Marrying for Love the Experience of Edward IV and Henry VIII

By Ives, Eric | History Today, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Marrying for Love the Experience of Edward IV and Henry VIII


Ives, Eric, History Today


Eric Ives looks at the cases of these two English monarchs who broke with convention by selecting spouses for reasons of the heart, rather than political convenience.

SHOULD THE MONARCH OR HEIR to throne marry for love? `Of course' is the answer most people in Britain would give today, but history suggests otherwise. It is not just that the 1689 Bill of Rights and the 1701 Act of Settlement rule out marriage with a Roman Catholic. Monarchs and heirs to the throne have never had the freedom of choice which their subjects enjoy.

Since the Norman Conquest (setting aside the present Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles), the only two English or British monarchs to have personally chosen wives are Edward IV (r. 1461-83) and his grandson, Henry VIII (r. 1509-47). Heirs presumptive have succeeded when already married, but for monarchs, arranged marriage has been the rule and so too for heirs apparent, (Edward the Black Prince was the only exception). In recent centuries some attention has been paid to individual preference. Queen Victoria was allowed the pretence that Albert had freely chosen her. Yet the underlying assumption has always been that reasons of state should determine royal marriages and that monarchs would, if necessary, satisfy their emotional needs elsewhere.

Three basic principles have governed the choice of a royal consort. First, international prestige demanded that the ruler marry someone of suitable status; second, a royal marriage was a valuable diplomatic asset not to be wasted; third, a spouse should be a foreigner, since to marry within a realm was to risk disturbing the balance of internal politics. Edward and Henry, however, defied this conventional wisdom, chose Englishwomen known to them and aborted diplomatic negotiations in progress to find wives abroad.

The story of Edward IV's marriage is that in 1464 the twenty-four-year-old king stopped at Stony Stratford on a march north to counter Lancastrian threats. Very early on May Day he slipped away to the manor of Grafton, five miles away and there in secrecy married Elizabeth Grey, nee Woodville, the beautiful but impoverished widow of a knight killed fighting against the Yorkists three years earlier. Edward consummated the marriage immediately and then returned to his entourage. Then, before continuing northwards, he took up residence at Grafton for three days during which time Elizabeth was brought to him secretly each night. Edward kept his horrendous mesalliance secret for five months, allowing the Earl of Warwick to continue discussions about a possible royal bride from France.

Henry VIII's marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was made in the cause of diplomacy and when it broke down Cardinal Wolsey proposed a French bride. Instead, behind the Cardinal's back, the King committed himself to Anne Boleyn who had been a lady at court for the previous six years. Eight years later Anne was replaced by Jane Seymour, another court lady, and although Henry's marriage to her successor, Anne of Cleves, was a reversion to a diplomatic wife, wives five and six, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr, were also the King's personal selection from within the court.

This personal involvement started off the marriages of Edward IV and Henry VIII on a totally novel basis. All rulers prior to Edward, and every ruler for centuries after Henry, could expect to meet the intended consort only after marriage had been agreed and she had arrived in England. Any choice had been made indirectly, based on second-hand information. Equally limited was a monarch's freedom to consent. Once a bride had arrived in England it was too late to back out without creating a diplomatic incident of unmanageable proportions. Henry VIII went to his wedding with Anne of Cleves saying `If it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing'. Often, too, the die had been cast before the bride had left home. …

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