Thursday, March 26, 2015

Richard III's claim to the throne: by sanguinity, statute, or sacrament?

The funeral crown for Richard III, designed by Dr. John Ashdown-Hill of the Looking for Richard project.
As we all know, whether the Ricardians or right about Richard III's innocence of the various crimes imputed to him or not, the established belief remains that Richard usurped the crown from his nephews, that his claim was never legitimate. In light of that, I've long wondered why England has since continued to recognize Richard as king at all. Beginning in the reign of Henry VII Tudor, Saint Thomas More wrote an (unpublished) biography of his predecessor, titled The History of King Richard III, not Richard the Usurper; and More refers to the man as "King Richard" at every point in the narrative following the coronation, even though the work's villainous characterization of the man was the chief inspiration for Shakespeare's play. Richard III also appears in the line of kings on the British Monarchy's official website and even has his own page here, where it explicitly says,
"Richard III usurped the throne from the young Edward V, who disappeared with his younger brother while under their ambitious uncle's supposed protection."

If his claim was never legitimate to begin with, wouldn't he be a pretender? Like Antipope John XXIII (1410-1415), would he not be an antiking, with any future heirs to the throne taking the name "Richard III" rather than "Richard IV"? A few of you out there, reading this, may be far more versed on matters of royalty than myself and will rush to say "well, actually...", which is fine. But to stimulate the conversation, I've collected some of my own observations, gleamed from the various sources I've been able to read thus far.

Sanguinity: the law of blood

William and Mary
The dynastic wars that plagued Richard III's entire life; cousins overthrowing cousins, brothers raising arms against brothers, uncles throwing nephews in towers; couldn't happen today because the line of succession in the United Kingdom is now rigidly fixed by law. In 1685, long after Protestantism had been established in England, King Charles II died without issue, and the crown passed to his younger brother, James II, a convert to Catholicism. Parliament originally tolerated this awkward arrangement because they thought it would be temporary: that he would die and the crown would pass to his Protestant daughter, Mary. When James suddenly had a son, it looked like a Catholic line of succession would be established, so Parliament made a deal with Mary. If she could get her husband to raise an army and depose her father, Parliament would make them joint monarchs. They called it the "Glorious Revolution" and put William and Mary on the throne, but from that point onward, it was clear that Parliament was really in charge. Making and breaking kings by a vote, Parliament established the current laws of succession. The foundational statute is the 1701 Act of Settlement, setting forth male-preferred primogeniture from the descendants of Electress Sophia of Hanover who are not Catholic and have not married a Catholic. The Act has been strictly adhered to ever since, and now governs a list of over 5,000 names and their order from the throne.

In Richard III's day, the matter of succession left a lot more up for debate. Over the centuries since the Norman conquest, it had become customary for the crown to pass from eldest son to eldest son, but any time there was a deviation from this normal course, there was risk of a coup or a civil war. All political theories aside, it often boiled down to a contest of arms. He who could rule by force, ruled.

Richard's elder brother, King Edward IV, died in 1483, leaving behind two sons born from his wife, Queen Elizabeth Woodville: Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York. Since both were still boys, the king named his younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as Lord Protector, with full regency powers until the prince would come of age. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Edward had no reason to believe that the crown wouldn't pass on down to his children. He was popular enough when he died, and his youngest brother was his most loyal supporter. In an age where treachery was the rule of the day, and the middle brother, George tried to overthrow his big brother twice, Richard was remarkable for never having betrayed him even once.

The coronation of Edward V was set for June 22, an event which never came to pass. Instead, on that day, a preacher named Ralph Shaa gave a sermon outside Saint Paul's Cathedral, proclaiming that Edward V and his brother were bastards, and that their father, Edward IV himself, was born from an affair. The latter accusation was never taken seriously, but for some reason, the first charge grew in acceptance. The fullest account of this sordid affair comes from the French chronicler Philippe de Commines. The story goes that the bishop of Bath and Wells, Robert Stillington, also a member of the king's council, approached the lord protector and confided to him that the two princes were illegitimate because Edward IV was a bigamist. Philippe wrote:
"The bishop discovered to the Duke of Gloucester that his brother king Edward had been formerly in love with a beautiful young lady and had promised her marriage upon condition that he might lie with her; the lady consented, and, as the bishop affirmed, he married them when nobody was present but they two and himself. His fortune depending on the court, he did not discover it, and persuaded the lady likewise to conceal it, which she did, and the matter remained a secret."

