"Birther" Controversies and the Wars of the Roses

Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby
Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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Accusations of Illegitimacy: Challenges to Royal Succession

Elizabeth of York Marries Henry Tudor
Elizabeth of York Marries Henry Tudor. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The time from the 1460s through the 1480s saw much contention and turnover for the title of King of England. While battles often made the final decisions in such transitions, claims about birth secrets (and even some death secrets) often contributed to the outcomes, as well.

Allegations of affairs and precontracted marriages were used to question the legitimacy of heirs. Such allegations also brought into the controversies the reputations of queens and noble women. Here are a few of those medieval legitimacy controversies, including the women who were involved in them.

  • Legitimate Enough Heritage? Henry Tudor's Claim to the Throne (1485)
  • Princes Imprisoned, Illegitimacy Declared (1483)
  • More Lost Princes? (1487, 1490 - 1496)
  • Was King Edward IV Illegitimate? (1442)
  • Was Edward of Westminster Really the Son of Henry VI? (1453)
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Legitimate Enough Heritage? Henry Tudor's Claim to the Throne (1485)

Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby
Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Henry VII, known as Henry Tudor, was a great times three grandson of Edward III. He became king on August 22, 1485 after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

On Henry Tudor rested the hopes of the House of Lancaster in the last stages of the Wars of the Roses. After he was crowned king, he married Elizabeth of York, one of the surviving daughters of the Yorkish king, Edward IV. The marriage combined the two houses. He even combined the symbols of the York rose and the Lancaster rose into a Tudor rose.

Henry's Lancastrian claim was through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, who was a great granddaughter of the first Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. Margaret Beaufort was descended from John Beaufort, one of John of Gaunt's children by his third wife, Katherine Swynford, who had been governess to his children by his first wife before becoming his mistress. John of Gaunt married Katherine after all their children were born. A papal bull and royal patent legitimized their children, giving them the patronym Beaufort, but explicitly excluded the Beauforts and their heirs from the royal succession. Thus, any claim Henry VII made to the throne through the Beaufort line would be controversial and subject to challenge -- and perhaps more war.

Henry VII's father, Edmund Tudor, died before Henry's birth. Edmund was the son of a Welsh squire, Owen Tudor, who secretly, and without royal permission, married Catherine of Valois, a daughter of Charles VI of France. Catherine of Valois was the widow of Lancastrian King Henry V, making Edmund Tudor a maternal half brother of King Henry VI, who arranged the marriage of Edmund to Margaret Beaufort.

Henry's V's father, Henry IV, had deposed his own cousin, King Richard II, who then died mysteriously in prison, so any claim through Henry V would be controversial. But Henry VII's claim was not through a prior marriage of an ancestress or through his maternal relationship to Henry VI; this connection could not justify Henry VII's claim to the throne. The scandal of the secret marriage arguably made his family reputation shakier. It was undeniable that Catherine of Valois gave him royal ancestry, but that was distant, French, and through a daughter of the king, not a son.

Henry Does an End Run

With all this family history of birth and heritage controversies, Henry VII came to power knowing that his own claim to be the rightful king would be controversial. He also knew of the controversies surrounding his predecessors (see links below), and how those controversies had contributed to challenge, conflict and war. Henry VII likely had his eye on stability, for himself and his heirs.

So Henry VII didn't claim the throne through right of inheritance: he claimed it through the right of conquest, not through any of his own royal lineage. And his marriage to Elizabeth of York, which could be seen as making sure his children were of the lineage of Edward IV? He made sure that marriage happened after he'd been crowned, thus making his own claim solely and completely on the right of conquest. Henry VII made sure that any "birther" controversies would be totally irrelevant to his right to the crown, and to the right of his descendants as well.

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Princes Imprisoned, Illegitimacy Declared (1483)

Only two of the sons of Edward IV were alive at Edward's death: a son also named Edward, age 12, and Richard, age 9. After the death of Edward IV, that twelve year old son became king as Edward V. Edward IV's brother, and uncle to the boys, was appointed regent for Edward V and protector of the young uncrowned king and his brother. The uncle was another Richard: Duke of Gloucester (called Gloucester), the youngest of the seven children of Richard, third Duke of York, and his wife, Cecily Neville.

Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV's widow, sent her son Edward V to London to be crowned, but Gloucester intercepted his party, and put the young king into the Tower of London, ostensibly for his protection.

