Edward IV’s Women by Anne Easter Smith

Royal Mistress by Anne Easter SmithI am delighted to have Anne Easter Smith guest post today. Anne is an award-winning historical novelist whose research and writing concentrates on England in the 15th century. Today, she’s talking about her research process and the women who surrounded Edward IV.

Thanks for hosting me today, Mary. I’ll begin by answering your question about my research process. It is rigorous! And it never ends!
Anne’s Research Process
First of all I get down on the floor with a big flip chart and make a graph with my main characters along the top and a monthly/yearly timeline down the side. Then I go to my favorite–and trusted–books on the period, turning to the index and finding my character (or her leading man, because as we know history is about men and written mostly by men!) I systematically go through every entry marking on my chart where she (or he) was at any specific time and what they were doing there. Once I have a goodly number of entries and have finished Part One of the book, I write down a list of all the places I have not been to and begin to plan The Research Trip. I need to walk the walk and see what my characters would have seen. Once I’m home again with a bag full of photos, brochures, maps and notes then I feel ready to start writing.
Edward IV’s Women
Now onto the meat of the matter. You asked me to write about Edward IV’s women. Perhaps we should explain that Edward is a major character in my new book Royal Mistress which tells the dramatic story of Edward’s favorite and final mistress, Jane Shore.
I know we are all mesmerized by Richard III at the moment, but as a king, his brother Edward IV was far more influential, being that he reigned for more than 20 years (give or take the 10 months he was in exile), while Richard reigned for only two.
So I set out to make Edward more prominent when I chose Jane Shore as my protagonist in Royal Mistress. Of course, he had appeared in three of my other four books, and I had formed a pretty good idea of who he was after all those years of researching the York family during the Wars of the Roses. It’s astonishing how much larger than life he became as I wrote about him. Had he lived today, he would probably have been a celebrated professional athlete or maybe a movie star–with the requisite trophy girlfriend on his arm.
He brought England out of a hundred plus years of war–first with France and then with his cousins, the Lancaster branch of the Plantagenets. I explain all this in Queen by Right (I hope!). Finally, in the 1470s and early ‘80s, England was able to concentrate on building up its economy at home, while the merchant class was thriving.
Trouble was, Edward was really better sitting on a horse and leading his men to battle than sitting on his throne leading politicians, and I think he got bored. By the time he was in his mid-thirties he was overweight and indolent. However, he never lost his lust for the opposite sex.
Although the names that have come down to us of his known mistresses number a mere five, Edward and his chamberlain were reputed to enjoy the pleasures of unsuitable young ladies on occasion during their forays into the city of London. Perhaps one of them gave birth to Grace, subject of my third book, The King’s Grace, a bastard of Edward’s whose mother has never been determined.
Sir George Buck, in his “History of the Life and Reign of Richard III” published in 1646 and who was the first historian to try and rectify the bad reputation the Tudors had foisted on Richard, mentions a little known first mistress of Edward, Catharine de Claringdon, but he is the only one who has.
However, the other four women are well documented. I shall skip over his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, as for most of Edward’s reign she was his acknowledged wife, although he did fall hook, line and sinker for her and thus marry her in secret to get her into bed, forgetting she was really not a suitable consort for the king of England.
So who were the three mistresses of whom Edward himself remarked that “one was the wiliest, another the merriest, and the third the holiest harlot in the land”? We are not sure which order the first two (and let’s throw Elizabeth Woodville in that timeline, too) came, but they were written about in 1460s, the early part of Edward’s reign.
We do know that Jane Shore was Edward’s last mistress, beginning in the mid 1470s and still in favor when he died, and the one Edward described as the “merriest.” Poor Eleanor Butler, nee Talbot, ended her life in a nunnery, which might suggest why Edward nicknamed her his “holiest” concubine.
By process of elimination, the “wiliest” must have been Elizabeth Lucy, nee Wayte, often called the elusive mistress. We think she was born in 1445, three years after Edward, and was the daughter of a landowning family from Hampshire. She became the wife of a knight named Lucy and was widowed young. She gave birth to two of Edward’s known bastards: Elizabeth, born circa 1463, who ended up marrying a Thomas Lumley; and Arthur “Wayte” in 1465 or 1467, who was finally recognized at court, surprisingly by King Henry VII, and rose to become Viscount Lisle. Why Elizabeth was wily, we aren’t sure, but she was never mentioned after 1467, giving rise to the supposition she may have died giving birth to Arthur.
