Biographies & Memoirs

Eleanor Talbot, Lady Butler

The holiest harlot in his realm.

The Uncrowned Queen?

Any explanation of the events which took place on 13 June 1483 at the Tower of London has to begin some decades earlier and some distance away from London. John Ashdown-Hill, whose recent work has been most informative and influential,1 has asserted that the events of that summer have to be viewed in light of the question of the so-called ‘pre-contract,’ since, as he points out, ‘Richard III’s claim to the throne was based chiefly on the presumption that Lady Eleanor Talbot was the legitimate wife of Edward IV.’2 It is this relationship between Edward IV and his nominal ‘uncrowned queen’3 which proves to be crucial in respect of the explanation of events that I propose.

Eleanor’s Early Life

Since this issue of the pre-contract is so important, it is fundamental to begin with some of the facts of Eleanor Talbot’s life (c. 1436–1468) and her actions and activities before and after the so-called ‘pre-contract’ occurred. Eleanor was the tenth of the eleven children of John Talbot (c. 1387–1453), the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, whose spectacular demise is recorded to have occurred in battle with the French at Castillon on 17 July 1453. The earl himself was the first child of Richard Talbot (4th Baron Talbot of Goodrich) and his wife, Ankaret (Le)Strange. This couple was also blessed with a large family and had nine children, the last of whom, Alice, we shall hear more of presently. John Talbot married twice. The first time was around 1405 to Maud Neville (c. 1390–1424), with whom he had five children, two of whom died in early childhood. Talbot’s second marriage occurred sometime around 14244 to Margaret Beauchamp (1404–1467), by whom he had a further five children, the penultimate child of that marriage being Eleanor herself. We can see painted representations of John Talbot and his second wife in Figures 5 and 6.5

To the best of our knowledge, Eleanor was born probably in either February or March 1436, possibly at the manor house of Blakemere, near Whitchurch in Shropshire.6 Ashdown-Hill argued for this location, as it was a house that her father John had inherited from his mother and was apparently a favourite residence. However, as he also notes, it could equally well have been Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire.7 As will become evident, the latter location is one of potentially great importance and can perhaps serve to render some insight into Eleanor’s subsequent relationships and actions. It is probable that Eleanor would have been brought up in one main location but would almost certainly have visited a number of the family residences, including the likes of Sheffield Castle. Although John Talbot’s favouritism toward Blakemere is suggested by his eventual nearby burial under the porch of St Alkmund’s church in Whitchurch, Shropshire,8 Eleanor may have been bought up in Goodrich Castle, since on the monument which commemorated his first burial at Rouen in Normandy, her father is titled ‘Lord of Goodrich and Orchenfield’.9

The Butler Marriage

If we have the date of her birth correct, and we can be reasonably certain of the general period, then Eleanor’s subsequent marriage to Sir Thomas Butler (the son of Ralph Butler, Lord Sudeley), which occurred around late 1449 or early 1450,10 would have seen Eleanor as a bride at the age of just thirteen or fourteen years of age. It has been speculated that Eleanor would have then lived in the house of her in-laws until the age of sixteen, when the marriage would have been consummated sometime in 1452, or possibly early 1453.11 Indeed, in early May of 1453, Eleanor is mentioned in a document in which Ralph, Lord Sudeley presented a deed of gift to his son (Thomas) and his wife (referred to as Eleanor, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury) and their legitimate heirs with the manors of Griff, Fenny Compton and Burton Dassett (sometimes noted as Great Dorsett or Chipping Dorsett after the market held there). All of these were in the county of Warwickshire, although Eleanor apparently held some other lands in Wiltshire also.12As we shall see, geographical issues play almost as crucial a role in the present proposition as those of history itself and so it is important to confirm here that the manors of Fenny Compton and Burton Dassett (or Great Dorsett) adjoin each other in south-west Warwickshire. While it has been a somewhat difficult search, the latter manor of Griff (or Grieve), lies approximately twenty miles north of Great Dorset in the vicinity of the suburbs of modern day Coventry, just south of Nuneaton. The map of the two adjacent properties of Fenny Compton and Burton Dassett is shown in Figure 8.

