Through her relationship with Edward IV she ultimately shook the Crown of England so severely that it dropped into the lap of the improbable Henry Tudor (Henry VII), remotely and illegitimately descended from Edward III. What the lovely Eleanor would have thought of that outcome is anybody’s guess (though her younger sister, Elizabeth, who lived into King Henry VII’s reign, seems not to have been one of his fans).
Eleanor brought about this dramatic outcome because the Yorkist claim to the throne was founded on the concept of legitimacy. In 1399, Richard II had been deposed by his cousin Henry IV. The Lancastrian branch of the royal family thus usurped the throne, breaking the direct line of the royal succession. As the senior living descendants of Edward III the Yorkist princes subsequently argued that their right to the crown was superior to that of their Lancastrian cousins. Legitimacy constituted the foundation of their claim. But that legitimacy was inevitably compromised when questions arose as to whom Edward IV had married; as to whether his son and supposed heir was a bastard. It was Edward IV’s relationship with Eleanor that gave rise to such questions.
In an attempt to save the Yorkist day, the crown was passed to Edward’s undoubtedly legitimate surviving younger brother, Richard III. But Richard, too, found himself entangled in the web of uncertainty since those who believed in the legitimacy of Edward IV’s children viewed Richard’s accession as usurpation. From the day when Edward IV married Eleanor, or pretended to do so, or allowed it to be whispered that he might have done so, the House of York (hitherto so secure in the purity of its bloodline) confronted a contentious and uncertain future. The dynasty was rent by internal divisions. Edward IV found himself obliged to execute his own brother, the Duke of Clarence. Later, following the death of Richard III, we confront the extraordinary phenomenon of a former royal family apparently in such total disarray that it preferred to promote the candidacy of false pretenders (Lambert Simnel and perhaps Perkin Warbeck) rather than advance the claims of its own legitimate heirs.
Ten years ago little was known about Eleanor Talbot; even her parentage was a matter of dispute. Yet Eleanor’s surname and her paternity are absolutely key issues. In a fifteenth-century context, the fact that she was the daughter of the first Earl of Shrewsbury was enormously significant. Lord Shrewsbury was regarded as a towering figure and a national hero. When the Act of Parliament of 1484 explicitly characterised Eleanor as his daughter, the effect was akin to that of a late-twentieth-century writer describing someone as a daughter of Sir Winston Churchill. Eleanor’s rank – and her plausibility as a potential royal consort – were immediately established beyond any question.
The only possible way to tell Eleanor’s story is to seek to do what has not been done previously – to bring all the facts into the light of day. As a distinguished archaeologist has written, ‘to start to understand what happened in a particular place long ago … we must first list exactly what we find … if I misinterpret the evidence, at some point I shall discover something that will prove my lines of research are wrong – the “facts” will not fit.’ A great deal of evidence is there to be found, if one looks for it.
Why then has Eleanor been so completely neglected? She is, in her own way, a key figure in English history, a veritable ‘Cleopatra’s nose’. If her marriage to Edward IV had been acknowledged in her lifetime, if she had actually been enthroned and crowned as England’s queen consort, all subsequent history must have been different. The House of York might still have been reigning today, in a separate kingdom, never united with Scotland. The despotic, paranoid Tudors would have remained unheard of outside their native Wales. Enormous consequences would flow from these events. The English Reformation, which sprang from Henry VIII’s dynastic and financial crises, and was neither generally desired nor supported by the English populace, might never have taken place. England’s monasteries, still undissolved, could have preserved their unrivalled cultural heritage to the present day. No Tudors would mean no Stuarts; no Civil War; no Oliver Cromwell. The story goes on and on. It all turns on Eleanor.
Some readers may be surprised that the title of my book, The Secret Queen, assigns Eleanor a royal title. It is true that during her lifetime she was never acknowledged as queen. However, by explicitly recognising the legitimacy of Eleanor’s marriage to Edward IV, while at the same time specifically denying the rank of queen to Elizabeth Woodville (Widville), the Act of Titulus Regius (Royal Title) of 1484 did implicitly accord posthumous queenship to Eleanor. Henry VII’s subsequent repeal of this Act and his reinstatement of Elizabeth Woodville’s royal rank may seem to leave Eleanor in a royal limbo. But let us remember that the subsequent marital shenanigans of Henry VIII – who of course cannot really have had six wives, since some of his ‘marriages’ were annulled and at least two of them overlapped – apparently does not preclude all six of his putative spouses from rejoicing in queenship.
Even today Eleanor as a person remains largely mysterious. Much of her character is still inaccessible. This may yet change. Ten years ago much of the information presented here was either undiscovered or unrecognised. In the future we may know more. Meanwhile, this is the first attempt to tell the story of Eleanor Talbot, the secret queen.
By John Ashdown-Hill