by Tracy Bryce
Titulus Regius is a rare document in the history of the monarchy of England. In a country where rights of succession were usually determined by inheritance and bloodlines, or more dramatically through rights of conquest, the Titulus is a legal document, written in English, which cogently argues for presenting the throne of England to the most eminently qualified candidate available – Richard Plantagenet. My purpose today is to take a tour of Titulus Regius, reading and interpreting the text, as well as to discuss the background and history of this pivotal document of Richard’s short reign.
This Act of Settlement transcribed into the Rolls of Richard’s only Parliament is allegedly based upon the text of the petition made by Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, to an assembly of the Lords and Commons in the London Guildhall on Wednesday, June 25th 1483. The petition was presented to the Duke of Gloucester at Baynard’s Castle on the next day, after which he acknowledged his acceptance, and King Richard’s reign began.
Parliament had been called for November 6th, but, being delayed by Buckingham’s rebellion in October, it did not convene until January 23rd 1484. Titulus Regius was the first act on the agenda, to verify the credentials of the reigning monarch and the prerogative of the Parliament that elected him. We start with a kind of prologue, which establishes the association between the petition in June and this Act of Settlement now read into the Parliamentary record. It is also carefully argued that, while those who presented the original petition – the roll of Parchment – were not a lawfully formed Parliament, this present body is a lawfully formed Parliament, and accordingly confirms all that was said the previous June.
The Preamble starts…
Where late heretofore, that is to say, before the Consecration, Coronation and Enthronization of our Sovereign Lord the King Richard the Third, a Roll of Parchment, containing in writing certain Articles of the tenor underwritten, on the behalf and in the name of the three Estates of this Realm of England, that is to wit, of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and of the Commons, by many and diverse Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and other Nobles and notable persons of the Commons in great multitude, was presented and actually delivered unto our said Sovereign Lord the King, to the intent and effect expressed at large in the same Roll; to the which Roll, and to the Considerations and instant Petition comprised in the same, our said Sovereign Lord, for the public weal and tranquility of this Land, benignly assented.
Now forasmuch as neither the said three Estates, neither the said persons, which in their name presented and delivered, as is above said, the said Roll unto our said Sovereign Lord the King, were assembled in form of Parliament; by occasion whereof, diverse doubts, questions and ambiguities, been moved and engendered in the minds of diverse persons, as it is said: Therefore, to the perpetual memory of the truth, and declaration of the same, be it ordained, provided and established in this present Parliament, that the tenor of the said Roll, with all the continue of the same, presented, as is abovesaid, and delivered to our before said Sovereign Lord the King, in the name and on the behalf of the said three Estates out of Parliament, now by the same three Estates assembled in this present Parliament, and by authority of the same, be ratified, enrolled, recorded, approved and authorized, into removing the occasion of doubts and ambiguities, and to all other lawful effect that shall more thereof ensue; so that all things said, affirmed, specified, desired and remembered in the said Roll, and in the tenor of the same underwritten, in the name of the said three Estates, to the effect expressed in the same Roll, be of like effect, virtue and force, as if all the same things had been so said, affirmed, specified, desired and remembered in a full Parliament, and by authority of the same accepted and approved. The tenor of the said Roll of Parchment, whereof above is made mention, follows and is such.
It is only by chance that Titulus Regius has survived. One of the first acts of Henry VII’s Parliament in November 1485 was to repeal Richard’s Act of Settlement unread; orders were passed down to have it deleted from the Statute book, and all copies were to be destroyed under pain of punishment. As stated in the rolls of Henry’s first Parliament:
“So that all things said and remembered in the said Bill and Act thereof may be for ever out of remembrance and also forgot.”
The intent was to wipe out the stain of illegitimacy on Henry’s prospective wife, Elizabeth of York. Her legitimacy as an heir of Edward IV served to strengthen Henry’s claim to the throne.
Sir Thomas More and Tudor historian Polydore Vergil, writing in the later years of Henry’s reign and beyond, consequently did not have access to the Titulus. Its subsequent discovery sorely damaged the credibility of their own scholarly works. In the 18th century, Horace Walpole in his Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III takes great delight in skewering More with the inaccuracies of the Eleanor Butler pre-contract story, whom More had misidentified as a royal mistress named Elizabeth Lucy. But if you believe, as Sir Clements Markham does, that “Thomas More” was really Cardinal John Morton in disguise, then the naming of the well-known mistress Elizabeth Lucy as the woman to whom Edward was betrothed, now appears to be a deliberate and nefarious scheme to discredit the veracity of Titulus Regius. But that’s not a debate for this paper.