Perhaps this gift followed on the consummation of the marriage? Although we do not know this for certain, it may very well have been around this time in 1453 that Eleanor and Thomas13 set up their own household, most probably on the manor lands which they had been granted. At this time, Great Dorsett was a much more substantive gift than it might appear today. Earlier, Henry III had granted permission to hold a market there every Friday and an annual fair of three days from the eve of St James. Such was the prosperity of the town that in 1332 Great Dorsett had paid taxes to the king’s treasury of almost one-quarter of those paid by the whole of the city of Coventry.14 We do not know what the equivalent revenues were at the time of Eleanor’s possession. However, it would appear that this was still a major centre and the manor of Great Dorsett most probably included all of the present-day settlements of Burton Dassett, Avon Dassett, Little Dassett, Temple Herdewyke and Northend. This being so, the gift of Lord Sudelely to his son and daughter-in-law certainly appears to have been an appropriately generous one. Parenthetically, this property was later broken up by the actions of Sir Edward Belknap who, at the very end of the fifteenth century, evicted sixty people in his conversion to pasture. Sir Edward’s actions, although purportedly logical at the time, seem to have spelled the end of Great Dorsett’s fame. The actual village of Burton Dassett is now only a few farms and farm buildings around All Saints’ church, and the most evident landmark of the settlement is the tower on the Dassett Hills (now a country park), which can be seen from the nearby motorway, the M40 (see Figure 31).

Around the time that Eleanor and her husband were gifted the property, she would have been approximately seventeen years of age. Thomas Butler, her husband, as best we know was in his early thirties. Let us accept then, as a reasonable possibility, that Eleanor Butler (née Talbot) was now the young and inexperienced lady of the manor. It seems reasonable to assume that they would have taken up their respective roles as the lord and lady of this demesne, which would certainly appear to have been their largest and most profitable property (see Appendix III notes on the Manor of Great Dorsett). Indeed, there is an intriguing possibility that one of the major charities of the area could have been associated with Eleanor.15 It is important here to consider for a moment what Eleanor’s social life would have been like at this time. To help understand a critical social connection with an extended part of her family, I again have to delve further back in time and explore her relations within the Talbot family and especially the youngest sister of Eleanor’s father, Alice Talbot.

Joan Barre, Eleanor’s First Cousin

Earlier, I noted that Richard Talbot (4th Baron Talbot of Goodrich) had a total of nine children with his wife Ankaret (Le)Strange. The first of these was Eleanor’s father, John Talbot (1st Earl of Shrewsbury). However, the last of the nine, and thus Talbot’s youngest sister, was Alice Talbot, who married Sir Thomas Barre. Their only child, a daughter, was Joan (or Jane) Barre. In terms of familial relationship, Joan was Eleanor’s first cousin with the common grandfather and grandmother in Richard Talbot and Ankaret Strange. However, in terms of age, the two women were separated by a number of years. To the best of present knowledge, Joan was born about 1422, with her first marriage, to Sir Kynard de la Bere, taking place some time around late 1430s, since their son Richard was recorded as being born in 1440 (see Figure 9), by which time Joan would have been perhaps eighteen. However, following the death of her first husband, Joan re-married, this time to Sir William Catesby of Ashby St Ledgers (see Figure 7), to the best of our knowledge sometime around 10 June 1453.16 It was a second marriage for both of them, she being approximately thirty years of age and he somewhat older at approximately thirty-three years old. Sir William had been previously married to Phillippa Bishopston, the daughter of William Bishopston and Phillippa Willcott, and by her he had already three children, two girls and one boy. Phillippa was recorded as dying on 7 December 1446,17 when the young boy, also William, was only six or seven years old. He would have been born around 1440, and was the oldest of Phillippa’s children. He was, of course, ‘the Cat’ of Colyngbourne doggerel, and represents the key figure in the present work. Following his 1453 marriage to Joan Barre, William’s father, Sir William, had three more children, two boys and a girl, the latter of whom died as a child.18

Given the dates involved, it appears that the young William Catesby was still a child and just about into his teen years when he gained his new stepmother. In contrast, Eleanor was about seventeen years old and, by the standards of the day, almost a full adult when her first cousin married Sir William Catesby. As we shall surmise, the link between Eleanor and Joan now becomes critical to the question of the legitimacy of Edward IV’s subsequent marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, in light of the revealed precontract with Eleanor (Talbot) Butler.

