"Tell them, when that my mother went with child
Of that insatiate Edward, noble York
My princely father then had wars in France
And, by true computation of the time,
Found that the issue was not his begot"
(Richard III (William Shakespeare) Act 3 Scene 5)
The debate about whether of not King Edward IV was illegitimate is hardly a new one. A few years back the issue was the focus of a British TV documentary, Britain's Real Monarch in which evidence was presented that seemed to confirm that the Yorkist King was born to someone other than Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York. In fact it has been suggested that Edward's real father was a humble archer from the Rouen garrison named Blaybourne rather than the blue-blooded patriarch of the House of York. Today it seems like little more than old skeletons in the closet but in the grand scheme of things it is actually rather significant. If Edward the IV was indeed illegitimate that not only invalidated his own right to occupy the throne of England but also the right of every monarch since.
The story begins in France during the final years of the Hundred Year's War as England sought to retain her remaining French territories. Richard Duke of York and his wife Cecily Neville were at the town of Rouen in Normandy, which Richard used a base to launch his military campaigns. Edward was born on April 28th 1442 which placed the time of his conception somewhere in the early Summer of 1441. This is where things get interesting...
The archives of Rouen Cathedral from the Summer of 1441 show that the clergy were offering their prayers for the safety of the Duke of York who was away on campaign at Pontoise, several days march from Rouen where Cecily had remained behind. This means that during those key weeks when Edward must have been conceived, his supposed father simply was not around to do the deed. If Edward was conceived before Richard went off on campaign then that would put the length of Cecily's pregnancy at an impossible eleven months. 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. No such document relating to Edward has been discovered, suggesting that the pregnancy went to full term thus placing the time of his conception right in the middle of the period where Richard was out of town.
The rumours began almost immediately. The circumstances surrounding Edward's christening is also cited as evidence that Richard and Cecily did not have much to celebrate. The ceremony was a private and secretive affair conducted in a side chapel of the cathedral. Contrast this with the christening of Edward's younger brother for which the cathedral itself was used for the celebrated and very public occasion. As Edward grew up it was pointed out that he hardly resembled Richard or anyone else in the family for that matter. Edward's square jaw and round face, so prominent in portraits of him, starkly contrasted with the thin face of the man who was supposed to be his father. Edward also grew to an incredible (for the time) 6 feet 4 inches tall, far taller than most of the other Yorks.
In 1461 Edward dislodged the House of Lancaster from the throne and became King. Even then the rumours about his paternity continued to dog him although, with the Wars of the Roses still going on, many of them were likely exaggerated or dreamed up for propaganda purposes. The issue of Edward's legitimacy did not spill to the surface until after Edward died in 1483.
Edward's son was only 12 when he acceded to the thrown as Edward V. The elder Edward had named his brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester as protector until the younger came of age. Richard wasted no time in putting in his own claim for power, arresting the young King and confining him to the Tower of London with his brother. What happened to them is another mystery entirely.
With Edward IV's heirs out of the way. Richard had Parliament declare them illegitimate, citing the questions surrounding Edward's paternity as one of the causes for doing so (the other being the nature of Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville). This opened the way for Richard to proclaim himself as King Richard III. Richard's death at the Battle of Bosworth Field two years later and the rise of Henry Tudor to the throne brought about the situation that has left a question mark over the legitimacy of very monarch from then up until this very day.
With his own claim to the throne tenuous at best (see my previous post on the subject of Henry's claim), Henry Tudor sought ways to legitimize himself in the eyes of a sceptical nation. To achieve this he married Elizabeth of York, ensuring that his descendants could claim strong royal ancestry through the York bloodline. At the time the move was considered a genius example of political matchmaking that would unite the Houses of York and Lancaster, end the Wars of the Roses and bring peaceful stable government to England. In light of what we know now (and what many may or may not have known then), however, there was one rather big problem with this arrangement.
Elizabeth of York was the daughter of Edward IV.
If the evidence is to be believed and Edward was indeed the lovechild of an archer then that would mean Elizabeth was not of the royal bloodline. Her marriage to Henry would have done nothing to legitimize the Tudor dynasty, meaning it had no right to occupy the throne. If that is the case then this illegitimacy has been subsequently passed down to the Stuarts, the Hanoverians and the Windsors. The entire institution of the British monarchy since the mid-15th century would have been based on a lie...