Dieu et mon Droit
Although Henry (Earl of Richmond and later Henry VII) was born to a lawfully married couple, his ancestry implied illegitimacy. Whereas, Queen Elizabeth I had to contend with the doubts over the legality of the marriage between her parents, and the Parliamentary action of July 1536 declaring her illegitimate. Both Henry VII and Elizabeth I realized the importance of confirming their claim to the throne, and how they handled this issue is interesting.
Henry was named for his half-uncle King Henry VI. His grandmother, Katherine of Valois, was married to King Henry V of England and gave birth to the future Henry VI. As a widow Katherine married Owen Tudor. Some people at that time and even now believe there was no marriage ceremony. In all probability they wed in secret, or perhaps a wedding away from Court would not have been as well documented which could add to people’s suspicions. Their eldest surviving son was Edmund, first Earl of Richmond. Edmund went on to marry Margaret Beaufort who herself descended from questionable legitimacy.
Margaret’s great-grandmother, Katherine Swynford, was the mistress of John of Gaunt (son of King Edward III and father of Henry VI). After John was widowed, he married Katherine and received a Papal Bull declaring their children legitimate. Shortly after, in February of 1397, Richard II legitimized his cousins. The Letters Patent were read in Parliament, ratified and confirmed, making the legitimization an Act of Parliament. Regardless, the taint of illegitimacy lingered. Thus, in 1407 John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, the eldest child of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford asked his half-brother, King Henry IV, for an exemplification of the original Letters Patent. This is where things get tricky.
Henry IV must have felt some threat from the Beauforts to his throne for he inserted the phrase ‘excepta dignitate regali’ which meant his half-siblings were not eligible for the royal dignity—they could not inherit the throne. Although people could argue endlessly as to whether children born of parents who were married to other spouses were legitimate, the legal fact remains. Henry IV could not on his own authority alter the Letters Patent issued in a previous reign which had become law through the ratification of Parliament. This has been discussed in much greater detail by Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood in The King’s Mother and by Samuel Bentley in the Excerpta Historica which includes a transcript of the Letters Patent.
So where does this place Henry when he came to the throne in 1485? Henry used the 1397 Act to cement his royal lineage even though, interestingly enough, he did not base his claim to the throne on this act. He probably realized its precariousness and he intentionally kept his genealogy vague (Jones, Penn). Henry obviously ignored the 1407 statute that said the Beauforts would be excluded from the throne (Griffiths 183). Therefore, Henry VII could claim the throne as the heir of the House of Lancaster through the lineage of John of Gaunt. So it is the Beaufort line on the female side that gave Henry the greatest claim to the throne. His mother, a firm supporter in his right of inheritance, made popular the story recounted by Vergil of the prophecy made by Henry VI upon meeting the young Henry, Earl of Richmond:
Whan the king saw the chylde, beholding within himself without
speache a prety space the haultie disposition therof, he ys
reportyd to H. 6 pro have sayd to the noble men ther present.
This trewly, this is he unto whom both we and our adversaryes
must yeald and geave of H. 7. over the domynion. Thus the holy
man shewyd yt woold coome to passe that Henry showld in time enjoy
the kingdom. (Vergil 135)
Years into his reign, Henry VII still worried that, although he was the acknowledged victor at Bosworth and the Pope had confirmed his right to the crown, he still felt the need to ensure his rule to the point of naming his first son Arthur to connect himself to the king of legend (Perry). It is obvious there were no Yorkist names for his sons—no Edward, no George, no Richard. He also used Lancastrian names for his daughters. Carrying this further, Henry reinforced his family’s royal connections and lineage using symbolism including the Tudor rose and the Beaufort portcullis.
The Tudor Rose emerged upon the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The smaller, white rose of York was surrounded by the large, red rose of Lancaster to become the emblem of the union. The Tudor Rose was used expansively throughout the successive reigns in various formats making it perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the Tudors. Less dramatic but in use longer was the portcullis of the Beaufort badge. Beaufort Castle in Champagne, France, was where John of Gaunt had a stronghold. The family embedded the portcullis into the design of the badge for the Somerset dukedom. This was used extensively from the time of Henry VII from the badge of the London Borough of Richmond to the architecture in the King’s Chapel at Cambridge. Its importance is seen in its longevity for in the modern era it was used on the backside of the penny until 2008.
Corfe Castle, a Beaufort stronghold, and its local parish church was used by Henry to show the legitimacy of the Beaufort line. On the left side of the door was the coats-of-arms with the shield on its side symbolizing an illegitimate line while on the right it was upright (Jones 71-72).