Now we must step from the realms of reasonably well-documented information and proceed rather carefully into the world of speculation. The first such speculation is one that might not be too difficult to sustain. Joan was born into the extensive Talbot family around 1422. As noted, she was the niece of the famous John Talbot, who was by now the head of the whole family. John Talbot himself married twice, and his second marriage occurred on 26 September 1425 to Margaret Beauchamp. He was then forty-one and she twenty-one years old. I think it must be a supportable proposition that Joan Barre, the niece of the bridegroom, was at the wedding. Indeed, I suspect Joan’s mother, Alice, and the new bride, Margaret, were friends. We know that some years later Joan married Sir Kynard de la Bere and was known by the appellation ‘Joan of Clehonger.’ Clehonger itself is a small village right outside Hereford, and is just under thirteen miles from Goodrich Castle. Both Goodrich and Clehonger are directly adjacent to the River Wye and, in fact, Goodrich Castle itself dominates its banks. It might be objected, however, that Joan was married to Sir Kynard de la Bere, who was the lord of Kinnersley Castle. However, Kinnersley is itself only nine miles further on from Clehonger, and is again very near to the Wye. I think, therefore, there is some justification for believing that Margaret acted as a form of older advisor or older sister to Joan, especially perhaps in the first years of Joan’s marriage. This, I must especially note, is pure speculation; I cannot substantiate this relationship at the present time. However, as we shall see, this early association, while strengthening my argument, was not absolutely essential to the overall proposition that I set forth here.

Given these family connections and the close proximity of where Joan was presumably living (at either Clehonger or Kinnersely) to one of the major residences of the senior Talbot family (at Goodrich), it is perhaps no great stretch from this premise to speculate that Joan Barre knew Margret Beauchamp’s daughter Eleanor from the moment of her birth. If, as is possible, Eleanor was actually born at Goodrich, and I suspect she was, Joan may well have attended the confinement, being a young lady of approximately fourteen years of age at the time. By that juncture, some time early in 1436, Margaret had already given John Talbot three children. I have no date for the death of Sir Kynard de la Bere, but it is probable that Joan saw Eleanor grow up, at least to her late childhood and early teen years, and strong attachments are made during such formative years. It was in 1449–1450 that Eleanor, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, was married to Sir Thomas Butler, and must have moved from her familiar surroundings to her new domicile, perhaps in the home of the father of her husband-to-be in Gloucestershire. It was only three or four years later, in 1453, that Joan herself married her second husband, Sir William Catesby.

Now, this brings us to the time when the new married couple of Eleanor and her husband Thomas Butler set up home in the manors of Great Dorsett and Fenny Compton. At this time and in this place, Eleanor’s mother would have been somewhat remote from her, perhaps back in Herefordshire and a fair distance to travel in such times. However, not so very far away, in fact only just over ten miles distant, along a pleasant river valley, in Ashby St Ledgers, resided her first cousin, Joan Barre. It may even be possible that the association between the two women actually began at this time (thus obviating the necessity for an earlier association), when Eleanor and Joan each moved to what for them were relatively unfamiliar surroundings. Regardless of exactly when the two first began their association, it is my contention that there would have been significant social intercourse between the two families, the Catesbys and the Butlers. Of course, we cannot know the frequency of their interaction, but we can confirm that there was certainly more than passing contact, since Sir William Catesby (the father of ‘the Cat’) acted as a witness to several documents pertaining to Eleanor, including deeds of gift,19 and had previously acted extensively on behalf of John Talbot, Eleanor’s father.20 In reality, I suspect there was a great closeness between the families both before and after the death of Eleanor’s first husband.