Edward did have an reputation throughout his reign for being a philanderer, and even his marriage to Queen Elizabeth was performed in secret. Now, according to the bishop, Edward had contracted an earlier marriage to one Lady Eleanor Butler, who was still alive when Edward met Elizabeth Woodville. If Edward did indeed marry Eleanor, it necessarily meant that the marriage with Elizabeth was invalid, and all children issued between them were illegitimate, even though Eleanor was dead by the time Edward V was born. There was also the small matter of Richard's other nephew, the eight-year old Earl of Warwick, son of that middle brother, George. But since George's treason in the previous reign had earned him and his descendants an attainder, legally barring them from inheritance, that left Richard as next in line.

George pays the price of treason: being drowned in a barrel of malmsey.

Statute: the law of assent

The first act issued in Richard's first and only Parliament, in 1484, was the Titulus Regius, which explains the reasoning behind the princes' exclusion from the succession as such:
"And here also we consider how that the said pretensed marriage was made privately and secretly, with edition of banns, in a private chamber, a profane place, and not openly in the face of the church, after the laws of God’s church, but contrary thereunto, and the laudable custom of the Church of England.  And how also, that at the time of the contract of the same pretensed marriage, and before and long time after, the said King Edward was and stood married and troth plight to one Dame Eleanor Butler, daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury, with whom the said King Edward had made a precontract of matrimony, long time before he made the said pretensed marriage with the said Elizabeth Grey in manner and form aforesaid.  Which premises being true, as in very truth they been true, it appears and follows evidently, that the said King Edward during his life, and the said Elizabeth, lived together sinfully and damnably in adultery, against the law of God and his Church; and therefore no marvel  that the sovereign Lord and head of this Land, being of such ungodly disposition, and provoking the ire and indignation of our Lord God, such heinous mischiefs and inconveniences, as is above remembered, were used and committed in the Realm amongst the subjects.  Also it appears evidently and follows that all the issue and children of the said King, been (being) bastards, and unable to inherit or to claim anything by inheritance, by the law and custom of England."

At the end, the Titulus asserts Richard's undisputed lineage and his personal virtues: his "great wit, prudence, justice, princely courage, and the memorable and laudable acts in diverse battles, which as we by experience know you heretofore have done for the salvation and defence of this same Realm". Interesting that Parliament is evaluating Richard's résumé to begin with, rather than relying solely on genealogical claims. But the most interesting language is at the end of the act. I highlight some key words among the last three paragraphs in bold:

"Wherefore these premises by us diligently considered, we desiring affectuously the peace, tranquility and weal public of this Land, and the reduction of the same to the ancient honourable estate, and prosperity, and having in your great prudence, justice, princely courage and excellent virtue, singular confidence, have chosen in all that is in us is, and by this our writing choose you, high and mighty Prince, into our King and sovereign Lord, etc., to whom we know for certain it appertains of inheritance so to be chosen.  And hereupon we humbly desire, pray and require your said Noble Grace, that, according to this election of us the three Estates of this Land, as by your true inheritance, as by lawful election; and in case you so do, we promise to serve and to assist your Highness, as true and faithful subjects and liegemen, and to live and die with you in this matter, and every other just quarrel.  For certainly we be determined rather to adventure and commit us to peril of our lives and jeopardy of death, than to live in such thraldom and bondage as we have lived long time heretofore, oppressed and injured by new extortions and impositions, against the laws of God and man, and the liberty, old policy and laws of this Realm wherein every Englishman is inherited.  Our Lord God King of all Kings by whose infinite goodness and eternal providence all things have been principally governed in this world lighten your soul, and grant you grace to do, as well in this matter as in all other, all that may be according to his will and pleasure, and to the common and public weal of this Land, so that after great clouds, troubles, storms and tempests, the son (sun) of justice and of grace may shine upon us, to the comfort and gladness of all true Englishmen.
"Albeit that the right, title and estate, which our sovereign Lord the King Richard the Third has to and in the crown and royal dignity of this Realm of England, with all things thereunto within this same Realm and without it, united, annexed and appertaining, have been just and lawful, as grounded upon the laws of God and of Nature, and also upon the ancient laws and laudable customs of this said Realm, and so taken and reputed by all such persons as been learned in the above said laws and customs.  Yet, nevertheless, for as much as it is considered that the most part of the people of this Land is not sufficiently learned in the abovesaid laws and customs, whereby the truth and right in this behalf of likelihood may be hid, and not clearly known to all the people, and thereupon put in doubt and question.  And over this, how that the Court of Parliament is of such authority, and the people of the Land of such nature and disposition, as experience teaches, that manifestation and declaration of any truth or right, made by the three Estates of this Realm assembled in Parliament, and by authority of the same, makes, before all other things, most faith and certainty, and, quietening men’s minds, removes the occasion of all doubts and seditious language.
"Therefore at the request, and by the assent of the three Estates of this Realm, that is to say, the Lords Spiritual, and Temporal and Commons of this Land, assembled in this present Parliament by authority of the same, be it pronounced, decreed and declared, that our said sovereign Lord the King was and is very and undoubted King of this Realm of England; with all things thereunto within this same Realm, and without it united, annexed and appertaining, as well by right of consanguinity and inheritance as by lawful election, consecration and coronation.  And over this, that, at the request, and by the assent and authority abovesaid be it ordained, enacted and established that the said crown and royal dignity of this Realm, and the inheritance of the same, and other things thereunto within the same Realm, or without it, united, annexed, and now appertaining, rest and abide in the person of our said sovereign Lord the King, during his life, and, after his decease, in his heirs of his body begotten."

