The right of succession to the British throne was codified in law in 1701, when the Act of Settlement was passed. Using the principles set out in that legislation, members of the monarch’s family who are in line of succession can now be listed in a specified order of precedence. In the Middle Ages, no such legislation existed, and the basic principle which was followed was that of primogeniture, the automatic replacement of a deceased monarch by his eldest legitimate son. Where a monarch died without a male heir, other arrangements had to be made from within the royal family, with the backing of the nobility and, in later years, parliament. If a monarch was removed, similar backing had to be obtained, and any claimant to the throne would have to demonstrate a legitimate claim in order to gain support.
During the three centuries from the accession of William I (William the Conqueror) in 1066 to the death of Edward III in 1377, the succession to the throne proceeded in a relatively straightforward manner by the standards of the age. During the century following Edward’s death, however, the succession became considerably more complicated for the reasons described below, so that when Henry Tudor’s army defeated and killed Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 and he ascended the throne as Henry VII the legitimacy of his claim was by no means a straightforward matter.
The complications after the death of Edward III stemmed from the fact that, unusually for that era, Edward and his wife, Phillippa, produced five sons who survived into adulthood and who all produced offspring. The descendants of three of those sons became involved in a vicious protracted family feud which eventually exploded into the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor brought the wars to an end with his defeat of Richard III, but, although he took the throne as the leader of the revolt against the unpopular Richard, it is valid to question whether he actually had the strongest legitimate claim to the throne at that time.
To understand the basis of his claim, it is necessary to briefly summarise the events which followed Edward III’s death. His five sons who survived into adulthood were, in order of birth: Edward, the Black Prince; Lionel, Duke of Clarence; John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; Edmund of Langley, Duke of York; and Thomas, Duke of Gloucester. Initially, the succession proceeded in accordance with custom. The Black Prince, the undisputed heir, had died a year before his father’s death, so the crown passed on Edward III’s death, without controversy, to the Black Prince’s only son, Richard, who became Richard II.
Problems first arose in 1399, when the unpopular Richard was deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (the son of the Duke of Lancaster), and died in custody shortly afterwards. Although Henry, crowned as Henry IV, had taken the throne by force, he did have a strong legitimate claim; the deposed Richard II had no siblings or children, the Duke of Clarence (Edward III’s next son) had no sons, and Henry Bolingbroke was the eldest son of Edward’s third son, the Duke of Lancaster.
The normal rules of succession applied for the next two generations; Henry IV maintained the “Lancastrian” line of succession when he was succeeded by his eldest son, Henry V, who was in turn followed by his son, Henry VI. During the reign of Henry VI, the Wars of the Roses broke out, following years of tension between the incumbent Lancastrian monarchy (with their red rose emblem) and the descendants of the Duke of York, Edward III’s fourth son (whose symbol was the white rose). Henry VI was deposed in 1461 by Edward IV, the eldest Yorkist descendant of the time. On Edward’s death, the crown should have passed to his elder son, also called Edward, but before the twelve year-old prince could be crowned as Edward V, he and his brother disappeared, presumed murdered, in the Tower of London in one of the most infamous episodes in English history (the “Princes in the Tower”). Edward IV was succeeded by his only living brother, who became Richard III.
At this stage, Henry Tudor appeared on the scene, defeating Richard III in battle in 1485. From the above complicated chain of events and proliferation of descendants of Edward III, the existence of a number of legitimate claimants to the throne of England could be expected. In the male dominated world of the fifteenth century, only a male claimant would be considered. To identify legitimate claims, the family lines from Edward III’s five adult sons can be examined. His eldest and youngest sons, Edward the Black Prince and the Duke of Gloucester, can be disregarded as their family lines had died out by 1485. His second son, the Duke of Clarence, can also be eliminated, as his only child was a daughter (a granddaughter later married into the Yorkist branch of the family).
The search for a valid claimant therefore reverts to the two great dynasties, those of Lancaster and York, created by Edward III’s third and fourth sons. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, had three wives. The male line by his first wife, Blanche, expired with the death of their descendant, Henry VI, in 1471, shortly after the death of Henry’s only son, Edward, at the battle of Tewkesbury. The only son Lancaster had with his second wife, Constance, died in infancy. His third marriage to his long term mistress, Katherine Swynford, created a controversial family line which also brings Henry Tudor onto the stage.
Lancaster had three sons by Katherine while she was his mistress and the sons were given the family name Beaufort. At that stage, the Beaufort children were illegitimate, but, when Lancaster married Katherine in 1396 after the death of his second wife, they were legitimised by decrees from the reigning monarch, Richard II, and from the pope. There is questionable evidence from a later source that the Beauforts were debarred from making any claim to the throne, but the evidence is regarded as unreliable. These factors caused the Beaufort family line to be treated as somewhat tainted. By 1485, the male line of descent from Lancaster and Katherine had died out, but their great-granddaughter, Margaret Beaufort, was to assume a significant role in the royal succession.
The Tudors entered the royal family in 1429, when Catherine, the widow of the Lancastrian king, Henry V, was remarried to a Welsh squire, Owen Tudor, a member of her household. Owen Tudor’s grandson, Edmund, married Margaret Beaufort when she was twelve (the minimum legal age for sexual relations at the time) and she gave birth to Henry Tudor in 1457 when she was thirteen. Henry therefore had only a half claim to the royal bloodline from Edward III, and even that claim was through the tainted Lancaster/Katherine line. He could, of course, also claim royal blood through his grandmother Catherine.
A superior claimant to the throne could only come from the family line of Edward III’s fourth son, the duke of York. The generation including the brothers Edward IV and Richard III comprised the last male survivors of the Yorkist line. Edward IV’s two princes had disappeared in the Tower of London and Richard III died childless (his only son had died in infancy in 1484). But there was one final male descendant: a third York brother, the Duke of Clarence, had died in 1478, but had left a male heir, Edward, Earl of Warwick, born in 1475. Warwick, being a direct male descendant of Edward III, was therefore the only male with a stronger claim to the English throne than Henry Tudor.
Warwick was actually nominated by Richard III as his heir, following the death of his son in 1484, although he later changed his mind and nominated his sister Elizabeth’s son, the Earl of Lincoln. However, as the latter was reliant on his mother’s family position, Warwick’s claim would have taken precedence.
It is significant that Henry Tudor identified the Earl of Warwick as the main potential challenger to his legitimacy; one of his first acts as king was to imprison Warwick in the Tower of London, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1487, opponents of Henry’s rule used an imposter, Lambert Simnel, to impersonate Warwick (pretending that Warwick had escaped from the Tower) as a figurehead for their uprising, but were defeated by Henry’s troops. Warwick’s continued presence, even though he was hidden from public view, was a constant problem for Henry, and he was eventually executed in 1499.
The removal of the Earl of Warwick, coupled with the peace and security which Henry brought to England, finally ended any serious debate about his legitimacy.