There was one further, but frankly tenuous, connection between Burton Dassett and Ashby St Ledgers. At the present it is one that must remain an intriguing speculation which awaits future resolution. However, in All Saints’ Church at Burton Dassett, as shown in Figure 10, there is a series of wall paintings (see Figure 33). These are composed of a sequence of illustrations which for a long time have been covered over by whitewash. Over an original Passion series appears a representation of the Virgin, St John and two censing angels. The date of these paintings is though to be mid-fifteenth century. The most intriguing aspect of them is as follows:

This series is unusual in that a Doom which symbolises the gates of Heaven and that one must be judged before one can enter Heaven. However, there is a painting of similar subject and style in Ashby St Ledgers (near Daventry in Northants.) Ashby has three Passion series, all by different painters, the centrally placed painting is very similar in style to the painting here and could be the work of the same painter.21

If we speculate that such work occurred during the time that Thomas Conway was vicar of All Saints’ church at Burton Dassett, then is it possible that each of these pictures was commissioned by Eleanor Butler?22 This is indeed a stretch of probability, but if the paintings at Great Dorsett and the paintings at Ashby St Ledgers23 (see Figure 32) were by the same artist then it might be possible that, in representing the Virgin, the painter astutely commingled some of Eleanor’s features with those of the Mother of God. The upshot of this is that the representation in Figure 11 might just possibly contain something of the facial features of Eleanor Butler. It would be of great interest to integrate the features of her father and mother, shown in Figures 5 and 6, to see any possible resemblance. This would also address the speculation as to the image of Eleanor suggested by Ashdown-Hill.24 However, to be useful, speculation should not be unbounded.25

The Pre-Contract

Much has been written about the pre-contract, and much of this concerns the nature of the relevant statutes and jurisdiction at the time that the precontract supposedly occurred. As the pivotal factor in the present theory it is important to describe the major facts as we know them. However, I do not intend here to go into the nuances of the law as it applied at that time, which is a topic that I leave for others.27 Sufficient to say that the present consensus appears to be that had the pre-contract occurred at the time it is speculated to have done, then Edward IV’s subsequent marriage with Elizabeth Woodville would have been invalid and the children of that marriage barred from succeeding to the throne.

We do not have explicit information as to when Sir Thomas Butler died. We know that his death appears to have occurred before 15 January 1460 and it has been suggested that he died sometime in the latter part of 1459, perhaps in December, as a result of injuries sustained at the Battle of Blore Heath,28 which had taken place on 23 September of that year. His death left Eleanor a widow at the age of twenty-three. At around this same time, the manor of Grieve seems to have been returned to her father-in-law, and to have been directly exchanged for the controlling interest in Fenny Compton.29 Where would a young woman in the unenviable position that Eleanor now found herself turn but to her friends and relatives? We must examine the events of that fateful winter in order to understand what happened next and how it may have had a critical influence on the events of the summer twenty-three years later. Following the death of her husband, Eleanor had to appeal to the young king, Edward IV, then coming up to his nineteenth birthday on 28 April 1461, for the return of her various properties. Edward had confiscated them on the grounds that Lord Sudeley had given them to his son and daughter-in-law without the sanction of a royal licence. It is thus asserted that Eleanor had to seek an audience with the King to secure her lands.30

We do not know exactly where and when this fateful meeting between Eleanor Butler and King Edward IV took place. A survey of Edward’s itinerary for that period provides a number of candidate locations, ranging from London to East Anglia or perhaps the Warwickshire or Gloucestershire areas.31 Again, we are here into the realms of speculation as to location, but the fact that they actually did meet seems to be supported by the subsequent documented retention of the respective lands by Eleanor.32 One reasonable possibility that must be considered is the royal residence at Woodstock in Oxfordshire. The proximity between Woodstock and Great Dorsett is perhaps the most persuasive factor in favouring this location. There are only twenty-two miles between the two, and winter travel at the time cannot have been easy. However, the journey between Woodstock and Great Dorsett would have been along major thoroughfares, going through or close by large towns such as Banbury and Oxford and perhaps therefore a little less daunting. One fascinating alternative possibility is Grafton Regis. It is very tempting to speculate that Edward IV engaged in the same activity (marriage of a beautiful young widow) in the same place, but this symmetrical interpretation is belied by the fact that Grafton Regis (see Figure 12) was a home of the Woodvilles and this particular site of Edward’s later marriage to Elizabeth Woodville is most probably related to their occupancy there rather than any sentimental attachment on behalf of Edward himself. Wherever we seek to place the location of the pre-contract with Eleanor, we have to remember that the itineraries of the king, Eleanor and Robert Stillington, later Bishop of Bath & Wells, have to overlap spatially as well as temporally. That Stillington may have been attending on the king is a possibility, if not a probability, but again empirical efforts may help us to determine this site at some time in the future, and it is possible that advanced simulation and modelling can help decide these propositions.33 Of course, at present we cannot even rule out the possibility that the site of the pre-contract was Great Dorsett itself. Again, this is simply speculation at this stage. What seems quite well established was that only the king, Eleanor and Stillington were present at this ceremony.34