Elizabeth Woodville interpreted this as an incarceration of the young king and a threat to all her children, Edward IV's heirs. She took sanctuary with the rest of her children -- the other prince, Richard, and her daughters -- in Westminster Abbey.

Gloucester asked her to send her second son, Richard, to go live with his older brother, Edward V, in the Tower, supposedly to keep his brother from being lonely. Why did Elizabeth Woodville surrender her second son? We don't know, but she did. Did Gloucester get her to trust him? Did she think she had no choice? Had he suggested that he would marry Elizabeth's daughter, Elizabeth of York, and Elizabeth Woodville saw that as at least some survival of her family? We don't know. That the stories that survive are largely filtered through the usual "winners tell the tale," Richard of Gloucester is generally seen as a villain, and Elizabeth Woodville and her children as helpless victims; skepticism reminds us that not all the facts are known.

What we do know: two months after both princes were in the Tower, Gloucester, their uncle, protector, and regent for the king, declared the marriage of Elizabeth of York and Edward IV invalid. Gloucester claimed that Edward IV had been under a previous contract to marry someone else, Lady Eleanor Butler, at the time that he married Elizabeth Woodville. An Act of Parliament backed up Gloucester. If Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid, then all their children were bastards -- Edward V and his brother, the prince Richard, and their sisters. None were eligible to inherit the title of Edward IV.

Just weeks later, Gloucester took the throne for himself as Richard III, in July of 1483.

Elizabeth Woodville then secretly backed Henry Tudor's attempt to overthrow Richard III, promising her daughter, Elizabeth of York, to Henry Tudor as a wife and queen. Henry Tudor swore an oath to marry Elizabeth of York in December 1483, then prepared to invade England and take the crown from Richard III.

The two princes in the Tower, Edward V and his brother Richard, were not seen again. Rumors they'd been murdered began almost immediately, and added to public opposition to Richard III. The prime suspect has long been considered Richard III, but other suspects include Henry VII or his mother, Margaret Beaufort (she's also suspected of having launched a failed rescue attempt); Henry Stafford, second Duke of Buckingham who played a role in the ascent of both Richard III and later Henry VII; or John Morton, who opposed Richard III and supported Henry VII, and who was appointed by Henry VII as Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1674, skeletons of children approximately matching the ages of the two boys were found in a chest in the Tower; these were moved to Westminster Abbey. Were these the two princes? Tests were not done then and haven't been done since.

In 1789, coffins of two unidentified children were found in a vault discovered at that time next to the vault with the remains of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville at St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. They were presumed to be the coffins of two other children of Edward and Elizabeth: Mary who had died at age 14, just a year before her father's death, and George, who had died at about age 3, four years before Edward IV died, and the coffins were inscribed with these names and resealed into the tomb. Then in about 1810, two coffins were found during excavation at the Woolsey Tomb-House, a memorial chapel originally built as a chapel at Windsor by Henry VII. Those coffins were labeled at those of George and Mary. Mary's coffin was opened, and the remains found were consistent with a girl of 14 or 15, including some pale gold hair. These two coffins were then placed in the vault adjoining that of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, with the two other coffins found earlier.

In the 1990s, a request was received by those in charge of the chapel at Windsor to examine the vault and perhaps the two coffins found in 1789. The request was not answered.

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More Lost Princes? (1487, 1490 - 1496)

Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, and Perkin Warbeck, About 1490
Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, and Perkin Warbeck, About 1490. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Lambert Simnel

In 1487, after Henry VII had been crowned king, a boy known as Lambert Simnel came to public attention. A priest, Richard Simon, put the boy forward as Edward, Earl of Warwick, a son of George, Duke of Clarence, a brother of Richard III and Edward IV. The young Earl of Warwick had been imprisoned in the Tower of London by Henry VII in 1485. Lambert Simnel claimed he was the earl, and had escaped prison. The son of Clarence could be seen as a more legitimate (by birthright) heir to the throne than Henry VII was. (Richard Simon reportedly first thought to present the boy as the missing prince Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, the younger of the disappeared sons of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV.)

Supporters of the pretender crowned him as King Edward VI in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. More came to his defense, conspiring to displace Henry VII with this supposed rightful heir. The Earl of Lincoln, joining the cause, claimed to have helped the Earl of Warwick escape. Lincoln convinced Margaret of York, the dowager duchess of Burgundy, to join the cause.

