Mistresses During The Norman and Plantagenet Era (1066-1485)
Before the 15th century, there is very little surviving record about English royal mistresses; there is the proof of the fruit of these affairs, but very seldom are the mothers of this offspring mentioned.
For example, we know that Richard III, who reigned from 20 June 1483 to 22 August 1485, had two children by the same mother. The children were John of Gloucester and Katherine, second wife of William Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. Their mother has been identified as Katherine Haute but next to nothing is actually known about this woman.
This neglect in the records of England’s early royal mistresses is partly because the Roman Catholic Church cast a jaded eye on adultery as long as mistresses were kept in the background. Knowledge of the specifics of royal mistresses grows exponentially during the English Renaissance, with the increased prevalence of letter-writing and the English Reformation under Henry VIII.
Interestingly enough, the first monarch about whose mistresses we know a relatively large amount of information actually lived fairly early. Henry II, who reigned 25 October 1154 to 6 July 1189, was notorious for his infidelities. In this case, however, we have only the bare bones of knowledge about these mistresses: names, approximate birth and death dates, and vague physical descriptions. Although they are an improvement, they are barely an exception to the general rule of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Virtually the only Plantagenet king of whose mistresses we have a relatively detailed account is Edward IV (reigned 3 March 1461 - 31 October 1470, 11 April 1471 - 9 April 1483). Usually, as in the case of Edward’s brother, Richard III, we know that a mistress was kept but very little else; in Edward’s case, we have names and a comparatively thorough account of their actions; this is mainly because it was later claimed that Edward promised and even went through marriage to get some of his mistresses to sleep with him. This was apparently claimed of both Elizabeth Lucy and Lady Eleanor Talbot, but there was no evidence to prove that these marriages actually took place. The king himself said he had three "concubines", "who in three diverse properties diversely excelled: one the merriest, another the wiliest, the third the holiest harlot in the realm, as one whom no man could get out of the church lightly but it were to his bed." Jane Shore was the "merriest", but the others cannot be identified with certainty. Elizabeth Woodville proved a marriage had taken place. According to Alison Weir, she was the thus first English royal mistress to become the English queen. After Edward's death, Richard III used the confusion created by Edward's multiple partners to seize the throne. He forced Jane Shore to undergo a walk of penance in 1483 for her extramarital relationship with the king. He then declared the marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid, claiming that Eleanor Talbot was Edward's legal wife.
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