The most direct evidence of the pre-contract that we have is derived from the commentary in the Titulus Regius which reads:

And howe alfo, that at the tyme of contract of the fame pretenfed Mariage, and bifore and longe tyme after, the feid King Edward was and ftode maryed and trouth plight to oone Dame Elianor Butteler, Doughter of the old Earl of Shrewefbury, with whom the fame King Edward had made a precontracte of Matrimonie, longe tyyme bifore he made the faid pretenfed Mariage with the faid Elizabeth Grey, in maner and fourme abovefaid. Which premiffes being true, as in veray trouth they been true, it appearreth and foloweth evidently, that the faid King Edward duryng his lif, and the feid Elizabeth, lived together finfully and dampnably in adultery, againft the Lawe of God and of his Church;

We can confirm that this pattern of behaviour fits in with what we do know about Edward IV, especially during his younger years. We have evidence that Edward took such advantage on at least four occasions. Of course, the primary case in point is Edward’s subsequent liaison with Elizabeth Woodville (Lady Grey) herself at Grafton Regis, which is discussed in a later chapter.

In respect of this pre-contract it appears that, as far as canon law was concerned, the promise in exchange for sexual favours was sufficient to cement the contract. As we shall see, the French diplomat de Commines35 named Stillington as the source of the knowledge of this pre-contract. However, there is little corroborating evidence,36 and some have suggested that Stillington was not actually the source that revealed the pre-contract to Richard.37 This proposition will also be examined in further detail. The fact that Eleanor died in 1468, before the birth of Edward’s two sons by Elizabeth Woodville, raises some interesting points that would have had to be considered in the ecclesiastical courts (where the case for legitimacy would presumably have been heard). However, events of the summer of 1483 seem to have overtaken this issue.

We have relatively little information about Eleanor’s activities between the pre-contract and 1464, after the announcement of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville,38 and so the next steps that I wish to take must also be labelled largely as speculation.39 Since she died possessed of her lands, we can assume that Eleanor was successful in her petition. But what was her state of mind, and what was the state of her body? Presumably, contraception would have been fairly rudimentary in such times. Again, we do not know how long the liaison between Edward and Eleanor persisted. Was it simply a ‘one-night stand,’ or was there more extensive activity? Presuming either of these conditions, could Eleanor have become pregnant, and given the death of her husband could such a pregnancy have been passed off as a legitimate birth? These are questions that arise but cannot at present be answered.40 One speculation does seem reasonable. As a young widow in such difficult circumstances, it does seem likely that she would have turned to her family for help, and most probably to an older female relative. Of course, my postulation is that Joan (Barre/de la Bere) Catesby fulfilled that role. There is circumstantial support that this might also be so because of the legal help rendered by Sir William to both her and her father, and perhaps also by the budding young lawyer in the family, Sir William’s son – William Catesby ‘the Cat.’ Where else would one take such a thorny question other than to a lawyer?41

What I am suggesting here is that the familial and dependent relationship between Eleanor (Talbot) Butler and the Catesby family meant that the young, twenty-one-year-old William Catesby learned around this time of the pre-contract from his second cousin Eleanor at a family meeting to decide what best to do under the circumstances. We must remember that Eleanor had no witness other than Robert Stillington and certainly no pushing mother such as Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford42 to advance her case. It appears that the decision was taken not to press the young king on this issue.43 I have little doubt that an able lawyer of Catesby’s acumen would have put this information aside for use at a later and more advantageous time. I am suggesting that he used this information to advance himself somewhat with William, Lord Hastings, and later in that fateful summer of 1483 in his critical switch of masters to Richard III. Thus it is to an assessment of Catesby and his actions before, during and after the ‘long weekend’ in June 1483 that I now turn.

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