Margaret of York was the sister of Edward IV, Richard III and Clarence, and thus an aunt to the Earl of Warwick. She raised mercenaries to attack Henry VII, and they invaded. The attackers lost to Henry's army in June, 1487. The priest, Simon, was given a life sentence in prison. King Henry VII, on the presumption that Simnel was not himself responsible for the ruse, pardoned him, and employed him as a kitchen worker in his household.

Perkin Warbeck

By 1490, the sons of Edward IV whom Richard III had sent to the Tower and had declared illegitimate, had not been seen for some years.

In 1490, at the court of Burgundy, a young boy claimed to be the younger of the two princes, and to have escaped from the Tower. Known as Perkin Warbeck, this young boy first attempted to gain support in Ireland, as had Lambert Simbert. Margaret of York, the dowager duchess of Burgundy and aunt of the disappeared prince, who had supported Lambert Simnel, threw her support behind Perkin Warbeck's claim as well. Henry VII responded by putting a trade embargo on Burgundy. Soon other European nations were involved in the conflict.

This new pretender built support among rulers in Europe, using the title King Richard IV of England. He was received in Scotland by James IV. James IV arranged a marriage between the supposed King Richard IV and the Lady Catherine Gordon, a relative of James IV. James sent a Scottish army in support of Warbeck's claim into England, but they retreated as soon as an English army approached. James IV quickly abandoned his ally, negotiating a peace with England at the urging of Queen Isabella of Spain and her co-ruler and husband, Ferdinand of Aragon.

Warbeck the pretender raised new support in Cornwall. Again as Richard IV, and with an army 6,000 strong, he invaded Exeter. When Warbeck heard that the English army was approaching, he deserted his troops. He was captured, the Cornish army surrendered and the leaders of the invasion were executed. Warbeck was paraded through London. After he confessed publicly to false impersonation, he was hanged.

Warbeck's story remained of some interest to later generations. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and author of Frankenstein, wrote The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck in 1830.

A Real Royal

Edward, 17th Earl of Warwick, son of George, Duke of Clarence, had been sent to the Tower of London as a prisoner after Henry VII assumed the throne. He was then ten years old. It was this member of Edward IV's family whom Lambert Simnel had impersonated in 1487. Henry VII permitted him to inherit his titles, even though he remained in prison as a potential threat to the Tudor king.

When Perkin Warbeck put himself forward as the rightful king of England, as the imprisoned and disappeared prince Richard, Henry put the imprisoned Warwick on trial. An allegation was that Warbeck and Warwick had schemed to release Warwick. Warwick, by this time 24 years old, was brought to a public trial and beheaded for treason on Tower Hill.

Likely behind Henry's action in 1499 in the matter of Warwick, after 14 years of imprisonment, is that the appearance of a second pretender to birthright rule through Edward IV made it clearer that any remaining heirs of that family were a threat to Henry VII's stable rule, and to that of his descendants. At about that time, Henry VII was negotiating for the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, Catherine of Aragon, to marry his eldest son, Arthur. There are reports that Catherine felt guilt about Warwick's death, attributing some of the challenges of her life to her responsibility in his execution.

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Was King Edward IV Illegitimate? (1442)

Cecily Neville, Duchess of York
Cecily Neville, Duchess of York. Getty Images / Hulton Archive

In 2004, a British Channel4 documentary claimed that Edward IV was illegitimate, and thus descendants of his brother, the Duke of Clarence, were the real legitimate British monarchs. This claim was not a new one. During Edward's lifetime, the rumor circulated: that Edward did not look like his father, though his brothers did.

The main sources of the rumor were:

  • Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Called the Kingmaker, he supported first Edward IV and then Henry VI.

    Warwick supported Edward IV, his first cousin, in defeating Henry VI in 1460/1461. Warwick arranged for his daughter, Isabel Neville, to marry George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV. By 1469, Warwick had turned against Edward and supported Henry VI instead. Warwick spread the rumor that Edward IV was not the son of Richard of York. Cecily Neville, Edward IV's mother, was also Warwick's aunt. Warwick claimed that Cecily Neville had had a relationship with an archer in the absence of her husband. This would invalidate Edward IV's claim to the throne as the York heir.

