's sister)

There is one more, slightly unusual source for the general appearance of Edward IV. 

In 1499, a picture was drawn of Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the throne, who caused much trouble for Henry Tudor.  He claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, one of the disappeared Princes in the Tower.

On the whole, we should be quite suspect about portraits of the day, official or not. Many of them were highly stylized, politicized, or else painted so far afterwards that appearance was largely determined at the whim of the artist.

The image of Perkin Warbeck was contemporary. Moreover, it was etched in such a way as to elicit a specific reaction from anyone gazing upon it. It was supposed to make everyone go, "Oh my God! Doesn't he look like Edward IV?!"

The picture to the left is Perkin, not Edward, but it does emphasize the defining characteristics of the old king's face.

Near Contemporary Portraits of Edward IV

Image: Edward IV
Image: Edward IV

This was painted by an unknown artist of the Anglo-Flemish school in 1520.  While this was over thirty years after Edward's death, the portrait was said to be based on previous artwork drawn from life.

Image: Edward IV
Image: Edward IV

This was painted by an unknown Tudor artist in 1540, over fifty years after Edward's death.

Where was Richard of York When Edward IV was Conceived?

Born on April 28th 1442, Edward IV must have been conceived during the summer of 1441. Unfortunately, his parents moved around a lot.

It is to be hoped that Richard of York was somewhere in the intimate vicinity of Cecily Neville, when Edward IV was conceived. But that is uncertain.

When Edward and his loyal followers sought to put down rumors of his illegitimacy, a time and place was named. 

The coupling occurred at Hadfield, in York, during June 1441, before his parents even left for Rouen. Their king may have been born in France, but he was created in England!

Of course, this did nothing to quell the rumors at all.  Anyone with the ability to count on their fingers could treat this claim with some skepticism. It would have meant that Cecily was pregnant for eleven months.

There is no mention anywhere that Edward was born prematurely (nor two months late). Hence it's a fair assumption that counting backwards from April 28th 1442 will provide us with a reliable gestation date.

I would have called that nine months, but I'm an historian, not a gynecologist. So I asked my friend Ember to wave her Biology degree over the facts. After asking me an inordinate amount of questions concerning genealogy and Medieval history, she delivered her conclusions.

"No matter what (Cecily is) a minimum of one week, one day overdue; or three to five weeks premature, minimum."

A week overdue didn't sound like a lot to me, but Ember found this amusing. She was stretching the mathematics almost to breaking point in order to reach that minimum. If this was an average pregnancy, then it was all much more awry than that.

The fact was that Edward should have been conceived during the first week in August 1441. The slight technical hitch being that Richard, Duke of York was in Pontoise fighting the French, while Cecily was at the garrison in Rouen.

This is known categorically, because the records from the cathedral at Rouen tell us that, '(a) sermon is being preached for the safety of the Duke of York on campaign in Pontoise.'  Right when he should have been in Cecily's bed.

Richard was gone for five weeks. That August week falls smack bang in the middle of it.

Cecily and Richard: A Marriage in Crisis in 1441?

The Medieval nobility married who they were told to marry. It was a business arrangement designed to secure dynasties. They didn't have to like each other.

Richard Plantagenet and Cecily Neville had grown up together.

When she was just two years old, her father was granted the wardship of her future husband. Richard entered her home aged just six.

They were betrothed when Cecily was nine and Richard was thirteen. Hence they'd also been raised knowing that they would potentially be spending the rest of their lives together.

By all contemporary accounts, the two made a formidable partnership. They both brought wealth, titles and property into the marriage. Moreover, they appear to have actually loved each other. That was by no means common in the Middle Ages.

Yet 1441 was to test them both.

While betrothed as children, the couple didn't actually marry until 1429. Richard was barely home for the first decade of their marriage, as his duties to his king took him almost constantly to France.

In 1438, their son Henry was born, but he died sometime before 1441. Their daughter, Anne of York, followed in 1439. She survived. Unfortunately a second son, also named Henry, was born and died on the same day, February 10th 1441.