The more interesting of the early mistresses is Lady Eleanor Butler, nee Talbot, daughter of the earl of Shrewsbury. This was no commoner, and her sister was the duchess of Norfolk, and both were known for their beauty. She married Sir Thomas Butler, heir to Lord Sudeley, at age fourteen or thereabouts, whose pedigree had connections to royalty. Sir Thomas died in 1461 leaving her childless and a wealthy widow. It was when she appealed the Crown’s confiscating her inheritance that she petitioned the lusty Edward in person and was soon being pursued by the handsome young king.
But did he or did he not promise her marriage in order to get her into his bed–commonly known as a pre-contract? That is the question that had enormous ramifications for Edward’s son and heir at the time of Edward’s death in 1483. Let me explain.
Today, there is nothing binding between a man and a woman promising to marry. We call it an engagement and it is usually the precursor to the actual binding of the couple in matrimony. In medieval times, the promise of marriage followed by intercourse was tantamount to a binding commitment or marriage and recognized by the church.
After Edward’s death, his brother Richard of Gloucester became Protector of his nephew, the boy king Edward V, who was awaiting his coronation. During those precarious weeks in May and June 1483, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, one Robert Stillington, stepped forward and declared he had been witness to a pre-contract between Edward and Eleanor BEFORE Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, making Edward’s marriage with the queen bigamous and thus bastardizing all the offspring of that union.
Ah, you say, but Richard of Gloucester had designs on the throne and probably paid the bishop to come forward with this preposterous story. Why did he wait until Edward was dead to announce his information to the world? Why didn’t Eleanor Butler come forward at the time of Edward’s announcement of his marriage to Elizabeth in 1464; surely she had a better claim to that marriage certificate? We have to remember that this was in medieval times and women had no power, especially a woman like Eleanor who had no father or husband or brother to step forward for her. It would be her word against Edward’s and Edward was the king. What about the good Stillington? He knew how to feather his nest: Was it coincidence that at the beginning of the year of Edward and Eleanor’s pre-contract, Stillington held only a couple of minor ecclesiastical appointments and was keeper of the Privy Seal, but later that same year he was given a handsome annual salary, and when the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth was revealed, Stillington became Bishop of Bath and Wells. Hmmm, a possible reward for keeping his mouth shut?
When all hope was lost to Eleanor by the marriage of the king to Elizabeth, she retired to a convent and died there in 1468. Poor “jilted” Eleanor. Edward managed to ignore the whole episode until it came back to bite him in his posterior–posthumously.
Edward’s final–and he is said to have declared favorite–mistress was Jane Shore, the subject of Royal Mistress. But I don’t want to spoil the drama that was Jane Shore’s rise and fall. You’ll have to read Royal Mistress to discover that for yourself! All I will say is that she was witness to some of the most compelling events in 15th century English history, was the lover of three powerful men, and the unfortunate scapegoat of my favorite king, Richard III. Jane’s story has inspired plays, poems, ballads and prose down the centuries, and her nickname was always The Rose of London.
Anne Easter SmithSuch an interesting story, Anne. It is always fascinating to me how many mistresses kings and nobles had in long ago times and the intricacies of court life, illegitimate offspring, the machinations of the church and so on. I am delighted to host you on A Writer of History. I’m sure that some of the writers who read my blog will also be fascinated by your research approach!
Anne Easter Smith is the author of five novels about the York family during the Wars of the Roses. She is a native of England who has lived in the US for 45 years and now makes Newburyport, MA her home.

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8 Responses

  1. Anne, I’ve almost finished “Royal Mistress” and I’m loving it. You really made Jane Shore come to life for me and I appreciate how you came full circle with many of the characters that inhabit your previous novels. Well done!
    Joan Szechtman

  2. I just finished reading Royle Mistress and loved it. I have read all of Anne Easter Smith’s novels,, they are enchanting to say the least.

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