We have to thank the anonymous Second Continuator of the Croyland Chronicle who summarized the contents of this “rolle of parchement”, which set forth Richard’s claim to the throne. The Chronicle itself came to light early in the 17th century, and soon afterwards William Camden discovered the long-buried Act of Settlement amongst Private Acts filed away in the Tower, where it had escaped Henry’s purge. Cartographer John Speed printed more details from the Titulus in his book, History of Great Britain in 1611, and Sir George Buck used it as a source document for his better known work, The History of the life and reigne of Richard the Third, written circa 1619. It was the beginning of Ricardian revisionism.
Charles Ross dismisses the Titulus as blatant propaganda, but political documents are invariably just that – an attempt to sway the minds and beliefs of the public on behalf of the party or body that generates it. The goal of such documents is to justify governmental action or influence public opinion. The language of Titulus is rather pedantic, a form of “legalese” with the constant repetition of key phrases to emphasize and to clarify the message delivered. It sounds rather laborious to modern ears. The Titulus is divided into three discernable themes:
Part I – The Previous Regime
The first part of Titulus Regius follows a typical pattern of casting aspersions on the reigns of previous kings, as an explanation for why a change was needed. Time and again in political documents one party accuses the other of various “murders, extortions and oppressions…with every good maiden and woman standing in dread to be ravished and defouled”. We’ve seen it previously in the 1469 manifesto published by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and George of Clarence in justification for their coup against Edward. Henry Tudor’s Act of Attainder against Richard follows the same practice, and decries:
“…the unnatural, mischievous and great perjuries, treasons, homicides and murders, in shedding of infants’ blood, with many other wrongs, odious offences and abominations against God and man.”
Perhaps recognizing that these conventions were common in political writing, Richard apparently did not contest the unflattering things said about his brother’s statecraft. Or perhaps he thought there was some truth in the matter.
To the High and Mighty Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester
Please it your Noble Grace to understand the consideration, election and petition of us the lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons of this Realm of England, and thereunto agreeably to give your assent, to the common and public weal of this land, to the comforts and gladness of all the people of the same.
“First, we consider how that heretofore in time past, this Land many years stood in great prosperity, honour and tranquility; which was caused, foresomuch as the Kings then reigning, used and followed the advice and counsel of certain Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and other persons of approved sadness, prudence, policy and experience, dreading God, and having tender zeal and affection to indifferent ministration of Justice and to the common and political weal of the Land, then our Lord God was dread, loved and honoured; when within the Land was peace and tranquility, and among neighbours concord and charity; then the malice of outward enemies was mightily resisted and repressed, and the Land honourably defended with many great and glorious victories, then the intercourse of merchandises was largely used and exercised; by which things above remembered, the Land was greatly enriched, so that as well the merchants and artificers, as other poor people, labouring for their living in diverse occupations, had competent gain, to the sustentation of them and their households, living without miserable and intolerable poverty.
”But afterward, when that such as had the rule and governance of this Land, delighting in adulation and flattery, and led by sensuality and concupiscence, followed the counsel of persons insolent, vicious, and of inordinate avarice, despising the counsel of good, virtuous and prudent persons such as above be remembered; the prosperity of this Land daily decreased, so that felicity was turned into misery, and prosperity into adversity, and the order of policy and of the law of God and Man confounded; whereby it is likely this Realm to fall into extreme misery and desolation, which God defend, without due provision of convenable remedy be had in this behalf in all goodly haste.
Over this, amongst other things, more specially we consider how that, the time of the Reign of King Edward IV, late deceased, after the ungracious pretensed marriage, as all England had cause so to say, made between the said King Edward IV and Elizabeth, sometime wife to Sir John Grey, Knight, late naming herself and many years heretofore Queen of England, the order of all politic rule was perverted, the laws of God and of God’s Church, and also the laws of nature, and of England, and also the laudable customs and liberties of the same, wherein every Englishman is inheritor; broken, subverted and contempted, against all reason and justice, so that this Land was ruled by self-will and pleasure, fear and dread, all manner of equity and laws laid apart and despised, whereof ensued many inconveniences and mischiefs, as murders, extortions and oppressions, namely of poor and impotent people, so that no man was sure of his life, land nor livelihood, nor of his wife, daughter nor servant, every good maiden and woman standing in dread to be ravished and defouled. And besides this, what discords, inward battles, effusion of Christian men’s blood and namely, by the destruction of the noble blood of this Land, was had and committed within the same, it is evident and notary (notorious) through all this Realm unto the great sorrow and heaviness of all true Englishmen.
Part II –The Disqualification of Edward’s Heirs
The second section of the Titulus relates how the marriage of Edward IV to Elizabeth Woodville was deemed to be invalid for a litany of reasons: it was contracted without the assent of the Lords, it was conducted secretly, in a “profane place” without the proclamation of banns and in defiance of Church laws, and in fact, was brought about through the sorcery of Elizabeth and her mother, Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford. As if this wasn’t enough, there was this little matter of a pre-contract with Dame Eleanor Butler, the daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury.
