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The Private Life of Edward IV by John Ashdown-Hill

I seem to have become celebrated as ‘a historian with a special talent for getting behind the mythology of history’. My work in this direction began as a result of my interest in the case of King Richard III. Later, I also explored the wider mythology which surrounds the Wars of the Roses.

But the key feature of my initial research into all the legends surrounding King Richard III focused on his claim to the throne. This claim was clearly based upon the allegation that his elder brother, King Edward IV, had committed bigamy, making his sons, the so-called “princes in the Tower”, royal bastards. In a sense, my research into the private life of Edward IV was therefore always inevitable.

Sir Thomas More Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein (c. Elizabeth Norton & the Amberley Archive, The Boleyns)

One of the key writers responsible for the mythology which surrounds the reputation of King Richard III was undoubtedly Sir (St.) Thomas More. But he was writing years after the short reign of the king who was killed at the battle of Bosworth. Thomas More himself had only been seven years old when Richard was killed. He can have had no personal memory of that king and his reign, of which he later wrote an account. The source of More’s information was probably Henry VII’s leading politician, Cardinal Morton – making the story as More received it part of the political rewriting of history. But perhaps More was never entirely convinced in respect of the accounts which he had heard, because intriguingly he himself seems to have written various versions of his history of Richard III. Also he never had any of them published during his lifetime. A text of More’s ‘history’ was first published later, by his foster daughter’s son.

Jane Shore Mistress to Edward IV ‘Jane Shore’, a fantasy image of this imaginary character, engraved by F. Bartolozzi R. A., and published in 1807. (c. The Private Life of Edward IV, Amberley Publishing)

It is therefore interesting that, although the point has hitherto been overlooked by most writers, in reality Thomas’ More’s account of Richard III is also the key source for some of the ‘facts’ about the private life of Richard’s elder brother, King Edward IV which have hitherto been universally accepted as true. For example, Thomas More is the earliest written source for the claim that Edward IV was the lover of ‘Mistress Shore’. Astonishingly, no earlier source exists to suggest that William Shore’s ex-wife was King Edward’s mistress. Incidentally, More refers to her simply as ‘Mistress Shore’. At least he never made the ridiculous claim that ‘Mistress Shore’ bore the first name of Jane! That story was only invented even later, by Jacobean playwrights who wanted to put her as a character on stage, and who therefore needed a first name for her. Unfortunately Mistress Shore’s real first name – Elizabeth – had not been recorded by any of the sources which connected her story with that of Edward IV.

Lady Eleanor Talbot Eleanor Talbot? A facial reconstruction based on the CF2 skull found at the Norwich Carmel, commissioned by the author from Caroline Erolin, Medical and Forensic Artist, Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University of Dundee, in 2015. (c. The Private Life of Edward IV, Amberley Publishing)

Thomas More is also the key source for the allegation that Edward IV had a relationship with a woman called Elizabeth Lucy. Indeed, More states that Richard III’s claim to the throne was based upon the allegation that Elizabeth Lucy had been his elder brother’s legal wife. In reality, however, contemporary evidence shows very clearly that the woman who was accepted by Parliament as having been the legal wife of King Edward IV was definitely not called Elizabeth Lucy. The woman who really was recognised officially as Edward’s legal wife was Lady Eleanor Talbot (Lady Boteler), the daughter of the first Earl of Shrewsbury. As for ‘Elizabeth Lucy’, although I and a number of previous writers have tried very hard to find some evidence relating to her, the fact is that in reality no such person is ever mentioned anywhere in any fifteenth-century records. Thus it now appears to be the case that the alleged ‘Elizabeth Lucy’ named by Thomas More never really existed. The name was merely a later invention. Probably it was part of the well-recorded policy – explicitly stated by King Henry VII and his government – to ensure that Lady Eleanor Talbot was airbrushed out of history.

Having shown that Edward IV’s relationship with two of his alleged ‘mistresses’ is highly questionable, my book on his private life then goes on to explore what sexual relationships the king really does seem to have had. It also investigates how many illegitimate children he produced as a result. In order to answer the question of whom the king might have met, when, and where, I have also explored for the first time, detailed contemporary evidence in respect of his movements around the country – and abroad.

Elizabeth Widville Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey. Copy of a contemporary portrait. (c. The Private Life of Edward IV, Amberley Publishing)

In reality, Edward IV appears to have been rather uxorious. His reign and his political actions were often clearly based upon the wishes of his bigamous second secret wife, Elizabeth Widville. She was the mother of his two sons, the so-called ‘princes in the Tower’ – who, however, were subsequently declared by parliament to have been royal bastards.

Other important facts emerge. For example the alleged birth and death dates which are usually published for King Edward IV himself cannot be substantiated!  Also, an appendix introduces the intriguing quest for the mitochondrial DNA of the ‘princes’. With a little help from me, a colleague who was inspired by my earlier discovery of Richard III’s mtDNA has now made remarkable progress on the mtDNA search in respect of the ‘princes’. We agreed to publish the results of his findings as they then were. But one of the outcomes of that publication has already been further progressed! Hopefully it will therefore soon be possible to establish the mtDNA haplogroup to which Edward IV’s sons belonged.

Further progress on the DNA research is not the only update which has taken place in the very short time since The Private Life of Edward IV was published. I have spotted a couple of small mistakes in my text, and one of my readers has made helpful suggestions about the identity of three medieval place names which I had not been able to identify. The corrections and other updates will be included in later editions of the book. Meanwhile they can be found on my website: https://www.johnashdownhill.com/the-private-life-of-edward-iv/

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John Ashdown-Hill's new book The Private Life of Edward IV is available for purchase now.