When Henry of Richmond was hailed king of England on Bosworth Field, the principles and the practice of succession to the English throne were in a state of chaos; as far as hereditary right is concerned, his claim could hardly have been weaker. The titles both of his son and grandson were indisputable. Those of Mary and of Elizabeth were both questionable. From Elizabeth's accession to her death, it was uncertain who would succeed her. Accordingly, in the reign of Henry VII. we find actual pretenders put forward, and potential ones suspected and punished. No attempt was ever made to challenge Henry VIII. or Edward VI.: but there were sundry executions on the hypothesis of a treasonous intent to grasp at the crown, in the reign of the former. Lady Jane Grey was set up against Mary, and Elizabeth herself was under suspicion in that reign. Against Elizabeth, Mary Stewart's title was constantly urged; after the death of the Queen of Scots, Philip of Spain set up a claim on his own account; and at different times, the claims to the succession of a large variety of candidates were canvassed. It has seemed advisable therefore to give a complete genealogical table, which appears at the beginning of this volume: and the following summary, for convenient reference.


It was perfectly certain that whoever was rightful king or queen of England in 1485, Richard III. was personally a usurper who had secured the throne by murdering the king and his brother, and setting aside his other nieces and nephew, the children of his elder brothers of the House of York. They however were not in a position to assert themselves. If therefore the representative of the rival House of Lancaster could succeed in deposing the usurper, he would thereby create a claim for himself, beyond that of heredity, as the man who had released the nation from the tyrant; as Henry IV. had done. If he married the heiress of York, the two would unite the hereditary claims of the rival Houses, and the title of their offspring would be technically indisputable.

Through his mother, Henry Tudor was now the acknowledged representative of the House of Lancaster. On the assumption - for which there was no indisputable precedent - that a woman could succeed in person, his mother had the prior title, but since she did not appear as a claimant that technical difficulty could be passed over. On the like assumption, the Princess Elizabeth represented the House of York. Henry thus stood for the one House, the Princess Elizabeth for the other. Henry deposed and killed Richard. As soon as Elizabeth was his wife, and while both he and she lived, no one living could with much plausibility assert a prior claim. Henry's own personal claim however would continue disputable (though not his children's) in the event of his wife's demise; therefore, to strengthen his position, he sought and obtained the ratification of his own title by parliament before marrying Elizabeth, so as to have a sort of legal claim independent of her.

Still, until the sons of this union should be old enough to maintain their own rights in person, there remained the obvious possibility that the claims of a male member of the House of York might be asserted: the male members living being Warwick, and, through their mother, his De la Pole cousins.

Now the hereditary claim of the House of Lancaster, descending from John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III., required ab initio the assumption that descent must be in direct male line; for if succession through the female line were recognised, the House of York had the prior claim, as descending through females from Lionel of Clarence third son of Edward III. But when Henry VI. and his son were both dead, there was left no representative of John of Gaunt in direct male line. The only male Plantagenet remaining was young Warwick, son of George of Clarence, of the House of York; Plantagenet in virtue of his descent, in unbroken male line, not from Lionel of Clarence but from Edmund of York, fifth son of Edward III.

Thus, except on the hypothesis that the settlement of 1399 had excluded the entire House of York from the succession, no Lancastrian claim could hold water, technically. Granting succession through females, Elizabeth was the heir; denying it, Warwick was the heir.

Although accepted as the sole possible representative of John of Gaunt, and therefore of the House of Lancaster, Henry Tudor's claim to that position lay only in the female line, through his Beaufort blood. This title was the more ineffective because the Beauforts themselves were the illegitimate offspring of John of Gaunt by Katharine Swynford, and had only been legitimated by Act of Parliament under Richard II.; while even that legitimation had been rendered invalid, as concerned succession to the throne, by the Act of Henry IV. which in other respects confirmed it.