All this was served as evidence that the children of Edward and Elizabeth, being bastards, were ineligible to claim the throne by inheritance. The children of George, Duke of Clarence, were legally disqualified by their father’s attainder for treason. In concordance with the ancient laws and customs of the land, there was only one way forward.
The text reads:
“And here also we consider, how the said pretensed marriage, between the above named King Edward and Elizabeth Grey, was made of great presumption, without the knowing or assent of the Lords of this Land, and also by sorcery and witchcraft, committed by the said Elizabeth and her mother, Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, as the common opinion of the people and the public voice, and fame is through all this Land; and hereafter, if and as the case shall require, shall be proved sufficiently in time and place convenient.
This sentence is significant, because it suggests that the matter of the late king’s invalid marriage was to be more thoroughly demonstrated, admitting that here and now was not the place to do it. It does not preclude some future ecclesiastical examination into the pre-contract, and hints that there is more to this issue than is prudent to discuss here.
And here also we consider how that the said pretensed marriage was made privately and secretly, with edition of banns, in a private chamber, a profane place, and not openly in the face of the church, after the laws of God’s church, but contrary thereunto, and the laudable custom of the Church of England. And how also, that at the time of the contract of the same pretensed marriage, and before and long time after, the said King Edward was and stood married and troth plight to one Dame Eleanor Butler, daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury, with whom the said King Edward had made a precontract of matrimony, long time before he made the said pretensed marriage with the said Elizabeth Grey in manner and form aforesaid. Which premises being true, as in very truth they been true, it appears and follows evidently, that the said King Edward during his life, and the said Elizabeth, lived together sinfully and damnably in adultery, against the law of God and his Church; and therefore no marvel that the sovereign Lord and head of this Land, being of such ungodly disposition, and provoking the ire and indignation of our Lord God, such heinous mischiefs and inconveniences, as is above remembered, were used and committed in the Realm amongst the subjects. Also it appears evidently and follows that all the issue and children of the said King, been (being) bastards, and unable to inherit or to claim anything by inheritance, by the law and custom of England.
“Moreover we consider how that afterward, by the three estates of this Realm assembled in a Parliament held at Westminster the 17th year of the reign of the said King Edward the Fourth, he then being in possession of the crown and royal estate, by an act made in the same Parliament, George, Duke of Clarence, brother to the said King Edward now deceased, was convicted and attainted of high treason, as in the same act is contained more at large. Because and by treason whereof all the issue of the said George was and is disabled and barred of all right and claim that in any wise they might have or challenge by inheritance to the crown and royal dignity of this Realm, by the ancient law and custom of this same Realm.
Part III – The Birthright
Once the credentials of all other contenders for the throne were refuted, there remained only to establish the rightfulness of the claim of Richard Plantagenet. This section of the Titulus outlines Richard’s worthiness to rule by inheritance through his father, Richard, Duke of York, by his birthright as an Englishman, and by his past services in defence of the Realm on the field of battle.
“Over this we consider, how that you be the undoubted son and heir of Richard late Duke of York, very inheritor to the said crown and dignity royal and as in right King of England, by way to inheritance, and that at this time the premises duly considered, there is none other person living but you only, that by right may claim the said crown and dignity royal, by way of inheritance, and how that you be born within this Land; by reason whereof, as we deem in our minds, you be more naturally inclined to the prosperity and common weal of the same: and all the three Estates of the Land have, and may have, more certain knowledge of your birth and affiliation above said. We consider also, the great wit, prudence, justice, princely courage, and the memorable and laudable acts in diverse battles, which as we by experience know you heretofore have done for the salvation and defence of this same Realm; and also the great nobility and excellence of your birth and blood, as of him that is descended of the three most royal houses in Christendom, that is to say, England, France and Spain.”
The text goes on to confirm the authority of Parliament to endorse Richard’s claim and election to the crown and dignity of the Realm of England. This is significant in English political history, as it is one of the first glimpses of Parliament, acting as a tool of the three estates, asserting power to influence the estate of kingship. There is, in fact, a contract established here, between king and people.