What we are seeing is an elevation of the idea that Parliament makes the king, as much as royal blood or the rites of coronation. Parliament embodies the three estates of the realm (the clergy and nobility in the House of Lords, and everyone else in the House of Commons). According to the Titulus, their assent validates Richard's claim to the crown. This would appear to be a victory for the Whiggish version of political philosophy, affirming the "consent of the governed" doctrine that virtually all modern nations now subscribe to (in theory, at least). Richard, however, was among the first, if not the first kings of England since the Norman Conquest to accept the crown on Parliament's authority. Such an idea was not known since Anglo-Saxon times, when Parliament's ancient predecessor, the Witenagemot, reserved the power to elect kings. In the 11th century, abbot Aelfric of Eynham wrote:
"No man can make himself king, but the people has the choice to choose as king whom they please; but after he is consecrated as king, he then has dominion over the people, and they cannot shake his yoke off their necks."

And that brings us to the third way in which kingship is conferred: the consecration, or anointing.

Sacrament: the law of God

King Richard's strongest modern-day supporters, the Ricardians, often express their disappointment that he isn't being given a full state funeral despite being an "anointed king of England". This is yet another statement that eludes us in America, and probably quite a few in Britain itself. Here, we imagine that the central moment of the coronation is the placing of the crown on the new king's head. A fair assumption, since that's literally what the word "coronation" means; but in truth, it is the anointing that's the most sacred part of the ceremony. 

Britons are more likely to be aware that once the old king is dead, the next king's reign already begins; "the king is dead, long live the king". In recent centuries, the coronation is put off for a year or more to allow the nation to mourn, and also to give time for all the ceremonial preparations. This then gives the cynical Briton the impression that the coronation is just an extravaganza of pomp and pageantry, thrown on taxpayer's dime. It is not essential. And perhaps, in our modern, legalistic, de-sanctified world, the coronation really is just a pantomime of homage to past days.

But it was not so in the medieval world. The time between the old king's death and the new king's coronation was measured in months, or even weeks. When one considers the time it took for a noble out in the marches just to hear news of the king's death, not to mention travel to get to London by horseback or carriage across poor roads, we see that for a medieval king, time was of the essence. Coronation was necessary to properly begin the new reign.

By the time of Richard III, there had been much debate over what exactly the coronation did; whether it actually empowered the king, or merely was an outward sign of his inherent authority. Nevertheless, the central rite had airs of sacramental significance. I am speaking here of the anointing. The archbishop began singing Veni Creator Spiritus ("Come, Creator Spirit"), then the king came forward. Just as in baptism, the archbishop of Canterbury anointed the king with the Church's simple oil, the oil of the catechumens, at the hands, elbows, shoulders, breast, and head. But then, he anointed the king once more with the chrism: the holy oil of greater significance, consecrated by the bishop for the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Orders. By using the chrism (a privilege of the kings of England that originally had to be granted by the Pope), the archbishop was imparting a sacramental character to the coronation rite. I use the word "sacramental" in the loose sense, just as one might describe a rosary or any other blessed holy object as a sacramental; but in medieval times, before the Church solemnly defined the number of holy mysteries instituted by Christ at seven, coronations were often imagined to be the "eighth sacrament". So holy was this rite that even in 1953, during the coronation of Elizabeth II, an event which was by far the most viewed event on television then and for many years since, all cameras were strictly banned from capturing the act of anointing in either photo or video.

