The Canterbury Roll may have originated as an officially endorsed Lancastrian document. Yet, it is also possible that it was actually associated with a non-royal noble family.
The development of genealogical manuscripts can be linked to practical and social concerns among the land-owning class of medieval England. ‘Family trees’ were important as they traced ownership of property and had legal implications. They were sources of information and were sometimes used as evidence for inheritance claims, whether for land or the right to bear arms. Given this medieval tradition amongst the nobility, it is important to consider the possibility that the Canterbury Roll was originally commissioned by a noble family.
Beauforts & Nevilles
In 15th-century England, there were several families with a stake in royal genealogies. Our Roll is likely to have a connection with two of these powerful families: the Nevilles and the Beauforts.
The Beauforts were the legitimized children of John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) and his mistress and later third wife, Katherine Swinford. The Nevilles were a powerful northern family in Westmorland that married into the royal families of England.
The significance of both families is shown in the diagram below of the descendants of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (click to open larger version in new window):
The above is not the complete family tree of the Beauforts or the Nevilles, but demonstrates the relationships between the two families and the succession of kings in England.
The Neville marriages into the Beaufort and York families gave them a particular interest in the dynastic struggles of the 15th century. The family's marked presence on the Canterbury Roll suggests the possibilty of their involvement in its creation.
A connection between both families and the Canterbury Roll is suggested by the detailed insertion of their names along the lower right side of the central axis. The names and titles of these individuals are surplus to requirement if the roll's aim were simply to illustrate the succession of the Lancastrian kings. Their inclusion suggests that the scribe planned to create an association in the mind of the reader between the monarch and these families. Moreover, other powerful families with close connections to the royal houses, such as the Holands, the Staffords, and the Mortimers rarely feature on the orignal version of the Roll. This strengthens the possibility that it was originally commissioned to favour the Beauforts/Nevilles.
The following section of the Roll shows the Beauforts and Nevilles alongside Henry IV and his siblings (click to enlarge in a new window):
From the top row: Henry IV alongside his royal silblings (red lines)
2nd row: the Beauforts descended from John Beaufort (blue lines),
3rd row: Richard & Robert Neville descended from Joan Beaufort (purple lines).
The bottom row of circles has only two occupied with names. They are Richard Neville, the fifth Earl of Salisbury, and his brother Robert, Bishop of Salisbury. The five empty circles along the same row might have originally been intended for the names of the other surviving Neville siblings. The placement of the entire generation of the Nevilles beside the original central axis is suspiciously close to the empty space - a space that is reserved for the next king of England.
If we trace the purple ‘lines’ of the two brothers back to their origin, we find their mother - Joan Beaufort, the Countess of Westmoreland. Directly above the Neville brothers, there is a row of circles (descended from the blue lines) of their cousins the Beauforts. Above them (descended from the red lines) are the siblings of Henry V.
Here is a digital version (in English) showing the extended version of this section for ease of viewing:
Lancaster - Beaufort - Neville
This unsual focus on the extended non-royal families of Neville and Beaufort, suggests that the Canterbury Roll may have been commissioned by a pro-Lancastrian party associated with either of these two noble houses.
Perhaps the motive was to emphasise how close the Neville/Beaufort families were to the Crown, or to suggest an alternative line of Lancastrian succession in a time of a succession crisis. Ultimately, the exact nature of this connection remains mysterious, as the original scribe abandonded the project without completing the blank circles or, indeed, including Henry VI on the central axis.
Whatever the original purpose behind its creation, another hand made significant alterations to the last section of the Canterbury Roll, transforming it from a Lancastrian document to a piece of Yorkist propaganda. Seen here on the left-hand side of the central axis, a different hand has ‘edited’ what remains of the Roll, extending multiple red lines below where the original central line ended.
Another scribe makes major alterations down the left side and extends the line of English kings.
This is further explained in the next section:Yorkist Revision