    As part of his alliance with Henry VI, Warwick married his other daughter, Anne, to Henry VI's son, Edward, the Prince of Wales. But the prince was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury along with Henry VI in 1470. With Edward IV again in power, Warwick married Anne to Clarence's and Edward IV's brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III).

  • George, Duke of Clarence. Clarence aligned himself with Warwick's attempt to remove his own brother Edward IV from the throne. Since Clarence was married to Warwick's daughter Isabel Neville, Clarence believed Warwick would replace a toppled Edward with Clarence. Clarence soon came to believe that Warwick instead would restore Henry VI. Clarence again changed sides; Edward IV forgave his brother and in 1472 even gave Clarence Warwick's title. But Clarence continued to plot against his older brother. Clarence spread the rumor that Edward was not the son of Richard of York and was thus a bastard. Shortly after, in 1478, Clarence was "privately" executed at the Tower of London on the orders of his brother, Edward IV.

  • Cecily Neville, Edward IV's mother (and the mother of the duke of Clarence and Richard III). The source alleging that Edward's own mother made this claim was Dominic Mancini, an Italian who visited England in 1482 or 1483, likely as a spy for a French archbishop. Mancini was in England at the time of the death of Edward IV and was also there for coronation of Richard III. Mancini wrote an account of his trip after he returned. He spoke little English; he may have been informed of events on his trip by a physician who spoke Italian, who claimed to have treated one of the princes in the Tower, and who became part of Henry VII's court. Mancini's account, which was rediscovered in 1934 after being lost for hundreds of years, claims that Cecily Neville was angry with Edward IV when he married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, and in her anger told some that he was a bastard.

  • Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. In a petition to parliament in 1483, days after Richard III declared Edward V and the other children of Edward IV illegitimate, Stafford called Richard III "undoubted son and heir" of his father, perhaps as a reference to Edward's IV's supposed illegitimacy.

  • Richard III. In Shakespeare's play named for Richard III, and according to Polydore Vergil, with no other corroboration, Richard III himself is said to have stated that his brother was not legitimate. In Vergil's account, Cecily, Edward and Richard's mother, protests being falsely accused of adultery.

Were the accusations accurate? If true, Cecily Neville, wife of Richard of York, had committed adultery, presumably in her husband's absence.

Arguments for Edward's Illegitimacy

  • The main argument used for Edward being illegitimate was that Edward did not resemble his father. His face was more rounded and he was significantly taller than other York family members.
  • Cecily Neville would know; she was the mother; at least one source says the claim of illegitimacy came from the duchess herself.
  • Countering the argument that Richard III would have used this charge if it were true: Richard III may not have alluded to the illegitimacy of his brother, as it might have put his own legitimacy in doubt. A mother who had one affair might have had others.
  • Richard of York was gone for five weeks, at least several days travel from where Cecily of York was staying in Rouen, a window in which it is calculated that Edward IV would have been conceived. Recent evidence has surfaced of prayers being said for his safety during this window of time, confirming that he was absent.
  • Nothing in the record indicates that Edward IV was born prematurely. As one writer on the issue puts it, "We can also assume that Edward was not born prematurely as there is no mention of it. The risks associated with sickly or premature babies with a claim to the throne meant that chroniclers always recorded them in writing." [The History Onyx]
  • Edward IV's christening was held in a side chapel of the cathedral while his next brother's christening (Edmund, Earl of Rutland) was held in the main hall, and was a much more lavish affair. This must mean that the Edward was considered of lower birth than his brother was.

