16 March 2023
Claim of thrones
Who was the first Queen of England in her own right? Matilda? Lady Jane Grey? Mary? Does Isabel of Portugal spring to mind?
To set the scene. On 21 May 1471, King Henry VI of England (r. 1422–1461, 1470–1471) died at the Tower of London, the prisoner of his rival Edward IV (r. 1461–1470, 1471–1483), the first Yorkist king. Henry had no surviving heirs, and his death took place during the Wars of the Roses, a time of political turmoil in England. For over a century, the English throne had been disputed by two rival families: Lancaster and York.
Amidst this conflict, and only a month after Henry VI’s death, Isabel of Portugal (b. 1397, d. 1471), dowager Duchess of Burgundy, laid a claim to the English throne. In a solemn document issued on 17 June 1471, Isabel declared herself universal heiress of the late king. The charter in which Isabel claimed her rights to the crown of England (Add Ch 8043) has been digitised for our Medieval and Renaissance Women Project.
Isabel of Portugal claims her rights to the crown of England and declares herself universal heiress of Henry VI, the late king: Add Ch 8043
Isabel of Portugal, dowager Duchess of Burgundy, was the daughter of João I, King of Portugal (r. 1385–1433), and Queen Philippa of Lancaster (b. 1360, d. 1415). Through her maternal lineage, Isabel shared a common ancestor with King Henry VI of England: John of Gaunt (b. 1340, d. 1399), Duke of Lancaster. John of Gaunt was Isabel’s grandfather and Henry VI’s great-grandfather. It was on the grounds of this consanguinity (the kinship of two individuals characterized by the sharing of common ancestors) that Isabel made claim to the English throne.
John of Gaunt and his relationships with the ruling houses of Portugal and Europe, including Isabel of Portugal (in red, right-hand margin), from the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 10r
The charter was signed by Isabel herself, and it was validated by two notaries, Hugo de le Val and Matheus de Hamello, clergymen of the city of Arras in France (‘presbiter canonicus Atrebatensibus’). These notarial marks, together with Isabel’s signature, conferred legal validity upon this document.
Close-up of Isabel’s signature and two notarial marks: Add Ch 8043
However, Isabel did not hold on to her claim to the English throne for long. Only a few months later, on 3 November 1471, she ceded her rights to her son, Charles the Bold (b. 1433, d. 1477), Duke of Burgundy. At this time Isabel was 74 years old, and she died soon afterwards, on 17 December 1471, in the town of Aire-sur-la-Lys in France. The Yorkist king, Edward IV, ruled over England until 1483, surviving both Isabel and Charles the Bold, mother and son.
Charles the Bold, son of Isabel of Portugal, and his court: Yates Thompson MS 32, f. 14r
Although her claim never succeeded, this document demonstrates that Isabel of Portugal tried actively to take advantage of a time of political instability and unrest in England, in order to advance her own position and, more hopefully, that of her son. Isabel was well aware of her lineage to the late Henry VI, and at a time of turbulence and doubt during the Wars of the Roses, she did not hesitate to assert herself as universal heir.
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