First, to clarify, for the purposes of this discussion the correct standpoint isn’t a mindset; it isn’t the simple conclusion that the precontract didn’t, in fact, take place. The correct standpoint is the point in time when the precontract was ‘revealed’, ie in the early months of Richard III’s reign. That’s the first time we hear of it and it’s from that standpoint it should be examined. We’ve been rather peppered in the last few weeks with claims that because a marriage between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler could have taken place under particular conditions that constitutes proof it did take place. There are also claims that because there are three points of resemblance between Eleanor Butler and Elizabeth Wydeville, this constitute further proof a marriage took place. Eleanor Butler and Elizabeth Wydeville were both a) older than Edward; b) widows; and c) had, at some point, petitioned Edward for the return of misappropriated lands.
So, firstly, just for the moment assuming that the following scenario equates to ‘legally binding marriage’ (and that, in itself, is debatable)…
Edward: Oh, Eleanor, you are so hot! I can’t wait to get you into bed! We could do it now, there’s no-one around.
Eleanor: But I’m a good girl! ‘Twould be a sin if we were to lie together without benefit of marriage. I would be spoiled! And no man would look at me through respectful eyes, ever again. Say you’ll marry me and I’m yours!
Edward: Ok, sure, whatever you want, baby
[sexual activity follows and – bingo! – Edward and Eleanor are legally and irrevocably married.]
Just saying that’s a correct interpretation of the law: no witnesses, no ceremony, just “I’ll marry you”; ‘Ok” and a roll in the hay and two people are legally married. Here are the two really big problems with that.
1. It might have happened, doesn’t mean it did happen. All kinds of things might have happened. Richard III might have let himself into the Tower and smothered his nephews with his own hands. Anyone trying to use this as ‘proof’ he did let himself into the Tower and smother his nephews with his own hands would, quite rightly, meet with some argument. Coming up with a scenario that seems to answer the major problems with the precontract story, ie the lack of witnesses and the twenty years of silence on the matter, doesn’t constitute any kind of proof. And, clearly, that’s what it’s designed to do. Because proof of the precontract is crucial to the whole ‘Richard was innocent’ stance. Doubts about the precontract lead to doubts about the legality of Richard’s kingship which lead to the realisation that, yes, he might have been a usurper. And that Richard, though he might be perfectly acceptable to a lot of us, simply isn’t acceptable to that small core of ‘Ricardians’ who base their views of Richard on the first novel they read about his life. (Why the historical Richard isn’t good enough for these people baffles me. He clearly isn’t, or they wouldn’t spend quite so much time and energy trying to turn him into something he wasn’t. He deserves better than that, like whatever the ‘reality’ of his life and reign being studied, warts and all, rather than suppressed and replaced by someone he himself would simply not recognise.)
But back to the precontract story…
2. The points of similarity between Elizabeth Wydeville and Eleanor Butler are also used as ‘proof’ it took place. If there was independent evidence of the precontract, those points of similarity might serve as further evidence. On their own, they mean nothing – and that’s simply because there’s a twenty year silence on the matter between the time the marriage is said to have taken place and the time it was ‘revealed’. Looking at it from the correct standpoint, Eleanor Butler may have been chosen as Edward’s ‘first wife’ simply because of those similarities. A pattern can be established after the fact. A suitable candidate can be found because she fits an already known set of criteria. While I totally accept that it is possible Edward IV contracted an irregular marriage with someone before he married Elizabeth Wydeville (though I do think it unlikely), I also totally accept it is entirely possible Eleanor Butler’s name came up because a) she was dead; and b) she was a widow, older than Edward and had once personally appealed to him for the return of her lands – all of which we already know relates to Elizabeth Wydeville. Looking at it from the correct standpoint, she was the perfect choice.
And lastly, just a passing thought, if typing academic qualifications in ALL CAPS is supposed to silence all questions, then – surely! – it must equally apply to all academics, including PROFESSOR Pollard, PROFESSOR Hicks and DOCTOR David Starkey. Or, more correctly, it really shouldn’t apply to any of them – respect for historians and academics is always a good starting point but crying ‘Questioning is Forbidden!’ when one’s favourite historian’s work or words are challenged while feeling entirely free to personally denigrate those whose work and words one doesn’t accept as gospel is both hypocritical and intellectually dishonest.