Around this time, Richard was created the King's Lieutenant in France, which effectively meant moving there full time. Yet he seems to have had some kind of crisis of faith. Plus the situation was slightly more complicated than it appeared on the surface. He was the highest ranking noble amongst Henry VI's relatives, but he wasn't appointed to serve on the King's Council.

While Richard sank under the weight of circumstance, Cecily must have been grappling with her own issues.  She had spent the first decade of her marriage pretty much abandoned, then they had lost two children. She had been pregnant three times in three years, in an age when one in five women died in childbirth.

When Richard finally sorted his head and situation out enough to actually take up his post, in July 1441, Cecily went with him.

No outsider can glimpse fully inside a marriage, particularly one which happened nearly 600 years ago, but the clues are there. Did Cecily demand to go with him? Because they were mourning together, with a two year old in tow, and she missed him?

Or was it fear for his mental well-being?  Richard never seemed to crack under the strain again. Though he did later abandon Cecily and their three youngest children to the Lancastrian army, after the Battle of Ludford Bridge.

Either way, the couple could not have undertaken the long, arduous journey to Rouen in the best of spirits. They were relocating to another country just months after the loss of their baby; moreover, they were going to live in a war-zone.

They arrived at the beginning of July 1441. Two weeks later, Richard left Cecily and little Anne in Rouen Castle, while he marched over one hundred miles away to Pontoise.  He was gone for five weeks, returning towards the end of August.

My biologist friend Ember calculated that Edward IV should have been conceived during the first week in August 1441.

The Low Key Christening of Edward IV

There's a huge discrepancy between the baptism of Edward IV and that of his younger siblings, Edmund and Elizabeth.

Once further piece of circumstantial evidence to chuck into the mix is that of Edward IV's baptism. It took place quietly and privately, in a small room within Rouen Castle.  Only the priest, his parents and a few loyal retainers were there.

This might seem wholly sensible, given that they were living within a fortified garrison.  However, we can compare and contrast it with the Christenings of his next two siblings.

When Edmund, Duke of Rutland was born the following year, the doors of Rouen Cathedral were thrown open. He had a huge and ostentatious ceremony, with all the best gold brought out and birds released. The great and the good of Medieval Rouen were all present.

Precisely the same thing occurred when Elizabeth of York arrived within the same year.  By the time the youngest seven children were born, the couple were back in England.

So why was Edward's baptism so hush-hush, rushed and low key, while no expense was spared for his younger siblings?

Was that just the hurried concern of parents, who'd lost two babies previously?  Or did it mark something else different about this particular baby?

Either way, Richard of York publicly declared himself the father of little Edward.  The legal position of paternity never came into question. 

Granted, when they fled into exile after the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Richard took Edmund with him to Dublin, not Edward. His eldest son was sent with the Earl of Warwick into Calais instead.  But that could just have been practical - keep the heir and his heir apparent apart, for safety reasons. Though given the fact that they were all in the Wars of the Roses, that doesn't hold much weight.

Perhaps we'll never know the truth.  The current royal family is unlikely to release Edward IV's body, from its crypt in Windsor, in order to extract the DNA to test it. Particularly since we now have Richard III's DNA to test it against.  Such paternity examinations might prove once and for all that they were full brothers. 

But then again, it might not.

Edward IV Memorabilia on eBay

Updated: 09/28/2013, JoHarrington
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Veronica on 06/14/2015

I think it's more likely that Edward had George murdered because of his behaviour to his workers and tenants such as Ankarette Twynho or because George suspected that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville may be invalid.

JoHarrington on 10/10/2013

George, Duke of Clarence, was doing a little more than spreading rumors about Edward's illegitimacy. Though the time to have him executed wasn't then, but earlier, when he led an army against his brother. (Not that I'm advocating the death penalty.)

