On 22nd June 1483 Ralph Shaa [also spelt Shaw] preached a sermon in London in which he stated that Edward IV‘s marriage was not valid under canon law. The implication of this was that the children born to the union of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville would be illegitimate in the eyes of god. If true, the statement would mean that Edward’s children would be viewed as Bastards, and therefore not next in line under tradition to inherit the English throne.
Significance of Ralph Shaa’s Sermon
Shaa’s sermon was significant. He was Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a position of some note and importance. Shaa’s brother was the Lord Mayor of London, a position that was hugely important politically and, often overlooked, a role that influenced the City of London’s response to political issues: the City of London had changed the course of the Wars of the Roses by refusing entry to Margaret of Anjou in 1461, by allowing Edward IV entry in 1471, and through the level of support it gave to key players at significant moments.
A Bigamous Marriage
This was one of those important moments. For a reasonably senior cleric to preach that the recently deceased King had an illegal, bigamous, marriage is scandalous. It immediately casts doubts on the Dowager Queen’s position, and on the legitimacy of children who had been raised and presented to the lords and commons as Princes and Princesses. One of whom, Edward, had been named as heir to the throne, declared to be king, and preparations for his coronation were underway.
Shaa’s Sermon: From Richard as Protector, to Richard III
The sermon plays a key role in the way in which Richard Duke of Gloucester became King Richard III. As such, it has been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny. Questions over when a move for the throne was planned, who’s the idea was, why it was necessary, and whether it was the right thing to do, remain hot topics of debate. In many ways, the critical moment in the shift from Edward V being prepared for his coronation to Richard being invited to take the crown is this sermon.
Ralph Shaa’s Sermon
Ralph Shaa states in the sermon that King Edward IV had been contracted to marry Lady Eleanor Butler. Lady Eleanor had passed away by 1483, but, critically, she had been alive when Edward and Elizabeth Woodville had married. If true, this would mean that the royal marriage was not legitimate, and consequently, the children produced by the relationship would be unable to inherit the titles or crown.
The sermon had an immediate effect. The existence of a previous marriage was confirmed, probably by Bishop Stillington.
The Council and Parliament now faced a dilemma. The preparations for the coronation of Edward V were at an advanced stage. Now there was a strong suggestion that he was illegitimate. This led to days of heated debate, the outcome of which was the declaring of the marriage as being invalid, determination that the children of the marriage were illegitimate, and the invitation to Richard Duke of Gloucester to accept the crown and become King Richard III.