The Pre-contract in the Middle AgesAs described above, Richard claimed the throne on the grounds of Edward IV’s pre-contract with another woman before he married Elizabeth Woodville. In Canon Law, the law which governed marriage in fifteenth century England, a marriage could be contracted by simply exchanging consents between two parties. The exchange of words such as ‘I do marry you’ was all that was necessary; there was no need for witnesses or a priest. The use of the future tense, ‘I will marry you’ did not have the same binding effect, unless it was later followed by intercourse. This completed the marriage on the grounds that it gave a presumption of ‘present consent’. To allege a pre-contract was a perfectly valid way to object to a marriage although it must have always been difficult to prove. The other allegation made in Titulus Regius that the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth was invalid because it was secret was also a legally valid objection to a marriage.
References and further detail for the above may be found in many books. A detailed chronology of events from 9 April to 30 June is given in The Coronation of Richard III, by Anne Sutton and P.W. Hammond, pp.13-26; R.S. Sylvester,The History of King Richard III, 1963, pp. 234-236 discusses the sermons. A good summary of the situation is found in Mary O’Regan, ‘The Pre-contract and its Effect on the Succession in 1483’, The Ricardian, volume 4, no. 54, (1976), pp.2-7 and R.H. Helmholtz, ‘The Sons of Edward IV: A Canonical Assessment of the Claim that they were illegitimate’, in Loyalty, Lordship and Law, ed. P.W. Hammond, (1986), pp. 91-103. All of these titles are available from the Society Library. — PWH