Almost a hundred years before Richard III, his namesake, Richard II, was deposed by the Duke of Lancaster, the future Henry IV; this first challenge to the line of succession set the stage for the Wars of the Roses. Though Richard named Henry as his heir and abdicated his office (probably by force), the chronicler Thomas Walsingham relates that Richard, so he said, could not renounce his anointment, nor the spiritual power it bestowed upon him. Richard II's argument for holding the throne, in spite of his written abdication, was that the anointing conferred an indeliable mark: just as Holy Orders made a priest "forever according to the order of Melchizedec", a king, once anointed, was forever sovereign. 

Was Richard a true king?

I began this article by asking: how could Richard be king if he usurped the crown? As with so many other questions raised about the two years of his reign, we'll probably never know the truth as to whether Edward IV actually was a bigamist. But if we consider the three items that confer kingship; sanguinity, statute, and sacrament; it looks like Richard III was at least two for three.

If the two princes in the Tower were dead by the time Richard III faced off Henry Tudor at Bosworth in 1485, and if we accept that the heirs of George, Duke of Clarence could legally be barred from the succession by an act of attainder, then Richard was king at least by the time of Bosworth under the Yorkist reckoning.

If a king can be made by statute; if Parliament has the power to select kings; then Richard was king. The Titulus Regius was passed by Parliament.

If coronation is a sacrament(al), then Richard was king. He was anointed and crowned on the 6th of July, 1483. The ceremony was one of the most well-attended for the age, with many peers of the realm, even from the Lancaster side, in attendance.

For these reasons, Henry Tudor seems to have acknowledged Richard as king, even if a tyrant worthy of killing. After Richard was slain and Henry entered London victorious, he had a serious problem: justifying his claims to the throne before Parliament. To be honest, I still haven't quite figured out Henry's precise reasoning. It's said that he claimed the "right of conquest", but I haven't seen a document that explicitly says that Parliament ever acknowledged such a method legally exists. Correct me if I'm wrong. But what I can discern for certain is that Henry never made much of a genealogical claim; he was so obscure that he would have been laughed out of Westminster had he tried that tactic. Nor did he mean to justify it through his Yorkist wife, Elizabeth (the older sister of Kings Edward IV and Richard III). Henry deliberately set the coronation before the marriage so that he would be seen to rule on his own right, rather than as a consort.

And, if Richard III was truly an anointed king of England, is it not odd that his reburial is not accompanied with the full splendor and support of a state ceremony? But that... is another story, for another time.

Other entries during "Richard III Week":

-Today in history: Henry IV: the man whose claim to the crown started the troubles that led to the Wars of the Roses

-The first day: Richard on tour: select photos from the procession on Sunday, and the cardinal-archbishop of Westminster's Compline homily

-The Bible in Richard's day, and, was Richard a proto-Protestant?: on the king's reading habits and what to make of his Wycliffe New Testament

-A requiem for Richard: on the Requiem Mass, the king's faith, his book of hours, the cult of purgatory, and the chantry chapels of Richard's age

-Of hearses and hearse cloths: looking at Richard III's funeral pall and dressing the dead in medieval times

-Richard III's claim to the throne: sanguinity, statue, or sacrament?: Examining Richard's dynastic claims and what makes a king the king

-O God of Earth and Altar: a hymn by G.K. Chesterton, used at the reinterment on Thursday

-The poet laureate on Richard III: the poem at the reinterment. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch.


  1. Well, William of Normandy used right of conquest as his final justification in 1066, so maybe Tudor was just using precedent?

    1. Sure, but was conquest an "official" reason, or just a de facto situation that the Saxons had to accept?

  2. Good article! It reminds of how the excommunicated Louis IV is called Emperor by modern historians, when Frederick the fair was rightfully elected, crowned and... Oh never mind. This Richard III week. Disappointing how he was buried by in a heretical church. How did it happen I wonder? Well, just another veil over the Catholic past of England.

    1. Yes, unfortunately, the Church of England considers itself to have existed prior to the Reformation; just in a voluntary partnership with Rome or some such. Thus, they don't see the problem. I wouldn't blame today's Anglican leaders so much, though, as the Catholic hierarchs who never put up a fight in the first place.