“Wherefore these premises by us diligently considered, we desiring affectuously the peace, tranquility and weal public of this Land, and the reduction of the same to the ancient honourable estate, and prosperity, and having in your great prudence, justice, princely courage and excellent virtue, singular confidence, have chosen in all that is in us is, and by this our writing choose you, high and mighty Prince, into our King and sovereign Lord, etc., to whom we know for certain it appertains of inheritance so to be chosen. And hereupon we humbly desire, pray and require your said Noble Grace, that, according to this election of us the three Estates of this Land, as by your true inheritance, as by lawful election; and in case you so do, we promise to serve and to assist your Highness, as true and faithful subjects and liegemen, and to live and die with you in this matter, and every other just quarrel. For certainly we be determined rather to adventure and commit us to peril of our lives and jeopardy of death, than to live in such thraldom and bondage as we have lived long time heretofore, oppressed and injured by new extortions and impositions, against the laws of God and man, and the liberty, old policy and laws of this Realm wherein every Englishman is inherited. Our Lord God King of all Kings by whose infinite goodness and eternal providence all things have been principally governed in this world lighten your soul, and grant you grace to do, as well in this matter as in all other, all that may be according to his will and pleasure, and to the common and public weal of this Land, so that after great clouds, troubles, storms and tempests, the son (sun) of justice and of grace may shine upon us, to the comfort and gladness of all true Englishmen.”
Richard’s right to rule is grounded on the laws of God, of Nature and ancient social decrees. Now, for those common people who do not understand these things, the Titulus asserts that Parliament knows what’s best, and seeks to “quiet men’s minds”…
“Albeit that the right, title and estate, which our sovereign Lord the King Richard the Third has to and in the crown and royal dignity of this Realm of England, with all things thereunto within this same Realm and without it, united, annexed and appertaining, have been just and lawful, as grounded upon the laws of God and of Nature, and also upon the ancient laws and laudable customs of this said Realm, and so taken and reputed by all such persons as been learnēd in the above said laws and customs. Yet, nevertheless, for as much as it is considered that the most part of the people of this Land is not sufficiently learnēd in the abovesaid laws and customs, whereby the truth and right in this behalf of likelihood may be hid, and not clearly known to all the people, and thereupon put in doubt and question. And over this, how that the Court of Parliament is of such authority, and the people of the Land of such nature and disposition, as experience teaches, that manifestation and declaration of any truth or right, made by the three Estates of this Realm assembled in Parliament, and by authority of the same, makes, before all other things, most faith and certainty, and, quietening men’s minds, removes the occasion of all doubts and seditious language.
“Therefore at the request, and by the assent of the three Estates of this Realm, that is to say, the Lords Spiritual, and Temporal and Commons of this Land, assembled in this present Parliament by authority of the same, be it pronounced, decreed and declared, that our said sovereign Lord the King was and is very and undoubted King of this Realm of England; with all things thereunto within this same Realm, and without it united, annexed and appertaining, as well by right of consanguinity and inheritance as by lawful election, consecration and coronation. And over this, that, at the request, and by the assent and authority abovesaid be it ordained, enacted and established that the said crown and royal dignity of this Realm, and the inheritance of the same, and other things thereunto within the same Realm, or without it, united, annexed, and now appertaining, rest and abide in the person of our said sovereign Lord the King, during his life, and, after his decease, in his heirs of his body begotten.”
This part concludes with the acknowledgement of Edward of Middleham as Richard’s lawful son and heir, and his successor to the throne, in accordance with the laws of inheritance.
“And specially, at the request, and by the assent and authority abovesaid, be it ordained, enacted, established, pronounced, decreed and declared that the high and excellent Prince Edward, son of our said sovereign Lord the King, be heir apparent of the same our sovereign Lord the King, to succeed to him in the above said crown and royal dignity, with all things as is aforesaid thereunto united, annexed and appertaining; to have them after the decease of our said sovereign Lord the King to him and to his heirs of his body lawfully begotten.”
To this bill the Commons gave their assent and it consequently passed.
Professor Charles Wood was to write in 1975: “Ironic though it may be, Richard III, legendary usurper and tyrant, has some claim to having been the one possessor of a genuinely parliamentary title during the entire middle ages.”
Titulus Regius is invaluable to us today as evidence of Richard’s right to rule. It is a document which, if Henry had been successful, would have been lost to all history, leaving us even farther away from the truth that we Ricardians struggle to reach.
Cunningham, Sean. Richard III: A Royal Enigma. The National Archives, Richmond, 2003.
Dunham, William Huse Jr, and Wood, Charles T. The Right to Rule in England: Depositions and the Kingdom’s Authority 1327-1485. The American Historical Review, October 1976.
Gairdner, James. History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third. Cedric Chivers Ltd., Bath 1972.
Kendall, Paul Murray (ed.). The Great Debate: More’s History of King Richard III and Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1992.
Lamb, V. B. The Betrayal of Richard III. Sutton Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 1997.
Potter, Jeremy. Good King Richard? Constable, London, 1985.
Ross, Charles. Richard III. Eyre Methuen, London, 1981.
Shepherd, Kenneth R. The Title of the King: Aspects of Richard III’s Act of Succession. The Ricardian. Vol. VII, No. 94, September 1986.
The Croyland Chronicle. Part VII and Part VIII. The Richard III Society, http://www.r3.org/bookcase/croyland/index.html.