Photographs from the online version of A Short Account of King’s College Chapel by W. P. Littlechild.
While Henry stressed his maternal line, he did identify with his paternal Welsh side (Norton 44). This was the exact opposite position of his granddaughter, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth maintained the silence that surrounded her mother as she knew opening up that line of thinking would question her claim to the throne. Following that same reasoning, at the urging of her councilors notably Nicholas Bacon, Elizabeth did not pass any legislation legitimizing herself, as Henry VIII’s will gave her the right to succession (Ridley 85). By invoking her right to succeed via Henry’s will, she tactically ignored the Act of Succession of July 1536 in which Henry declared her illegitimate and excluded her from any inheritance. The page from The Statutes at Large of Henry VIII’s reign is below as it contains the annulment of his marriage to Anne Boleyn as well (Pickering 422).
Both Mary and Elizabeth spent many years in the limbo world of being an illegitimate child of a king. Illegitimate royal children held positions at Court but could not inherit the throne nor provide attractive prospects for foreign marriages. Several years into her reign when members of Parliament approached her urging her to marry and name her successor, Elizabeth was not welcoming. She remembered that when her sister Mary was fighting for her right to succeed after Edward VI had altered the succession some of these very men declared “my sister and I were bastards” (Marcus 97). It is easy to conclude that the question of her legitimacy and others’ responses to it was never far from her mind. Although her line in succession was reinstated in June 1543 by act of Parliament (and, as mentioned above, in December of 1546 by Henry’s will), Elizabeth was not declared legitimate. This issue was pressed by Mary as Queen when, in 1553, her Parliament repealed the divorce between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon thus reinforcing Elizabeth’s illegitimacy (Somerset 35).
Thus it was in Elizabeth’s interest to face the world in as firm a position as possible when she became queen. It was well-known she would often reference her father when she spoke, perhaps to instill her claim to the throne and famously referred to herself as the ‘lion’s cub’. Those who knew her must have recognized this as we see attempts made in pageants and writings to promote her legitimate status.
At her coronation pageant at Gracechurch Street, her ancestors were depicted as the “valiant and noble prince King Henry the eighth” and “the right worthy Lady Queen Anne…” The entire quote is recreated below as it stresses that Anne was the wife of Henry:
Out of which two roses sprang, two branches gathered into one,
which were directed upward to the second stage or degree wherein
was placed one representing the valiant and noble prince King
Henry the eighth, which sprang out of the former stock, crowned
with a crown imperial, and by him sat one representing the right
worthy Lady Queen Anne, wife to the said King Henry the eighth and
mother to our most sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth that now is,
both appareled with scepters and diadems and other furniture due
to the estate of a king and queen … (Warkentin 78).
One avenue taken to promote her legitimacy was to invoke her descent from the legendary King Arthur. A pageant at Kenilworth in 1575 declared the lake was being kept until a true heir of Arthur came and it would be handed over. Although it was meant in all seriousness, Elizabeth could not help but tease when she exclaimed that she thought the lake had always been hers (or was it a reminder to Leicester that she was the one of royal blood?). An account of this pageant written by John Nichols but gleaned from the contemporary source, George Gascoigne’s Princely Pleasures at Kenelwoorth Castle, is shared below:
…first of the auncientee of the Castl, whoo had been ownerz
of the same e’en till this day, most allweyz in the hands of
the Earls of Leyceter ; hoow shee had kept this Lake sins King
Arthur’z dayz ; and now understanding of her Highness hither
cumming, thought it both office and duetie, in humble wize to
discover her and her estate ; oflfering up the same her Lake
and poour therein, with promise of repayre unto the Coourt. It
pleazed her Highness too thank this Lady, and too add withall,
we had thought indeed the Lake had been oours, and doo you call
it yourz noow ? Well, we will herein common more with yoo
hereafter (Nichols 431).
In Spencer’s Faerie Queene, the link to King Arthur was wrapped in allegory throughout. In Book II, Canto X titled “A chronicle of Briton Kings, from Brute to Vthers rayne. And rolles of Elfin Emperours, till time of Gloriane”, we see Spencer’s attempt to link the historical Arthur to Elizabeth as the stanzas relate to the book, History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth:
Who now shall giue vnto me words and sound,
Equall vnto this haughtie enterprise?
Or who shall lend me wings, with which from ground
Lowly verse may loftily arise,
And lift it selfe vnto the highest skies?
More ample spirit, then hitherto was wount,
Here needes me, whiles the famous auncestries
Of my most dreaded Soueraigne I recount,
By which all earthly Princes she doth farre surmount.