The queen has repeatedly refused to have any of the various Princes in the Tower bones checked for DNA. Now, more than ever, with Richard identified, we could know for sure.

Rose on 10/09/2013

I think Edward IV was illegitimate. He actually went to the lengths of KILLING his brother (or half-brother) George, for challenging him, which is an extraordinary length to go to scotch a mere rumour, if that's what it was.

When Richard III's body was found, the University of Leicester applied for permission to test his DNA against the bones of the two princes in the tower (two small skeletons was found in the Tower in the 17thC and were re-buried in Westminster Abbey). If they were really descended from Richard of York, their Y chromosones would be identical to Richard III's. Elizabeth II refused permission for the DNA testing - which is telling.

JoHarrington on 09/25/2013

You know, I knew each of those individually, but I'd never seen them all together. That really is quite strange, isn't it? That's every single royal house since the conqueror coming through the female line.

frankbeswick on 09/25/2013

Strangely, inheritance in the UK has run through female lines. Henry the Second inherited through his mother, the empress Maud, the daughter of Henry the First and also heir to Alfred through his wife, Margaret of Scotland, and thus was born the Plantagenet dynasty.

Next Henry Tudor, a usurper with a spurious claim based on a tenuous connection to the house of Lancaster, passed on the stronger claim through his wife. In turn the Tudor inheritance passed through the line of Scotland through Henry's sister, who was married to the king of Scotland, and her granddaughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, who passed it onto James, the first of the Stuart line. This line inherited later on through his descendant, the electress Sophie of Hanover; and one of her descendants, Victoria, passed the claim onto the present line, whose heirs, Charles and William, have their claim through their mother, Elizabeth. We have male primogeniture interrupted by female inheritance at key points.

Interestingly, if you ask the names of our most popular monarchs, after Alfred, whom the present lot would rather forget, we have Elizabeth the First and Second and Victoria. Our kings have never been loved as much as our queens.

JoHarrington on 09/24/2013

Aguasilver - Me write an historical novel? You can't believe how tempting that idea is. I may take you up on it.

cmoneyspinner - I'm sure that an Irish person has spoken like that at some point in history. At least while putting on a funny accent. :p But thank you. <3

cmoneyspinner on 09/24/2013

Nay lassie! My flattery be naught but the truth!

That's probably an Irish accent, isn't it? :)

JoHarrington on 09/24/2013

Wow! Loads of comments. I'm glad that you all enjoyed the Medieval gossip!

Aguasilver - I didn't know that Bernard Cornwell had written a novel based on the archer's side of the story. I'll have to look out for that. Thanks!

Jenny - Frank has explained this perfectly. Thanks, Frank!

Thamisgith - LOL True story.

Cmoneyspinner - Awww! You flatter me too much. <3

Frank - But Sophie could only claim because she was a Stuart. The Stuarts could only claim England too because of Margaret Tudor. So it all comes back to whether Henry Tudor ruled through right of conquest (which he did) or through the royal blood of his wife, Elizabeth of York (which he didn't and in case that that's now suspect, as Edward IV was her dad).

frankbeswick on 09/24/2013

The claim to the throne depends upon the settlement at the glorious revolution of 1688, when parliament settled the throne on the descendants of the electress Sophie of Hanover, so she is monarch of England and Wales through constitutional settlement.. However, the British monarch is separately monarch of England/Wales/Northern Ireland and Scotland. The present monarch inherits Scotland's crown by descent from the Stuart kings of Scotland through the house of Hanover, who descend from the Stuarts, all Catholic Stuarts having been disinherited by act of parliament. The British monarch is separately Lord of Man [the Isle of Man] which she inherits through the Scottish line, and is duchess of Normandy, the remnants of which duchy are the Channel Islands, whose inhabitants hail her as duchess rather than queen.

cmoneyspinner on 09/24/2013

Incredible! If this keeps up the Wizzley management is going to have make a separate topic category and call it the Jo Harrington History Channel. :)

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