Butler Precontract

(1483)
   The Butler precontract, the claim that EDWARD IV was betrothed to Lady Eleanor Butler prior to his marriage to Elizabeth WOODVILLE, was used by RICHARD III in 1483 to justify his usurpation of his nephew’s throne, an act that revived the WARS OF THE ROSES in the mid-1480s.
   In June 1483, Robert STILLINGTON, bishop of Bath and Wells and former chancellor of England under Edward IV, informed the duke of Gloucester that EDWARD V was a bastard and therefore not legally qualified to rule. According to the bishop, Edward V’s illegitimacy resulted from a legally and spiritually binding betrothal or precontract of marriage that Edward IV had entered into with another woman some time before his 1464 marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. This exchange of vows with Eleanor Butler, widow of Sir Thomas Butler and daughter of John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, was unknown until Stillington supposedly divulged it to Gloucester. Because the precontract meant that Edward was considered already married by church and state, the Woodville union was invalid, and all children born to it were illegitimate and thereby barred from the throne. Immediately after Stillington’s revelation, the precontract story appeared in a petition asking Gloucester to take the throne; this document, which was presented to the duke by his supporters in late June 1483, was later embodied in TITULUS REGIUS, the 1484 statute that formally presented Richard III’s reasons for accepting the Crown.
   The authenticity of the Butler story is much in doubt. Most modern historians believe the precontract to be a fabrication devised to give Richard III’s usurpation a veneer of legitimacy. The betrothal cannot be documented beyond the account rehearsed in Titulus Regius, and Richard never attempted to have the precontract authenticated by a church court, the proper venue for such a case. The timing of the story’s appearance—after the death of both parties and just in time to forestall Edward V’s coronation—is suspicious, as is the fact that the tale never surfaced in the PROPAGANDA of Edward IV’s former enemies. It is unlikely that either Queen MARGARET OF ANJOU or Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick,would have ignored the story had they known of it. Also, even if the story were true, the precontract would have barred neither Edward V nor his brother, Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, from the Crown, since both were born after 1468, when the death of Eleanor Butler would have invalidated the betrothal. Many contemporary writers also rejected the precontract story, including the normally pro-Yorkist CROYLAND chronicler, who considered the Butler betrothal “colour” for an “act of usurpation” (Levine, p. 30).
   Modern supporters of Richard III accept the Butler precontract as genuine, arguing that the exchange of vows may have occurred shortly after Edward’s seizure of the throne in 1461, when Eleanor Butler was newly widowed and seeking (successfully, as it turned out) to regain family manors confiscated by the Crown.The story of the beautiful older widow in distress who contrived to meet the young king, a tale often told of Edward’s first encounter with Elizabeth Woodville, may actually have been a memory of his first meeting with Eleanor Butler. Supporters of Richard also argue that Stillington’s arrest in 1478, when he was fined for speaking in a manner prejudicial to the king, was a result of the bishop having once incautiously told the recently executed George PLANTAGENET, duke of Clarence, of the precontract. Although these arguments are often dismissed as unsupported speculation, the truth of the Butler precontract cannot now be conclusively determined.
   Further Reading:
   - Kendall, Paul Murray, Richard the Third (New York: W.W. Norton, 1956);
   - Levine, Mortimer, Tudor Dynastic Problems 1460-1571 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1973);
   - Ross, Charles, Richard III (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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