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The Illegitimate Royals: Eleanor Butler, the woman who almost brought down the Tudors

She was the long dead widow who was used by a king to overthrow his own nephew and yet her name is all but forgotten today. Eleanor Butler was the woman who helped change the royal history of England forever and almost brought one of its most famous dynasties to disaster before they had even secured the throne. But was she also Queen of England?

Eleanor never claimed a crown for herself but as the Wars of the Roses raged to their bloody end at Bosworth Field, she became a central figure in the path to the throne. She was actually already dead by the time her name was passed through parliament in the fight for the right to rule but the fact that she had ever lived at all was a vital part of the hold that Richard III had on the title of King of England following the death of his brother, Edward IV, in 1483.

For he claimed that Eleanor, a renowned beauty, had actually been contracted to marry Edward before he entered his famous union with Elizabeth Woodville. In the 15th century, that precontract was enough to make any subsequent marriages invalid. Richard and his advisers argued that Eleanor and Edward’s arrangement meant his wedding to Elizabeth wasn’t legal, meaning their children were illegitimate. And with the York princes and princesses out of the way, the only claimant to the throne was Richard himself.

But Richard wasn’t taking any chances on mere word of mouth carrying the day. He had parliament pass an Act, the Titulus Regius, which stated that Edward was already taken by the time he said ‘I do’ to Elizabeth and stripped his children of all their succession rights. It stated that

” the said King Edward was and stood married and troth-plight to one Dame Eleanor Butler….with whom the same King Edward had made a precontract of Matrimony, long time before he made the said pretensed Marriage with the said Elizabeth…in manner and form above-said”

The 1484 law ensured his tenure as King of England and made Eleanor Butler one of the most talked about women in Europe. But who was she and did she really have a claim to be Queen of England?

She was born around 1436 as Eleanor Talbot and she had a pretty impressive family tree all of her own. Her father was John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury who had found fame as a military commander in the Hundred Years War and who would later be immortalised by Shakespeare in his history plays. Eleanor’s mother was his second wife, Lady Margaret Beauchamp, who was part of the Warwick family.

Eleanor followed the path of many well born women in the 15th century and married young. In 1449 she wed Sir Thomas Butler, the son of Ralph Butler, Lord Sudeley and went to live with them at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. But Thomas died, most probably before 1460, and Eleanor was left a widow.

Quite when she met Edward IV isn’t known but her relationship with him was a matter of gossip and speculation. Thomas More later wrote that Edward had three mistresses who he nicknamed ‘the merriest, the wiliest and the holiest harlot in the realm”. Although he didn’t name her, perhaps because of her connections, it was widely understood the holy harlot was Eleanor who was renowned for her religious devotion as well as her beauty and her relationship with the young king.

Unsurprisingly, no documentation exists related to a marriage or precontract between Edward and Eleanor. Written records of marriages weren’t required or kept in the 15th century and Edward was a notorious womaniser. Handsome and dashing, he had a habit of promising those he desired what they wanted to hear before leaving them once his conquest had been made. The argument made by Richard was that he had agreed to marry Eleanor, forming that all important contract, before abandoning her once they had slept together.

However, Richard found a witness to the wedding. Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, told the king that he had officiated at the ceremony uniting Edward and Eleanor. That evidence was more than enough for a law to be passed striking Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth from the books.

Eleanor held another advantage for Richard for she was a silent witness. She died in 1468 and so couldn’t face interrogation over the state of her relationship with Edward. With both bride and groom absent from the debate, Richard’s argument held the day. His nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, disappeared from their new home at the Tower of London while their sisters went from being eligible princesses to illegitimate castoffs dependent on the charity of their uncle for good marriages.

Richard, of course, didn’t enjoy his power for long. He lost his crown and his life at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485 when Henry Tudor claimed victory. But Eleanor still proved problematic. Henry had an agreement to marry Elizabeth, eldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, as part of plans to unite the Houses of Lancaster and York but in law, she was the product of an invalid marriage. The new king couldn’t found a powerful dynasty with an illegitimate wife. And so Henry’s first parliament repealed the Titulus Regius and all copies were destroyed. However, one survived despite threats of fines and imprisonment for anyone who held on to one. Years later, it emerged to put Eleanor’s name back in the spotlight.

Somewhere, they may be documents which prove a wedding between Edward and Eleanor or testament that they never wed and merely enjoyed a relationship without the promise of wedding bells. But for now, the existence of Titulus Regius and the claims within it add another enticing element to the story of the Tudors and the rise of a dynasty from claims of illegitimacy.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton, a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. June has been a reporter, producer and editor, picking up several awards over the years. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.