Ne vnder Sunne, that shines so wide and faire,
Whence all that liues, does borrow life and light,
Liues ought, that to her linage may compaire,
Which though from earth it be deriued right,
Yet doth it selfe stretch forth to heauens hight,
And all the world with wonder ouerspred;
A labour huge, exceeding farre my might:
How shall fraile pen, with feare disparaged,
Conceiue such soueraine glory, and great bountihed?
Argument worthy of Moeonian quill,
Or rather worthy of great Phoebus rote,
Whereon the ruines of great Ossa hill,
And triumphes of PhlegrÃ¦an Ioue he wrote,
That all the Gods admird his loftie note.
But if some relish of that heauenly lay
His learned daughters would to me report,
To decke my song withall, I would assay,
Thy name, Ã´ soueraine Queene, to blazon farre away.
Thy name soueraine Queene, thy realme and race,
From this renowmed Prince deriued arre,
Who mightily vpheld that royall mace,
Which now thou bear’st, to thee descended farre
From mightie kings and conquerours in warre,
Thy fathers and great Grandfathers of old,
Whose noble deedes aboue the Northerne starre
Immortall fame for euer hath enrold;
As in that old mans booke they were in order told.
Carolly Erickson mentioned that Elizabeth had a large genealogy of her personal lineage which she kept. There was reference to it in Robert Cecil’s papers as seen below. Now this does not necessarily mean it was important to her, but it is noteworthy that it was kept and recorded.
Thanks to Vicki Perry, Head of Archives and Historic Collections Library and Archives at Hatfield House, who responded to an inquiry concerning the genealogical scroll. She informed me that the scroll itself is on view at Hatfield House (only a small portion is shown at a time) and a digitized copy is at the British Library–reference number Cecil Papers 357.
Although much of this evidence is anecdotal, there are enough instances to realize that both Henry VII and Elizabeth I were concerned with projecting an image of their lineage, ancestral connections and right to the throne.
Bentley, Samuel, ed. “Issue of Katherine de Roelt, Wife of Sir Hugh Swynford, and Afterwards of John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster. Letters Patent of King Henry the Fourth Certifying the Legitimacy of Sir Thomas Svvynford;with Notices of the Swynford Family.” Excerpta Historica: Or, Illustrations of English History. London: Samuel Bentley, 1831. 152-54. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.
Cecil, Sir Robert, Marquess of Salisbury. “Elizabeth.” Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Honourable, the Marquess of Salisbury Preserved at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire. Vol. 11. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1906. 147+. Great Britain, Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts. Web. 13 Nov. 2012.
Erickson, Carolly. The First Elizabeth. New York: Summit Books. 1983. Print.
Griffiths, Ralph A. and Roger S. Thomas. The Making of the Tudor Dynasty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Print.
Jones, Michael K., and Malcolm G. Underwood. The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 1992. Print.
Littlechild, Walter Poole, ed. A Short Account of King’s College Chapel. 2nd ed. Cambridge: W. HEFFER & SONS, 1921. Project Gutenberg, 2 Aug. 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.
Marcus, Leah S. et al., eds. Elizabeth I: The Collected Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Print.
Nichols, John. The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth. Among Which Are Interspersed Other Solemnities, Public Expenditures, and Remarkable Events during the Reign of That Illustrious Princess. London: Printed by and for J. Nichols, 1823. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.
Norton, Elizabeth. Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty. Stroud: Amberley, 2010. Print.
Penn, Thomas. Winter King; the Dawn of Tudor England. New York: Penguin Books, 2012. Print.
Perry, Maria. The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth from Contemporary Documents. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1990. Print.
Pickering, Danby, Esq. “Statues Made at Westminster, Year 28 of Henry VIII, Year 1536.” Statue At Large: From the Fifth Year of King Richard III to the 31st Year of King Henry VIII. Vol. 4. London: Gray’s Inn, 1763. 421-22. Google Books. Web. 09 Nov. 2012.
Ridley, Jasper. Elizabeth I: The Shrewdness of Virtue. New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1989. Print.
Somerset, Anne. Elizabeth I. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Print.
Spenser, Edmund, and Alexander Balloch Grosart. The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Edmund Spenser. [Manchester]: Printed for the Spenser Society, 1882. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.
Vergil, Polydore. Full Text of “Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History, Comprising the Reigns of Henry VI., Edward IV., and Richard III. from an Early Translation, Preserved among the Mss. of the Old Royal Library in the British Museum” Internet Archive, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2012.
Warkentin, Germain, ed. “The Queen’s Majesty’s Passage & Related Documents.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2012.