Arguments Against Edward's Illegitimacy

  • George, Duke of Clarence, was said by contemporaries to resemble his brother, Edward IV, and was also tall like Edward was; Edward was not unique in his differences from the rest of the family.
  • Richard III did not allude to Edward IV's illegitimacy in making his own claim to the throne. Richard instead alleged that Edward's children were illegitimate because of a pre-contract of marriage that invalidated Edward's marriage to Elizabeth of Woodville. The former would have been a stronger claim for Richard's priority over Edward's sons, so if he did not make the claim, it is likely because he knew the claim, which had already surfaced, was not true.
  • Cecily Neville's supposed statement of her son's illegitimacy, in reaction to hearing of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, was transmitted by someone whose reliability could easily be questioned. In any case, it could have been simply an angry accusation without basis in truth. Her supposed statement contrasts with other rumors, which also can be questioned as unreliable, that she protested being accused falsely of adultery.
  • The source of the statements of Edward's illegitimacy all came from people with connections to Edward's opposition, who thus had an interest in lying.
  • That absence of Richard of York? Where Richard of York was stationed was only a few days travel from where his wife was staying; one road between them would have been safe to travel. Evidence of some absence during the five week window is not evidence that there was complete absence.
  • Even if Richard of York was absent, if Edward IV were born just weeks early, the absence would be irrelevant. It's simply untrue that every sickly or premature royal child was noted as such in surviving records. Two of Edward's elder siblings died early, so even if he was born small or sickly, it might not have been noted.
  • The lavishness, or lack of it, of a christening could vary considerably, depending on other factors. Two of Cecily and Richard's first three children had died early, and the parents might have hurried the christening, expecting that the new baby, Edward, might not live long. The hurried christening might also indicate that Edward was born prematurely, adding to worry about his survival.
  • Perhaps the strongest counter-evidence: Richard of York never questioned the paternity of this son, and he and Cecily Neville went on to have nine more children after the birth of Edward. The next was born just over a year after Edward's birth. There's no evidence of estrangement, which might be expected if Cecily had committed adultery and become pregnant as a result.

Further, it could be argued that Edward IV's right to rule was as good as Henry VII's: Edward also won the right to rule through defeating his predecessor militarily, thus held the right through conquest. Both were sons of mothers whose descent from Edward III was through John of Gaunt's Beaufort offspring who had been explicitly excluded from royal succession.

Most importantly, the claim that all British monarchs since Edward IV should be displaced by descendants of the duke of Clarence, his next younger brother, ignore that Henry Tudor seized the crown not by right of inheritance, but by right of conquest.


Was Edward IV illegitimate? The only real conclusion is that we don't know with any certainty.

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Was Edward of Westminster Really the Son of Henry VI? (1453)

Marriage of Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI (1445)
Marriage of Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI (1445). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Margaret of Anjou (1430 - 1482) was the queen consort of England's Henry VI of England (1421 - 1471). Henry's father, Henry V, died when the son was only nine months old. Henry VI was raised with considerable influence of his regents. Even before Margaret, at 15, married Henry in 1445, there were rumors he'd been afflicted with bouts of mental instability. Henry's mother, Catherine of Valois, was the daughter of Charles VI of France, known to have struggled with insanity. (Henry also inherited the crown of France through his mother when he was eleven months old, when that grandfather died; he never ruled France as the throne was taken by Charles VII Valois in 1429.)

Even after he assumed power, Henry seemed mostly interested in religion and statecraft, not in his wife. Margaret did not become pregnant until 1453. About that time, Henry slipped into a serious mental breakdown, and was unaware of what was happening, including the birth of his son, Edward, in October 1453. When he came out of the breakdown, he acknowledged paternity of his son, and had him invested as Prince of Wales in 1454.

However, there were rumors that, given the long period before the queen became pregnant, and his insanity around the time of conception, the son had a different father. Two men were the primary suspects of being the real father:

  • Edmund Beaufort, second (or first) Duke of Somerset (1406 - 1455). He was a younger son of John Beaufort, whose parents were John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Katherine Swynford. He was a cousin of Henry VI, and a favorite of Henry. Edmund Beaufort had considerable power from 1451 through 1453, when the king's insanity made him vulnerable; the king was imprisoned in the Tower of London, released only when he recovered his wits. Edmund Beaufort was killed in 1455 at the First Battle of St. Albans, known as the first battle of the Wars of the Roses. The rumor of his adultery with the queen may have been part of a campaign during the king's insanity to destroy his reputation and reduce his power. His marriage in the early 1430s was unlicensed, and had to be later pardoned (1438), so he was already the subject of marital scandal. His wife, Eleanor Beauchamp, lived until 1467.
  • James Butler, fifth Earl of Ormond and first Earl of Wiltshire (1420 - 1461). He was a strong supporter of the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, and was an advisor to the young Prince of Wales, his alleged illegitimate son. When the York party prevailed at the Battle of Towton, Butler was beheaded. Butler was married in 1458 to the daughter of Eleanor Beauchamp and Edmund Beaufort, the latter being the other suspect in Margaret's alleged adultery.

As with other accusations of infidelity and illegitimacy, these were leveled by those who had an interest in destroying the reputation of the prince and his claim to the throne, and countered by those who had the contrary interest. Few have taken these claims seriously, however.